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

Monday, 13 February 2017

Roger McGough

Last weeks' Bishop's Stortford Literature Festival culminated in an evening with Roger McGough. He's been the poet of my life, the soundtrack to my childhood with The Scaffold and Lily The Pink (I still have the vinyl 45 and illustrated sleeve somewhere), a Liverpool poet accompanying my heritage, he reminds me of my Liverpudlian father (who's also an lone Evertonian locally) and his wonderful work has been with me through my teaching, inspiring a new generation to wrangle with words.

Here's a little ditty in tribute to a lovely man and a great evening at our local festival:

Roger McGough

The patron saint of poetry
With white hair and a gold earring
In bowling shoes and moleskin jacket
His performance makes it so easy

Producing words to make you think
I remember
A-drink, a-drink, a drink
To Lily-the-Pink, the-Pink, the-Pink
Mother sang it to me
At the kitchen sink

Well over a thousand
Poetic adventures he's penned
All delightful, cheering and poignant
To the end

'What I hate about life is as soon as you get the hang of it you run out of time.'

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Joanne Harris - character

I've read five Joanne Harris books. Four novels - Chocolat, The Lollipop Shoes, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, Five quarters of the Orange and a collection of short stories, A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String. Maybe I wouldn't describe myself as a fan, (speaks of the fanatical) but I certainly have a fondness for her style, wit and opinion. Her new novel, Different Class, is different territory for me. The third book set in the fictional Yorkshire village of Malbry and described as a psychological thriller, Harris refers to these books as rainy day books, novels exploring the darker side of human nature.It seems I've been reading the sunshine books, but into each life a little rain must fall, so I'm happy to embark on something different from this author, and after her discussion of Different Class and its characters at the Bishop's Stortford Literary Festival, I feel well prepared.

With her asymmetric dark hair and in the midnight blue of her velvet Jacket, Joanne looks a little like a self assured pixie on stage. She has the grace of movement and speech (with a slight Yorkshire lilt) that makes her a captivating speaker. She also has the commanding air of an ex-teacher. She talks about her previous career as she introduces Different Class with a wry smile, 'I taught in a boys school and said I would never write about it, so this is the second book I've set in a boys school. It's a story about the past written in the dual narrative of teacher and past pupil, how the arrival of one person can disrupt a community and how the past never leaves you. My darker books use the theme of the outsider, what we show to people in different contexts.'
Her knowledge of character is intimate, as if she were talking about a well known close relative or friend. I ask does the character development come with the story or does it come first? 'I know the character's back story, what they would eat, how they travel, do they like dogs? Are they allergic to dogs? 90% of it doesn't make the page, but then I know how they will react in a different situation.' I think of my sketchy character cards for my current WIP and resolve to fill notebooks with character studies and pictures when I get home. 'The main character in Different Class is resistant to change and innovation. Some of the character is based on portraiture of staff I knew. I got fond of Straitley as I wrote in his voice, everything is seen through his eyes. I like writing in the first person, it allows me to inhabit the character.'

Students from the college probe her with further considered and interesting questions. How does she plan a novel? 'I start with two or three ideas, but don't plan ahead too much, it's a walk in the woods. If I see everything coming too clearly you don't get the surprise effect.' Was she happy with the film adaptation of Chocolat? ' I'm happy the film was made, but I don't feel as if it was my work, my job was done. Initially they wanted to set it in America, thank goodness it came back to Europe.' How important is the writer in today's society? ' They have always been important. The more you read, the more you understand where other people come from, develop that empathy. If we understand each other it's difficult to de-humanise other people. Art allows us to experience a human connection.'

Different Class is out in paperback now

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A light hearted evening of poetry and comedy with A.F.Harrold

There's a few of us SCBWI's who could take a leaf out of this man's book when it comes to performing and school visits. It's about presence and engagement, both of which the poet and author A.F.Harrold has in spades. The hair (curly, once red), the beard (long, with a shade of red) all lend him a Hagrid-esque quality. Bouncing on stage to promise an intimate and fun evening with his gruff, no-nonsense humour, there's a twinkle behind the round glasses, a glint in the eye that the evening could take an anarchic turn. It doesn't, although the promise is there.

'Some of you have brought grown-ups' he growls, prowling across the theatre, 'hands up who has brought an embarrassing parent?' Immediately getting about a third of the audience on side, so begins an hour of performance, poetry and song. A.F. Harrold is playful with the audience, encouraging participation like a well behaved stand-up comedian. He reads comic poems with pathos, 'p.14 for anyone following in the text' and two audience members were, he quotes from Things You Find in a Poet's Beard, illustrated by Chris Riddle;
I wish I'd known then
what I now know now-
that it's eggs from the chickens
and milk from the cow.

You see, my first day was rainy,
but worse than that -
I drank chicken juice
with a soft-bolied pat.

(The New Farmer Learns)

The author is the writer of the Fizzelbert Stump series of novels for middle grade, about a boy who lives in a circus, longlisted Carnegie novel The Imaginary and poems for adults and children. He sings some poems in a soft baritone accompanied by a melancholy glockenspiel on a backing track, explains how he was involved in Guerilla (not gorilla) poet at Havant literary festival and was ejected from the local branch of Greggs before he could finish his performance about iced buns, 'I was just trying to bring art to the people.'
A.F.Harrold does bring us art, laughter, poetry and prose. It is a light hearted evening of poetry and comedy, a good example of how a performance should be. There are plenty queuing to buy books and have him sign them after.

Local Literary Festivals

It's said that writing is an isolated pursuit, the life of a writer a lonely one. It doesn't have to be so, as the network of support and opportunity provided by SCBWI proves. It's worth dipping into your local literary festival too, even if you're not up there on the stage promoting your latest work, there will be fellow writers and enthusiasts in the audience. Which is how I found myself representing SCBWI Eastern Region with the lovely Helen Moss at Bishop's Stortford Literary Festival.
Running for the past eight years under the capable stewardship of the school librarian, Rosie Pike, it gathers an eclectic mix of writers from all genres and places in accessible and illuminating talks. Helen and I had plenty of people to chat while we endorsed the power of SCBWI, and it was interesting to hear the experiences of other writers in the Talking Talent slot, a pick and mix of talent, background and age. Alice Audley worked as a journalist and now peruses her independent magazine blogosphere (@AliceAudley) Sara Hirsch is a former UK Slam Poetry champ (@sarsbars89) Hina Belitz a renowned employment lawyer and novel writer (@Hina_Belitz) and Lucy Saxon, of particular interest to SCBWI's, a successful author of YA fantasy novels, the Tellus series.(@Lucy_Saxon)

Lucy's journey is particularly pertinent. Diagnosed with ME at the age of 12, she found herself with a lot of time on her hands and pursued her interest in writing. Completing a novel age 16 in NaNoWrimo she found an agent who was interested and signed a three book deal with Bloomsbury.

So, with apologies to Paul Winspear (former editor of local paper and question master for the evening) who's questions I have nicked, here's a set of familiar investigations and discussion from the Talking Talent slot:

What Inspired you to Write?

The panel agreed its something they have always done, building on vivid imaginations, copying out words from books and writing stories.Hina mentioned the importance of an inspirational teacher, winning a competition taught her that people believed in her ability to write, Lucy cited her illness as a catalyst and the freedom of writing Harry Potter fan fiction.

What does it entail being a full time writer?

All agreed it wasn't what they expected, its hard work and there's a lot more admin for a start, but there was unanimous agreement on the need to lock oneself away for the creative process. Lucy still lives a t home with her parents and hides herself in her room to write. She won't leave the house unless she has to and can write 150,000 words in a month (I know, it's the energy of youth!) Hina is a full time lawyer and mother of two so has very little time, but also has to lock herself away, 'just one interruption and it's gone' She finds she works well in the Cambridge University Library. Sara works in a cafe surrounded by other people, other people doing things helps her focus, and she likes writing on trains.
Alice is used to journalistic pressures and deadlines, so can write fast and sharp at all times and is less precious about her words.

How do you feel about others being involved in your writing?

Lucy 'I love my editor, but she will send me long lists of things she doesn't like, which is soul crushing. I have to set it apart and come back with a more level eye. My books are always too long, I accept that now, but you can argue with your editor in fiction writing.'Hina is dazzled by feedback and the different perspectives on her own work, amazed by how many people there are involved in producing a book.

And the big question - Why do you write?

Lucy 'There's a lot going non in my head and I'd go slightly crazy if I didn't get it out.' Hina feels impelled to write. Sara loves performing 'I'm shy as a person, but performing is different, its something isn't it? I prefer to write the feeling than say it.' Alice feels she's 100% in tune with her brain when she'd writing.

All agree there's a lot of self-conciousness about being a writer. If you love writing, then you are a writer and if failure comes your way, you still write.

So fellow SCBWI's - Keep writing and get out there and investigate your local literature festival, with over 350 across the country, there'll be one near you.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Women's March London

The last time I marched in London was over 30 years ago on a student protest. I feel I've been quiet too long. It's a bright, cold day as I set off for the capital. Local trains are out and my husband kindly gives me a lift to the end of the central line, playing his part for the cause. I'm soon exchanging smiles and nods with placard carrying passengers. I wish I'd made one. The placards are brilliant, witty, meaningful, poignant, defiant. Trump's rhetoric and behaviour the catalyst for this protest, but not the only cause. I'm marching for my daughter, and with my daughter, for equal rights for her generation, for all women.

It's exciting, uplifting, as Sandi Toskvig says, cheering. Grosvenor square is packed. It takes us an hour to shuffle out, accompanied by the sound of drums, whistles and trumpets, chants and songs. There are women there are men, there are children on shoulders and in pushchairs, older couples holding hands, LGBT couples and individuals, women of all colours and religions, together. It's inspiring. So what next? I won't be quiet so long again.