Saturday 21 December 2013

What is the point of reading and writing?

Once I could read fluently, reading became my default activity. There were frequent trips to the library, pocket money was spent on books and books were requested as birthday and Christmas presents. Once all the chores were completed there was time for reading. My grandmother, however, had other ideas.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Launch of Wild N Free Too

Recently I blogged about being on a perpetual busman’s holiday.  Yesterday was a case in point. I attended the launch of Wild N Free Too. This involved a journey to London, two hours ten minutes each way on the train, with another forty minutes on public transport.
No matter:
·         I met some fascinating people on the way out.
·         I managed four hours of writing on the train
·         The event was splendid

Friday 13 December 2013

A busman’s holiday?

It’s a bit of a cliché but we all know what it means and it’s such an apt description that I’m going to use it anyway.
What academics do when the students aren’t there
The students at the university where I work broke up today for Christmas. That means they’ll have three weeks off. Everyone assumes that is also the case for their lecturers. Not so, I’m afraid. They find plenty for us to do – on top of marking assignments, getting modules ready for next Semester and in our case, interviews all day long next week for two English appointments.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

A writer, counting blessings

Recently a few small things have pleased me no end. They really have. They all add together and contribute to the bigger picture.
Northern Venetians
I was extraordinarily pleased to be involved in this project. Partly because I was commissioned, partly because I’m rubbing shoulders with some significant people and partly because I’m growing rather fond of producing these very short texts.
I asked my colleagues to see if they could spot my text. One managed straight away – she recognised my style and a reference within the text. Another colleague is still puzzling it out.
Can you spot my work here? Because it’s nearly Christmas I’ll send you a signed copy of one my books if you spot it. You choose which!

Wednesday 6 November 2013


A writing colleague of mine recently had a mean one star review of her work. She was distraught about this. Yet it was clearly written by someone who had some sort of grudge and she also had a whole heap of four and five star reviews. I’ve had this happen too. The reviewer in my case had written a rival book.  Except it wasn’t even really that – it was a book written on the same topic but for an entirely different readership.  This book, published in 2003, is still in print, and has many good reviews and even letters of praise to the publishers. Even though it hasn’t yet made me into a millionaire.
Positive reviews, then, do not lead necessarily to prosperity. And we tend to focus on the negative – yes, I’m guilty of that too – and ignore the positive. Anyway, maybe the odd malicious one star review can be ignored. Perhaps the bland three star ones are more of a worry. And even then … perhaps we need to get real.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Sacred Routines

The priority
I have few problems with self-discipline as a writer. Even when I feel reluctant I can write. I can pluck ideas and content from the air and turn them into something readable. As I define myself first and foremost as a writer, I try to make the first thing I do every day my writing. Well, maybe after a quick look at Twitter.
I actually don’t feel right if I don’t. My aim is to work for two hours and write 2,000 words or review 3,000 – 10,000 – or some carefully calculated combination of the three. I don’t always make it and so I also write at weekends and whilst on holiday. I’ve not quite caught up. 

Friday 18 October 2013

Breaking the mould?

A recent rejection
I’ve just had four short stories rejected. Well, sort of rejected. They came back with a lot of editorial comment, which is always something to take note of. So after the initial “they just don’t get it, do they? For goodness sake, are they expecting me to produce yet another clone? And they’ve got a typo in one of the titles – a typo not of my making” –type reaction, I calmed down and took note. Whatever I might think, this publisher is not going to publish these stories as they are now.  

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Some thoughts on books

Books at an early age
My father was the youngest of nine siblings and we lived with my grandmother. There were nearly always cousins in the house and all older than me. At one point they could read and I couldn’t. Reading seemed to involve staring at the page for a long time. So, I would stare at my pages for a long time and tell myself the story the pictures suggested. Many of the books I knew very well and even knew the words in them, though I couldn’t read them. Later the symbols began to mean something.  

Thursday 3 October 2013

My ambitions as a writer

Living the dream now
I graduated in my MA in Writing for Children in 2000. A year before I graduated I gave up a job as a Head of Modern Languages in a secondary school to spend more time on my writing. I immediately took on a temporary contract and for a while there seemed little change though I did have more time in the evenings and at the weekends for my own work: I managed to confine my school work to term-time, 8.00 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Gradually I took on more individual tuition and less work in schools.
Just six weeks after I graduated I had ten, yet that’s right, ten proposals for educational books accepted. That kept me occupied for a while. I still get royalties from some of those books now.
I’d dreamt up to that point of having that sort of free-lance life – a combination of teaching and writing and that is what I got.
I extended the dream: I wanted to be respected enough as a writer to be invited to talk to university students about my work. An earlier dream had been to be a university lecturer. Now I am a university lecturer, much of my work consisting of talking about writing and it is okay to write on my employer’s time. There is no life / work boundary. In this case that is a good thing. And hand on heart I can say I make my living from writing though the fiction itself does not bring in enough to live on – yet.
The dream now
I’m still waiting for that break-through novel. I’m not sure that it’s the one I’m trying to sell at the moment, nor even the one I’m writing now, or the one planned for after that – even though as always the current one is an improvement on the one before. They are all of course part of the process.
It isn’t about block-busting best-sellers for me, though I’m sure if that happened I’d find a way of using the money. I want to write something of the quality of David Almond’s Skellig, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials BUT hope that when I do that won’t be the endgame. Sometimes it can be hard to follow your own good act. Flash fiction is also becoming important to me and that may successfully follow half a dozen high quality novels.  
As an academic I’d like some David Lodge-type recognition. Ah, shall I also in retirement slip into the theatre at the last moment to watch an adaption of one of my novels? David Lodge sat almost right next to us at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton recently.
Keeping the wish-list simple
We fail to fulfil our dreams when we are not clear about our goals. I’ve decided to keep my wish-list very simple: I have just three wishes. All other good things follow naturally. What I’ve described above is the second part. I’ll gladly tell you about the other two in another context. I can also say that number one and three are getting there rapidly. I therefore assume that this goal is on its way to being fulfilled – all the more exciting because I can’t quite see it. It will take me by surprise one day. My task now, though, is to keep on writing.    

Thursday 12 September 2013

When is a writer not a writer? When he or she does not write.

But is this really true?
I have a day job that is very much writing related so I am very lucky and usually I can find time to do a couple of hours’ work. I prefer to do it first thing. It isn’t just a matter of time. It’s also a matter of brain space.
However, at the moment, it’s virtually impossible. At work we’re moving office, getting used to a new School, on a staff development week and getting groups ready for teaching at a time when we have lost several staff and although we have a few new ones and some temporary, hourly-paid ones, it isn’t quite the same as working with experienced colleagues who are very familiar with what we do.
I’m managing a little writing in the evening, but feel very tired and not all that inspired. Last night I managed twenty minutes at 8.40. But actually, it doesn’t matter how I feel. The writing still worked. I did manage one whole scene and I did find something new to add to the plot. The writing seemed fine even though it had been a strain.
Anyway, where do these sudden new ideas come from?     
I’m going to be very pragmatic and say they’re probably rolling around in the subconscious while our conscious mind is doing something else. It’s possible that it is even important to have that time. It’s a time when the mind can turn over the pebbles, looking for the one that is the best fit.   

Saturday 7 September 2013

What the Dickens? Some thoughts about the great man’s writing

My admiration

I love Boz. I really do. The proof? As a writer, sure, I want to be as well-known as him. But I also want to write stories that people love as much as they love his. For my sixtieth birthday I asked for the complete works of Dickens. I got them – all loaded onto a Kindle. I now make a point of rereading one - it is mainly rereading – every Christmas and every summer. This summer was The Old Curiosity Shop. Even though I couldn’t completely silence the hacking critical voice of the Creative Writing teacher I actually enjoyed this more than some modern novels I read.
I once read that when Dickens was established as a writer he would spend from eight until two writing. Then he would walk along the shore for three hours. He would spend a couple of hours in a pub from five to seven, chatting to the locals. Then he would dine, often at the homes of others or at his own, with invited guests. I could live with a routine like that. But these days is it rather the gym, Facebook and Twitter, and occasional dinners or other social gatherings with writing friends.     
Apparently also, he would act out the gestures and words of his characters in front of his mirror. I used to find that odd and a sign of his eccentricity. Now, though, I do it myself.
But. And the “but” or the “buts” are quite considerable.

A narrative problem

The Old Curiosity Shop starts off with a fictionalised author meeting Little Nell who is lost. This author-character also poses a mystery which is never quite solved. He likes to walk at night. Well so does Nell’s grandfather but we soon find out why: he is trying to win a fortune for Nell by gambling. We are not so sure about the stranger. The mystery is intriguing and this creates a good introduction to the main characters. But it isn’t going to work unless the narrator is a key figure too. He clearly isn’t. If Boz were a student in my creative writing group I would have advised against this. Possibly he realises his error; he decides to allow the characters to tell their own story and switches to a third person narrative. And maybe we need to remember that word processors were not available then.  

Characters large than life

The BBC’s The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff may seem to mock but I think it laughs with Dickens not at him. Monty Python, Mr Bean and Blackadder may appear to be inventions of the 20th and the 21st centuries but actually Dickens was way ahead of them. Look at all those characters whose names suit them so much: Noddy Boffin, Sally Brass, Bumble, Louisa Chick, Chuzzlewit, Bob Cratchit, Dedlock, Fezziwig, Flintwinch, Uriah Heep, Krook, Nubbles, Quilp,  Smallweed,  Snodgrass, Squeers, Steerforth, Dick Swiveller, Polly Toodle. Their names and their behaviours match. They amuse us and may even make Bean and co. seem rather tame. Dickens is most enjoyable when we understand his irony. That he also maintains the natural and rounded characters is genius.

Dei ex machinae and other dirty tricks

But here’s another problem. Come on, Boz. There are just too many lucky coincidences. Nell and her grandfather just happen to bump into the school master who had been so kind to him. There is a job vacancy for Nell just at the time she arrives at the village with the schoolmaster and her grandfather. Swiveller inherits a huge amount of money just in time.
I won’t tolerate this sort of plotting in my students’ work, I avoid it myself and I and several other creative writing academics condemn Dan Brown for doing it.
Yet here it seems to work. Dickens almost has the pantomime in his stories and a little of the fairy-tale. Is this even where his greatness lies? And perhaps precisely so because he combines it with giving the reader a sense of real life through his detailed descriptions and having key characters who are rounded and believable?

Dickens as popular fiction

Now English Literature students in higher education study his work. However, his novels were considered to be popular fiction at the time he wrote them. Indeed, Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women admits to sneaking off to read a book that she thought wasn’t quite as good as some of the others a particular author had produced. She had to read in secret because this type of novel wasn’t quite approved of in her home. Which novel was it? Dombey and Son!
Despite all of this or maybe because of it, Dickens remains a very fine storyteller and a great creator of memorable characters.    

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Fragile discipline

“I don’t get writer’s block. Ever. It’s a complete myth.”
I have to bite my tongue every time I go to say that.  There are a few others, too:
“Writers write every day.”
“If you’re a writer, you write.”
“If you write you are a writer.”
Oh, yes, I really believe in all of that. And then there are all the exceptions.

My own routine

I try to write for the first two hours of every working day and at some point on weekends and during holidays. Sometimes it’s not possible. Then, I’ll try and write as soon as I can.  Sometimes, like today, I can only manage about forty minutes because my day job demands that I go off and do something else. The problem then is that by the time I get to my laptop my mind is so cluttered with other thoughts that I can’t find the creative energy to write. Having a break helps usually: maybe the drive home from the office or stopping to have supper.

Some days it’s easier, some days it’s harder

I’m now confident that no matter how empty-headed I feel once I start writing the words and the ideas will come. I’m mainly right but not always. Sometimes it’s a real struggle and everything I write seems very poor and I’m dying for the two hours to go by. Interestingly, I’ve found that on these occasions I’m often actually writing better. Okay, it’s that inner critic chuntering but actually he has a point.

Some notable exceptions

Some writers I respect a lot have recently suffered from what we might call “writer’s block”. One is a well-established author who in recent years had a group of “break-though” novels.  How do you follow that? That was his problem.
A friend obtained the coveted PhD, and having gone to his personal limit on that, couldn’t work out for several months how to go on forward.
Another friend is also a brilliant administrator and organiser and full of an energy that is extremely creative leaving little creative space for anything else. He admits to not writing every day.
Again interestingly, as these three got back to work their writing was even richer and even more fine-tuned. They seem to have gone through some sort of incubation period.  

The fragile discipline

Yes we have to be disciplined. Much of the time this seems easy enough. Yet we fear losing that control. A couple of bad days and a few rejections and we might lose our will to go on. Then we must get back up, brush ourselves down and get on with it. It might be worth remembering though that the occasional fallow period can also be ultimately quite productive.     

Monday 12 August 2013

Writers write and create worlds – as shown by the Inkheart trilogy

The Inkheart theory

I’ve just finished reading the third of the Inkheart trilogy and it’s given me some food for thought. Whilst I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other two – the fantasy has become a little convoluted, the point of view changes too often, and there are some strange interjections by the author – Cornelia Funke certainly poses a few questions about the role of the writer.
In this third book two writers compete to finish the story and the characters also express their wishes for an outcome. Fengolio, the original author, is getting old and losing his craft. Orpheus wants full control of the world he has partly stolen from Fengolio and partly created himself. 

Thursday 8 August 2013

The Perpetual Story-finders

We can’t help ourselves, can we? We see them everywhere: stories. How long has this man been driving this boat? What if we set out today and don’t come back? What do those dolphins and whales think as they watch us watching them?

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Review of a Gallery for Nick

Quote from The Review of Disability Studies:

"This is an excellent book to explore feelings about death and disability. James does a good job in exploring the feelings of someone whose friend is deteriorating quickly. I would especially recommend this book for high school students."

Steven E. Brown Assistant Professor at the Center of Disability Studies at the University of Hawai'i. Editor at Review of Disability Studies.   

Friday 26 July 2013

Tidying Up, Letting Go, Moving On, Getting There

Why I’ve tided up my office

I’ve taken a week off from my day-job and used quite a bit of it to give my study a thorough sort-out. I’m probably going to be moving into a shared office at work shortly. There’ll be less space for books so I’m making space here so that I can bring back all of my books form the office.
I find quite often that anyway if I’m in the office the books I want are at home and if I’m at home the books I want are in the office. So this is a good strategy anyway. Besides, we’re going to have more contact hours with students so that the office becomes a space that we use for small snatches of time between lectures. We’ll all be located quite closely together so some of that spare time will be used for meetings, both formal and informal. There’ll only be time and brain space for quick bursts of admin work. The studious desk-work will be completed in my study at home.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Can writers live without the internet?

Well, I’m pretty taken with it but others seem even more attached. I’m not one of those people that are forever checking the phone for Tweets, emails and Facebook messages. If I’m out and about or teaching, the world can wait. However, at my desk or alone in a hotel or on a journey I’ll look at it all at regular intervals and both my mobile and my laptop alert me when a new email comes in – and my emails tell me if I have new Tweets or Facebook messages.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

New demographic? The New Adult

Thinking about this may have actually started four or five years ago. When I met my final year student for the first time then one of my students declared “I want to write for people our age. No one seems to write specifically for us.” She meant people in their early twenties. She managed it, in fact.
This particular student had been on my Writing Novels for Young People course. She’d actually done very well and I had rather hoped she would carry on with it. But no, she wanted to start on this new venture. She did very well with this as well.
What might be the features of this new genre and what is a “new adult”?
I would say “new adults” are more comfortable with their adult status than the “young adults”. All of the shenanigans in the brain are over. They would be living away from home in their first jobs or nearing the end of higher education.
In stories written for them there may be a little less about identity but much about further progression in the world. There may be more outward –looking scenes. There will still be much about sex and relationships. What will be the main types of stories told here? Perhaps amongst others there will be stories of early career development. I watch the emergence of this new genre with interest.       

Monday 24 June 2013

Veiled Dreams

This book comes out officially on the 26 July. You can pre-order it, though … please do if you feel so inclined.

I’ve worked on this book for a while. Then it got put away in a drawer and left for a while longer. It was a very welcome project after I finished my Ph D. It felt easy to write after all of that serious engagement with what is a young adult novel and could I make it work?

John Hunt Publishing have been very easy to work with. They are very business-like and just get on with things. There is a solid community of writers associated with the publisher and their web site is full of ideas to help you promote your book. There are lots of author forums that are helpful as well.

Would you believe I came across them because I follow one of my students on Twitter? She told me she’d got a publishing deal for the novel she’d been writing on one of my modules. I looked up the publisher to see if they seemed all right and they looked so good I wondered whether I could send them something myself.
Veiled Dreams is a young adult romantic fantasy. At one point I was sharing an extract of it with a critique group. I read my work out loud. As I got to one particular part every single person in the group made a note. Oh dear, I thought. They don’t like it. Ah but they did.

I wonder whether you’ll be able to guess which scene that was?  I’ll give you a little clue. It’s in Jan’s first scene.