Saturday 22 June 2013

Diversity, Inclusion & Equality Special Edition of Write4Children

Just a quick post as the latest edition of the open access e-journal Write4Children (, click on Vol IV Issue II) went live this week. It is a special edition that has been guest edited by Beth Cox and Alexandra Strickland of Inclusive Minds (

It is a mammoth edition full of an eclectic mix of articles that deal with a diverse (appropriately) range of subjects. Well worth having a look at. Though by accident our timing seemed perfect considering Malorie Blackman, a great supporter of diversity, as has been previously mentioned was named as the Waterstone's Children's Laureate.

The articles, in the main, are about books already written and not about writing books. However, I think it is important as authors that we are aware of these issues too.

We are always looking for good articles on the creative aspects of writing for children. Send them to me at

Seems appropriate considering some of the things I have seen this week: Tears for Fears 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World'. Takes me back...Happy Days

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Sex in YAF

My PhD on sex, drugs and alcohol in YAF
from 2011
At the weekend I mentioned to you that it had been two years to the day that I had done my PhD viva. My thesis title is 'The Issues of Representation/Representing Sex, Drugs and Alcohol in British Contemporary YAF.' There have been a few academics who have disagreed with my thoughts, in particular, the idea that YAF is a great place for teenagers to explore contentious issues through the vicarious experience. So today it was with great delight that I read an article by Malorie Blackman (see here ) where she said exactly the same thing. Along with Melvin Burgess who highlights that teenagers can cope with anything as long as it is put in context.

Many suggest that YAF should be the last place that contentious issues such as sex should be discussed implying that innocence should be maintained. They seem to forget the open access many teenagers have to porn and the such like via various mediums including the internet and let's be honest this is the last place we want them to be learning about sex. It objectifies women and brutalizes the sex as also highlighted by Malorie. It is anything but real.

Reading allows a teenager to find out who they are, or even, and perhaps more importantly, who they are not. Searching for an identity. Reading, either via a book or an e-book, allows them to take away what they want to from the narrative.  It enables them to safely ask questions of the narrative without fear of embarrassment or mockery. It is all about the vicarious experience where a teenager can decide how they would react in any given situation by reading stories and seeing how the character's behave. They may agree/empathise with them, they may not. There are no rules just opportunities to explore. To test the world.

Importantly no teenager is going to come to a story in ignorance. They will probably know a lot more than they can even articulate. As writers it is up to us to provide them with those stories. They must be strong and are so real that they ring true with the reader and therefore they will connect with them. My research highlighted how sex has become more graphic in YAF but I see this as no bad thing. I would rather teenagers learnt about sex from the more realistic approaches of Malorie, Melvin Burgess and others than by trawling through any porn sites.

I am really looking forward to Malorie Blackman being the Children's Laureate. She talks so much sense and writes great books. What more could we ask for?

I have written several times in this blog before which you may be interested but is risky getting repetitive - come on everyone move on please
There was also the 'sick lit' debate

I couldn't really put up any other music than Ian Drury & The Blockheads 'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll'

Saturday 15 June 2013

Editing, head space and PhDs

Happy Days!
It was two years ago today that I took my PhD viva. Time has flown, the world has changed and so have I. The little lad in the picture is now a toddler and loving life. My daughter is still smiling and I am very aware of how important family is. I am also aware of how fragile life is.

Things have been happening over the last few months that have made me think, made me reassess and consider what actually makes me happy. One thing I do know is that I still love my writing, escaping into a world of words. I love my research and need to develop it further. However, my research profile is not as strong as it should be that is in part due to work commitments that consume every waking moment leaving no head space to let ideas develop. That is one thing that has to change.
I have lots of ideas bubbling away both creative and critical. I just need to focus and create that head space and I am going to. Watch this space.

During the past week I was talking to NS via skype and we were discussing that innate inability to self edit your own work at times. We both acknowledge that when critiquing other people's work you can see the mistakes both structural and copy but when it comes to your own there is a sense that the shutters come down. This can mean there are some cringe worthy moments when an editor/critique partner points out an issue  in your work that you know you have picked other people up on. Yet you still can't see it in your own work. We were also discussing the importance of working with people and organisations that you trust. I am lucky I can offer that sort of support to my students at the University of Winchester but also to others through  the Golden Egg Academy. It is a very satisfying process watching something grow and evolve. I just get irritated when I can't see my own mistakes.

In fact I am fascinated as to why we can't see the mistakes so I asked gorgeous daughter, who knows a bit about brains, and she came back with the obvious - your brain sees what it thinks it has written and not necessarily what is actually on the page. This is all well and good but how do you make it see it afresh and anew. I am aware there are all the ideas about leaving it in your bottom drawer for three months and then going back to it but it can still be an issue. I know about reading it backwards so you just see the words and not the sentences. Then of course the ever important reading out loud. All of which are valid but I still find the occasional mistakes gets through - so frustrating. I want to explore how the brain works more with this.

How do you approach your editing?

I also wanted to let you in on my plan. It is my intention to use this blog more to develop my ideas as I focus on my research. It is something I have seen a friend do and it works well so thought I would give it a go too. It is time to take control and move on. Watch this space.

However, this is the second post I have written today but the first one will never see the light of day. It ended up just too personal for me and my family but still needed to be something that was written down. This is for all my family, you will know why I have chosen this particular version. Love you.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Born to be a writer?

Books - a shining light for a writer
This week JW pointed me in the direction of some interesting pieces of work: Maria Takolander's 'On not being born to write' and Dallas Baker and his critical work. Both of which got me thinking and I  intend to explore more. Here are some of my initial musings which I will develop over time but am currently thinking out loud or 'out blog'!

How many times have you heard that saying 'I was born to write' - numerous I imagine. Of course we are born to write because we are all born and with that birth comes the ability to learn to use language. It is up to us how we do that and what we do with that ability afterwards.  What happens to us and our writing often develops out of socio cultural identities not out of genes. Inevitably I find writers are often vociferous readers. One seems to feed the other. The love of reading could be a catalyst which both informs and encourages the aspiring writer to be brave and put pen to paper. I thought Takolander's statement 'good writing comes out of good writing' to be very pertinent.

I have sisters who say to me, 'I don't know how you do it, how do you come up with ideas. I couldn't do it.' But I actually think they probably could given the time, the space and the encouragement to do so. When I say space what I mean is 'head space' not necessarily 'a room of one's own' Woolf style (though I can't deny that does help). Space away from life and all its pressures allowing your brain  time to stop, think and create.

Talking of that space to write, Takolander goes on to discuss creative writing degrees where she highlights how courses often state they cannot teach the art but they can teach the craft. Art as she pointed out is such a loaded term. There is an element of elitism attached to it while the term craft seems more accessible.This begs the question though who decides what is art and what is craft? When does craft become art? I have no answers yet but am working on it.

I have said this before, creative writing degrees are an opportunity to find your voice. Try on others until you get to the one that fits you the best - as per Al Alvarez quote which I know I have used numerous times before. If you are a writer on your own you rarely take risks or dip your toe in different styles of writing. You make a decision about what sort of writer you think you are, often based on your favourite books to read, and only focus on that. Sometimes that can be a big mistake. The number of times my students have come to me and said that they had done 'X' module which they thought they would hate but instead they have fallen in love. Particularly in their first year where they have a chance to explore four genres: fiction, scriptwriting, poetry and creative non fiction. They might have preset ideas about what they will and won't like. It is interesting to watch those ideas being tipped upside down. I did it myself. I had a very set idea what sort of writer I was until I did my degree. It had never occurred to me to write for young adults. Now I can't imagine writing for anyone else. That all happened because I had the opportunity to try the YAF voice on.

Another thought came out of one of the many tangential conversations I have with IC. We were discussing the fact that if you are a musician, a dancer, sportsperson, artist etc you are likely to have spent many years training (often costing thousands in money and time) so that you can become the best you possibly can. Why should this be any different with writers? A creative writing course is certainly a way of undertaking some of that training. There are a myriad to pick from.

Briefly I will touch on Baker who made some fascinating points where he relates creativity and critical reflexivity with the Foucauldian idea of the aesthetics of existence and self-bricolage. A bit like my idea above of your writerly person being created out of your socio cultural moment. It would make this blog too long to explore that here but I will do at some point because I have been doing some work on web of identities and gyres that I would like to relate it to - watch this space.

It has been a long old week and I know it is only Thursday but that should tell you everything. We are heading towards the summer when I can focus more on my own work and make some pretty heavy decisions but hopefully I will have that head space that will allow me to be creatively critical and critically creative.

How about a bit of Cohen?

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Getting your work out there...

This is just a brief post but I wanted to share this little film.
I am lucky as many of you know I am a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Winchester and I love my job (most of the time - just don't ask in the middle of marking hell). As part of the course we take a truly holistic approach we, obviously, focus on writing but also explore the different ways you can use writing. Part of which is getting your work out there. This can be a very daunting process. For the last few years at Winchester we have provided a stepping stone, that first opportunity to disseminate your work to the public through our own creative writing magazine for all students (not just Winchester) called Vortex. Here is our Programme Leader, and editor of said journal, Dr Neil McCaw, talking about it and the process:

Yesterday I was part of a validation event having written a new course for doctoral students. It is a huge relief that it is over and was passed but now it gives me time to think. Time to focus on my own research and writing. The sun is shining and everything seems possible. So where shall I go next?

Saturday 1 June 2013

Writing what you know...or not

We are often told as writers to write what we know but sometimes it is just as important to write what we don't know. J K Rowling had a great success doing precisely that as did Philip Pullman with The Dark Materials. JK can't have known Hogwarts or Diagon Alley as actual places but I bet they are based on things she had seen or read about elsewhere. What J K does do so successfully is to create a world we all believe in. As did Pullman, though obviously using Oxford he highlights the difference in the setting by spelling the country as Brytain. It is the same yet different. If I was going to go all academic on you I could relate it to Freud's uncanny or Bakhtin's carnivalesque. But today I am not.

Our writing cannot help but be based on some part of our autobiographical background. It might be something that we have read, seen or had life experience of. When you write you have a web of identities. For me, mine are as a writer, a mother, a woman and an academic. Each intricate layer informs my narrative and my understanding behind the decisions I make. They make me the writer I am. I write fiction for young adults yet it is a long time since I have been one. My children are no longer teenagers, they have moved on but my writing is still embedded within teenage-dom. For me the important thing is not to restrict myself to one cultural moment. Unless of course the aim is relevant to the story - thinking of Dave Massey's Torn for example. My writing needs to be contingent and fluid reflecting the ever moving world around me while I create a fictional world that is familiar and recognisable, particularly as I write realist novels.

The important thing is not to be afraid. Believe in the world you create and your readers will too. It doesn't matter whether you are creating a realist world, a dystopian one or fantasy world, you need to understand exactly how it works. This means undertaking world building exercises alongside your character building ones. You need to understand not just what your world looks like but how the culture works within it for example.

If we only wrote about what we knew a lot of books would not be written. If you have a story that you love that is a based in a world that you believe in then get down and write it. Just make sure you do all the pre-writing work. If your idea is in an area you have no experience of, research it. Also do not be concerned about using autobiographical instances as the starting point for a story. It is what writers do. (Just a word of caution make sure you are not going to offend anyone if it is going to be obvious it is a story based on a certain person).

Here's a bit of Joni for a Saturday afternoon when all the work and words are not falling right.