Saturday 29 December 2007

Beverley Birch’s “Rift” – A cracking Good read

I do read as much YA literature as I can. I heard Beverley Birch speaking just over a year ago at the SCBWI Writer’s day at the University of Winchester. Beverley is an interesting writer in that she also works as an editor, but in the end opted to have her work published by a different house from the one she works for. She edits for Hodder, but is published by Egmont.
“Rift” is extremely well written. It tells the story of five young people who go missing near the Chomlaya rocks in Africa. It is told mainly from the point of view of Ella, the younger sister of Charly, a journalist who accompanied a school expedition. Charly is one of the people who are missing.
The action takes place over three days and is charged with mystery. We do also have some passages with the point of view of the police inspector and of Joe, one of the boys who had been missing but who has inexplicably reappeared in the wrong place. We also have excerpts from the police log and from Charly’s notes, found somewhere near where she disappeared.
The author keeps us guessing all the time. It could be something supernatural, or a crime, or a tragic accident. I’ll not mention the outcome. I’ll just say that it is completely convincing. If anything, the suspense is such that you tend not to read it properly. You want to rush to the end.
I actually feel that now I might like to reread it, but a little slower this time.Anyway, I shall certainly be holding on to my copy: Beverley Birch has signed i

Monday 24 December 2007


I have a big editing job to do at the moment, and a smaller one. The smaller one is bugging me …. Or maybe I’m using it as an excuse not to move on to the bigger one. With the smaller one, I’ve quickly agreed the changes the editor wants, taken out a couple of sections he suggested, then in one case, made the surrounding text run more smoothly. There are some slight alterations he has suggested, though not demanded and I tend to agree with him, though the reason those items weren’t there in the first place is because they are beyond the realms of my knowledge and I don’t have the time to do the research at the moment- especially as we are now into the Christmas period.
But all of this seems trivial compared with the bigger edit I have been putting off for months. This is a YA novel, over 100,000 words long. What has been suggested is very similar to what an editor might suggest after you’ve got the text as perfect as you can.
I see there being three basic levels of editing:
1. Major structural change.
2. Strengthening of weaker parts and getting the balance right. This will involve sharpening up characters and removing parts that don’t need to be there.
3. Checking flow and copy-editing.
I need to do something in all three areas.
Oh, well, best get down to it, I guess.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

What are the choices after a Creative Writing degree?

What are the choices after a creative Writing degree?
I’m working quite intensely now with Level 3 Students of Creative Writing who will be available shortly for the job market. What are their choices after graduation?
1. Become a best-selling, or at least moderately successful writer, who can manage to live from writing the sort of thing they enjoy writing.
2. Write for a living. This may often involve writing material they find boring, but at least they can say that they are living from writing. They should be careful, though, that they do not leave themselves without the time to write what is their passion.
3. Find a job which uses some of their transferable skills; being able to work to deadline, editing skills, negotiating skills, collaborative working, critical judgement, other creative skills
4. Take an ordinary, undemanding job which doesn’t call for much creativity so that creative energy is reserved for the Big Work.
5. Take an ordinary job that brings them closer to what they want to write about. They could work behind a bar if they want to write about human life, for instance.
6. Delve deeper into the subject and carry on to post-graduate study.
Any other ideas?

Friday 14 December 2007

Working with Students

I had a lovely time with the four Level 2 students who turned for their class at 4.00 p.m. yesterday. It is very near to the end of term and they have already given in their assignments so in this class we talk about publishing possibilities. I myself am editing three books this year: anthologies, one about Salford, an Advent Calendar of stories and other short pieces and the Twelve Days of Christmas, slightly longer pieces.
We ate chocolates and discussed the vagaries of the publishing world and methods of critiquing work.
I guess I’ve got a pretty good day job. My favourite occupation is, of course, writing and my second favourite is talking to other writers about writing. I’m sure I learn as much from them as they learn from me.

Sunday 9 December 2007

A New Template

It just goes to show that I often learn as much form my students, if not more so, than they do from me.
I’ve noticed that some of their pieces of work, and my own as well, lack a firm structure, though there is a structure there and the pieces are often well written. One of the first edits, anyway, has to be making sure the shape of the piece is sound.
Having faced this problem quite often now with my students, I am convinced that one can be quite mathematical with this. There has to be that inciting incident, growing complications – three main ones regardless of size of text, a crisis, a climax, a poke just as it looks as if the resolution is about to be reached, and all of these have a precise position in the text. I am going to create a spreadsheet to use against all future stories and novels.
This may be a step towards finding the golden section in writing.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Potatoes in Spring

I’m not sure whether this is going to be the final title. This is my current projects and is based on a fantastic resource I have: a photocopy of a circular letter sent during the Second World War between he classmates of my mother-in-law. She was a German Jewess, who did not even know about her Jewish background until a few days before she came to England at the beginning of 1939. Three stories are told in the book:
· That of my mother-in-law getting used to her strange new life in Britain – and worrying about he mother being bombed by the Germans in London and her father being bombed by the allies in Germany
· The ordinary life of ordinary Germans during that time, including the rather innocent experience of these thirteen to fourteen year old girls
· The activities of the family in Stuttgart who saved the Jewish orphanage helped the Jews in the ghetto.
I think the unusual angle here is the taking a look at ordinary lives. We know about the Holocaust. We know about many acts of bravery and defiance. But what we lack is knowledge of the ordinary, and perhaps some clue as to how this could have happened when ordinary people were around. At least I have some good documentation here. However, I don’t have everything I need and I’m actually looking forward to doing some of the research.

Saturday 1 December 2007

Workshop at Padgate High School, Warrington

I did enjoy this yesterday. This was part of the Masterclass series we offer from the University of Salford. I did a two hour gig with Year 13. I started off with a couple of warm-up sessions. The first was the “Angels / Gargoyles” exercise. This gets the students using language in perhaps a surprising way. They then moved on to do their own “opposite” word storm. Next was a mind-map of words and phrases about themselves, of which they then had to replace any one containing an ‘e’ with words or phrases without ‘e’. This gets rid of the clichés and stretches the imagination.
We then moved on to three ways of getting in to a story:
· The Stephen King method – take a scene and go from there. We examined that scene with our senses. This always leads to good writing in my opinion.
· Story theory – inciting incident, ratchet, crisis, climax, resolution – hints of golden segment
· Characters – hero, friend, enemy, mentor (who always steps out of the way at the right moment).
Finally, we did my character magic exercise – with fingers crossed behind my back again – and it did work. I actually worked with the teacher on that one.
I think they all enjoyed it. And you could have heard a pin drop whilst they wrote their little scene, having created their two characters. Lots of questions at the end. That felt good.
Yes, very satisfying.

Monday 26 November 2007

SCBWI Writers’ Day

It was a fantastic day. There was the usual assortment of good talks and interesting ideas. It was good looking at the catalogues and books, and of course, I had to buy two new books. It was great seeing some old friends and making some new ones. Some of us met up afterwards for a meal at the Loch Fyne Fish restaurant in Winchester. That was really good of course. My favourite activity is writing. My second favourite is being with other writers.
I think the highlight for me was hearing how David Almond eventually took off. “Skellig” came in a flash and almost wrote itself. Then he took off. He was a competent writer before that, but it somehow never quite clicked. He was convinced that it would all fall into place one day. He kept the faith. It did.
So, you just hold on and hold on and hold on to the dream. It’s what I tell my students. Can I hold on myself?
He also did a fascinating creative writing / storytelling exercise with us. Could I build what I created there into a story?

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Working with Schools

I was at the NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) annual conference recently. I divided my time between the Higher Education strand and the Schools strand. There was controversy in both places. But after all, maybe that makes the discussion worth it.
In the school section, it kept coming down to creativity against the curriculum. There was a feeling that the curriculum was constrictive. I don’t actually think that that is the case. Anyway, teachers are so talented at doing what a writer doesn’t have the skills to do. What is more, they know their own children.
I was in a school yesterday. We are going to produce a book. We worked on content. The children chose a theme – Freedom – and we worked on stories, haikus, opposite and acrostic poems and non-fiction. We didn’t finish any piece of work, but they had a very rough draft of at least the beginning of four pieces of work each.
It was a very well planned visit, but even so, there was a little mismatch between what I expected and what happened. Is there an argument, therefore, for actually providing the materials - obviously put this into the cost – and put in writing how you expect the other staff to work with you? Providing the material might make it different form “just another school activity”. But how might the staff react to being told how to be supportive?

Thursday 15 November 2007

Letters from Publishers

It’s always great to get a letter form a publisher. One that mentions your book, with ISBN numbers and a publication date. Exactly that came for me yesterday. I had requested it. They need proof for the RAE submission at the university that the books actually exist or will exist.
It was good seeing it. There are four coming out with Butterfly:
The Lombardy Grotto – for 9-11 December 2007
Scum Bag for 14+ March 2008
Kiters for 9-11 Auntumn 2008
Beyond the Vale 14+ Autumn 2008
I have now carefully stowed it away with many papers for the university. Next, I have to organise a launch. That will be tremendous fun. In fact, I think I’ll organise a book tour. A free reading to al the local schools. I’ll do a short talk, a reading form the book, answer questions and then sign copies.
Keep your fingers crossed. Other suggestions would be welcome.

Sunday 11 November 2007

Sometimes you have a good day

Last Friday was one of those. I had a letter form Academi – the Welsh Academy, concerned with literature promotion. I have been invited to become a Full Member. Full membership is by invitation only and offered “only to those who have made a contribution to the literature of Wales”. Yes, you have to pay subs, but they’re only £20.00 per year and it does give you access to the literary community in Wales. So I feel quite pleased. On top of that, I had two publishing contracts for signing and one contract which has now also been signed by a publisher. Friday it was also confirmed that I shall be doing a Masterclass on behalf of the University of Salford at a school in Warrington. My private contact with schools in the area is booming as well. I’ve had the idea of doing a schools tour. A free author visit to launch The Lombardy Grotto and signings- with, of course, sales of the book. And hopefully, of some of my others.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

World at Our Fingertips

I listened to an actress talking about her work yesterday. She is well-known form a soap, which she ahs now left and is currently working in pantomime. She has also just finished filming. She played a dark character in that. So, she is herself, a fairy godmother, a criminal and has lived in the backstreets of Salford.
It strikes me that life can be like that for writers as well. What we actually do, probably, is sit for ours on end at a desk possibly tapping away on to a computer keyboard. Our imagination is not confined, though. I personally have been to magic realms, visited oterh planets, survived as a German Jewess in the 1940s, learnt to sail, and coped with the death of a young friend and experienced coma and epilepsy. All from the comfort of a life with a writing-related day job.
That is something else we share with our acting friends: we are more out of work than in it, but our imagination is never deprived.

Monday 27 August 2007

Ups and downs

This week has brought two rejections and two acceptances. Funnily enough, the rejections seem to carry more weight. A small American publisher and a small Welsh publisher have rejected me. A large American publisher has accepted a poem - though I'm not really all that sure if I want it published. A short story of mine and an article have been published in an anthology for students learning English by the Free University of Moldova, with funding form the British Embassy, so that gives it some status even if it doesn't pay me anything.
I went on a training course at Lightning Source last week, and it begs the question of whether one should self-publish or not. I'm even thinking of forming my own imprint. The big problem will of course be the marketing.
I do have two more novels to market then now. The temptations is to just let them go straight to Willow Bank. Perhaps I'll talk to them later in the week.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Narrowing the field - quality, not quantity?

At one time I used to be up for anything in my writing. I'm now getting much more specific. I can't believe that when I first started, I entered every competition going. I was a full time teacher, a Head of Department to boot, was just about as productive as I ma now. However, two things now occurs to me:
  1. I'd just rather not spend time on writing I don't want to do. There are some other things I'd rather do than writing that doesn't interest me.
  2. There's a feeling that the essential writing I ought to be doing is watered down by other stuff.

And should I really still be watching episodes of Neighbours? Oh, go on, why not?

Sure, I can dash off another language learning book, and it might be a bit of bread and butter work, but is it getting in the way of developing the craft in the areas I really want to get into?

Monday 20 August 2007

Editing processes

Veiled or Behind the Veil or Beyond the Veil - or whatever I end up calling it, is almost finished. It's a YA novel. Just two more read throughs, probably in hard copy, and it will start going out into the wide world.
I have a list for editing, which goes from the general, to the precise. The first check is to see that the structure works, the last is a general copy edit. All sorts of things come in between: character, dialogue, showing not telling, pace, emotional closeness and then there are some genre-specific items. Like do the characters look like young adults in a YA novel?
I normally print out the first, the last and the last but one draft, unless I'm going on a train journey, and then it's hard copy to go with me, whichever editing stage I'm at.
I find it best to look for one thing at a time. However, I'll often notice something form a category other than the one I'm currently editing. I've got up a list of fourteen criteria now, and I'm thinking of cutting back a bit, or maybe doing a couple of things in one go.
Then the comes the problem of starting something new and sending this one out.

Friday 17 August 2007

The Business of Writing

How should we spend our time? You have to have enough for food, shelter, warmth, and clothing. How do you do that if you also have to spend time writing?

I’m using Lotus organizer to try and rationalize this all. However, I haven’t got EARN MONEY as a number one priority. But I do programme in all of my marketing strategies, and I even program in thinking out more if I’m not earning enough. I constantly try to go for the big, mega-earning opportunities which pull huge amounts of money in quickly so that I can then concentrate my time on writing. And then I sometimes wonder whether I shouldn't be concentrating my time on making the writing pay. Trouble with the latter is, that sometimes seems even more of a sacrifice of one’s art than even spending time on something totally unrelated to writing.

I’m actually pretty pleased that I’ve found a regular “day” job that will bring me enough to supply the basic needs. The job totally relates to writing and contrasts with it as well. I shall be teaching Creative Writing and English Literature at university level. I found when I did that last year that it actually enhanced my own critical / editorial process. I enjoyed the company too.

Actually, I really can’t wait to start my new post at the University of Salford. It’s almost a shame that it is delayed a little by a family holiday.