Monday 27 December 2010

Story Time

Once again we’ve been trapped pretty much indoors over Christmas – just like last winter. It was colder this time with the cold snap starting earlier but the snow has been less problematic, though I did have a scary journey back from a concert in Chester cathedral on the Friday before Christmas. The snow has only started to melt today.
It really has been too cold to go out. I normally love walking in cold, crisp winter weather but five minutes on Christmas Eve was enough. There was nothing for it but to indulge in extra story time. Isn’t that what this time of year is all about?
I’m now making headway into that pile of books on the shelves in my bedroom. Plus there are all the films – reruns of old cheesy ones and those that have now been around long enough to make it to the small screen – the ones I would have liked to see at the cinema. The Other Boleyn Girl is one such example .Of course, I’ve had to rewatch Miracle on 34th Street and The Railway Children.
Then there are the TV specials: My Family (hilarious), Dr Who (a little disappointing but possibly because it had been so built up) and the return of Upstairs Downstairs (yet to be watched.)
And all the DVDs given as Christmas presents or found on the coffee table, left over from Sunday supplements.
We did get out, though, to see an excellent version of David Copperfield at Bolton’s Octagon theatre. They captured the whole story so well. I’m sure even people who had not read the book would have understood.
Yes, it is time for absorbing story. For a writer it is also a time for making stories. The enforced house arrest aids this also. So here I am, on the day we have our second Christmas –our grown-up children form London are coming a little later – working away. It is, of course, a pleasure. I did have a new computer for my birthday (22 December).

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Panic Setting In

Assignments are due in now. Students are emailing like mad with what are, after all, pretty valid questions. I’m tied up today and although tomorrow I’m technically free all day, I’m expecting a steady stream at my door. Two added complications, though. The assignments are due in tomorrow. And the snow is also supposed to come.
At least this amount of panic shows that they care. They are really trying to give their best shot with the current assignments.
Impressively, most of my students are already very clear that a text is never really complete – merely abandoned at the point where they run out of time or talent. Welcome to my world. And at least the marking should be very pleasant. I’m looking forward to reading some impressive scripts.

Monday 6 December 2010

Our Libraries are Under Threat

Throughout the UK and I suspect throughout many other countries libraries are threatened with closure. This feels to me as bad as burning books. Where would I be now if it hadn’t have been for some excellent libraries? I’ve recently worked out that if and when I retire – I’ll be 59 in a couple of week’s time, so this is a serious consideration- I’ll not be able to keep on buying books at the rate I do now. I was relying on the free bus pass and the library in town as a way of getting round this.
When I was a child I couldn’t afford books either. I remember very clearly the Easter holidays of the second year at junior school. This was the year I discovered the Famous Five. I was at the library every day changing my books. Of course, I soon got though all of the Famous Five books and went on to what my teachers no doubt labelled “better things”. Having access to so many books at that age is probably what allows me to be a writer today – and also a lover of reading.
Later, as I started reading fluently in French and German I was glad to be able to borrow books in those languages because then the cost of importing them was prohibitive.
University meant owning books, so I neglected the public library for a few years, though I made great use of a university library. Then, a few years on, came the children and weekly visits to the library became a part of our family routine. I loved going to the library with the kids and helping them to choose the books I would later read out to them.
The children grew up. I started studying first for an MA and then a Ph D. This brought me in touch with university libraries again but the municipal ones were also important: I was studying writing for children. Indeed now that I’m teaching at university level I recommend that students on two of my modules join the town library: if they want to write children’s; literature or need to write an essay about it they will never afford to buy as many books as they need to read in order to understand. Our university library stocks a few titles but it cannot afford to stock as many as they need to read. Besides, going to the children’s section of the library gives the students some contact with children.
As we gradually take on e-book technology, no doubt the role of the library will change a little. But it will remain a great force in keeping books alive. It will stock older editions of books and different libraries may distribute different types of e-literature. The physical buildings still need to be there with their shelves, reading and studying spaces. Even the most financially stable of us need them occasionally. For instance, I use Bolton’s library whilst my car is being serviced. This library provides decent study space, though, for me, the rows upon rows of interesting books and the interesting people are a distraction. Other people who visit are mums with young children, college students, retired people, and mature people, possibly out of work, who are clearly studying to better their prospects. The computers with internet access are popular and thank goodness this facility is there: we all have our IT crises.
Some libraries are thriving: they have cafés attached and arrange all sorts of events. Sometimes, however, this can be to the detriment of one of the library’s traditional roles: that of providing a quiet space for reading. That is where I think my university library has it right. There are there types of zone: one geared for group work where open chatting is acceptable, another where some noise is tolerated and a third where absolute silence must be observed.
The library may have to change in order to survive. We must not lose sight, however, of its primary role. Note that Alan Gibbons’ activity is called “The Campaign for the Book”, not “The Campaign for the Library.” It’s just that one of the greatest threats to books as we know them is, of course, the closure of libraries.
Thank goodness, then, for the legal deposit libraries and their hoards of books. At my university, we have a constant battle to stop the library throwing out books – including some first editions. We have to sign to say we want them preserved. Surely a function of any library is to have that out of print book that only a few will want. I often go back to a really old source and find that what is suggested is surprisingly up to date and what I had thought were new ideas are in fact very old. We have to change our thinking here. The librarians constantly say there is no room so they must get rid of the books. Some books are priceless. We should see the problem from the other angle and create more space instead of getting rid of books.
So, why do we need libraries?
• To preserve books.
• To provide access to books that are difficult to find elsewhere.
• To offer books to people who cannot afford to buy them.
• To provide a public space for study.
• To provide a public access to the web.
• To support literature in other ways (and without the commercial restraints under which festivals and bookshops have to work).
Get involved. Support your local library and join Alan’s campaign.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Students Inspire

Every Thursday I know why I like my job despite all of the incongruities and uncertainties. I meet my two Final Portfolio groups and they actually inspire me. I hope I also inspire them.
All three students who were due to submit did and four out of six came to class. I guess the ones who are committed show in these snow-covered times. One student lives locally- the other three had a commute. The others who did not come in actually did have very good reason – one of them to do with a meter of snow. The local student allowed plenty of time in case the pavements were covered. She actually arrived early and came along to my office. It was good to see her.
The conversation throughout the session was focussed and useful. These students are really learning to critique well. Are they becoming better self-editors? We hope so: this is the point of the exercise.
One student stayed behind for a short chat. She has learnt the networking lesson. She presented herself as a writer to be involved with a history project in her home town. She felt a bit of a fraud: several other people there had many publications to their name. Yet she wasn’t alone. However, there were several other people there who had thinner portfolios.
She held her own, and this has led to other opportunities. She now runs and participates in open mic events. She has some involvement with schools. Her writing is improving apace, too, partly because she is becoming more confident and partly because she is getting even more feed-back now.
I pointed her towards NAWE. They will help her keep her CRB check up to date and then there’s the Public Liability Insurance - £10,00,000 of it. NAWE also naturally provides further networking opportunities.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Intro to Children’s Literature – A Pub Quiz

Week 10 is our “pub quiz”. We look at the essential facts about Children’s Literature with an emphasis on late 20th and 21st Centuries. There is a certain amount of general knowledge students should be expected to have by the end of this course. So, they are presented with a “pub quiz” which they can access before the session. They then work their way through this in class in teams along with fitting a list of children’s writer’s into a series of grids that identifies who wrote what for whom when.
It was a bitter cold day yesterday and some roads were difficult to access because of snow and ice. The class is from 4.00 to 6.00. Many students commute quite a long way. Nevertheless, a committed bunch of seven turned up and worked through the material with gusto. We also spent a little time looking at a picture book text that one of the students had written. It broke all of the rules but still worked.
The answers were given after about one hour. This led to some quite lively discussions about some of the key figures in Children’s Literature. There were many grey areas. A discussion of those bought us to some consideration of what happens in the study of English Literature. Basically if you believe something is true it is up to you to prove it with convincing and extended arguments quoting the texts. Could J.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling fit into most of the boxes, in fact, followed closely by Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling, C. S. Lewis and Charles Dickens? And did they think to put my name in any of the boxes?

Friday 26 November 2010

The Copy Edit

I’m just going though, accepting and rejecting changes, on the final copy-edit of Babel. The copy-edit proof can look horrendous. It can really put off an inexperienced writer. By this stage, anyway, one is weary of the book and one may want to just get it signed off. The temptation is to “accept all changes”. This is actually rather a dangerous thing to do, for several reasons.
I know the copy-editor who worked on Babel quite well and thoroughly trust him. Even so, I had plenty of cause to examine every single suggestion very carefully.
One of the most worrying things was that half way through, he suddenly got a different take on how to punctuate direct speech. It’s easy to make this sort of mistake: I know that my students sometimes get the same thing wrong persistently and I begin to query my own judgement. I actually disagreed with some of the rules that he seemed to follow about commas, especially after “and”, and when to start a new paragraph. Interestingly, he was using same rules that I’d learnt at school – and that was a Grammar School, so there must be something in it. However, I sincerely believe that our fast-paced life has made us move away from using commas where we used to and that a comma in front of “and” is often acceptable and frequently creates another meaning. I’m actually seeking a third opinion on that and on the paragraph breaks. We always have two copy-edits and the other copy editor did not pick up many of these.
Sometimes the suggestions did not improve the text. Neither did they spoil it. Why not go with the suggestion, anyway?
In other cases I absolutely agreed with the copy editor but decided not to change: the slight clumsy phrase or the overwritten sentence was part of the text’s or a character’s voice.
In most cases, however, the copy editor’s suggestion made the text much tighter and much more readable. These suggestions are probably also lessons for me for next time I do my own copy edit.
Perhaps then, we need a set of rules for reacting to a copy-edit:
1. Don’t believe that your copy-editor is infallible.
2. Read and respond to each suggestion carefully.
3. If what the copy-editor suggests is no better nor no worse than what you put in the first place, why not go with it anyway? It’s the copy-editor’s job to know about these things.
4. If you disagree, discuss this with him / her and / or get another opinion.
5. Resist any changes that will spoil the voice of the text or one of its characters. You may have to make your case!
Happy writing!

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Calling for Angels

I am absolutely enthralled by this book. I have now read it four times and still get a lump in my throat when I get to page 143. It is rather amazing, as well, that it is written by a 17 year-old who was actually only 14 when she completed her first draft.
As a university lecturer in English and Creative Writing, specialising in young adult literature, and because my Ph D thesis was entitled Peace Child: Towards a Global Definition of the Young Adult Novel I get to read a lot of teen and young adult novels. There are many published ones I love and I see extraordinarily good extracts of novels, as yet unpublished, written by my students. But I have never seen anything as rich, light and engaging as this one.
The launch that we held last Friday was fun. Caffe Yum, an independent coffee shop in Hertford, was exactly the right place for such an event.
I recommend this book as an ideal Christmas present for younger teen girls. But note, it moved also the young male editor and the older male designer at The Red Telephone.
Calling for Angels by Alex Smith. Available here.

Friday 19 November 2010

To Do Right Now

There is quite a lot to do when you are a writer. Here is my list of ongoing writing projects:
• Accept – or not – copy editor’s remarks on Babel (2nd part of Peace Child trilogy).
• Finish first draft of Peace Child (third part of Peace Child trilogy).
• Complete And They Thought I didn’t Know ( verse ya novel)
• Final edit in response to peer reviewer of an academic paper.
• Complete first draft of an academic paper I’m writing.
• Continue enrolling writers for a book I’m editing
• Resubmit thrice rejected ya novel Spooking.
• Write for various competition and small press calls to submission.
• Write some sort of article about the workshop I delivered at the recent NAWE conference.
• Write various blog posts.
• Write for Triond.
And over the next week these are my writing related activities:
• Drive to Hertford for the book launch of Calling for Angels, the debut novel of Alex Smith, just 17, and winner of The Red Telephone’s competition.
• Mark the first assignment from my students on the Intro to Children’s Literature Module.
• Complete many routine administration jobs at the university.
• Teach on two modules: Final Portfolio and Intro to Children’s Literature
• Look at a lot of student’s work, including one dissertation.
• Talk to students about writing.
• Prepare two lectures on Narrative Fiction and the Novel.
• Edit and think of ideas for Bridge House.
• Edit and think of ideas for CafeLit and the Creative Café Project.
• Go to my choir practice and the MACC competition.
• Go to my Opening the Quays rehearsal.
• Keep an eye on my various email accounts, Facebook and Twitter.
All in all, a very satisfying way of spending my time.

Thursday 18 November 2010

NAWE Conference 2010

This conference, held in a very comfortable hotel in Cheltenham, excelled itself last weekend. Possibly this is a reflection of the fact that NAWE itself is going from strength to strength. As usual much of the joy and the usefulness came from the opportunity offered between sessions and over meals to network.
NAWE is doing well. That is very clear. The new web site is splendid. Literature training has been renamed Writer’s Compass. What is provided is just as good as ever. Professional and institutional members get £10,000,000 of public liability insurance and can download the certificate from the site. NAWE will do a CRB check for those writers who need to work in schools or with vulnerable adults. And you can join the Professional Register to advertise what you offer. The new HE committee was formed at the conference. One of the highlights was hearing reading from the Young Writers’ hub. Another good initiative.
All of the sessions I attended were good and my own workshop, about using foreign language work to enhance our creativity, was well received, it seems. There was a mixture of workshops, information about conducting school visits, and discussions about current concerns. Naturally, “cut-backs” featured highly in the latter. But when don’t we always have concerns about funding? There was a real choice of sessions, and often I found myself wanting to go to two or even three at once, including at the time when my own session ran. The most important one for me, I think, was a discussion of the failings of the traditional writers’ workshop and how we might improve it. Some good ideas were discussed but we must be careful about anything that will increase our marking load.
We were also provided with two excellent after-dinner speaker. And oh, I ended up buying yet more books. The speakers and the bookstall full of members’ books were just too irresistible this year.

Friday 5 November 2010

Contrasts – Writing Fiction / Non-fiction

I have fixed myself another writing-routine in order to ensure enough I actually do some writing whilst holding a demanding day job albeit one that is very related to writing. Now I do my two hours writing first. And I’m alternating working on my novel and some academic writing. I have a list of academic projects and that does actually include some competition entries etc. It’s a good variety.
Yesterday was an academic writing day and I managed more than my 2,000 words in under two hours. I was actually preparing a short article about point of view for the Virtual Learning Environment, Blackboard. I find that my students – and other inexperienced writers - make more mistakes with point of view than almost anything else. The article was almost written and I’d actually got to the easy final couple of paragraphs.
On Wednesday I’d worked on my novel Peace Child. Now that I am spending some time every other day on it it is flowing better. However, I only managed 1657 words in the time. This is because I also had to digest and respond to some editorial comment to its prequel, Babel.
I generally do find non-fiction, apart from very intellectual academic papers, easier to write. It requires less concentration and I can listen to music while I write. When I’m writing fiction, even the birds singing in the garden can become annoying. On the other hand, I have little trouble planning fiction: I have story theory down to a fine art. Non-fiction I find difficult to marshal. A collection of given facts can be arranged in so many different ways. But once I know what I’m doing, the writing just flows.
I do actually enjoy the contrast, though.
Today is fiction: I’m anticipating editing Babel.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Singing joy- what writers do in their spare time

I love my job. I used to dream of the hours at the desk writing things that people wanted to read and then other hours talking to people about their writing and giving advice. I have all of that now – and a good deal of isolation, bouts of self-doubt and a fatigue of self-promotion. Plus there’s the feed-back, and though often positive, usually contains a call to compulsory improvement. And you do get stuck in your own head.
An antidote to all of this, I find, is belonging to a choir. You may have read the article I posted on Triond yesterday. My choir activities have become a little routine and when I was offered an additional opportunity and I found that I was available for all of the meetings, I jumped at the chance.
This meant that I spent yesterday evening at the Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays, on one of four song-writing / singing workshops. The talented Gospel and Soul Diva Yvonne Shelton is our leader and she is aided by the Lowry’s own Dave Smith. There were just four singers – there will be a few more next time.
We had a fascinating time looking at the words that two Salford song-writers had put together based on their research and thinking about what Salford means to us. I personally see this north-west British town as a big spider of a place that turns up everywhere. You’re driving along anywhere in north-east Manchester and suddenly you see the bright pink sign that tells you you are in Salford. Salford is older than Manchester, and as I come form West Bromwich, which enjoys a similar relationship to Birmingham, I can relate to that. I used to think West Bromwich was the dirty old town in the song. Salford is now post-industrial, as is West Bromwich. Both towns have a history of poverty and mucky industry. This is all symbolised for me, in both cases, by watching and actually enjoying the sunset over the gasworks. And the big question for me now is: Has the development on the Quays, including the BBC coming to Media City, been fair to the real people of Salford?
The song-writing really turned out to be thinking of and trying out sounds that went with the words. Though I’m not a confident singer Yvonne managed to put us at our ease and convince us that we can do it. It reminded me a little of when our choir split into smaller groups for our concert at Ordsall Hall: you do perform well because you have to. It was good moving in a space as well.
I am so glad that I decided to join in this!

Thursday 28 October 2010

Fascinating Research Day

Our subject group held a research day yesterday. The presentations were diverse: two reasonably conventional academic papers were read. They were interesting in their own right. It’s good for us anyway to exercise that intellectual academic muscle. This, in the end, is what we are all about.
There were other discussions too about early career researchers, funded doctoral programmes with outside bodies and taught doctoral programmes where students with similar research interests across institutions are collected. We talked about how we might reshape our present research clusters. One colleague gave us some ideas about how we might maximise our research time. This included only writing papers for conferences in bullet points, so that one does not end up writing the papers twice. Other ideas were to link teaching and research and to do one’s creative writing at the time of day that suits you best.
So, now I’m full of plans. I’m champing at the bit to apply for one of these doctoral programmes. I’m thinking of linking to IBBY or Seven Stories. Any interest out there in getting a funded Ph D linked to one of those?
I agree absolutely about the bullet-pointed conference paper. It was good to hear my ideas confirmed.
And I’m trying it. I’m writing this now as part of my two hours’ writing before I start on uni admin. Lets see how it goes.
We did struggle more to see how we could make our onerous admin part of our research. Maybe I have an answer: today, for instance, I might finish off my application for sabbatical in my “writing” time. It is a form of writing after all.
In the end, we creative writers have to write. It is part of what we are and is the bottom line of why the university employs us anyway.

Thursday 21 October 2010

This week’s portfolio classes

My two groups have been really good again today. They’re all writing prose – life writing or fiction. The work is good on the whole but it all still needs another tidy up. I am confident that most of them can manage this. They are all missing the chance to show rather than tell, yet they are getting a real sense of what that means. We talked about editing and perhaps looking for one item at a time. This will inevitably distort the shape of the text they are producing and may lead to word count problems which will also have to be resolved. Yet this all belongs to the craft.
There were some clumsy sentences and some run-on sentences in some pieces. They will probably deal with the former in their editing process. They must learn to avoid run-on sentences. They point to a lack of understanding of grammar in the writer and could preclude the text from being published in the USA. They should only use them if the effect is worth the hassle with the copy-editor.
I was very pleased to find out that all of my students are working on their writing outside the course. Some are working on the same material as here, others on new material. They are becoming professional writers. They run their own critique groups amongst their peers and some post to on-line sites and e-critique groups. Some are using social networking tools to create themselves as writers though they are all aware that they may need to create a different identity from their social identity.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

On Autobiogrpahy

We all know 250 people don’t we? We are not short of people to help paint our lives. Some of them can be very colourful. Other people define who we are. I often think my creative writing students would do well to take a course in human psychology. Everybody’s life is interesting, actually, if we frame it carefully.
Yet we must be careful. There is even more danger of losing friends if we make them feature in our autobiographies for here we imply that we tell the truth. We may see them one way but they may see themselves entirely differently.
Perhaps the best option is to just show the reader scenes from our lives and let them come to their own conclusions. However, we must be aware that we are being selective in what we chose to portray and how we choose to portray it. We are painting our pasts from our position here and now in the present. Nevertheless if our own stories are constructed through the type of scenes we use in fiction, filmic scenes grounded in time and space and relying on us writing with the senses, they make for more interesting reading anyway than if they are simply told.

Friday 15 October 2010

A Life of Boasting

It strikes me that I spend much of my time saying how good I am. Even writing this blog can get a bit like that sometimes. A large part of my job is to do with bidding for funding. This is involves proving why I am the right person for the particular job. We have to regularly update our profiles at the university. Yesterday my colleagues and I had to prove that we are innovative and that claiming to have a strength in innovation in creative writing is not to be smirked about. When you write a simple query letter you feel obliged to point out how you’ve been successful in publication elsewhere and how you might bring other qualities and aptitudes to the process of getting your book out there – in my case the fact that I do numerous school visits and am actually a university lecturer. Then there are my qualifications – an MA and a Ph D in writing. Ah, there I go again. We have to repeat it all when we go to our appraisal meetings.
I do know I am good but that there are many people even better. Yet I don’t need to exaggerate. I’m pleased with my progress. Every so often, for example when applying for a new post or for promotion, it’s actually good to list all that you’ve achieved. But frankly at the moment I’m bored with it all. Plus, all this self-glorification is leaving me little time to actually get on with being good in my field.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Final Portfolio Groups

I had my two Final Portfolio groups today. Each group has just six students. They are a joy to teach. Half of them submit work in advance of our meeting. We all look at it, give feedback, discuss generally and then look forward to the next week when the other half of each group submit work.
We often notice same items. Sometimes though there are disagreements. Sometimes the writer may disagree with everyone else. This is actually an important point for new writers: they have to take responsibility for the decisions they ultimately make about their work.
We learnt a trick today: if the reader understands what we want them to understand we have written well. It is often hard for us to judge these things ourselves. This is a really effective way we can gain useful feedback on our work. Ask open-ended questions about the impression the reader has gained.
Often more general topics come up in these sessions. What should we do after we’ve finished this course? I offer my five suggestions, go on to post grad work, write your bestseller, go into a job that uses the same skills (advertising, teaching), become a jobbing writer or pick an uncreative job to allow space for creative activity. Then there are discussions about how to clearly mark changing points of view, how we often have to get rid of the first parts that we have written for that is how we ourselves get into the story and how it can be useful to get the story down quickly and then go back and worry about the details. We are using an art with a little craft. Writing is not an exact science even though we may look at it scientifically.
Yes, it’s great working with these lively minds. Again I say I have a fantastic day job.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Towards Publication

I’m suggesting a new module at the university here where I teach. It is a very hands-on one for students who wish to become published whilst still at university. Students on the course will be asked to keep a portfolio of work they wish to submit, of work they are in the process of submitting and of submissions they have already made.
The course will equip them with their own personal strategy for maintaining a future portfolio of submissions and for maintaining a full-time or part-time writing career. It will also show students how to submit effectively.
There will be lectures about ways of submitting, including all the ones that the new technology affords and performance as an alternative form of submission. There will be a seminar on creating the portfolio that will be assessed in the course. There will be two one-to-one tutorials. The first will discuss strategies for the individual and the second will discuss the current portfolio. Alongside these, distance learning components with formative assessment will be offered on submission strategies, submission methods, entering competitions, networking and coping with rejection. A wiki and a discussion forum will also be offered to the students.
Many Creative Writing programmes offer these sorts of modules as compulsory components. And the students hate them – either because they have decided they don’t after all want to become writers or because they are forced to face one of the realities of the writer’s world. This module offers some guidance and mentoring to those who are really keen to get their work published.
There is still a vocational element for others: others not taking this as credit-bearing course will be able to attend the lectures and have access to the on-line materials.

Thursday 7 October 2010

What a privilege

I have had an absolutely fabulous day at my day job today. A writer’s dream perhaps and I’m even getting some time to write.
Admin was exciting – two more acceptances for writing the chapter on the books I’m proposing. And absolutely perfect suggestions as to what people would write.
Then, two groups of almost perfect Final Portfolio students. They had sent work of a rigorous standard. They were open to suggestion. They made helpful, intelligent suggestions. They were fun to be with. In between the two sessions, I met up with three of my colleagues and we had a fairly relaxed informal but important chat.
We also had a visit form the Octagon Theatre, Bolton. They do fabulous things! And I’m going to see them tomorrow.
In my office hours, I saw a student who wants to make a career of writing… and or teaching. It was easier to talk to her than try and write it all in an email.
I’ve also been marking an interesting MA dissertation.
Later, I’m teaching my Introduction to Children’s Writing Course. Fab!
And then I meet a colleague and the exchange students in the pub for half an hour.
What a day job!

Friday 1 October 2010

New MA Students

I met my new Writers Workshop students last night. Some students I already knew either because they’d graduated from Salford or they are part-timers and did two modules last year. There were two new faces.
We had a very lively discussion. They all spoke about their work to start with then we discussed poetics referring to the work of Robert Sheppard and looked at a few ideas form Hazel Smith’s The Writing Experiment. They left buzzing with ideas.
We’ve worked out some quite strict workshop rules. I’m really pleased that they will be sending each other work and annotating it electronically before the session.
There’s seven of them altogether – all female. I think we’ll continue to have lively discussions.

Thursday 30 September 2010

Academic Writing

There was an interesting article in the ACLS magazine recently about academic writing. Academic writers anyway seem to be paid a salary for having ideas so don’t so much need to be paid for their writing. In fact their writing is a way of spreading their ideas.
I’m a rather unusual creature, in that I research and teach in “creative writing” so much of my work has a commercial presence as well. My work is not too commercial, however, as it includes a good degree of experiment. And so it should if it’s part of the learning offered at university.
I do get a ALCS payment and a PLR payment each year. Both are mainly to do with two books and yet I have over 30 in print. We were surveyed by ALCS here at the university last year. A fascinating process. Every time we photocopied something we had to copy the title page and say how many of which pages we’d used.
A friend of mine has published her novel an e-book and is giving it away for a few weeks. It’s gong well.
I expect once the e-book-reader technology settles down it will become popular with academics. I’m personally looking forward to that.
All food for thought.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Keeping track

I have a task manager provided with my email account at work. Great, sometimes, you get invited to an event and have the option of it being put in your dairy. It’s magical watching it easily slide in. As I keep a paper diary, I have to make a copy as well but it’s actually fine. Belt and Braces.
I do use the task manager, though. I do find it stops me agonising about what I have to do next. It’s all listed there and with tasks that have a time critical element to them I put in extra reminders.
I’m working generally on my novel, Peace Child and on the post-proof reading edit of its prequel Babel. I intersperse that with academic writing and entries to competitions and interesting submissions. For the latter I keep a list, in date order, in my “academic writing” task box. I try to do two hours of this four days a week. I don’t always manage it of course.
I do find it reassuring that everything is there and I don’t have to try to hold everything in my head. I can reserve my brain for the more creative stuff.
There are plenty of task managers around. I’m using the Microsoft Office one. Lotus Notes is good too. I’ve used that in the past. I use the Microsoft one as it’s provided by my employer.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

First Creative Writing Lecture of the Semester

Yes, that’s right. We lecture on creative writing. Thirty-eight students turned out to an introductory lecture. We were expecting 41. But five did not show who were on our lists.
What does one lecture about in creative writing?
Well, this week there was a lot of housekeeping. The programme leader came and talked about the programme. I talked about some specific module details. The other two tutors were introduced. We chose student reps. Six people volunteered. Usually it’s a struggle to find one.
Then there was the real content.
Usually, only a handful of our students have a portfolio of writing. This time, most of the room put their hands up to say they had. The secondary and tertiary education systems do not normally allow much space for creative writing.
I emphasized the need to write every day. They should set themselves a goal of two minutes – that’s right – just two minutes. Chances are, they’ll get started and end up doing two hours. I also pointed out how important it was to take part every week in the workshop and how this will actually make the completion of the assignment easier. I encouraged them too to keep a writer’s journal.
I pointed out how gradually the way they read will become different. They will become quicker and more critical. They’ll find they can’t read without critiquing but it does mean that they can enjoy texts in a different way.
And then there are all those activities that are to do with writing that don’t seem like work – people-watching, reading and watching films. Absorbing story in all sorts of different ways.
The biggest shock may have been, I suspect, that I told them they should be spending 200 hours on each module they’re on. They have, of course, already done some of the work. They’ve probably been doing it all their lives.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi and Flow

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s books on creativity and flow make for fascinating reads, whether you’re an academic or not. They explain a lot about how creativity happens.
My first encounter with one of his books was most bizarre. I’d read an article in the NAWE magazine which mentioned his idea of “flow”. I was in Portsmouth University Library looking of another book – and then I suddenly saw it on the shelf. It wasn’t, I didn’t think, at that time, pertinent to my studies. I borrowed it anyway as the way I’d found it must mean something. I found it was in fact relevant to what I was studying. Some ideas from it were integrated into the critical commentary within my Critical and Creative Writing Ph D: Peace Child, Towards a Global Definition of the Young Adult Novel. When I had to reduce 80,000 words to 40,000 it disappeared again. On passing my Ph D and having to make minor amendments, I found myself revisiting Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas again. Was I in that moment as I saw the book on the shelf in a state of flow?
It’s uncanny and yet reassuring (oh is this another paradoxical trait) that I recognise myself when he describes paradoxical traits of the creative person: Physical energy / quietness, smartness / naivety, playfulness / discipline, responsibility / irresponsibility, imagination / reality, introvert / extrovert, humility / pride, rebellious / conservative, passion / objectivity, pain / enjoyment.
He defines “flow” as intense enjoyment and something we experience when fully absorbed in a task. This happens when: there are clear goals every step of the way, there is immediate feedback to one’s actions, there is a balance between challenges and skills, actions and awareness are merged, distractions are excluded form consciousness, there is no worry of failure, self-consciousness disappears, the sense of time is distorted and the activity becomes worth doing for its own sake. That is, I think, what happens to me when I am writing. I don’t really fear the failure until the rejection slip arrives.
His work is certainly interesting and certainly worth a look.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Hectic start to semester continues

It’s really a case of not remembering correctly, I guess. And it’s partly because of the contrast. There are times when we work in a totally different way - when we’re researching, attending conferences or writing for instance. Other times it’s like being back at school. The change from one mode to another is not always easy.
What is certain about now is that it is hectic.
We had the first BA Creative Writing meeting of the year today. There are some issues and the solutions are not crystal clear yet. So much to take up brain space. Much to think about.
The first years continue looking startled and perplexed. We know how thy feel.
We met with personal tutees today. They seemed very clued up. We got through the routine questionnaire really smoothly. And they seem a nice bunch too.
The year is definitely beginning to take off.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

They used to call it Fresher’s Week

It’s now called Induction Week. I’ve had a busy day today with four separate meetings and just a little time in between to get a few other things done. It’s felt a little fraught. I remember back to my own first week as an undergraduate. The programme they’d offered had seemed confusing, yet it all fitted into place quite smoothly. There was never a dull moment though there were enough quiet ones to allow you to get your breath back.
I asked my husband it he remembered his first week as a first year at university.
“Fresher’s Week?” he said. “All I can remember is signing up for lots of societies that I never attended and finding out the best places to drink.
Hmm. Has much changed?
Well we don’t offer them the sherry parties that used to be favoured at Sheffield. I always thought that they were an academic standard in the early 70s. Not so, I have learnt since: they were a Sheffield special.
We did offer them a breakfast this morning –bacon butties, veggie sausages, croissants, muffins, Danish, orange juice and coffee. The catering’s quite good here. The staff mingled, getting to know names and getting first impressions of the students we’re going to be teaching this year. Some of our other current students were also there to meet them.
They then have a series of other meetings – library induction, meeting their programme leaders, and being warned against plagiarism.
The Students Union are also offering some activities.
Registration itself is somewhat complex.
So, it’s not all that different. It’s just as busy as our Freshers’ Weeks were. Except we don’t offer them alcohol. They make their own arrangements for that.

Friday 17 September 2010

Plots out of Control?

Or is it rather that this particular plot is being more finely tuned?
I’m currently writing my third novel in my Peace Child trilogy. This is possibly the novel where for me the plot has been the least clear. I do know roughly how I want the story to go and how it should end, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to know exactly what the next step is.
I’m not sure exactly why this is happening though I suspect a few reasons. One must be that this time I am not working towards the end of just one story but towards the end of an over-arcing story that takes place through three novels. Secondly, my time and brain-space are more fragmented these days because of my job as a university lecturer. This isn’t a complaint about the latter – I love the work and it complements my work as a writer very well. However, it does dominate at times and I then require even more self-discipline than normal to keep on task. I hope I’m right about a third reason: I am a more competent and more experienced writer and know even more about plotting than I did when I wrote my last novel. There is a constant growth as we learn the craft, unless we become jaded, and I don’t actually think I have.
Yet I feel increasingly insecure about this plot. I find myself constantly poking in details and am continually struck by new ideas. Could it be, though, that I am being more open to a creative process? I know anyway that I often do my best writing when I’m feeling less secure about it. That also, I guess, is because I’m being more open to suggestion.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Finding My “Duende” in Lorca’s Country

I have just come back off holiday. I’ve been to the place that actually got me writing in the first place. I went slightly blocked but have come back with some new energy and some new resolve. The writing has to be the most important thing, the bottom line. That is the resolve. What I need to write is now also clearer.
The south of Spain, Andalucía, is the place for inspiration, whatever that may be. Lorca certainly found his “duende” there. This is a type of spiritual, almost demonic influence. The angel and the muse come together, with the devil looking on. Nietzsche is in there too. Is that what was there for me in 1988 when I first started writing Jason’s Crystal?
I think much of it has to do with the very relaxing atmosphere. The sun cheers, the heat and the good food makes one sleepy and dreams are vivid and revealing. Ideas come because they have more time to fester. There is even a touch of the devil because it is all wickedly indulgent.
We go to Nerja, not that far from Granada where Lorca lived at one time. Although it is geared up to the holiday industry and although they cope well with people of many nationalities, this is still the real Spain. It is a little strange and a little different and it takes you out of yourself – just enough to let a few creative ideas come through. Often movement seems to trigger ideas. Poincaré himself, that great recorder of his own creative process, a mathematician, recalls that he found the answer to a question with which he had been grappling for some time as he stepped on to a bus when going out on a “jolly” whilst attending an academic conference.
Perhaps linked with this, too, is the opportunity that holidays offer us to daydream. Nerja in particular and Andalucía in general provide that in heaps.
Yes, I came back raring to go. Maybe all writers need the opportunity to work with their “duende”.

Friday 20 August 2010

Ludic or even plaedic reading and writing

I am becoming more and more interested in this as I work. I’ve encountered school students who, though they are very competent readers, do not enjoy reading. I’ve always found this difficult to understand: reading is my default activity. When questioned, the youngsters admitted to not getting a film in their head of the story and still seeing the dark marks on the pale page.
I often ask my creative writing students and even my English lit ones about their experience of reading. In five years I’ve only had one student admit to not getting pictures in her head and even she, arguably, if we look at exact meaning, reads ludically.
“Ludic” really means “playful”. Even my learner who sees no pictures plays with the abstract meaning of words. She has a Platonic relationship with what she reads. If she encounters a common noun – e.g. “cat” – she “plays with the idea of “cat” rather than “seeing” a particular moggy. Yet “ludic” comes from a word that means playing according to rules. Sure, we have rules about how we turn the dark marks into pictures or ideas, but there are no rules about how our imagination interacts with the ideas the dark marks give us. That seems to me to be more akin to “plaedus” – the type of imaginative games and role-play that I used to play as a child: Mums and Dad, hospitals and doctors, cowboys and Indians, Famous Five adventures. Maybe the term we need, then for this “film in the head” type of reading is “plaedic”.
I find this plaedic experience is even greater when I write than when I read. The pictures are sharper. Another interesting phenomenon occurs in my “Character magic” exercise. I suspect that the plaedic picture in the writer’s head is so strong that sub-consciously the writer picks exactly the right details to enable the plaedic reader to get the same plaedic image.
I’m interested in pursuing this further – starting with a little qualitative research through semi-structured interviews. Anyone interested in being part of the study? I’ll be aiming at a balanced demographic so may not be able to use everyone who volunteers. If so, let me know your details. I’ll aim to make a start mid-September.

Thursday 19 August 2010

A rejection that gets better by the minute

A rejection that gets better by the minute
Rejection is rejection and it’s not nice, no matter how used you are to it. Yet I can’t quite get myself to delete this one from my in-box. If it had been a hardcopy I would have kept it.
It is from an agent. They said they wouldn’t want to represent me with this story because they didn’t’ think it was strong enough for the current competitive market but that if I failed to get representation this time, then send them the next. They liked my writing. They had seen the whole novel.
I keep coming across the email. The more I see it, the more I like it.
I now have two tasks:
- rewrite this novel and make it stronger.
- write the next, equally strong, and send it to them if I still haven’t got an agent.
That’s how you have to go on, making the steady improvements

Tuesday 10 August 2010

The Trouble with Edward Cullen and Other Vampires

Oh yes, I was enthralled, too, the first time I met this lover-boy monster. I read most of Twilight in the womb-like, soporific bar of Limerick Airport, in the Republic or Ireland. I’d been taken there early and I’d run out of reading material. So, I bought a second copy of Twilight – one that’s got the hands and the apple. The one I’d left at home still intrigues me. On its cover is a rather mysterious, very handsome Edward who I’m sure is not Robert Pattinson though Bella is almost certainly Kristen Stewart.
I was hooked.
It’s amazing how many women fall in love with Edward. Not Robert Pattinson, though he’s amiable enough, a reasonable actor and pleasant to watch. In fact, I’m sure Robert Pattinson will be quite relieved that I’m talking about Edward and not him when he reads the next paragraph.
You see, it’s perfectly okay for middle-aged women to be completely besotted with a 17-year-old vampire. Because he’s not seventeen. He’s 104 – or more depending on where in the story we’re talking about and which year we’re in now. Actually, that makes his connection even to a middle-aged woman a little bizarre.
At first I thought it was poor use of language on the part of Stephen Meyer when she made Edward speak in that slightly old-fashioned way. It was almost unbelievable when he insisted that he and Bella should marry. Except when you remember he was a young man at the beginning of the 20th Century. Then you realise she has it exactly right.
It seems to be part of vampire lore that the age is fixed, as they change from human to monster. What then of Mitchell in Being Human? An even more interesting vampire for the grown-up ladies. Now, he does age as the years go by.

Friday 6 August 2010

Phrases that irritate

I’m a great fan of Rudolfo Anaya. His Bless Me, Ultima is, I believe, one of the best novels ever written for young adults. He wrote it in 1972, many years before the current explosion in YA texts. It is very well written and deals with identity possibly better than any other book. I’m currently reading The Anaya Reader – a collection of novel excerpts, short stories and essays. They are good – especially so if one remembers that he is not writing in his own language.
Yet he still gets away with some clichés and overwriting that I would pull my students up for. He uses “pervades” and “fills the air” quite often. These annoy me. Not as much as those writers who use the word “garb” or “vestments” when they really mean “clothes”. Such language should only be used as part of a character’s voice and even then there is an argument that says one should use modern speech… because in Tudor time, or whenever, they used what was then modern speech.
I think the more abstract examples, such as those I’ve quoted form Anaya, might come about because the writer is writing aurally. They are matching the voice they hear in their head of other writers reading their work out loud. As with all clichés, the “fills the air” and “pervades” were quite clever - the first time, but even then I suspect that particular writer ought to have killed off a darling.
Not that Anaya need worry. I award Dan Brown 58% for his work. So any of my own students who receive 59% or higher – and most of them are considerably higher – stand some chance of publication. I’m not afraid to award marks over 70% - a first class mark and again, several of my students achieve this. To Anaya, for all his works, I give 75%. If he ditched the clichés he be in the region of 87% - or higher.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Writing Bios

I’ve just had to write a 100 word bio to accompany an article I’m sending to a peer-reviewed journal. Every time you have to write a bio you should really provide a fresh one. It needs to some extent to be customised to what you are writing. For instance, in this latest one of mine, pasted below, I say first that I am a Lecturer in English and Creative Writing because the workshop I’m describing I gave in that role. Then I mentioned what I write: this seems important as I’m submitting the article to a publication called Writing in Education. I emphasize my school work as this is relevant to the project I describe. I put something about my latest initiative last. That possibly needs the most attention.
Sample bio reads therefore:
“Gill James is a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Salford. She writes fiction and educational materials for children and young adults and short stories for adults. Each year she conducts an extensive programme of school visits, often offering her Build a Book in a Day workshop. The Build a Book in Two Days workshop is now becoming a regular part of the Aimhigher Salford Young People’s University programme. She is also the founder of the Creative Café project and is currently launching the magazine CaféLit in association with this.”
I guess next week it will be different again. I’ll have grown. The bio itself will be associated with a different project. There is definitely an art to bio writing.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Getting Down to It

Back to an article / paper I’m submitting for a periodical. It’s quite a descriptive article, so in that sense quite easy to write. Getting the right tone is harder. Making sure everything is correctly formatted is tedious, but, as I say to my students, easy to get right if you make the effort. So it’s odd that I find myself so reluctant to get down to this – at this very moment.
Part of it, I guess is timing. If only I could go back to the times when I wrote first thing in the morning when my head was clear. But I cannot come into this office and settle down to writing when emails and other bits of admin are waiting for me. They have my attention first. When enough of that is done I can get down to the writing. Sometimes, though, I don’t feel that I have the brain space.
I suppose, though, in the end, it’s a matter of just doing it.

Friday 30 July 2010

Ludic Reading

Ludic Reading
I’ve recently had an academic paper rejected. Well, it’s to be expected that that will happen from time to time. What really surprised me, however, was that the reviewer said it had spelling mistakes in it. No, it didn’t. When I looked at it again, it had one small typo. But the peer reviewer accused me of misspelling “lucid”. I referred five times to “ludic” reading.
Ah well, I probably need to include a definition of what I mean by that.
The word “ludic” actually means playful, and in the sense of playing to certain rules. So, it’s actually used a little bit wrongly in the term “ludic reading”. This has a sense of reading for pleasure, and probably includes that type of reading where you are totally gripped by a story and lose sight of your real world. In my case, as I read, I stop seeing marks on paper and just have a film playing out in my head. I’m amazed that this isn’t the experience that most people get when they read and certainly most other creative writers I know do have that experience. It’s stopped being “play”, though, for me as it is now part of my job. But what a job, eh?
Incidentally, this film in the head is even stronger when I write.
This type of reading is actually very interactive, not relaxing at all. As early as 1988 Victor Nell discussed this in his book Lost in a Book and more recently in an academic paper on the process. Further work has been conducted since and both Nell’s work and the more recent work include looking at what actually happens in the brain when we read in this way. The results have been quite surprising and very exciting. This feels like something I want to find out more about.
Another potential research topic then?

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Coping with a Writing Academic’s Stress

I love my job. It’s like being paid for doing what used to be a hobby. But there are stresses and quite severe ones at times.
Sometimes you don’t know what the priority is – you actually have three jobs: admin, teaching and research. Research, for me, is further divided into academic writing and my own creative writing. All bring what seem to be impossible deadlines.
Rejection is a big part of the game – and sometimes it’s by a so-called peer reviewer who isn’t really a peer at all because they clearly know a lot less about the subject than you do. You are paid to have reached a point of expertise. You probably have a Ph D, so you have “added to the body of knowledge”. The pressure is on to add even more or become even more of an expert. Yet you’re judged by people who lack that expertise.
Ironically, though, other people do regard you as an expert and you can be overwhelmed by questions. It actually makes you write more. If you’ve written about x, y and z, they don’t need to ask you questions – they can read the book, paper or blog.
You work alone. It is all down to you. You have rights and you have responsibilities. They can weigh heavy.
There is no end to the work. You finish one project and another looms. I except this happens in many jobs. There is no sense of finishing because no matter how good a paper, novel, story, article is that you write, the pressure is on to produce the next and make it even better.
I do have an antidote. I sing with a choir. Research says that singing is good for your mental health. It has a physical effect, releasing endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals in the brain. In addition there are other physical benefits – for example it can improve lung function. But being a part of a choir is actually also about working with other people. A really good choir sings as one voice, even if it is singing in four or more parts. I also find that I can be more in the moment, totally absorbed in the music. Sure, I’m totally absorbed in my writing when I’m creating characters and scenes, but as I do that I’m still aware of a pressure to create perfection. In the choir, we’re encouraged to make our singing as good as we can and then we look to see how we can do it even better. We help each other with that and we’re pushed forward by our director. It’s a real contrast to how I work in my other world where I have to push myself forward but am then judged by others. With the choir, rehearsal and performance alike contribute to this feeling of working with other people.
Yes, I love my job. What was a hobby now earns me my bread and butter. Yet I’ve managed to find another hobby. One that helps to keep me sane and ironically thereby also contributes to the day job.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Writing – an addiction?

At a recent critique group meeting we had a new member. We all introduced ourselves. It was tempting to say “My name is Gill and I am a writer.” You know, you don’t feel right if you haven’t done a certain amount of writing a day. You are only truly happy when you are writing and it seems to be going well.
We each have our routines – and this can include no routine. Mine is two hours a day, two thousand words. And I love being behind on a deadline. That is the ultimate excuse to spend even more time writing. I do give myself a word of caution here though. Because if I try to write for more than two hours or beyond two thousand words on any given day, then I tend to get less done or write less well. It’s as if all of the energy is used up.
So, is this a balanced addiction? Just enough makes you feel good? Too much kills you? An addiction it certainly is though, and not one I’d be without.
My name is Gill and I am a writer.

Friday 16 July 2010

Graduation Ceremonies

I guess in the end that is what it is all about. Just once a year we get to wear our academic robes. There is something about wearing them. We feel as if we command a different presence. Do we? What is it all for this that we worked so hard?
There is always a good atmosphere at the Lowry. I opted for going there by tram from Radcliffe. I changed at St Peter’s Square – and promptly saw the Manchester University graduates coming out of Bridgewater Hall. A great atmosphere there, too.
The tram was packed. Lots of people were on their way there to the same ceremony. Just as we arrived – and it’s a decent work form the nearest tram stop to the Lowry Theatre – it started to pour with rain. Yet it was so warm and windy that by the time we all arrived and it had stopped raining for just a couple of minutes, we were dry again.
Then there was the usual struggle to get the hoods to look good and the hats to stay on. This year we were offered the opportunity to remove our hats once seated on the stage. We took this up: it can get uncomfortably hot up there under the theatre lights.
There is something quite thrilling about the actual procession. It is good too, watching your students come up and receive their degree certificates. I do fear for some of the girls, though, in their very high heels.
The ceremony yesterday was short enough, despite a huge number of students graduating. One spotted me and waved just before she picked up her certificate. We shared our ceremony with another school and they had some very lively students. Applause was particularly enthusiastic for some of our African students.
Afterwards we try to catch them on the way out. They escape us. I did find five, including one of our MA graduates. I had my photo taken twice. Again, it feels different as you talk to them when both you and they are in academic dress. And the sun did continue to shine as we spilled out on to the concourse in front of the Lowry.
I can quite honestly say that that was the second nicest degree ceremony I’ve ever been to. The best was my own, when I received my Ph D, in Bangor, July 2007.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Work in Schools

This can be so different from school to school. In a sense I did some work with schools last week. I did a two day workshop for the Aimhigher programme. That went like a dream and I got some fabulous work out of the youngsters. Yesterday I did a short one and a half hour visit to a boys’ school and it almost totally exhausted me.
There was a lot against us: we were moved to the hall at the last minute – the room we were supposed to use had a problem, the girls who were supposed to be joining us from the school next door cancelled at the last minute, it was almost the end of term and of some the session clashed with a drama lesson and – we’re talking about Y9 boys. Forty minutes into the session, some students got hauled out so that a senior teacher could discuss an “incident” with them. And there was this uninteresting-looking woman with greying hair, professing to be a writer for young adults, talking about how to make characters and settings.
And yet:
• They listened well as I read to them and talked about how I came to write The Prophecy and Babel.
• They came up with some fabulous ideas – after we pushed through the silliness.
• They eventually – possibly too late – started to produce some good work.
• They were delighted to receive a signed post card from me – even though one declared he was going to sell it on e-bay. Well, at least that would be interesting, I guess.
• A few hung behind and thanked me personally.
In the end, although it was a tiring visit, I was glad that I’d made it. Appeal to children’s imagination and something exciting always happens.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

A New Take on Rejections

We all get them, even those of us who have a track record in publishing. In fact there are some who have a sort of superstitious belief that you have to have a certain number of rejections before you are accepted – and then actually relish each one as it arrives as “… down … to go.”
I used to be of the school that sent out three submissions to agents and three to publishers then sat back and waited, replacing each rejection with a new submission. There is a vital flaw in this: if an agent does accept you, you may have limited some of the work they can do. The agent may now have fewer publishers to approach.
Now, I’m taking a slower tack. I’m actually submitting to just one agent at a time and when I’ve exhausted the agents, I’ll start on the publishers who accept unsolicited scripts. Exceptionally, though, I’ll send out to some opportunity that seems to fit my script like a glove. I have had one or two successes that way.
We do grow as writers and the chances are that by the time an agent or a publisher has sat on a work for three months or so, you will see the text with new eyes. A writing friend of mine used to call rejections “rewrites”. What a healthy attitude! We learn all the time. Even if we get no feedback at all from the publisher we should be capable of being our own best editors and taking a closer, fresher look at out text. If there are any pointers from the agent or publisher – great.
I find by only having each manuscript in one place at a time, I can give each rejection my whole attention and give the script some good honest scrutiny. A word of warning, here, though: don’t look at just the three chapters and synopsis. Revise the whole novel. I do believe I’ve spotted several that start off really well and then deteriorate at about Chapter Four.
Yes, our writing has to be the very best it can be all of the time. Eventually then, the rejection will turn into acceptance.

Saturday 3 July 2010

What Writers Do Apart from Writing

This week I’ve written about 7000 words. Over the last ten days I’ve also:
Driven to North Wales,
Attended a book reading in a bookshop
Had people round to my house to attend a book reading
Attended an English board meeting at the university where I work
Completed quite bit of admin for said university
Processed about 500 emails
Posted and read several tweets
Attended a training course to do with posting reading lists for my students
Attended a book pitching event
Driven to Canterbury
Attended a conference at Canterbury where I’ve given a paper
But writing remains the main thing….

Thursday 24 June 2010

Great Writing 2010

This was another successful conference. There were some old faces there and some new ones. As usual, there was as much value in the discussions over coffee and at mealtimes as in the sessions themselves. We were blessed with warm sunny weather and much time was spent on the balcony outside. This enhanced our mood as did the wonderful food provided during breaks.
The old debate about why do a Masters or a Ph D in Creative Writing was there again. Two sessions addressed this in particular: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, presented by Sara Bailey, Craig Batty and Sandra Cain. In the audience and the panel, some people have completed a Ph D, others are part way through and others can’t or don’t want to find the time. Those of us who have them are pleased that we do, but we still grapple with the question. We were partly answered by Sally O’ Reilly, who started on her Ph D after being published. What she said resonated with my take on it: it is another way of being given permission to write and another way of having your writing endorsed. One investigates that whole practice with a view to evaluating one’s own and improving it and investigates more deeply a particular part of it. I actually think that writing within the academy is about more than being published.
I was struck by two items in particular this year. Many presentations contained a delightful mix of the creative and the reflective and even the critical and seemed to epitomise what we are all about.
The pursuit of excellence and the practice / training needed for that – in other words, the need to write and write and write – was something else that became clear to me. I’ve come back determined to write more and better.

Thursday 17 June 2010

The Anthony Burgess Foundation – Opening of New Premises

The Anthony Burgess Foundation – Opening of New Premises
What a fabulous occasion this was yesterday evening. One of my colleagues is a member of the Foundation and consequently we were all invited. A large number of us went along.
The new premises are at the Engine House, Chorlton Mill, Cambridge Street, Manchester. It was easy to park and not too costly - £2.90 for four hours. There is a medium size car park opposite the venue and it was nowhere near full although all of the slightly cheaper on street parking was used up. Then there were probably more people there at one time than there would be normally be.
Goodness, we were fighting over the space. We could all see excellent uses for it. I personally would like to launch Babel from there. There is a small auditorium which is blessed with impressive light. There is a café – and I suspect this is going to become one of my creative cafés. Downstairs there is a small study area. Everywhere is tastefully decorated with interesting pieces of furniture and books – just right for the type of venue this is.
We were served drinks and small canapés throughout the evening. If this was an example of the catering, it bodes well for the future. There was a tasteful elegance about the way all was served, yet it was without pretension. The atmosphere was exactly right.
A highlight of the evening was a recital of some of Burgess’ music.
My goodness, what an extraordinary evening and my goodness what a fantastic venue.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Three Meetings in a Productive Day

This is the business side of being a writer, of being an academic and of being a partner in a publishing house. I enjoyed an extremely productive day yesterday – and managed to sell ten books to boot.
My first meeting was with an enterprise organisation with whom I’m going to work at St Patricks High School, Eccles. I’ll be involved with two groups of children who are going to produce a modern version of a traditional fairy story. It will be all about working in team. I met with a representative of the enterprise organisation and one from the school yesterday morning. We sat and sipped coffee at the bottom of Crescent House. It’s remarkably quiet at this time of year. I’m so glad they changed the layout there. It is now conducive to those types of meetings. They seemed thrilled with my ideas. They’ve to buy ten of my books – five for each group as prizes. I’m offering The Prophecy, Nick’s Gallery, Scum Bag, Scream and Gentle Footprints. I’m actually really looking forward to this day.
At lunchtime, I joined a working lunch with the Aimhigher team. This time we were in the Old Fire Station. It’s a great building – even if you can hear the A6. There was a lot of lunch and not much team – I even managed to take some of the food for my pre-choir snack. The lack of people did mean those of us there could thrash out much of the detail about the courses. Again, I find myself looking forward to this. I’ve done it before. I know what I’m doing. I can do it even better this time.
My third meeting was with a lady who wished to pick my brains about forming an independent publishing company. I explained the Bridge House model.
“We’re not really in competition, are we?” she asked.
I think we are, actually, but it’s healthy competition: we’re not deadly rivals. I wonder what our mission statement really is. On our site we have “passionate about new writing” but I actually think it’s a bit more than that – maybe it should be “producing beautiful books in a way that is fair to the authors and the workers”. However, that is terribly clunky. All suggestions welcome.
The new company will be a women’s press. Some of us may even find ourselves submitting to them.
The day was extremely satisfying and was what it is all about.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Hay Day One

There is an incredible atmosphere at the Hay Festival. The main events are held on a field just outside the town. Large marquees are sponsored by the likes of Barclays Bank and the Guardian newspaper. There are quirky side-stalls such as the one selling a Monopoly-like board game based on books and the tombola for original and reproduced artwork. Proceeds support green initiatives. Young people wander around with beehive-shaped backpacks giving samples of honeybeer. There are open meadow areas with people sitting on designer deckchairs and on the grass and guess what – they’re reading. Reading, of course, is a respected activity at this festival. There’s the atmosphere of a rock festival though it’s a little more subdued – and of course the inevitable queue for the ladies’ loo.
I actually attended two events: a reading and interview with Audrey Neffenegger who wrote The Time Traveller’s Wife and Andrea Levy who wrote Small Islands. They were both extremely interesting though totally different from each other. Both good speakers in their own way. Speakers and presenters at Hay are awarded a long-stemmed rose. You can spot them as you wander around the town afterwards. We walked straight past Levy later in the afternoon.
I was fascinated that Neffenegger is part writer, part artist and part college professor. Sounds familiar somehow. Even the best of us have to juggle. She did give us a tip for a book we really need: Time Travel for Writers. Need to google that.
Levy was a performer. She read with a fabulous Caribbean accent. She sets out to portray amongst other things the ordinary day to day life of the 300 years of slavery. She talked of a distinction between voice and accent.
We also visited the Rainforest Rescue stand which was interesting and supported by Sky Arts and the World Wildlife Fund, so there’s a connection with Gentle Footprints and our launch on Friday.
We took some time afterwards to visit the town of Hay itself. You can see that the locals are milking the festival. One family were offering cream teas in their garden. A house for sale is having its Open House in exactly this week. Many people are holding garage sales. But who can blame them? If the world invades their space at festival time… why not? In a way, it’s a form of hospitality.
We took the time out to investigate the Swan where we’re having our meet-and-greet before the main event on Friday. It was crowded but delightful. The evening menu seemed very reasonable and they didn’t seem to have inflated prices at the time of the main festival. That too is a form of hospitality.
We dined at the cheaper of the local hostelries, The Wheel Wright, recommended by our landlady. There was actually more choice there and it was cheaper. The people were very friendly if a little noisy.

Friday 28 May 2010

A Feeling of Summer

Yes, there has definitely been the feeling of end of term about this week. Our students are starting to drift away. The last exam was on Wednesday. A few late course work assignments are coming in and a few students are dropping by to pick up ones which have been marked. The staff, of course, get a little short tempered when friends from outside of the academy remark: “I suppose it’s getting quieter now that the students have finished?”
Well, not really. Have you seen our offices lately? Mountains of scripts on every floor. We have the marking, the moderating, gradebooking (putting the grades into an electronic system) and the exam boards yet. Already, also, we have emails making demands about what needs to be done for next year.
Yet there was something about this week. Even though a temporary bout of hot weather came to an end on Wednesday, it’s picked up again and is now actually just right.
A colleague and I went as usual to our choir practice on Tuesday. That is always such a great contrast to the day job. A university lecturer can be quite isolated… an expert in a narrow field working alone in an office, and no one really knows whether you are there or not.
On Wednesday, the whole of our school, academic and support staff were invited to the home of our Vice Chancellor. He has insisted on living close to the university in a house he wishes to share with his colleagues. It is a beautiful place with a lovely garden – yes there are beautiful places within five minutes’ of our drive of Salford University. The VC entertained us for two hours. He knows us all by name now.
Then Thursday two of my creative writing colleagues gave readings at the Chorlton Festival. Several colleagues from our school and even a few students turned up. It was a lovely evening.
Today the VC has excelled again and organised a party on the greener part of our campus from 12.00 until 4.00. There was good food and live music provided by community groups. A pity our choir wasn’t there. But we scored. As I walked into the marquee with a colleague another choir was singing a couple of our songs. I immediately phoned the other choir member who had not yet come down. At that very moment the VC walked up to greet us.
“Hello there, again,” he said, addressing us both by name. I was impressed.
I hurriedly got off the phone and explained what I was doing.
“Which choir is that?” he asked.
“The Ordsall Acapella I told him.
“Ah, they’re good aren’t they?” he said.
“Oh yes we are,” I replied.
Lets hope we can do a gig at the university soon.
And despite that little frustration, the party had a good feel to it. Yes, there is definitely a feeling of summer.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Dan Brown as Benchmark

“I couldn’t get out of MA marking mode,” said my colleague form Australia. “I was trying to read The Da Vinci Code on the plane. I was so disappointed. I would have failed it.”
Just sour grapes, I thought. She’s jealous. Because with the sort of money that book brings in she could afford to do what the heck she liked the rest of the time. It can’t be that bad, can it?
A couple of years later I read it.
What a disappointment indeed. Where was all that promising intrigue about Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene producing a family? All exposed in a short fast-paced episode when unbelievably the detective involved in the case is one of the “sang royal”. Oh come on, if my undergraduates constructed something like that they’d get exclamation marks all over their scripts. Never mind failing an MA.
“It gets worse,” said another colleague. “The first one’s not so bad.”
“Isn’t it?” I say.
“The first is bearable,” she says. “But after that, it’s the same old story over and over. When you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.”
But he must be doing something right, mustn’t he?
Well, yes, he is and actually I wouldn’t fail him on a BA assignment. I’d give him 58. A strong 2.2. His plots are well worked out even if they’re infuriatingly formulaic and improbable. He handles dialogue well even if it’s often trite. His characters are consistent even if not well drawn and believable. He has control over his writing – or he’s well edited - because he doesn’t have the lack of consistency and lack of grammatical accuracy that so often spoils the work of our otherwise talented students. But oh my, their work is so much more exciting, so much more convincing most of the time.
So when it comes to assessing my students’ work I ask myself –“Better or worse than Dan Brown?” Of course, there are other components to mark than just the wonderfully innovative but often quite raw piece of creative writing, so sometimes our students arrive at even less that Dan by another route.
Nevertheless, he’s a useful benchmark

Friday 14 May 2010

How Networking Works

You do have to be entrenched in this world to get to where you want to get. The writing always has to be good. That is a given. But good writing on its own is not enough. Even great writing isn’t enough. At the simplest level, that’s obvious: write better than Shakespeare and it’s of no use whatsoever if you don’t show it to anybody. Naturally, we all do a little more than that. But it’s not just about talking to people; it’s also about talking to the right people.
If I’m honest, every bit of writing I’ve had published has been as the result of a tip-off. Sometimes it’s been because of something that everyone has access to – such as an article in Writers’ News. Other times, it has been through the recommendation of another writing friend and sometimes because I’ve rubbed shoulders with the right people. Often, it takes years to percolate.
Here’s an example:
I’m putting together a proposal for a text book. I have targeted one particular publisher because I consider them to be friendly. They have also published quite a few books which influenced my academic career. I’ve met the appropriate editor on several occasions, and significantly, five years ago, dined with her most evenings when we were at a conference together. She has constantly invited me to write something for her.
Well, now I have an idea that I think may suite her company. However I’m also aware that when I first knew her she was very new at her job. Now she is an experienced, confidant editor. I can’t really pull any strings. I just need to submit like anyone else and hope that she recognises my name and puts me at the top of the slush pile if the script eventually comes her way.
Except there is a fortunate question that needs to be asked. My book doesn’t quite seem to fit the series they describe yet I do know that they publish this type of text. I email my contact, asking if she is the editor to whom I should send my work.
Just a few hours later, I get a response. Yes, indeed, she is my chap. She even sends me some specific guidelines for text books. These are not on their site. She seems pleased to hear from me and indeed remembers me even though I am now at a different institution.
Of course, it is not yet definite that she will accept my proposal. It still has to be excellent and even then may not fit in with the sort of book they currently want, but I’m in with a fighting chance: I have the specific guidelines that will help me to make my proposal more fit for purpose. Without my contact, I may never have known about those. She also already knows that I am reliable.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Writers' Reflections

I have now completed my first batch of marking from semester two. I have actually enjoyed this very much. I was marking from two different year groups – our second and our third year. The third year work was of a better quality than the second. The writing was more fluid and more sophisticated. That is to be expected. The content differed less.
They have all submitted their Writer’s Reflections. In these, they talk of their progress as writers over a module or in the case of third years of their progress throughout the whole of their degree programme.
In part I mark the process they describe and in part I mark the quality of the writing. The former is extremely interesting. Different students find different points of interest in the course. My second years have been concentrating on writing novels for young people. Just like last year, they are all generally conscious of how difficult it is to write a synopsis and how important it is. Some have realised the importance of planning, others the importance of editing. Many have grappled with voice. I have been impressed by the number of drafts they have worked on. Many have read well and widely. And although I felt they did not use the workshop elements as much as they might have, they seemed to appreciate the opportunity they had been given to do this. I was impressed by how much they had absorbed and taken on from the course. It was fascinating reading of each student’s journey.
I have now marked one or two of the creative pieces and have looked at a piece of creative writing by a colleague. Some amazing work is coming to light.

Friday 7 May 2010

Writing Novels for Young People

This is the title of one of the modules I teach at the University of Salford. We are very close to the time now that they give in their final assignment. They have already submitted a synopsis of their novel. This means they have thought carefully about their plot and made an accurate précis of that.
It was a small select group today: assignments are due in every day at the moment, so attendance dips dramatically. In fact I’ve picked up their second assignment but we talked about the third one today.
We started off talking mainly about the publishing industry – how you submit to publishers. It’s a little surprising how much they don’t know as we talk about it on every module. And we also discuss how there’s also something about doing creative writing at university that takes it beyond the commercially publishable. There is room for experiment. This may be one of the only chances.
We did then go on to look at the editing process. I see editing in three basic chunks but actually go through eighteen processes myself.
The first stage is to do with overall structure. I include also roundedness, believability and growth characters. Then there is suitability for reader and conformity with the market. So, as we’re talking young adults, we’re talking about characters looking like their readers, emotional closeness, fast pace and stories of growth. I think it’s a good idea at this stage too to check that time works correctly. I actually pre-empt this anyway by knowing exactly when each scene takes place and how long it lasts. No three year pregnancies please!
The second stage includes many technicalities in the actual writing. Is there a balance of pace? Is there cause and effect? Are you showing instead of telling, knowing the difference and also knowing when telling is appropriate? Are the characters consistent? Does the dialogue work correctly? Is there a balance of narrative styles?
The third stage then is line by line. This is where you are looking at the language itself. Are there clichés that would best be replaced with something else? Or should you leave the cliché because it actually works rather well? Do you have a few darlings that you need to kill off? What about overall flow? This is the point where you should read it out loud. Lastly comes the proper copy edit with an emphasis on spelling, grammar, and sense.
My students seemed to lap this up and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to them about it. This group is particularly responsive.

Monday 3 May 2010

Gentle Marketing for Gentle Footprints

“I think I’ll get my car washed at the gym today,” I say to my husband.
The door bell rings. There are two little girls standing on the step.
“Would you like to have your car washed?” one of them asks.
“Well….” Well, why not? And how did they know? “How much do you charge?” I ask.
“We’ll do it for free if you like,” the other one replies.
No, I can’t do that. That would be child exploitation. “Will a fiver do?” I ask.
They nod eagerly. I remember my daughter used to do exactly this for pocket money about fifteen years ago. She did a much better job than the local car wash.
They do too. I’ve already had the idea of giving them a “tip” in the form of signed copies of two of my books. We also give them all the Tesco’s school vouchers and because one of the girls keeps dropping everything we even supply them with a linen bag that advertises my web site.
“My mum likes books,” says the older of the two girls.
“Well, she’ll like the one that’s come out this week,” I say. I explain all about Gentle Footprints and that my story is about the swans on the Outwood Park pond just opposite the house.
“Oh, yes, they’ve got babies again,” says one of the girls.
Good. I hadn’t seen them for a while. The nest must have been well hidden.
Unfortunately, I have none of the Gentle Footprints postcards left. However, I find a couple from my other books.
“Tell your mum to look out for this book,” I say, writing down the title and ISBN of Gentle Footprints and the address of the Bridge House Publishing web site. “And tell your teachers I’ll come and do a free author talk if they’ll let me sell some of my books.”
Fortunately the girls go to two separate schools. One is still at primary school, the other is already at secondary school.
So, a good marketing opportunity and a clean car to boot.
Late, when I drive to the newspaper shop, I see the girls again. They spot me and immediately take out the books and start reading.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Remote Control Teaching

I’m all set today to teach via the internet. I’ve informed my students. I’ve told them to be on-line for the time they would normally have class. However, I’ve just written the notes to go with the session and the could actually do it anywhere, including sitting in the sun on the beach – if the glare is not too much for the screen, if they can keep the mozzies away and if the Wi Fi stretches that far.
My style would be to do this at the edges of the day – get up early, work, have breakfast, work a little more, spend some time swimming and reading in the sun – even have a short siesta, then work again as the day gets cooler until supper time. In summer, perhaps work indoors in the hottest part of the day and do the swim and sun bit after breakfast and as the day cools.
But back to the remote control teaching. It isn’t the same as face to face. It actually takes longer. What you can say in about two minutes actually takes ten minutes to write and you can lose the nuances. It is easier for there to be misunderstandings. Yet it can suit some people incredibly well. And you can gain time by not having to travel.
It might even force a greater willingness to share ideas. All ideas are recorded. That somehow makes them more permanent, more owned. Well lets see how it goes.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Stuck in Cyprus

Stuck in Cyprus
So, volcanic ash has travelled form Iceland and covered the UK and much of Northern Europe. I’m in a 2-star hotel and goodness knows who is going to pay for it. Neither the airline nor the insurance seem to want to pay because it is “act of God”. The university that I work for have said they’ll pay, but some moral issues arise.
I’m having to eat out. I will be here for part of the weekend. Should I expect my employers to fund my weekend expenses? Or even the glass of wine I have with my meal in the evenings? Except, I wouldn’t be doing these things if I wasn’t stuck here. I’m not going overboard – but I’m not allowing myself to be too uncomfortable either.
The hotel is only 2*. The one I was in for the main part of my stay was 4*. There are visible differences, but nothing that actually makes me uncomfortable. And I have a superb view from my little terrace. The staff here are extremely helpful. We’re close to the airport too.
Here’s another issue. I actually had a day’s leave booked today. Do I still count myself on university business here? I’ve just spent about an hour looking at university emails. And I’m going to spend about four hours on my novel today. That in a sense is work anyway. But with that, when do I actually really stop?
I am so glad that I always have my work with me. The lap top is here. I have free Wi Fi. I feel in contact with my world. I’ll actually get quite a lot done but get quite a bit of leisure too. I feel less bored and insecure than some of the other people who are having to hang around.
And I’m more convinced than ever again that I would like to live in a Mediterranean country.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Creative Writing in Other Languages – Again

European University, Nicosia, Cyprus
We sat in a round room on comfortable executive-looking chairs. A great space actually for creative writing. There were thirteen of us. We started on the theme of “April”. The trick was to jot down as many words as we could think of. And then look for the opposites. This was quite easy for the people here in Cyprus. They speak fluent English though are certainly not “native speaker” level. It was easy for them to find the opposites and write their “Hello Goodbye” poem.
We then went on to the “Demons and Angels” exercise, but used “sun” and “moon”. There was the usual discovery of extraordinarily original sentences as we put the two halves together.
These students were not familiar with haiku, but they did the usual trick of counting sounds on their fingers. Yes, even I do this when I write haiku. The haikus, as haikus generally do, turned out to be rather pleasing. The not-quite-native-speakerness of the students’ language heightened the charm.
The acrostic poems also were quite easy for these particular students, yet even they would have benefitted from using a bilingual or even a monolingual dictionary.
I introduced them to OULIPO and we invented some language games of our own. One student’s growing snowball was particularly effective.
The piece de resistance was the writing with the senses. I had expected them to produce mainly prose but they actually produced something mainly akin to poetry.
“Does it matter if it doesn’t rhyme?” asked one girl.
Well, of course not, but this just goes to show that we take a certain level of knowledge / familiarity for granted.
As usual, writing with the senses produced excellent writing all round. I was particularly encouraged by one piece that had a lot of repetition, where at the end there was a sentence that was different. Had the writer remembered the “turn” from the haikus? Had she picked this up from an example I had given in another exercise?
She didn’t know.
“I just wrote it because it seemed to work,” she said.
That says it all really.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Contracting and Expanding Time – On Being Away form Home

I’ve noticed this before. Get away from home and you can actually get a lot done – unless you let the whole experience spook you!
I’m on a staff mobility Erasmus exchange at the moment. I flew out to Cyprus on Monday and am visiting the European University just outside Nicosia. I actually completed three hours teaching yesterday and spent another hour and half with colleagues there. And I caught up with a student who came over to Salford. I actually spent some time on showing students how to bring both shape and excitement into expository writing. Today I have meetings with interested exchange students and will be leading a two hour creative writing work shop.
But I’ve also fitted in lots of other things:
Two hours on Peace Child Volume Three – about 1,200 words
Catching up on all emails – work, personal and Bridge House Publishing
Being a tourist
Going out to dinner
Watching a little TV
Reading one and half books – I’ll have probably finished three by the time I get home – I’m holding back at the moment because I don’t want to run out. There is still much hanging about at the airport to be done.
I’ll also be going out to dinner this evening with a group of other people over on Erasmus programmes and I believe this afternoon I’ll have more time for tourism, photos and writing. I may even go for a swim.
It’s easy to get sidetracked and it would be a sin not to find out something about where you are. But get the balance right and you can actually expand time by being away from home. You somehow escape some of the routines which bog you down. Away from home, your time becomes your own.

Monday 12 April 2010


I had quite a powerful conversation with the good guys at Waterstones in Chester the other day. I took in the impressive card our publicist has had made of Gentle Footprints, the book we’ve put together to support the Born Free Foundation.
I did throw a host of names at him:
Richard Adams – appearing in the book and possibly at the launch
Virginia McKenna OBE- has written the foreword for the book
Hay Festival – where it’s being launched
Peter North – the person who deals with independent publishers at Waterstones
Jon Mayhew – the friend’s whose book-signing I was attending
Nielsens – well, if your book had an ISBN you have to know about Nielsens. And it’s through them that your book gets ordered.
I also mentioned that there are two local authors in the book.
They have agreed to stock the book. I guess I knew what I was talking about and also looked and sounded as if I did. Success breeds success. Confidence breeds confidence.