Friday, 13 October 2017

Writer in Residence

It's all happening this month. There have been highs, lows, nerves and relief. I've felt like I've been hanging on in the back car on The Big One at Blackpool.

There was the SCBWI Agents Party at The Royal Overseas League, London. Listening to the agents give their panel talk, clutching my pre-prepared pitch with impatience and anticipation before the long queue and the long wait before the pounce, the blurb and handshake met with enthusiastic reaction and relief as Yasmin Standen waved me down, 'Don't pitch to me, send it, I love it.' The t-shirt worked.

A few weeks later I opened an email headed Short Story Prize with some trepidation. You know the drill, hold your breath, speed read and hope. This time it was good news - shortlisted for the Wasifiri writing prize in the life writing category.

The biggest thrill of the month came after a tour of the remarkable Talliston House. I'd found out and applied for the Writer in Residence position after popping into a local independent bookshop. Seeing they had a writing group I'd looked up who was delivering the next workshop, Emma Vandore, currently Writer in Residence at Talliston House. I knew about Talliston, but didn't know they had a writer in residence and when I checked it out on their website I discovered I had just a few days to apply. Some muse must have drifted past my window, I was struck with an idea for a short story about a girl helping her mother clear out her grandmother's house, a door not seen before that opens to a room with a talking cat and another door to rooms of improbable and impossible things. Cue frantic writing of a short story based on 'An Extraordinary room.' Sometimes a deadline is what's needed. They must have liked it, announced I was to be the new Writer in Residence after the tour.

Talliston is a cornucopia of impossible rooms, a small, modest house on the outskirts of Great Dunmow. An ordinary house from the outside with thirteen beautiful and extraordinary rooms on the inside. A place where the imagination leaps from place to place beyond the boundaries of normality. I have always been fascinated by the uncanny and remarkable as it exists beside the real, fantastic realism, and Talliston is a fantastically real adventure.

I can't wait to get started, inspired by Talliston and the rest of the creative team. The residency will give me the opportunity to stay there and immerse myself in its atmosphere, to write new stories sparked by the rooms and their characters and teach masterclasses and workshops over the course of my tenure until October 2018. Who was it who said, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get.'? Seems to be the case this Autumn, it's been a long time coming, but let's hope it continues.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Chris Riddell Phillipa Pearce Lecture

This is the fourth Phillipa Pearce Lecture I've attended in a row, one of the most thought provoking and entertaining and the first given by an illustrator.

Chris Riddell is the recipient of three Kate Greenaway medals and amongst other accolades, was the ninth Children's Laureate with his stated goal: To show how much fun can be had with drawing. He's a champion of libraries, so it's fitting that I am attending the sell out event with the inimitable Rosie Pike, school librarian and organiser of the excellent Bishop's Stortford Literary Festival. Chris recognises her post lecture, in the signing line. Rosie gets a hug!

As the doors open Chris is already on stage. He's a man with slightly quizzical eyebrows in a soft blue jacket and shirt who sits sketching as the hall at Homerton College fills, his hand dancing across the paper below a visualiser. He sketches people - His publisher, sitting in the front row, illustrations to unwritten books and a parody of Trump - Donald Ear trumpet and his fake shoes. A reminder that Chris is a successful political cartoonist for The Observer.

He's a self-effacing, humorous and gracious man who keeps the audience enraptured as he delivers his entertaining lecture, 'The Age of The Beautiful Book.' His own, first beautiful book was an illustrated bible. (He was the son of a vicar after all). They were so loaded with colour and style it was as if,
'Don Draper had emerged from Mad Men and turned the bible stories into an advertising spread.' He was a voracious reader when he got the hang of it, further influenced by the Tenniel illustrations in Alice in Wonderland, Ladybird books (before they became ironic) and Pauline Baynes beautiful illustrations for The Chronicles of Narnia (although for years he thought Aslan was a lion called Alsation). The illustrations enhanced the text and cast a mysterious story telling spell over the young Chris.

He's a new and enthusiastic convert to the world of social media, after an incident with his mobile phone in the washing machine led to him being upgraded to a smart phone. He tweets his drawings
and draws as other people talk, constantly in conversation hand to page, filling notebooks and annotating published books, drawing around the text, filling the blank space with expressive and beautiful sketches. Tweeting his work had led to illustrating the books he want to illustrate, like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. He would now love to illustrate Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. (Peake's estate take note).

He believes,

'Far from replacing print, technology has sharpened our appetite for beautifully created books.. children are now reading more and want to read print... books furnish the room and the mind.' his own works are examples of these beautiful that burst from bookshelves. The Goth Girl series production evolved from a meeting with his publishers in the, 'Department for Making Beautiful Books' (which sounds like something out of Harry Potter, but is in fact the Production Department) where he asked for blackboard black on the cover, foil, varnish and William Morris style end papers and a miniature book in an open envelope within the back cover. The production department begrudgingly agreed, 'I suppose you'll want sprayed edges as well?' they asked. Chris didn't know what they were, but thought they sounded good. So when his publisher brought a first copy of Goth Girl along to a reception at Downing Street Chris was attending, he was delighted, only to have to sign it and hand it over to the daughter of George Osborne, begrudgingly, and to then sacrifice a second copy to the daughter of David Cameron. Imagine the anguish!

Congrats to Homerton College and the Phillipa Pearce Lecture series for pulling off another great event. Next year they are moving to a Spring schedule and have Frances Hardinge and Jacqueline Wilson lined up. Afterwards it was off to the Great Hall for a glass of 'Writer's block' book signings and a meet up with fellow SCBWI's after. I'll be back for more next year.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Louise Doughty - Word Factory Masterclass

Louise Doughty sets up clutching a copy of her own work, Black Water, and a copy of Haruki Murakami short stories. That's when I know the session, in a stifling basement of Waterstones, Piccadilly, will be great. Murakami is master of the short story form, a writer who can persuade my scientist husband to delve into fiction. I'd argue the corner for Louise, that she too is a crafted writer of wonderful stories, with a wealth of experience from novels and shorts through journalism, radio plays and screenplays. This is a woman who knows her work, an early Creative Writing student under Angela Carter at UEA, it took her maybe seven or eight years to find her prose power, and when she did, she didn't stop.

The masterclass is on Where The Narrative Leads - is your short story a moment in time, or could it be more? Could it have the scope of a novel? Louise is fascinated by where the original point of a story exists, where does an idea begin?

Although both her recent books, Apple Tree Yard and Black Water, have very different settings and themes, they both began in the same way. In that space between waking and sleep at the end of the day, with a single image. In Apple Tree Yard, it was the scene of a woman at the Old Bailey giving evidence in her own trial and the feeling she was about to be exposed in a damaging lie. Writing those first two thousand words, Louise sent it to her agent and he asked for a one page synopsis to send to Faber, the book was born.

Louise talks frequently about writing in scenes, her process to write on and leave the balnks that research or emotion will later fill [in square brackets]. Her process is organic, she will write non-chronologically, writing and rewriting a particular scene until it feels right, then lie all the scenes on the floor and re-arrange, cutting some well loved and keeping others in a jigsaw method. Once she has the corners, she can work in from there.

She pays homage to the structure involved in writing a screenplay and illustrates the Syd Field Screenwriter's workbook (I go home and dig out my copy of The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting. John Yorke - Into the Woods - is good too, as is How to Write and Sell The Hot Screenplay by Raindance Writers Lab). Plot points are important, the point when the course of the narrative changes and there is no going back. Think about how the character changes through the story. These can be small or large scale changes.

In both boooks, she had an idea, a picture, of a character in a situation. In Black Water she was a guest at a writers and readers festival in Bali. Set up after the Bali bombings to encourage high end tourists back to the area. Writers came from across the globe on circuitous and cheap routes to be accommodated in luxury hotels with free drinks. Most were off their faces with a mixture of alcohol and jet lag on the first night. Here, Louise lay awake every night in her hut, listening to the unfamiliar noises, creaking, gecko's and monkeys. An image came to her of a man lying awake at night in a hut in rural Indonesia, mortally afraid. He thinks men with Machetes are coming to kill him, but it is his younger self that he is really afraid of. As she wrote the scene into a short story it grew longer and longer, and here she pauses to dwell on the importance of writing your characters full biography. Give them an age and place and work backwards, where are the opportunities for research. Have something that possess you. Start to see everything in ordinary life through the prism of your novel, all becomes noteworthy, it sticks in your head. Write it into the novel. Hence a family holiday to some falls at Yosemite became a scene in Black Water.

It's everything a workshop should be, inspiring, anecdotal and practical. I go away gripped with images from a short story I want to write into scenes and the tools to create a structure to hang them in a novel.

Monday, 17 July 2017

New Perspectives

It's been a while. There have been holidays and high days and visitors from over the pond. American family who have made me think about perspective and POV and writing for a different audience.

When I submit writing or have to come up with a bio I say 'I write short stories for adults and children, feature articles, YA novels, screenplays and ghost write memoirs.' A dolly mixture of styles and perspectives. Is there any such thing as a writer who writes for only one audience? It's important to dabble, although being a Jack-of-all-trades doesn't mean you can't be a master. The writing should always have heart, pace and punch, no matter who you write for.

So I'm dipping into the pick and mix bag again. Getting a proof copy of The Passenger on, means I can see what I think might be a finished work looks like in print, and I can see that it's probably not finished at all. Pencil sharpened and at the ready for edits.

Digging out an old MS of a YA novel I can see it's potential to be re-written as MG and start to plan a new wip; There's a Mermaid in my Garden.

And there is an upcoming short story masterclass in a high street bookshop that shall not be named (I just applied for a job there and didn't get it, maybe it's fate showing me I was meant to be a book writer and not a bookseller). So while I hand round the dip mix (jelly baby anyone?) I'll keep writing and submitting. Watch this space...

Friday, 19 May 2017

'Author' Visit

It's been a writing week of mixed fortunes. Two short stories I really believed in didn't make it into Mslexia, likewise my YA novel - Girl In The Box (which I know has heart, and legs) was not long listed for the Bath Children's Novel Award.

So why do I keep on writing? Because what else would I do? I have to, I love it. Encouraging support came from wonderful SCBWI colleagues and on submission of an interview from SF Said to Words and Pictures, I was heartened to read he had 90 rejections before publication. You have to look for the crumbs of comfort. I have had one publication -

Not that publication is the be and end all, reading short stories to an audience is pretty cool if unnerving:

And then there was a ray of sunshine, an invitation to do some storytelling at a local school library as an 'author'- They even introduced me as such. I was so chuffed! I tried out a new story and the children seemed to really like it.

I liked it so much I extended my one session to stay the whole afternoon, re-reading the story (a re-construction of Hansel and
Gretel) to new audiences and joining the Carnegie book group to look at the shortlist. The children are part of 5,000 shadowing groups across the country, discussing and reviewing the novels before the winner is announced on the 19th June.

Carnegie is in its 80th year, its an award central to the significance of libraries, founded by the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie,
'If ever wealth came to me that it should be used to establish free libraries.'

The children were eloquently and enthusiastically engaged with these novels, filming short videos as their method of reviewing the titles. It brought home to me the importance of stories, the importance of libraries, (one is central to my current WIP) we must fight for them. So fellow 'authors' - here's to doping what we love doing best; writing, engaging with audiences, inspiring, creating, being resilient, here's to more of the same.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Which Way Now?

Laid up with the ankle injury again I've time to consider what next? Along with everyone else on the planet, we live in uncertain mercurial times. Which way to vote? Which job to go for? What to write next? Which agent to submit to? Amongst all the confusion, rejection and stagnation of a writing and working life - is it all worth it?

The answer to the last one is yes, always, just persist, resist, exist. As Maya Angelou said,

'But still, like air, I'll rise.'

Got to keep on keeping on, looking out for those signposts. So, thanks to the SCBWI community for support and encouragement. Hopefully they'll be an enjoyable bread and butter job out there soon and those stories and words in competition will sparkle enough to be noticed and at least longlisted. Got to keep on keeping on!

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A story for a Tuesday - Word Factory

Amazing what you find on the internet - here's one of my short stories from last year