Wednesday 31 December 2014

Well, it’s the last day of 2015 and I’m still enjoying that Christmas holiday bubble where the days are still dark, we stay in a lot, see a lot of friends and family and also consume a lot of story. I’m reading and writing avidly, getting used to my new tablet (birthday present) and getting around to a lot of “writerly” work the day job often doesn’t leave time for. Lots of submissions, marketing and updating web pages.
On a personal level, we’re still getting over the rather nasty burglary we suffered in November. We lost two cars, cash, a passport, keys, a folder of music, a Kindle - and a bath towel! I say we’re getting over it but it’s been more interesting than traumatic. No, I’m not traumatised that they came in the middle of the night through a front window whilst we were asleep. I almost admire them for that. I do feel slightly uncomfortable because I think they were watching the house and they’d got our movements worked out and because I am convinced they cloned my bank cards. My handbag was found ten miles away from our house. It was on a footpath going up to a house. They’d left my memory stick, my work ID and my credit card very visibly in the wrong part of the bag.  They’d wanted it to be found and they wanted me to think my bank cards were safe.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Changing regimes – and changing back again

Since 2003 I’ve spent the first two hours of every day writing. Yes, even weekends and when on holiday. However, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t manage it. I count the weekends and holidays as extra and set them against the days when I don’t manage to write.
I also try to write 2000 words. I don’t always manage it but often come close – say 1750.
This can actually be quite productive and has led to a novel every eighteen months or so, and several short stories, articles and academic papers.
Then this academic year for the first time, it all seemed to go to pot. I just couldn’t seem to fit it in. Work seemed to make more demands.  

Monday 8 December 2014

A belated November newsletter

It’s that time of year again and we’re on the run into that festival. Yes, Christmas is a time when I traditionally do a lot of reading and a lot of thinking. I watch a lot TV – some of the cheesy variety and some other, more serious material, often some of that good old British drama. Lots of ideas bubble away.
I always see this time of year as a type of hibernation – we feed ourselves – physically, intellectually and emotionally, we stay indoors and keep ourselves warm – and we writers hope that lots of people will read our books. Perhaps they’ll have a new Kindle for Christmas and download some of our works.              
I have a birthday just before Christmas and though I used to curse it as a child I now welcome it: it’s the day our hemisphere starts titling back towards the light and I’ve only ever been to school once on my birthday. I’ve never been to work – though I may do a little writing.  The end of the gloom seems a good time to welcome a new year and new plans for new works.
Of course also, there are lots of celebrations and yesterday we held a gathering of Bridge House and CafeLit authors. More about this below!  

Saturday 22 November 2014

Postcards over Ramsbottom or Don’t ever cross a novelist – you might get put into a novel or How novelists make use of just about everything

So, I go to my study to look at my phone, just like I do every morning. To find out what the weather’s going to be like and how I should therefore dress.
Except that my handbag isn’t its usual place by the desk in my study. Perhaps I left it somewhere else. I did have rather a lot of luggage to bring in from the car last night.

It’s not downstairs by the lounge door. Did I leave it in the car? I go to the spare room to look out onto the drive to see if I can see it on the passenger seat of my car. My car is not there. Neither is my husband’s.

We panic a little. I must have done something really stupid like left the handbag on the front door step. Oh Gawd.   
Then I notice a cupboard open in our lounge. My husband notices the curtains are open a little. He opens them fully and we can see that they forced their way through a window – a window that has four locks on it, into a house that is alarmed. I’ve walked past that window four times already today and not noticed anything. 
Later still I find that they did indeed go upstairs. My Kindle, which was next to my computer in my study, is also gone. At the weekend we discover that we are also missing a bath towel. Our newest one, in fact.     
At least now I am relieved that I didn’t do something stupid with my handbag. We contact the Police, my banks, my phone provider and the insurance companies for my phone and our cars. Then I phone work. 
(No, this isn’t the beginning of a crime novel. This really happened to us last Tuesday. But you never know …)

Sunday 9 November 2014

October 2014 Newsletter, slightly belated

I guess my biggest news at the moment is that I’ve been promoted to Senior lecturer at the University of Salford. It’s a nice feeling. It sort of confirms that I’ve been doing a few things right. Not that the pressure goes away – if anything there’s more. Current challenges: improve NSS scores, retention, continuation, completion and recruit more students. Oh, and fit in a little research and writing!   
We’ve just had Reading / Writing Week and I’ve been out and about doing some unusual things: school visits, visit to Ireland, where I’ve made one or two interesting connections, and a conference.
I’ve managed to do a little more research towards my book on Children’s Literature. Some of the material at Trinity College, Dublin was extremely interesting, especially to do with the connection to myths. This also feeds nicely into a lecture I’m delivering next week.     

Sunday 26 October 2014

Worth it?

I don’t get to as many events for authors as I used to. I don’t get quite as excited about them either. It’s sometimes the case that it’s the “same old, same old” and sometimes it could be that I could have perhaps delivered the session myself. In a way, I do deliver such sessions: they’re part of my day job as a Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing.        
Some events are still worth it, though. 

Monday 6 October 2014

On the cusp - ending and beginning

Letting go

I am at that delightful transition stage. I have finished the second of my Schellberg cycle books, Clara’s Story. I’ve got it as good as I can. It’s edited and polished. Now it’s resting a while and I’m gaining some distance from it. I’ll be sending it off to the publisher soon. There will be a reaction. I hope it will be that they’ll agree to publish it. Then there will be an editor’s reaction. No doubt there will be changes. If I get some distance now, though, any suggestions from the editor will be easier to digest.

Sunday 5 October 2014

September Newsletter

The new academic year has started and we’re very busy pointing students to where they need to be. Several of our new first years are making a point of coming to my office or stopping me in the street to tell me how much they’re enjoying their course. This is fabulous. Let’s hope we can keep on working in such a way that they will be able to keep on enjoying their study. We’re watching with some excitement too the new building that we hope to move into in January 2016.      

Sunday 21 September 2014

Clichés – how can we avoid them and do we really have to?

Clichés become clichés because they do what they do rather well. There isn’t anything else quite like a bull in a china shop. Nothing could be nastier than having a ton of bricks fall on you. Putting a spanner in the works probably works better than throwing a wooden clog into the machinery --- that act which gave us the word sabotage, form the French word “sabot”.
Plots and stories can be clichéd too, yet it is good for our psychological health to consume the same story over and over. Christopher Booker, anyway, tells us there are only seven stories, Arthur Frank offers us three and Robert McKee provides a template that will structure any story. Part of our enjoyment of stories comes from recognising this pattern over and over.
Language, too, has to repeat so that we understand it.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Modes of Diversity

Malorie Blackman had quite a hard time recently when she made a plea for diversity in children’s literature. She was horribly edited so that it came out as if she talked about nothing else. This was followed by a lot of racist responses to the article. (Should it call itself that? No self-respecting journalist would.).

Monday 1 September 2014

Newsletter 1 September 2014

I’m busily getting ready for the new academic year at the university yet it still a little less hectic than the teaching weeks will be. The new students need quite a bit of attention in the first few weeks as do the students who still have pass marks missing.
I’ve taken a few odd days off here and there, mainly to use up remaining leave. I find these odd days very useful. I don’t look at university emails on those days though I might do a little forward planning. They’re useful for catching up on such tasks as paying cheques into the bank, getting a picture framed and sorting out a new phone. Plus they give me a taste of how life will be when I retire in two years’ time. Of course, I won’t retire from writing – in fact, I’ll probably get more done.
I’m suddenly making some very exciting connections. I can’t say more at the moment, but I should be able to in a few weeks’ time. Watch this space.

Thursday 28 August 2014

De-isolating the writer

The isolated writer

Writers certainly need solitude and we have to resign ourselves to being alone quite often. In addition we have to have a unique voice and contribute something to our world something that no one else can. Inevitably we work alone.
I’m also an academic and there is an echo of this there. I’m working in my office alone today. None of my immediate colleagues are in the building and even if they were we may not see each other.
Daily I spend between six and ten hours working alone.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

The very best type of feedback

Writers should be proactive when sharing their work and ask questions of their readers. They should also be passive and let the reader make their own mind up about a text. These two statements might seem to contradict but if we focus on one very important question, they actually make a lot of sense. We should ask of our readers “What do you understand from this text?”

Friday 1 August 2014

Newsletter July 2014

I’m back at work now, and extremely busy at the university, getting ready for next academic year. I’m also dealing with students facing resits and new students applying through Clearing, though the real push comes after A-Level day – 14 August.
Today, though, I have a day off because I’ve a demanding dress and technical rehearsal this evening with a choir I’ve joined. This is something extra and over and above the choir I normally sing with. We’re involved with a special project, Honour, that remembers the Great War. Do take a look. It is going to be spectacular. Come along if you live in the Greater Manchester area.    
And if you’re a writer who feels a little isolated, I can really recommend joining a choir. You work with people and singing is good for both your physical and mental health. Find a choir in your local area here.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Paid author visits

Writers should be paid for visits – of course they should. A day in a school, for instance, isn’t just a day in a school. There is all the preparation beforehand, plus several phone-calls and emails to sort everything out, and travel to and from the venue, let alone all those years of apprenticeship in your craft. Hence, I rate such a day at £350 but only get that rarely.
It isn’t all that clear cut anyway.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Pace- getting it right

I don’t mean here the pace in a story though that is of course important. I’m talking here more about pace in the writer’s life.

The difference between selling and not selling and between being published and not being published

We all probably recognise that that has little to do with the quality of the work. Given that the writing is good, it won’t be published unless it gets to the right publisher at the right time and once published it won’t sell unless both writer and publisher make the right sort of marketing moves. We have to be proactive both in sending out to publishers, in marketing our work and creating helpful publicity around it.

Monday 16 June 2014

One writer’s take on social media

I actually thought I was quite connected. I went to a talk last week and learnt that I was  actually quite disconnected. There are times, you see, when I deliberately don’t plug myself into the net. I’m not one of these people who is constantly trying to keep up with Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and my email even when I’m out and about. I’ll look if I’m expecting something or I find myself idle or bored. I only like on Facebook and retweet on Twitter what I genuinely like.
But if I’m disconnected, some people are totally isolated. And for a writer and an academic who works a lot of the time in isolation, social media is a real gift.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Building Characters

I’ve written about this before and I’ll probably write about it many times again. In my day job as a lecture in Creative Writing at the University of Salford I have just been marking the first attempts of many of my students at writing fiction. Okay, so they’ve probably been doing it since infant school but have had a huge break since then. Now, anyway, we’re looking at it in a more critical way. We’re trying to unpick what the tools are and get a better grip on them.

Saturday 10 May 2014

The Return of the Penny Dreadful?

I resist melodrama and impossible coincidence.
I love British drama and British literature. They keep me in Britain. I’ll be retiring in a couple of years and I often think about where I’m going to live. Live theatre here and easy access to good television and literature that is neither too popular nor too literary make the UK an obvious choice.
But is there something more sinister creeping in at the moment?

Sunday 20 April 2014

My Ten Rules of Writing

Everyone else seems to do this so I thought I’d better do it too. I wonder, though whether this changes from day to day and I’d imagine it certainly would over a period of time. I wonder also whether one or two items are actually constants. Here’s today’s list of ten, anyway.    

1.      Write every day

Yes, write absolutely every day. To me writing is like cleaning your teeth – I feel uncomfortable if I don’t do it. I actually have a two hour rule – write at least two hours a day. It used to be one hour and / or 1,000 words. I upped it to two hours and 2,000 words when I got a contract for a non-fiction book. 
I started the one hour / 1,000 words when I still had a demanding day job and two teenage children. I managed it somehow. I’d say to those even busier – start really small. Maybe ten minutes a day. You’re less likely to talk yourself out of it as you’re more likely to find the ten minutes. More often than not you’ll manage more.
And every day means every day. Today is Sunday and I’m on holiday in Scotland.   

2.      Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t manage it one day

Life happens. I have a day job – one that is very apt for a writer and keeps me in contact with writing. Sometimes, however, the demands of that day job are such that I don’t get time for my writing. I don’t fret if there is day on which I really cannot write. I know I’ll be able to again soon.  There is no question of not being able to.

3.      Don’t wait for inspiration

Because it probably won’t come. It doesn’t usually come, anyway, when I’m sat at my desk. That is really an info dump.  I’ve done all of the thinking elsewhere and else when. It’s surprising, though, what does start happening as you hit the keys. Other ideas creep in round the edges.
And even on days when I think I’ve got absolutely nothing to say, I just start typing and out comes the story.  

4.      Writing is mainly rewriting

Such a cliché but it’s so true. What takes me three months to write takes me up to eighteen months to edit.  

5.      Write what you know

Yet I write fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction. However, I would still say I am writing what I know. I submerge myself into the scenes I am creating. I become at one with them. It almost becomes a form of method acting. I am writing from what I know, from what I am when I confront the monster, when I visit another world and when I’m in Nazi Germany.

6.      You never finish, you just abandon

There comes a time when you have to meet the deadline, when you have to send your work out into the world, when it has to become public. If you had more time you would write it even better. We are perfectionist and we never achieve perfection. Thankfully we continue to improve. Be pleased that all of your work leads to your best work. Treat earlier works kindly.

7.      Write what you love

Write what you are passionate about. Take care not to become a disillusioned jobbing writer. If you don’t like the compromise the market forces on you, then earn your daily bread another way. Don’t compromise, anyway. Find a third way that suits both you and the market.

8.      Don’t ever give up

You can make it as a writer if you really want to. It’s a big “if”, however. You’ll have to face rejection, self-doubt and even disappointing reviews once you are published. Keep faith with yourself.

9.      Take the time to do nothing

You can’t give and give and give. You need to nourish your own soul. You need some experiences to feed your writing. Take a stroll in the park, walk through a colourful market or sip a hot drink in crowded café.

10.  Read, read, read

You’ve probably picked up most of your writing skills by a form of osmosis from reading. Now that your inner editor has developed you’ll probably not enjoy reading quite the same way you used to.  You’ll notice the misplaced apostrophe, the clunky sentence and the strained dialogue but you’ll also notice the well-drawn character, the strong sense of time and place and the tightly written prose. Whether you label what you read as good or as bad writing you will still learn from it.                                      

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Balancing a story – story structure and more with St Mary’s Catholic Primary School, Bath Spa

It was a fabulous sight. Practically every person, including all of the staff and the headteacher, were dressed up as characters out of a book. We had Puss-in-Boots, several Wallys, form Where’s Wally, a harry Potter and a Hermione or two, several Alices and many, many more. It was clear that everyone had gone to great deal of effort. The costumes were convincing. It was also good to see so many books lying on tables.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Getting there? How do you know when you’ve made it as a writer?

How is a writer defined?

That’s almost the easy bit. If you write, or at least if you write and take yourself seriously, you are a writer. But at what point do you become an established, professional or experienced writer? Let alone talented or skilled? (I actually argue you can’t help talent but you can always develop skill.)

Sunday 2 March 2014

What if there were dragons hiding in the woods?

Visit to St Mark’s CE Junior School, Salisbury, Friday 28 February

I had a lovely time at St Mark’s on Friday. I was able to present some of my work. I read a little from Kiters and told the students about how I used to enjoy reading when I was their age and about how even then I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was so full of story.
I worked with one Year 5 and Year 6 group on Magic and Mystery and two groups of years 3 and 4 on Dragons.
I got to meet the resident dragon and to hear and see some of the work the students have been doing with other writers all week.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Some truths about being a writer

Similarities are perhaps more surprising than differences

I had the extraordinary privilege yesterday of attending one of our MA days with our Playwriting MA students. A colleague was ill and I took over some of the hosting duties. This is a delightful group of very serious, very committed students.  I joined in the discussion with them and three of the visiting playwrights. Although writing plays is in many way different from writing fiction, being a writer in both cases is very similar.

Turn up at the page

This was a big message. The fact that these students are on this course is a sign already that they have some competence.  They’re not terrible writers. They’re not yet great. But they can be and are more likely to be with continued practice. So, it’s important to set aside time for writing.  This time must be ring-fenced. Even on the days it is difficult, if you write you are a writer.

A vocation not a profession

You do this because you are passionate about it. You may not be able to earn all that you need from it – only a very few do. But you keep on. There are ways to manage this:
·         Stay with your creative project and find casual work to pay the bills
·         Compromise your creativity for the sake of commercial success
·          Join the academy (There is an interesting irony here – that is just as much a vocation though it looks like a profession.)
·         Take on some “jobbing” writing tasks
I’ve actually said all of this before. It was good to hear other “professional” writers say the same.
The value of networking
We’re handing some of this out on a plate to our students. But keeping a finger on the pulse is essential. Find out what’s happening out there. As one visitor put it, never turn down a cup of tea. There is an abundance of opportunities.
Small press is great
I’m small pressed published and I love it. The equivalent in playwriting is to find small theatre groups, consider doing something via You Tube or consider producing work yourself. Create your own opportunities. This leads to good lines on CVs.
Submission dilemma
One “publisher” looks as if they will accept if you totally change something which takes out the heart of your work. Another actually loves precisely this aspect but cannot at this stage make any promises. Is it here a matter of finding a third way and a third “publisher”? Been there. Done that.  Several times.
Ah, the writer’s life is a curious thing.      

Friday 7 February 2014

Being a university lecturer – is this a help or a hindrance?

At least I’ll never have to retire

I met with a few colleagues in a local café yesterday.
“I’ll be retiring in two years,” I said but then added quickly “but of course I shall carry on writing so I shan’t really ever retire.”
We discussed this a little. There would be another advantage – there would be no pressure to write anything too commercial. Even though I’d still want to be paid, so that the writing gained some status, my teaching pension, my university pension and the state pension would pay for pretty well all of my immediate needs. Or is that an advantage?


Some other advantages

You are certainly taken more seriously if you say you have an MA and a PhD in creative writing and that you teach it in Higher Education. This isn’t necessarily by publishers – if anything they’re a little wary. When it comes to organising readings, festival appearances or school visits, though, it’s a good line on the CV.
The university gives me a reasonable salary for being a writer and doing quite a few other useful tasks for them – teaching some classes, completing some admin and as a writer being an ambassador for the university.  
Nobody bats an eyelid if I work on my novel in my office on the university computer.
I’m thinking, talking about and reading writing all of the time. That actually helps me to make my own better.


 Some disadvantages

Time often disappears and sometimes when there is the time there isn’t always the brain space. It is now 8.45. I’m working from home this morning. This is the best time for me to write. Often, if I can’t write first thing I don’t get round to writing at all.
There certainly isn’t the time for doing the marketing that will produce a steady stream of sales. I do look forward to having more time for that when I retire. But I’ll miss a tag, though I expect I can say “former university lecturer”.  
That advantage of not having to be too commercial can be a disadvantage too. There must be rigour in both cases. Lack of commercial value also, alas, can mean lack of visibility.
Creative wring in any case maintain a puzzling position in Higher Education. Even we creative writing academics ourselves can’t always define it successfully. Yet we have a growing sense that we bring genuine academic rigour to that discipline.  


The goal

For me personally this remains the same as ever: to write that novel or that group of novels that really make the difference. And so, inside or outside the academy that process continues.