Saturday 31 October 2015

Write what you know...or not

Seeing Marina Abramovic's 512 Hours
Many creative writing experts/books tell you to "write what you know!" Seems a logical idea doesn't it at face value anyway. But if you unpack it and think about it seriously, it is really quite limiting because how much do you actually know and how interesting would it really be to another person? To be honest if people had only written what they knew a lot of the best books would never have been written. For example, if J K Rowling had written only what she knew could she have written the fabulous Harry Potter series that purportedly got so many children back into reading? My glorious nemesis and friend Foucault says there is no point writing anything unless the author is going to learn something. Well you're not going to do that if you already know it and I have to say I agree with him With all four novels that I have written so far I have learnt something new from the research I have undertaken, whether it was from sleeping on the streets, visiting drug rehabilitation centres or doing all the incredible research with horses or looking into the past for my latest WIP.

So let's be real and take that phrase for a walk and expand it a bit just like Cec Murphy suggests by saying 'write what you know, write what you want to know more about; write what you're afraid to write.' Now to me that seems far more sensible and reflects what we really do. It challenges you as the writer to expand your ideas and actually gives you so many options to write what you want. Now more recently I came across another idea which was once again a variation on a theme and that was 'writing what you feel.' Another interesting idea which seemed to open out all sorts of possibilities.

However, what they all seem to forget to mention is one vital factor. Not once do they mention story. And to me that seems quite a crucial element. It doesn't matter what you don't know, do know, want to know or even how much research you've you done if you have no story, nothing will really happen. Get that story first and then think about what you do or don't know. Be open to respond to where the story takes you.

The photograph is an example of being willing to respond to the story. 512 Hours was Marina Abramovic's durational performance in 2014 at the Serpentine Gallery. You went in and had to leave everything outside, bags, watches, phones. Inside you were given headphones so you could hear no noise and were taken in to the rooms. Nobody spoke unless you were the priviledge few that MA spoke to (yes I was one she had a couple of conversations with moments I will treasure) There were some chairs and benches in some rooms. In one room you could separate black rice from white rice and count it. MA would walk amongst the people occasionally taking people's hands and placing them at various places in the room. Sometimes even making them face a wall. At other times walking up and down with them.Always in silence. I had read about the exhibition. I knew what to expect. Or put it another way, (and this is slightly tenuous but trust me you'll see what I mean ) 'I'd write what I know' but actually when I was in the room and I opened my eyes and took in everything, I started to open my mind, I stopped just knowing and started being. The stories then began to flow. In other words, for me, writing what you know is not enough, if that makes sense.

 Just because it is 9 o'clock on a Saturday...

Saturday 22 August 2015

Young adult fiction is not all about sex!

Dancing on the inside...
Firstly a bit of an explanation, I have been seriously amiss with my blog, for which apologise, but there has been a good reason. I am frantically writing a book for Palgrave on writing young adult fiction at the moment, and I am afraid that has been my focus for my precious words rather than this.

But I couldn't not blog about this  because recently I became really angry when I saw an article in the New York Daily News regarding writing young adult fiction  (don't worry the link I have used will ensure that it shows no traffic to the site because I don't believe they deserve it). I did decide to calm down before I wrote the post otherwise it would have just been a tirade of abuse. It included interviews with an agent suggesting that all young adult fiction should have threesomes and sex. There were potentially some valid and useful points if used correctly. However it showed a scant understanding of either young adults or the genre. Instead they were peddling these 'truths' to any writer desperate to know what do in order to write a 'best selling' young adult fiction. While jumping on a band wagon and going for shock value. Nothing better for a headline grabber than a bit of teenage sex no doubt.

Very rapidly the wonderful Christina Li penned a truly eloquent response. Christina is a young adult and a writer therefore a member of the target audience in both aspects. She highlights something that I have been concerned about recently. The idea that young adult fiction has been appropriated. We need to return it to its rightful owner - the teen audience. This is not the first time I have heard about teenagers being made to feel uncomfortable. Step back adults these are not our books. Young adult fiction is written for teens. Just because adults are reading it does not mean the way it should be written or marketed should be changed. (Note the writers I know have not done any of this I am just sounding a warning bell). As Christina highlights we should be listening to the right audience as should the publishers.

Young adult fiction has always been a place to take risks and push the boundaries. However, I do have concern though that since it has become such a cash cow for publishers they are less likely to take these risks and might rather stay in their comfort zone/be formulaic. Young adult fiction has a responsibility because not only is it about great stories but it is a place for the target audience to escape where teens can explore and play with their identity in safety, asking questions of themselves and the text. Working out who they are and just as importantly who they are not. Publishers must not lose sight of that. We, as writers, must remain focused on our audience and listen to what they have to say, so the likes of Christina don't feel left out. I know the majority of writers that I know do that already but when advice like the article mentioned previously are being put out there saying that all books need sex in them, we need to keep shouting because we all know that's not true. Some stories might, other stories don't. Stories need to reflect all sorts of teen concerns as suggested by Christina that fit with the narrative and are not contrived. Write the story you want to write, tell the tale that is dancing on the inside...

Jonas & Jane Whispered

Monday 27 July 2015

Researching Creative Writing by Jen Webb


I was delighted to be asked to review a copy of Researching Creative Writing. (ISBN-13: 978-1907076374 - £66.02) I have been waiting for a book like this for years. I just wish it had been around when I was doing my PhD.

It is another fabulous booked published by Creative Writing Studies and written by the inimitable Professor Jen Webb, Distinguished Professor, Creative Practice, at the University of Canberra. 

When I was doing my own Creative Writing PhD a few years ago I was often faced with various battles as I had to 'fit' my practice driven PhD into the the university's more 'traditional' format/expectations. It wasn't always a comfortable fit and we tended to bumble along together. This book answers all those questions that I had then. It would have enabled me to have been less stressed. I also would have felt more secure in my arguments having had solid research behind me or more specifically research that backs up the reasoning behind doing a creative writing PhD.

This book is going to be become an important book. It is a joy to read, whether dipping in or reading the whole thing, because it is learned yet accessible without being patronising. A difficult balance to achieve by anyone. The text deals with some very complex ideas relating to practice driven research embedded within creativity and criticality. It is a fascinating read because Jen Webb has successfully made it personal by using anecdotes of  other's research experiences alongside the academic rigour. This adds to its accessibility and is certainly not to its detriment. It creates a feeling of empathy as you read. 

After an initial question about what is research in a creative and critical context, the book is split into three parts: Part 1 Designing the Research, which which is about fine turning and understanding your project; Part 2 Doing the Research including writing as research, and finally, Part 3 From Materials to the Published Works, this explores ways of handing the results of your research and how to get your work out there in various ways - not always the obvious.  

Whether a PhD student or a supervisor or in fact just interested in creative writing research I recommend you get this book. It will soon become an important stalwart of your library and one that you delve into often. 

And just because 

Tuesday 14 April 2015


This is very important to me and is relevant because of my latest WIP Flight and because of the freedom many of us are lucky to have now due to those who gave up their lives then.

We need to keep fighting to ensure everyone has a right to freedom and education. Wherever they are in the world and whoever they are. Whatever sex they are and whichever religion they wish to follow. Nobody has a right to take that away from them. Not in my name. Life is for living. Books are for reading and exploring. The world should be full of joy and laughter that we share. Not full of grief and bitterness and anger. #notsilent

Sunday 12 April 2015

#UKYADAY - let's celebrate!

Today is #UKYA Day on Twitter as organised by Lucy Powrie. A whole day celebrating young adult fiction. Authors and bloggers and readers  talking about how wonderful young adult fiction is. In a way they will be speaking to the converted and not reaching those who need to learn how great young adult fiction is.

Only a few weeks ago there was yet another article about an adult author berating young adult fiction for being morally lacking and simplistic. It was very obvious he had never read a young adult book in his life. Don't make comments like this until you have done your research. Even this week on BBC's Radio 2 I heard of an adult author who thought they'd write a YA book as there aren't many books for girls.....WHAT? Where are these people? What are they looking at? Who is doing there research for them?

Another survey highlighted that a large percentage of Young Adult Fiction readers are in fact adult and not the teenage market it is aimed at. You immediately got those who wanted to dismiss this by saying that those adults wanted an easy read and didn't want to make any effort hence why they read YAF. I disagree whole heartedly. Young adult fiction is not an easy read. What it does is deal with issues directly. It is fast paced and honest. It is definitely not simplistic.

I am passionate about YAF. My PhD was on YAF and I am currently writing a book on how to write YAF for Palgrave. For me YAF is somewhere where our teenagers can escape into, away from a highly pressurised life. A place that is secure where they can ask questions of themselves and the text. Asking themselves how they would react in any given situation. It is all about the vicarious experience. It is up to us as authors to write the best book we can. And for those adult authors who are so dismissive I suggest you give it a go, it is a lot harder than you think. Teenager readers are no where near as tolerant as adult readers. If you haven't hooked them in the first two pages you can forget it. How many of you can do that?

Now go out there and read some YAF. There are some great authors out there and too many to list here. Celebrate YAF and reading. Happy #UKYADAY

Sunday 1 March 2015

Diversity - Windows and Mirrors

Windows and mirrors is what diversity in children's fiction should be all about. A chance for children to look at how other children lead their lives but also a chance for children to see themselves in stories.

Diversity covers so much: race, heritage, disability including mental health, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation (LGBQT+) and age to name but a few. And people may cover several groups, they are not exclusive. The important thing about diversity in children's books is not that we make these characters stand out as in the 'token diverse' character, which is an insult in my opinion, but that we are writing stories that celebrates our differences and our shared humanity. Where we are writing stories that are driven by great characters who just happen to be diverse but that is not the most important thing, it is unconscious. The story should be the most important thing.

Recently Beth Cox and Alexandra Strick of Inclusive Minds organised A Place at the Table where they invited publishers, booksellers, librarians and teachers to discuss the proposed first charter on diversity for the publishing world. It was highlighted how publishers were trying publish diverse books unselfconsiously, which is important but unfortunately booksellers were then marketing them consciously as issue books thus defeating the point. The idea being that children reading these books should see characters as being like them and a natural part of their life not as an issue that needs understanding. Diverse books are not issue books. The charter should be released shortly and will be based on the feedback from the event which is fantastic news.

Following on from the A Place at the Table we held a #geaqa on diversity which was frantic. One of the questions that came up was do you have a right to write from the point of view of a certain diverse character if you were not a member of particular diverse group. The general consensus was yes as long as you do a lot of in depth research. It was also suggested it was a good idea to find members of the group to act as your beta readers to check whether your character is credible or not. This sort of question is not new though, for many years it has been asked whether a woman can write as a man and vice versa for example. We all know whenever you write you need to be able to walk in your character's shoes. However, there is always the risk of falling into the trap of over emphasizing the stereotypes which is why it is important to do your research. Make your characters believable and someone that children can empathize with.

Don't forget to keep an eye out for the Golden Egg Academy Diversity Bursary for the Editor's Course which was launched at the Big Honk as we hope to continue to support diversity in publishing too.

This is the Piano Guys and What Makes You Beautiful because diversity is beautiful

Saturday 24 January 2015

Adhere to submission guidelines don't interpret

It is part of the journey...
Last night I was at a party celebrating the second year of the Golden Egg Academy. I can't believe it is two years since Imogen started and how it has grown and what an amazing organisation it has become. It is incredible to be part of and hugely satisfying.

I had some wonderful conversations with various agents and publishers and we were all talking about one of our biggest bug bears and that is not just the inability to adhere to submission guidelines but it is the interpretation of them.

I apologise if I come across as stroppy in this post but we do all get very tired at times. We spend a long time creating submission guidelines. They are not just numbers we pick out of the air. The number of pages or chapters we suggest have been decided because we believe they give us a fair indication of the story. It is standard that most organisations ask for three chapters. When we are doing feedback for editorial surgeries we ask for 30 pages because that is all we can read in the time allocated for preparation. It takes a long time to read and give detailed feedback.

The standard way to present this work is double spaced with reasonable margins. There is a reason for that too. It allows us to be able to see the words and write feedback on it. It is important to be able to see the white space on a page too.

Yet talking to agents, and in our own experience, people seem to find it appropriate to interpret these submission guidelines in their own way. Obviously assuming we won't notice. Three chapters suddenly becomes five because the story doesn't really get going until the fifth chapter. Or it is formatted in single line spacing with the smallest margins you can ever possibly imagine so they can get as many words in and that we can't actually read . Don't worry we re format so that it is set out properly and read only the appropriate number. Or they might slip in a few extra pages because it doesn't end in the right place - those extra pages might equate to half the number again. Some even send the whole novel just in case you have time. We would love to have time but am afraid we don't.

I was talking to Hannah Sheppard of DHH Literary Agency as she was telling me how she gently sends an email to an author who doesn't meet the submission guidelines suggesting that they check out the website. Very generous of her. However if they resubmit and are still ignoring them (it happens!) they have lost their chance. It is really not that difficult.

Please this is your novel. You have worked hard on it. Why stumble at that last hurdle by not bothering to pay attention to those little details. The impression it gives is that you are going to be quite difficult to work with because you just don't listen and can't be bothered to pay attention.

For all those who attended the Big Honk last night here's Andrew Wright's Book Map anthem

Saturday 17 January 2015

Agents and Editors...they are human beings you know!

Sometimes the way writers behave really embarrasses me and they give  the rest of us a bad name. I have to say they are often the inexperienced ones.  I am Facebook friends with the wonderful Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann. She will occasionally regale us with tales of recalcitrant aspiring authors who have not read the detailed submission guidelines on the agency's website or have not taken kindly to her rejection and something she wrote recently made me think I ought to write this post.

Before you all shout at me I do also know that some agents may  behave a little badly too with their rejections but today I am not talking about that. I will deal with that in another post.

Firstly those awful letters/emails. Some of which come across as almost threatening! And this is the point that I have to thank Carole for. Do not respond to any rejection email while drunk. It is not clever. You have no hope of ever being able to send anything else ever to that agency/editor again if you send a rude and abusive email to them. Never say anything in an email you wouldn't be willing to say face to face. Always be polite and considerate.

Nicola Morgan has written some excellent books offering guidance as well as Carole Blake's own book, From Pitch to Publication(Macmillan), which she is currently writing an a new version of. As well, of course, check the submission guidelines on any agency/publishers website and adhere to them. They are there for a reason.

But then there is also face to face and that can be really cringeworthy. I am talking about those people, and come on you have all seen them or heard them haven't you, who pin a potential agent or editor in the corner giving them no hope of escape while telling them every single detail of their book even if it is not finished or appropriate for their agency/publisher because the aspiring author hasn't checked who they are. Shouting at them 'Oh you must read it, you'd love it, I know you'll want to take me on. I'd be so easy to work with.Shall I give you my number, or I know shall I ring you tomorrow? Can I have your card.' This is all said without taking a breath and without the agent/editor being able to get a word in edge-ways.  I have seen it happen at conferences, other people's book launches and most unforgivable parties where the poor agent/editor has actually gone to have a social life with people who have nothing to do with books necessarily.

What I am trying to say in possibly a rather long winded way is respect these people. They are human beings. If you are going to an event where you are know they are going to be in attendance. Find out about them (Check out websites and the Writers' and Artists Yearbook if you don't know where to look) and just talk to them.  Have a normal conversation. There is a good chance when they find out you are a writer they will ask you about your work and then you have an opportunity to give your brief (note that word BRIEF) elevator pitch. If they are interested they will ask more. If not don't push it, don't keep harping on about it thinking you can convince them. Leave the subject alone and move the conversation on. Don't let them think you were only talking to them because they were agents/editors. How shallow and rude is that?

Most importantly be an interesting writerly person who leaves a good impression. And for all writers there is always going to be another mountain but we will always make it through...

Thursday 1 January 2015

Writing into 2015 - it is not a race

It is a long but good journey
Happy New Year. It is 2015, the start of a brand new shiny year. Thank goodness. 2014 for me wasn't the greatest and I know for a lot of other people it wasn't too good either so 2015 has a lot of pressure riding on it to be better. I hope it's feeling up to it!

For me I have the pressure of two books to finish. Writing is a journey. It is not a race. Some people appear to think otherwise. They seem to be under the misapprehension that the faster they go, the more they rush the sooner they will get that publishing deal. Unfortunately it doesn't necessarily work like that. You may read the odd success story where they say they have written a book in a few months then it was published and to huge acclaim. I have to say I often doubt that. I wonder how much prewriting and rewriting was done and what about the thinking time beforehand when they were mulling the story over. Ok you can call me a cynic but really?

A story needs to be nurtured and teased out. Often undergoing several rewrites and edits until the true story that was waiting to be told makes it way out. Sometimes I am asked how many rewrites should a writer do? How long is a piece is a of string is a better question. That is impossible to answer. I know some people who have rewritten their story tens of times. Others who rewrite it five or six times. Just don't be afraid of the process or rush it. Neither think it is easy. If I am truly honest writing the first draft is easy. Going back and rewriting and editing is the difficult bit. Though I have to say I enjoy that side. Maybe I am odd! I love seeing the story develop and emerge like a butterfly out of a chrysalis.

So for all you writers out there enjoy that journey with me this year. I am really looking forward to mine. 2015 is going to be good. I am hoping to see lots of Eggers at the Big Honk plus many more during the year I am sure. On a personal note there is a lot of joy to look forward to this year. So 2015 bring it on and don't stop me now...