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.

Friday 9 April 2010

The Final Edit

I am so near finishing Babel now. I’ve just got to finish the amendments to the first half of the book form the final copy edit. I would have done it Monday, but I’d left the manuscript in the office. Maybe a lesson that I should keep creative work at home and academic work in the office.
Of course, I’m having two other people read my work. I’m having a few hard copies of the book made and I’ll be trying to get some pre-publication reviews. Any offers?
It leaves a very excited feeling in the pit of the stomach.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Juggling Time

Juggling Time
I’ve just been applying for promotion. This, as any type of job application, is an eye-opening exercise: you usually surprise yourself by how much you do. So much of what we do is part of a routine that we take for granted. My writing definitely fits into that routine. In my application I spoke of dovetailing my writing output around my university work. As far as I’m aware, I haven’t missed an employer or publisher imposed deadline to date and broadly speaking I’m completing all tasks that these two parts of my job demand to at least a satisfactory level. One always aims for the best possible, naturally.
In one section I found myself writing:
“On average per year I produce:
One novel
Two articles / papers for peer-reviewed journals
Two to three conference papers.
A section of a text book, an edited text book or an authored text book, to do with young adult literature, creative writing, writing for children or writing in other languages.
100 blog posts
Three reviews of literature for children and young adults
Two edited collections of short stories
Two to four short stories”

In another section I wrote:
“I write between 5,000 and 10,000 words a week, or edit between 15,000 and 100,000, partly in designated research time and partly in my free time. I work on my own creative projects, academic papers, a blog I maintain which discusses writing process and practice and aspects of being a creative writing lecturer, and reviews for Troubador magazine and for on-line magazine Armadillo of books written for young adults and teenagers.”
I have to admit, I impressed myself. It is absolutely true and if anything a little conservative.
I’m fortunate that the university recognizes we need research time and we guard our weekly research day jealously. I’ve learnt to read quickly – I can edit my 103,000-word novel in eight hours – and I can write quite quickly - I can produce 1000 words of reasonable prose in an hour. I do find it difficult sometimes though to settle to writing after teaching or completing particularly grueling admin. In fact, writing this blog will often pull me into writing mode. Today is a case in point. I’ve been finishing off that application, getting ready for a trip to Cyprus next week, and preparing for my teaching for the week after. When I started writing, my mind was buzzing with all of those other matters.
Everyone has to find their own rhythms with their writing. I notice for example that after the first two hours / 2000 words I slow down considerably. Above all though, we must write. A danger can be setting too high a goal. Maybe ten minutes a day is enough. Invariably you will spend more time than that … “I’ll just finish this section before I finish.” On the other hand, you’ll put off starting if you don’t have enough time. And when giving publisher estimates of how long it will take to complete a project always allow twice as much time as the minimum you know you need. Deadlines have a habit of all coming at once.

Wednesday 7 April 2010


I’ve mainly been pleased with the reviews I’ve seen for The Prophecy. It has been reviewed all over the world. The reviews have been mainly very positive and even the less positive accounts have had some positive comments.
But here are a few thoughts.
By the time your novel goes out to review, there is little you can do about it. You should fear the review even more than you fear the rejection slip. At least when you get a rejection pre-publication you can go and do something to the text. You can’t do anything to the published text – it’s out there, it’s published. What’s more, so is the review. The most you can do if you get a bad review is ask someone who has written you a good one to counter the argument.
Bad reviews are more worrying than good ones are pleasing. And even with good ones there will be one or two less pleasing comments. We tend to dwell on those. It seems to be part of human nature. We fail to celebrate what we do well. We worry about what we do badly. Would it be a good strategy, then, to make ourselves read them more carefully? More logically and less emotionally? After all don’t we always say that we are too close to our own work to know what works and what doesn’t. A reviewer may be able to tell you. But as always, this is just one opinion and reviewers don’t always agree. Nevertheless, it’s worth a look. Do they have a point? Is this a lesson for the next time?
Just who are these reviewers? Well, I’m one. I review because I am a published writer and it feels like something that goes with me being a university lecturer. It’s another professional angle. I try to be quite balanced in my review: I start off with what works, then go on to what works less well and give a sort of summative statement at the end. A verbal marks out of ten. I mark my students’ work in similar way – though I remain formative throughout. But the others? Well, there are the fans, friends and families who post their reviews on Amazon. There are the professional reviewers like myself and they can review on all sorts of forums from little-heard-of web sites up to the Sunday Times. There is also a whole raft of amateur book lovers who set up book-reviewing sites. These are sincere aficionados and give a sense of how readers will react to your work.
Yet it still irks when you get a comment that is born if ignorance. “This just needs editing.” No it doesn’t. I’m extremely careful abut my editing. So careful, that I edit the published works of other authors. Or did this reviewer mean I should have done nineteen edits instead of eighteen? I think they meant “copy edit.” Yet, the text did contain the average number of typos that you get in all published books. It may actually need a different sort of edit. After all, The Prophecy was part of a Ph D thesis, so the comments condemn a university and a bunch of examiners as well as an author. Sometimes a reviewer can assume ignorance in the writer who has carefully done their research when the ignorance is actually with the reviewer. Avoid that particular reviewer in future if possible.
Worse case scenario: you receive a terrible review, and hand on heart; you have to admit the reviewer was right. You can’t rescue the novel at this stage. Remind yourself, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Remember what Anne Fine’s review of Doing It in the Guardian did for Melvin Burgess’ sales. Remember too that reviews create reader expectation. Readers who are brave enough to try despite a bad review are usually pleasantly surprised. This may even be better than a disappointed reader after a fabulous review.
So, no need to worry too much after all.
Some of the reviews for "The Prophecy"
A site for which I revew

Friday 2 April 2010

New reader defined?

There have always been children, teenagers, young adults and undergrads. They haven’t always been defined as readers, though. Even if it is possible that there have always been people writing for them.
The child was recognised about 1740. The teenager didn’t appear until the 1950s. The young adult, at least as a defined reader, exploded into common existence between 1995 and 2005. Now something else is about to happen.
“I decided I wanted to write something for people my age,” wrote one on my students. She was on my Writing Novels for Young People module last year and had done rather well. She was doing rather well in her current course also. She was definitely writing for her classmates. What she wrote would not have been that interesting to people over twenty-five. And people under twenty-five would find it enthralling.
That this new reader may exist is perhaps confirmed by what is now appearing at the top end of the range written for young adults. I would count my Babel in that category. Kaleem and Rozia are almost too mature for what we have up until now defined as young adults, yet to the fully fledged adult they still seem quite naïve. They’ll be that much more mature in the third book.
What should we call this new reader, though? Undergrad is hardly adequate; not everyone goes to university and these new stories would still suit young postgrads. Maybe “new adults”, “young aged” “emergent professionals”? Nothing yet has quite the right ring to it. No doubt a name will appear as the genre consolidates.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Red Letter Day for the Red Telephone

It was a great day yesterday for us at The Red Telephone. We had to confirm the winners of our first novel competition.
They were:
1. Alex Smith - Calling For Angels
2. Michele McGrath - Ghost Diaries
3. Beth Fisher - Losing Agir
Highly commended: Helen Shay - The Fixed Lands
Our winner is actually only sixteen! She has produced a fantastic novel for fourteen year olds. It just carries you along. It actually needs very little editing.
We had some difficulty deciding the runners up as we had four texts which were similarly good. In the end we found a second and a third and decided to recommend a highly commended award to the fourth.
The second prize winner will get an in-depth commentary on their work and their text will be annotated using Track Changes. The third place and Highly Commended winners will have an in-depth commentary of their work.
It is lovely phoning people and letting them hear the good news. Even our Highly Commended was delighted. We even found out that we are going to be at the same meeting. It will be good to meet up and put a name to a face.
One of the plus sides of becoming a publisher.