Thursday 31 December 2009

Writing in 2009

I suppose 2009 has not been a bad year.
I’ve had two Young Adult books come out. Annoyingly, though, they came out within three weeks of each other – one had been delayed for almost two years. I’ve also got a couple of academic papers under my belt. I’m certainly enjoying teaching creative writing at university level. The writing itself is still going quite well and I’ve still plenty of ideas. I just need to make sure I do get enough time to write. And I’m beginning to see what my retirement might look like.
Carrying on with Bridge House has been fun. We’ve got eight book out this year. It’s been a bit hard to keep to deadlines – we were ambitious, life events happened, and sometimes authors were slow to respond to edits or proof-reading – they too had life events and deadlines with other people. But we just about did it and our publications have been a delight. We continue to champion the short story. We begin to be recognised by other publishers and generally by the people in the world of books.
The Red Telephone took off in the summer – that is our imprint for Young Adult books and is in fact now publishing three of mine. We’ll be bringing another one out by another author in June 2010 – hopefully.
There are some exciting projects to look forward to next year – not least of all the animal anthology we’re doing to support Born Free. There’s also plenty planned elsewhere at Bridge House and The Red Telephone. And I have plenty of my own projects and plenty at the university. All good stuff.

Wednesday 30 December 2009

The "show don't tell" edit

We writers, especially those who teach, talk about showing instead of telling a lot. It’s one of the greatest signs of an inexperienced amateur – a great amount of telling. Sure, there has to be some exposition, but the less the better.
Of course, we also need to avoid the situation where we manipulate dialogue so that it becomes unnatural in our efforts to make one of our characters give the readers any background they need.
I’m reasonably good now at setting scenes into what feels like real time and space so I don’t have to do all that much usually in this particular edit. There are times, though, when I tell in order to propel the action forward. Sometimes this is because of laziness when I’ve not been bothered to write the actual scene. Other times, however, it’s because the detials are trivial and could bore the reader. This in turn sometimes means that scene wasn’t necessary. Other times though you do have to find another way of telling.
I find I get round the latter by telling the tale from the point of view of one of the main characters – the protagonist if possible. This generally works well.
It’s also important to refrain from naming emotions. It’s best to show the emotions by describing a character’s physical state and making him / her speak their mind.
“Telling” is characterised by long descriptions, often with several abstract words. “Showing” is generally full of dialogue and a considerable amount of action, giving the reader a real feeling of time and space.
I’ve now read the whole of Babel and found the weak points in this area. I’m now two thirds of the way through making the corrections.
Just three more edits to go.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

What I really, really want - one writer’s vision

I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to what really are my ambitions about writing. How do I see my ideal life, a life which encompasses writing. Visualisation is a powerful tool, but often we send out mixed messages about what we’re really visualising. So, I ask myself what I really want.
I’m lucky in having a day job which encompasses my writing to a large extent.
Hang on a minute? Am I lucky? Or did I create that through visualisation?
Interestingly, there is a lot that is good about my job – it recognises my writing as valid and important and it allows me to actually spend much of my time thinking and talking about writing to others. In fact, I’m expected to carry on honing my own skills and increasing my own knowledge and pass that on to others. I’m paid a reasonable wage for this and one could almost look upon it as a type of retainer.
I earn some money directly from my writing and there is also some writing I consider important though it is not commercial enough to earn me much. I manage to spend what feels like the right amount of my time on my writing and not too much on doing things I don’t want to do, including what I name “jobbing writing”. I’d like to shrink the latter two further.
I’d like to earn a little more. I’m not greedy in terms of material items. I actually don’t enjoy so-called “retail therapy” – it’s not a patch on writing. I find it hard to imagine my ideal living conditions, though I do have my eyes on a house around the corner from where I’m currently living. I’d like to feel comfortable enough to not struggle at the end of the month and to be able to visit my children and treat them a little but not too much without major planning involved. I certainly always want to be warm enough and have enough good food to eat, and to be able to buy ink, paper and new computers as needed as well as all the books and postage I require.
I want the writing itself to carry on getting better and better. I want it to always earn the amount of time I can give it.
It’s a tricky dream to hold on to, because it’s actually quite hard to put it into words – even for a writer.

Thursday 24 December 2009

Grimm Tales - Library Theatre Manchester

We went to see this yesterday evening. It is a production well worth seeing. It was adapted from the Bothers Grimm’s Tales by Carol Ann Duffy. It was dramatised by Tim Supple and directed by Rachel O Riordan.
It is a skilled adaptation. Very appropriate, too, having something by CAD, now poet laureate. It retains the essence of the original slightly grimmer versions of some well-known fairy-tales. Could the word “grim” possibly come from the nature of these stories?
The stories – Hansel and Gretel, the Golden Goose, Ashputtel (Cinderella to us), Iron Hans, The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage, the Lady and the Lion and Little Red Ridinghood were presented almost in Brechtian fashion, with a troupe of actors who narrated the stories, acting out some of the characters as they went along. They also played impressive jigs on a variety of musical instruments.
The stage at the Library Theatre anyway is novel. It tapers to the back to fit into the circular building which is the Central Library in Manchester. It has quite a slope on it too. You fear for the actors’ balance. The set was enchanting, though. A mixture of woodland and faded old mansion, with misty forest in the background.
It was gratifying to see the theatre absolutely full. Interestingly, the audience was middle to low-brow, with lots of children as well, yet they really appreciated the humour and the subtle connections. This was so much better than the traditional smutty pantomimes.
The Library Theatre is moving temporarily to the Lowry then taking over the former Theatre Royal. I wonder what they will do with that enticing space?
We came home in a heavy snowstorm. Manchester was enchanting. The trams ran all right but the short car journey back to our home was decidedly iffy. We did it, though we couldn’t get the car on to the drive.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Being Snowed in - a Writer’s Dream?

It snowed all day yesterday. We could not move. Cars, apart from sturdy 4 X 4s could not get in and out of our road. Besides, we had to wait in for our free-range organic turkey. It still hasn’t arrived, but it is on its way. I was supposed to go and sing with my choir last night, but that really wasn’t going to happen. Watching the weather was a little distracting. Lots of fabulous pictures on Twitter. However, on the whole, I did manage to get a lot of writing done one way and another.
I finished my twelfth edit of Babel. We’re getting horribly close to that most demanding of edits – the one where you read the whole text out loud. You probably need to such a lot of sweets in between sessions. That’s a slower edit, of course.
So, I finished that edit. I also finished critiquing ten short stories for the winner of the Bridge House short story competition – Sandra Morgan. I did a little work on getting the Molecules of Hope web site up and running.
There is a glorious side to being snowed in. So many excuses not to do things. Food can be a worry. We do need to shop today. It looks as if we can get out with care. But as long as the infra structure is still working, as long as you can get news of the outside world and as long as you can keep warm, why worry? Writing time – in heaps.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Animal Anthology

We’ve had great news about Bridge House’s animal anthology. Not only do we have Virginia McKenna approving of the idea of the book and writing a foreword but now she has agreed to attend the book launch at the Hay festival. The book should raise money for Born Free. We’ll probably get Richard Adams there as well He’s actually now getting on with a story for the anthology. It’s looking good. We’ve had a load of submissions – more than normal and from some quite eminent writers.
Thanks to Debz’s hard work.
Way to go.

Friday 18 December 2009

Quality Control

I’ve decided to enter a competition. It is for a piece of life-writing. I have some little snippets I call Glimpses. I took a look last night. I was appalled that at some point in the past I had thought these good. I now find them decidedly iffy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the last one was the best. It wasn’t the most sparkling topic but it was reasonably well written and quite engaging.
However, I am sure if I take another look today and certainly if I take a look in a few weeks time, I’ll think differently again. The Constant Editor is always with us. I hope this means that my writing is getting better and better. I’m sure I’ll never be completely satisfied.
I’m certain I’m not alone in this. I guess most writers behave the same way. It is in the end a form of quality control.

Monday 14 December 2009

Poetry Novel

I’ve started on a new venture this week. I’m writing a Young Adult poetry novel. I’ve completed the first 1,000 and so far so good. There is every chance that others will think it’s absolute trash, but I’m finding it liberating.
I recently read What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones and I have to say that I was impressed. Books like this are rarely a commercial success, but I would be very proud to get mine published all the same. Is it one for Cinnamon, Salt or even The Red Telephone?
I think this type of novel has three great advantages: you can get really close to the main character, they’re quite a quick read, and each poem is still self-contained. Lets hope I manage to make this one work.

Friday 11 December 2009

Shaun the Sheep

I just love this delightful animation currently being broadcast on CBBC. The cleverly crafted sheep with their funny facial expressions and their amazing woolly coats will make children giggle as will Shaun’s quirky theme tune. The farmer and the dog are a hoot too. The sheep constantly outwit them both. The farmer makes us laugh at the poor specimen that is the human being and he mumbles along in some incoherent language which is nevertheless clearly human and probably English.
Some funny things happen, such as the sheep mistaking bagpipes for a sick animal and there are some other funny permanent features, such as the huge sheep who eats anything – including the kite the flock has taken pains to rescue from a tree.
The big question, however, is is it really for children? There are a few – thank goodness not too many- jokes at the children’s expense. There are more which perhaps only adults will understand. On the other hand, there is some humour that would appeal to Teletubbies’ fans. So, let’s take a vote. Who is Shaun really for?

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Final Portfolio Students

I have to say these are a joy to me. Even the ones who don’t always show up or who don’t always submit work. It is the quality of what they do and the care they show in feeding back to each other.
We have a system where students email work to each other and their personal tutor about three days before we meet. Everybody looks at the work and then gives verbal and written feedback on what they’ve read. It’s a serious critique group really.
I find I learn a lot myself from reading students’ work. They also learn from each other. They become quite severe critiques of their own work in the end. It is amazing then what happens to the work. It really comes on, setting a challenge for us lecturers. Our students get to become really good writers.

Thursday 3 December 2009


By this I mean putting more words into a sentence that we actually need. Look at that sentence I’ve just written. Why not say “This is putting more words than we need into a sentence” or “overwriting is using too many words in a sentence.” It’s actually not so bad in a blog because a blog is more like speaking and you are writing on the hoof. You do want a more conversational tone.
An academic paper given at a conference would be considerably tighter and one written for a journal would be even tighter still.
When we are speaking, we do need to add in extra words. It gives the speaker thinking time and it gives the listener interpreting time. When we write, we have the chance to draft and redraft and get it right. The reader can pause to reflect on what they have read. As we read more quickly than we listen or speak, we can become very irritated by words and phrases that prevent us from getting to the content of the message.
I’ve been marking undergraduate essay assignments recently. So many of the students overwrite. I’m sure it’s because they’re thinking as they go along. Which is what I’m doing now. Which is why I’m overwriting. Still, I’ll edit this three times before I post it. And I’ll try not to take out the overwriting.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Tone in Writing

How do we define tone? We tend to recognise when it has changed. It’s more difficult to pinpoint when it is even and when it is working well. Is it to do with voice? What do we mean by voice, anyway? Is it to do with style? Are these not also equally difficult to define?
There is something about tone that changes according to who is writing for whom and who is speaking to whom. There are so many parallels between speaking and writing. They are both active communication skills – as opposed to the two passive ones – reading and listening. There is also talking which uses an active and a passive skill together. You can argue that listening can be active. Reading can also be proactive and in fact for a writer is it possible to switch off the jabbering editing voice which tells you what you can learn from the writer whose work you are reading? And of course, identifying the tone and how the writer has achieved that tone.
There are so many unknowns. Is it the words that are used, the complexity of the sentences, even the paragraphing that determines tone in writing? Are we talking about an atmosphere created? Is there something to do with rhythms and sounds?
Tone, style, voice, all important. Are they different? Are they the same? Are they related?