Sunday 18 December 2011

Writers and Twitter – a personal view

Twitter helps to keep me sane and keep me connected. I follow a lot of writers and a lot of writers follow me. I also follow a couple of choirs, some teachers, one or two Holocaust organisations, a couple of language students, one or two news organizations, the Greater Manchester Police (I started doing that during the riots in August 2011), a few publishers and a favourite seaside resort in Spain.
How I use Twitter 
As soon as I switch on my computer each day, I check my Twitter account for mentions, retweets and new followers. Then, I take a look at the latest posts after I’ve finished certain chunks of work.  It gives me a five to ten minute break every so often. It’s a mental getting up from your desk and stretching your legs. When you’re working in such an isolated way it’s good to know there are other folk out there.
Why Twitter and not Facebook?
I’m not so keen on Facebook and I guess I might walk away from that sooner or later. I’m there because I feel that I should be. It constantly confuses me. At least Twitter is easy to follow. Even when they change it, it’s easy to get used to the new format. I love how it is organic – even if that can be funny at times.  I mentioned the word SEO recently and suddenly had all these bright young things approaching me and my multiple identities trying to sell me search engine optimisation. (No guys, can’t afford it and that’s why I went on the course- to find out how to do it.) You can guess what happened when I blogged about a girl in my latest novel having a puncture.  But on the whole it works very well and I’m quite chuffed that the Wiener Library found me before I found them.
Follow Friday
I guess within this system, we all have our likes and dislikes. For instance, I’m not too keen on #ff  (people you think are worth following you mention on Fridays).  Everybody I follow is recommended- or – durh  - I wouldn’t be following them. And of course, all those people who follow me are very wise. So they’re worth a look. Of course, I’m really pleased when somebody mentions me. Every time I do it though I feel very bad about the people I’ve not mentioned. So, I tend to duck out of that one.
Sample Sunday
On the other hand, I find #SampleSunday underused. I seem to be one of the few that use it.  The idea is you put up a sample of your writing on a blog every Sunday and then past a link to that blog in a Tweet. I’ve had quite a few hits on the samples I’ve posted and I’ve certainly read others’ samples.
To promote or not to promote
Some say you should, some say you shouldn’t. Some say your tweeting should be 80% about other things, 20%  about self-promotion. I tend to agree with the latter. I tend to unfollow anyone who only self-promotes. However, I have one writing friend who only uses Twitter for self-promotion. She does it charmingly and her Tweets are a joy to read. Several of her books / stories are on my reading list now. In her case it’s working. And I will unashamedly promote other people’s work if I like it.
Tweets as headlines
I’m following over 1,000 tweeps. (people who use Twitter). I can’t possibly hope to read every single one and especially not all the links that people have included. You have to learn to read tweets a little like the way you read the newspaper: cherry-pick what really interests you.
Cheating on the 140 characters by including links?
This was a point made by someone new to Twitter – and I notice that this person is now putting links into her tweets. No, not really. Twitter is also an extremely fast way of letting people know you’ve said something in more detail. They can choose whether to read the whole or not. I often click through on to a link and then find it not so interesting after all. On the other hand, I also find I haven’t got time to read an interesting post. Well, in that case I’ve saved the link and read the post later.
Do as you would be done by
I’ve shuddered a little when I’ve heard some people say they only spend a few minutes a day on it. But they accept 500 or more followers, scatter their worldly wisdom in front of them in the form of two or three posts, expecting 1500 viewings, and aren’t prepared to listen to what their followers have to say? Is that fair? It’s really a matter of finding a way of keeping time spent reasonable but also not missing out on what could be important and / or interesting.  You actually stand more chance with 140 characters than you do on Facebook and various newsgroups and forums.
How I’ve benefitted
·         I’ve found out about competitions and calls for submission for me and my students
·         I’ve found out about the activities of other writers
·         I’ve put out my own calls for submission.
·         I’ve found out about other books and events
·         I’ve told people about my books and events
·         I’ve laughed, joked and commiserated with friends
·         I’ve got news out real fast
·         I’ve found out news real fast
·         I’ve made lots of new friends
·         I’ve learnt to get my message across in 140 characters
·         I’ve had a good giggle
·         I’ve communicated to Richard Branson, Stephen Fry, Paul McCartney, Stella McCartney and one or two others. (Of course, I have no idea whether they’ve ever read my message, but that would also be true if I’d communicated with them any other way except face to face. At least this way there is a chance.)   
·         I’ve read some really good tweet-length stories     
·         I’ve shown my approval of others’ words very quickly and easily: I’ve retweeted them.    
A real joy
Yes, indeed. Twitter is a real joy to me. For me personally it’s the best the Net has brought yet. It even improves other platforms by the way it interacts with them. So, here’s to more tweeting.       

Saturday 26 November 2011

Master class with Melvyn Burgess, Catherine Pellegrino and Shannon Park

This excellent class was offered last Saturday by Commonword, Manchester. It was by invite only and I felt privileged to be invited. We were quite a small group and so there was plenty of opportunity to ask questions.
Over the years, I’ve attended hundreds of workshops, many of them facilitated by well-known people in the writing industry. But I still learnt something last Saturday.
I’m not going to give you all of the detail – much of what I could say would repeat what is contained in the very detailed blogs kindly posted by those who were able to attend the SCBWI-BI  Conference in Winchester last week. I’m just going to go through what for me – an already published but not yet best-selling author – were the highlights.  
The most important points for me from author Melvin Burgess were:
·         The difference between an amateur and professional is about 10,000 hours. Write, write and keep on writing if you want to be published. (I keep totting up my hours and I keep getting a different figure- I never was all that good at maths!)  
·         Ultimately, you learn to be your own best editor – but don’t always start at the beginning as one then tends to rush the end. I’ve put that into practice already this week!
·         Be a little cautious about seeking the opinions of others until you are satisfied with the work yourself. Maybe the questions you need to ask are “Where doesn’t it work?” “Where are you bored?” (I’ll add in here that I also find it useful to get people to tell you what they’ve understood about your characters – have they come out the way you intended them to?)
Agent Catherine Pellegrino assured us that it is all right to submit to more than one agent at once “otherwise you’ll be waiting forever” though there may come a point when an agent wants to read exclusively the whole of a manuscript. This is only fair and other agents would understand this. So, shortly I’ll be sending out a little more vigorously two novels that are doing the rounds.
She advised to mention if we had worked with such organisations as Cornerstones and emphasized that this is a good example of that type of body.  They are expensive and writers should be proactive enough to make sure that they do get their money’s worth.
She emphasized that humour and great voices are important to her.
We were very fortunate in also having commissioning editor Shannon Park with us. She works for Puffin, which is, as she says, the number one children’s publisher. She gave us the usual depressing news about how publishers are taking on fewer but “bigger” books and how all revolves around sales. She highlighted some of the trends.  “But of course,” she said, “it changes all the time.”  I’m always a little wary of this – what is trending now won’t be any more by the time you’ve finished writing. Also, I can only write what I feel confident I can write well. However, sometimes things can be reshaped a little to fit a trend, so it is still worth knowing.
Her most useful tip is to imagine what you would say to the concerned adult wondering whether they should buy the book or not.  I’m quite used to the two-line summary I put at the beginning of the query letter. But what Shannon meant is shorter than an elevator pitch. Perhaps Twitter is good training. Maybe all those tweets have been useful after all! And she also mentioned humour.
It was a really enjoyable and useful day. All of the writers there were to some extent experienced. It was good to be amongst like-minded people. We had a lovely lunch courtesy of  Prêt à Manger and Commonword.  It’s the first time for a while that I’ve some away from such a meeting feeling optimistic.  

Saturday 5 November 2011

Writing characters = becoming characters?

I wrote recently about how we become totally absorbed in the worlds we create. Do we become such parts of those worlds because we actually become the characters we create who live there.   
Is writing character a little like being an actor?
Both the writer and the actor have to realise that the character is there for a lifetime, not just for the brief time they are on stage or between the pages of a book. They have a back story and a potential future and when we are not reading or writing about them, or showing a theatre audience what they are doing, they still exist and continue to live their lives.
We empathize with our characters and in portraying them correctly, we create empathy in their readers / observers.
In the last couple of days I’ve had to be a father explaining a rather unfathomable divorce to his daughter and I’ve had to be the same daughter not wanting to tell this very father that she has changed and can no longer live with him.
Is it possible that we become even more absorbed in the characters we write about than those that we read about?  Or does the character we’ve created with such care, gain empathy form the reader because of the empathy we’ve employed in creating it? Can our characters actually become rounded and believable unless we put the effort into getting to know them properly?    

Saturday 22 October 2011

Living in Other Worlds

Because I’m currently on sabbatical from the University of Salford and because one of the things I’ve agreed to do is complete the first draft of a novel, I’m spending a little more time than normal on my writing. I’m up to three hours a day – about 3000 words and am spending another three hours a day on research. In November, I go up to 4 + 2 and then in December 5 + 1 etc.
My project is to do with the Holocaust and brings in three strands. The usual players are all there: the victims, the bystanders, the perpetrators (though I’ve not tried to get into their minds – and there’s a thought -maybe I should), the innocent and the resistant. During the rest of my working time I’m keeping the other balls in the air. In my leisure time even I happen to be reading a book with a Holocaust connection. I talk to my husband and he is a fascination to me: he is a second generation Holocaust victim and I’m finding out more about his family than he knew himself.  
TV programmes like QI, good food and wine, and connections with all my friends keep me sane. But the rest of the time I’m back in the 1940s and really feeling the anguish on all sides (except the perpetrator’s, though I have watched Eichmann’s trial). I read the facts, find out what the settings were like and explore it all with my words. It takes quite a lot to drag me back to the 21st century.
When we write we become absorbed into the worlds we create, perhaps even more so than when we read.  

Friday 8 July 2011

Book launch – Emma Jane Unsworth – Manchester City Library

This was my artist’s treat for this month. Naturally, I ended up buying the book. I was surprised and delighted to see that my colleague from MMU, Sherry Ashworth, and husband are the publishers, The HiddenGem Press.
The atmosphere of the City Library's Becker Room with its carved panels and what I call doctor’s chairs – little wooden chairs with armrests and backrests which circle together – my first GP had one - is quite magical. The sun made a natural spotlight for Emma as she read.
The book has been described as literary fiction and a good holiday read. That sounds just like my sort of book. I still love the feel of a print book in my hands and my favourite way of buying is at a book launch where I can get the book signed. I do approve of Amazon, at least as a book-buying reader, and I can’t wait to get a Kindle, but actually buying a book in the presence of the author is a much more satisfying experience.
The event was part of the Not Part of the Festival 2011 Festival– the Manchester Literary Fringe Festival if you like. The room was packed. Wine and nibbles were provided. That always brings value-added to the event, I think. I was also pleased to meet one of my former students there. She is still writing, I am happy to say. It was good, too, to catch up with Sherry. She is to MMU what I am to Salford University and we have much else in common, not least of all being publishers.             

Thursday 9 June 2011

Malorie Blackman’s Double Cross

I’ve just finished reading this, and guess what folks, I borrowed my copy form the library. I’d read Nought and Crosses and  Knife Edge some time ago and had been rather put out by the annoying cliff-hanger at the end of Knife Edge – and the spoiler when you look at the blurb on Checkmate.  I borrowed Checkmate from the Radcliffe library when I joined on 5 February 2011 – you know, that day when we all tried to show how important libraries are.
Checkmate was fine and it seemed that the whole story in the trilogy was resolved, more or less satisfactorily. So would Double Cross be a type of epilogue?
Hardly! Most of the way through I thought the conclusion was going to be that there would be no way out of the poverty trap and that life was hopeless on a gangland controlled social-housing estate. It threatens to become depressing though Blackman successfully gains our empathy for main character Tobey.  
Then comes the amazing twist. I won’t put in a spoiler here. You may think she used some sort of deus ex machina, but not really: everything has been very carefully set up. The ending is upbeat, and at first glance possibly a little too upbeat for the young adult market. But no, she has left the reader much to ponder and plenty of scope for different interpretations of what the epilogue actually implies.
A fantastic read. No wonder Malorie Blackman is such a respected writer.                 

Friday 27 May 2011

Lots of Books

I’m feeling a tad prolific, a trifle gob-smacked, if not somewhat overwhelmed and even a little inert.
I have four books just out and a fifth out any minute now.
Babel is out as a paperback, it and The Prophecy are now available on Kindle. Hipp-O-Dee-Doo-Dah, the anthology which I’ve edited and in which my story The Gargoyle appears, is available now.
Shortly, my novel for 9-11, Kiters comes out with Tabby Cat Press.
I’m doing a special offer on signed copies until 30 June. Sign up for my newsletter if you want to know more.
It’s all good, I guess, but I’m so busy, I can’t get my head round launching properly.      

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Your Identity as a Writer

The Sharing Skills session for writers who work in school, held last Saturday in Birmingham, was very useful. As usual, much of the usefulness came from the contact it gave you with colleagues. All the sessions were interesting, though none of them were quite what I thought they would be. One that stood out, though, was about maintaining our identity as writers.
So often on school visits we end up teaching. As a former teacher I don’t find that onerous – I even quite enjoy it – but I do question what value the school and the students are getting from that. By teaching them creative writing, I’m only doing something their own teachers could do better. Yes, granted, many teachers are afraid of writing and don’t write themselves. Even so, a more practical model might be for us to teach the teachers how to write and let them pass that skill on to the students. They are the best people to teach their students.
We must remember too that not every student will go on to be a writer and will only need to write as much as they need to show their knowledge in other areas. It’s just like the fact that although a visit form the local fire service may be extremely interesting, not every student is going to become a fire-fighter. Now and then, however, it may be appropriate to work with a small group of students who have writing ambitions.   
Maybe the traditional author visit is no bad thing – read a little from your work, ask the students questions, let them ask you questions. Let them read or hear some quality literature.
Yes, probably we are expected to entertain. But it may be our writing that engages. We must bring something the teachers can’t and something that we bring because of the type of writers we are. And maybe it’s fine to let students try out some of the things we do.
One delegate said that he always tried to make the workshop in school bring him something as well. Perhaps we might research with our students.
We were asked to think of our tag line and logo in the session. I couldn’t get mine. It kept coming out too long. But I have it now. “Writing for and with young people.” I write primarily for young adults, but do also write for younger children and enjoy working with them. I also work with university students, many of them still relatively young. Hence, “young people”.  Writing with students rather than just getting them to write also seems appropriate.
The logo is yet to arrive. But I’m thinking butterflies or something similar that represents the young at heart.
I’ve also made some decisions about the type of workshop I am prepared to offer in schools, based on what we talked about in that session.                            

Friday 20 May 2011

The Rewards of Self-promotion

I am a great fan of Twitter. Those of you who follow my Opportunities list are offered so many ideas because many of them come to me this list. I also use this wonderful social networking platform as a means of giving myself a treat; after every chunk of work is finished, usually about an hour’s worth, I reward myself with looking at the Tweets and posting one of my own.
I follow about 500 people and some are more present than others. I consider these to be my friends and worry if I’ve not heard from them. Many of them self-promote, and I’m happy with that because that’s not all they do. Besides, as we’re in the same game they just might be promoting something I’d be interested in.
Take my mate Trevor Belshaw aka Trevor Forest. I’m about a centimetre away from buying Peggy Larkin’s War. It appeals because I’m a sucker anything to do with the war – especially as I’m about to embark on my own rather unusual take on World War II. I write for children and this is a children’s novel. I love the name. Peggy Larkin. Fantastic. The cover appeals. So what if it’s self-published? I’ve read some brilliant self-published material and some absolute dire mainstream published writing.
But there are lots of other books that appeal as well. Goodness, I stopped keeping a wish list on Amazon because I realised I’d never live long enough to read all of those books. And I’ve got three shelves full of bought books and ten library books waiting for my attention. So why Peggy Larkin’s War? Because Trevor keeps mentioning it. I’m sort of thinking “Go on then. I’d better see what that is all about.”              
We need to be exposed to adverts at least three times before we act. The first time sows the idea. The second time confirms the possibility. The third time calls us to action. The bombardment thereafter pricks our conscience until we submit. We have to have an interest anyway, or the bombardment just becomes a background noise.  However, the background  noise still serves if the interest arises later. Just imagine, if I had no interest in Peggy Larkin but my kids were having to do a project on children during the war,  Ah yes, I might think, Peggy Larkin’s War, and I wonder what Trevor did for his research.      
So, friends, self-promote like mad. We are fortunate that these days we have many tools to help us.