Tuesday 29 April 2008

Prose Poetry

I did some work on this yesterday and I’ll be doing more today. I think I approach it in an entirely different way from my children’s and Young Adult fiction. There is still, however, that balance of “visual” writing and aural writing. Yes, I do hear the words. But I also “see the scenes and try to record them. I say “see” because I also hear, smell, taste and feel them and am aware of thoughts in my head at the same time.

I’m finding even with this I actually write it better straight on to the computer. I remember the scene and write from that. So, what use the writer’s journal? Every use in the world. I use that for making notes of those fantastic ideas I have as I drive. I also spend time in cafés plotting and planning. I like to make notes on lectures and meetings. I rarely look at them again. It’s the mere act of writing thoughts down which seems to fix them.

I’m up to 49 pages of the prose poetry collection. I’m calling it “Glimpses”. It’s a little Proustian in its attempt to recapture times, but times complete with their atmospheres. It’s impossible to tell whether I’m getting it right. My head fills the gaps so much. Those 49 pages are complete. I’ve edited and edited until it sounds right. I’m not sure I do it so much for my novels. Yes there’s the 18 edits, but many of them are just tinkering. Longer pieces become unfixable. It’s almost easier to start something new.

I intend to make the collection something over 100 pages long. I’ve started a new section – Loved Places. The first excerpt is about Nerja. There will be further sections about Bursledon, Salford, Manchester and Bangor, - or North Wales in general. I think I’ll also include a section on “People” and “Commentary” which talks about society as it is today.

Saturday 26 April 2008

An Excuse to Travel

There has been something really great about this schools’ tour that I have been making recently: getting to see so many different parts of the country. Yesterday I was in Somerset. This time, I did manage to find a nice pub for a good lunch. I had just a Ploughman’s but it was a very filling one and I didn’t eat anything else for the rest of the day. More often, I pass lots of enticing pubs on the way. But because I’m usually on my way home or one my way up to Salford, I go back a different way and don’t see them again. Or it’s too early, and by the time it is the right time, I’m on the motorway.

Of course the journeys are mainly motorway. The last few miles are the interesting ones. Then you get to see the variety of countryside and the variety of architecture. Actually, one of the most beautiful parts of this country I’ve seen is the Peak District, and in particular High Peak. That was just forty minutes away from my flat in Salford. Thirty-five minutes was through Manchester traffic and just five in the most fantastic countryside. It was a wet, misty sort of day and it gave the Peaks an air of mystery.

The schools vary, too. Mainly the children are fine and the vast majority of them are interested. I’m amazed that the younger children find Old Fuzzy Locks hilarious, though the older ones just take him in their stride. The teachers do vary from place to place, though. I think it may be stress. Some don’t seem to engage. They are elsewhere. Others are totally with you, totally in the world of the story and as enthusiastic as the children about the writing process and the world of the imagination.

Travel is good, too. I always get ideas as I travel. In fact, the places and people, the atmospheres are fodder for my prose poetry. I wonder how long it will take me to get that collection together. It does need some work and I’m not finding it all that easy.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

A Visit by Zahid Hussain, Writer of “The Curry Mile”

We had a fantastic workshop yesterday at the University of Salford. We had obtained some funding, with the help of one of our Creative Writing Tutors, Emma Hardy, who used to work for Careers. This was money for students to organise an event themselves, which would help them to find out about careers in writing.
It was an excellent occasion. Dimple Singh, one of our very able undergraduate students organised the visit for maximum success. We were in a visible but quiet enough part of the library. Drinks were served on arrival.
Zahid Hussain spoke to us and read to us for just over an hour. His work is brilliant. I sat next to Ursula Hurley, another fiction-writing Creative Writing lecturer. We really had to restrain ourselves so that there we were not disruptive. Zahid told us so much we recognised – the need to put in the hours and produce the volume, the focussed editing, and the order in which you should do that, for example. And about killing off darlings.
We touched also on critique. You need a trusted person who will tell you it how it is. I raised the point about how once another has been introduced to a work in progress they can never have true objectivity again. It is useful to have someone to give feedback as you go along and someone else to give feed back once you have done your best with a piece. I personally find it very useful to ask specific questions of my reader to see whether they have the same picture in their head as they read as I had when I wrote.
Zahid also introduced us to some new ideas. Some writers are visual and some aural. I think I am a little of both, but I do see my stories in scenes. My prose poetry, on the other hand, comes ready formed in words almost whispered into my ear. Is that all based on feelings as he suggests poet’s work is? He also pointed out the difference between Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky plotted in detail. Tolstoy just wrote, a little like Steven King does. Ursula and I both decided we were exactly in the middle. Zahid also touched on the question of voice and point of view. I personally am not convinced that an individual writer needs an individual voice. But certainly a novel needs a consistent voice. Different novels may have different voices. This may change within a novel with the viewpoint. Or you can yet have a story told from one point of view which is a character outside the events who is observing them. This is not the author, but rather yet another fictionalised character. Interesting!
He also spoke a little on how the publishing industry works.
And to top it all, we had the most wonderful buffet of Indian food at the end. My goodness, Dimple, you did do well. A really great event.

Friday 18 April 2008

Teaching and Learning

I really enjoy my job, working with Creative Writing students. Their work is good and they are always keen to hear suggestions which will make it even better. I find I learn, too, by looking at what is working in their work. Or what is not working and then seeing it again in my own, where I’d not been able to see it before.

I guess we all need to share our work with others at times.

I see two stages of sharing though: work in progress and then finished unseen work. I find it good to have both sorts of readers. As soon as a reader has seen work in progress, they can’t be totally objective about it. They can still be helpful. Afterwards, though, you do need fresh eyes.

We’re now talking at the university about doing more close reading. I think perhaps we do need to teach our students to read as writers. Does this take all the pleasure out of it? Or does having this extra critical stance add to the pleasure? I’m actually still tending to judge a book as being very good if it so absorbs me that much that I forget the critical stance. Mmm.

But yes, it’s interesting when I learn as much, from my students as they do from me – if not more.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Finishing a project

Well, I’ve finished the reworking of the novel I wrote for my Ph D project, The Prophecy, originally called Peace Child. I have reacted to all that my examiners said, and gone along with most of their points though not blindly. Each one has been carefully considered. I’ve added a new strand resisted taking out one which I discussed with some of my original readers. They seemed to still like that. I’ve mad big alterations and small alterations and actually left one or two things just as they were.

One interesting point, for example, is that in my mind’s eyes one of the main characters looks like Trevor McDonald. So, he must be black. Yet I’d created an all white society. It is now clear he is black and that society is mixed. It’s just that the Caucasians are pale after spending years underground.

I’ve decided to have some sample copies of the book made. It will be good to see what it looks like. It will also be easier for my readers to read it like that. It is also cheaper to do that than to have them print and bound at somewhere like Staples. Good old Lightning Source.

It feels quite exciting. Now I have to start marketing to out in the big bad world.

I do wonder, though, do we ever really finish a project? Or do we just abandon them? I guess as the rejections pour in, I’ll do some more rewrites.

Saturday 12 April 2008

School Visit - Secondary School

I was at my first ordinary secondary school in the current tour yesterday. Wetherby High School reminded me so much of Brookfield School, where I taught for two lots of four years and which my on children attended. 1960s building with a lot of glass and hardwood. And the usual mix of students.

I talked to four Y9 classes. In a former existence as a secondary school teacher, I used to dread meeting Y9 when I went to a new school. They were always the least receptive towards new teachers. These students, however, were charming, if a little reluctant to ask me questions or answer mine. A few did, however, and both their answers to my questions and the questions they asked me were interesting and kept the flow going nicely. One student did suggest that using drugs might help you to find stories. I think I managed to put him right about that without putting him down. I was actually amazed that almost all of them without any prompting identified the Bible as a good source of stories if you’re stuck for an idea.

I read a little of “Nick’s Gallery” – Chapter Two where we meet Cynthia and Sophie for the first time. I was delighted that when I asked them questions about those two, they all had the same picture in their heads as I did.

There were the usual questions about earnings, inspiration and how I became an author.

A sign that it had gone well, David Frame, one of the teachers who had invited me in, said, was that they all clapped at the end without being prompted. He admired my honesty. That puzzled me a little. Why would anyone be anything other than honest. What I have noticed, though, on all of my visits, is that there is extreme intimacy between me and the students. The teachers seem a little left out, though I do try to bring them in. Maybe I’m just passing on my expereince with theorizing too much.

I was most impressed that a group of fifteen students turned up in the second half of lunch time. They asked questions. I gave them a choice about what I should read – excerpts form a book about someone who loses a friend, a love story or a story about a girl who fancies a boy. They chose the latter, though the choice was rather dominated by a group of giggly Y11 girls. They opted for the one about a girl who fancies a boy. So, I read a little of the opening chapter of “Scum Bag”. The uniform obsession there is about shirts being tucked in, as it was at the school that inspired me and is at Weatherby. The students seemed to apprecaite the story.

I felt good about this visit. I’d been a little nervous about facing secondary again, although for all sorts of good reason, I write more for this age group now than for the lower one. They students received me well. They also received my stories well.

Thursday 10 April 2008

Living the Dream

If I pause a moment and take stock, I’ve actually done quite well. I have over thirty books in print – one of which is selling three for two in Waterstones. My day job is earning me more than any of the other things I do alongside my writing and is actually very strongly related to my writing. It’s a life I had dreamed of – write and earn enough respect about that to talk to other people about my work and help them to become writers also.

The one problem is that I don’t have enough income and because I’m a Baby Boomer, I’m sitting between two generations both of whom need me financially and emotionally and even more globally. That happens in middle age, anyway.

I’ve looked for streams of passive income. For example, Adsense on this blog, my properties, and some work on the stock market. There are trickles. One trickle of passive income is made up of my royalties, and actually, they are better than any of the others There is very little cash flow in my properties, but they remain a good investment – something for the future.

So, it makes absolute sense. Concentrate on the writing. Give to the university that which is its, and give to the writing 100% of what is left over. I’m going to try it for a week – the week started yesterday, and I expect a miracle to happen. Watch this space.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Tabitha Suzuma’s “A Voice in the Distance”

Well, I think Aidan Chambers has finally been knocked off his spot. For the last six years, his Postcards from Noman’s Land has been my all-time favourite book. Admittedly, this was followed quite closely by Tabitha Suzuma’s A Note of Madness. But now A Voice in the Distance

seems to outshine them both.

A Voice in the Distance is the sequel to A Note of Madness, including the same characters and continuing the story of Flynn who keeps his Bipolar disorder at bay with two small pills a day… which seem to stop working early in this novel. He is a brilliant musician and is set for a glittering career as a concert pianist. He truly loves his Jennah, a childhood friend and now his lover, who is also a talented flautist and singer. He has the support of another good friend, Harry, also a student at the Royal College of Music.

Suzuma has written this so that you don’t need to have read A Note of Madness first to understand it. I am sure, however, that you wouldn’t quite have the same emotional engagement with the characters if you hadn’t read the first novel. You may not love them quite enough. Nevertheless, our closeness to both Flynn and Jennah is maintained through two very convincing first person narratives, where Suzuma has truly found the voice of her characters.

This is a Young Adult novel par excellence. The stakes are high for Flynn and Jennah. Although the novel is quite introspective, there are great highs and alarming lows and plenty of pace. We are totally captivated by the two main characters, who grow and change as they must in all Young Adult novels. The ending is ambiguous, leaving the reader to decide how life will pan out for the two main characters.

I’m normally a disciplined reader, keeping my distance and holding on to my objectivity, but I did stay up to finish this last night. I just had to find out what happened to these two charming young people whom I love dearly. But I’m not going to tell you and deprive you of the joy of finding out for yourselves.

Saturday 5 April 2008

The Sands of Time Conference

This was an extremely interesting conference, held at the University of Hertfordshire. Most of the delegates were there as academics – or as one delegate put it aca-bloody-demics - interested in reading children’s and Young Adult Literature, with some interest in how it is used politically, and to do with culture and identity. I was there as a writer who is also an academic how has studied the Young Adult Novel in depth and has noticed that many Young Adult novels are to do with identity.

There were other writers there – Alan Gibbons, Berlie Doherty, Beverley Naidoo, Anne Cassidy and Elizabeth Laird. Also, many of the academics have also written books, but I guess their concern is not so much with sales and royalties as we writers are, but with the esteem which the books bring. I guess, though, that amounts to the same thing, in a way. It was good to mix again with other writers. Of course I’m not as well-known as they are, but we share experiences. And they did gawp when I mentioned that Waterstones are selling me three for two.

Alan’s talk at the end really gave food for thought. Though the publishers are hard-headed business people and embedded in capitalism, they rely on subversive texts to feed their sales. A bit like Aunty, really. Yet Aunty – aka the BBC is delightfully independent, but should tow a government line even though it does not have to obey the advertisers. Interestingly, it can speak reasonably freely.

On a personal level, I’m beginning to see how important it is that I stick with my writing and that I really do get it as good as I possibly can. It was really good brushing shoulders with those five and I did mange to speak for a long time over dinner with Alan and Berlie.