Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Writing and the Fear of Failure

This is my first post as a regular contributor to this blog and I’m hesitant to start. What if I write something stupid? What if I get it all wrong and everyone laughs?

The fear of failure is a common thing amoung writers – and not just writers. 

When I visit schools, I’ve taken to showing the children a story I wrote when I was seven. 

I get the kids to tear it apart, point out all the mistakes, from spelling mistakes to the fact it’s weird and creepy and has no proper beginning, middle or end. Then I ask them, “How many of you have ever wanted to try something but you worry you you won’t be any good at it and so you don’t bother?”

Inevitably, hands go up. Always from the teachers but even from the six and seven year-olds.

One of the most challenging things is to convince children that it’s ok to write a bad story, that it’s ok to start something then abandon it. That the only time you fail is when you give up. And then I go home and stare at my latest draft in despair and wonder if I’ll ever write anything worth reading.

So, how do we as writers overcome that fear of failure, and how do we inspire young people to tell their stories, freely and joyfully, simply having fun with words? I wish I knew. In the meantime, I’ve stolen a few ideas from my friends.

 Getting it Wrong is Fun!

January is a time for resolutions and here’s a blog post from Stephanie Burgis who has resolved to do things she enjoys but is not good at.

New Year, New Discoveries

I’ve found that taking away the pressure to produce good work is a  fantastic boost to creativity. I can’t draw. I couldn’t at school and I can’t now. I’ve never learn how to translate the image in my head into lines on a page. But at the Scattered Authors’ Folly Farm retreat last December I nervously joined in a comic drawing workshop and I was soon having terrific fun making terrible stick figures.I haven’t tried drawing anything since but I think I’ll have another go soon.

 Milk Your Mistakes!

My piano teacher talks about juicy mistakes. When you play a wrong note, don’t just mutter and correct it. Pause and think about it. Why did I hit a C instead of a D? Then play about – hit lots of wrong notes as well as the right one and spot the difference in arm movement. (Warning: the neighbours might not like this!)

The same technique can apply to writing. Has my draft run aground? What’s gone wrong with it? Do I need more conflict, higher stakes, another giant octopus?  Turn ‘mistakes’ into a chance to learn.

Vacate Your Comfort Zone

If I could have a superpower, it’d be invisibility. I like to make my mistakes in secret. I’m quite happy trying new things as long as no one can see me.

And then I learned to ski. I haven’t yet been able to persuade everyone to vacate a mountain while I practise. Add to this the fact that I’m not naturally good at skiing and I had the perfect recipe for giving up and going home.

Fortunately, my stubborn streak kicked in and I stuck at it. I might not be the most graceful skier on the mountain but who cares? I don’t need to be the best at it, I just need to be good enough to get to where I’m going.

(If you look closely, you'll see a tiny dinosaur in my left pocket. This is Sir Doris, my confidence dinosaur, who travels with me. Because you can achieve anything if you have a dinosaur in your pocket.)

The comparison to writing is obvious. I’m never going to be the best author in the world, but I don’t have to be. I just need to get the draft finished.

This year, I’m going to write new things, to try new things, to learn from my mistakes. And I’m going to risk making some mistakes in public – starting with this blog. I'm looking forward to it. And, if anyone of you have any tips for overcoming the fear of failure, please do share them with me.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Books: my emotional stepping stones to the past – by Rowena House

Before I could begin the story that became The Goose Road I had to give myself permission to write about a subject as shocking & sad as the First World War.
Now, after years of research, that seems odd. Today I feel on firm mental ground in WW1, eager in fact to return. But back then I felt presumptuous. Almost guilty. How could I possibly begin to imagine what it was like?
Yes, I did a ton of research in books and online, in lecture halls and museums. I had to get the facts right out of respect for the dead. But that wasn’t enough. I needed a deeper, more visceral connection. With hindsight, two types of research were critical to building that emotional bridge to the past.
First was place, by which I mean being there physically, walking through the cemetery-strewn fields of the Somme and the rolling hillsides of Verdun, or standing in a zigzag trench at Beaumont Hamel, or paying my respects to the broken & greying skulls of French and German soldiers, laid to rest together.
Second came a few, critical books.
Out of everything I’ve read about World War One, fiction and non-fiction, I now believe it was just five books that led me to a sufficient level of understanding that I finally felt I had the right to trespass into – and then to inhabit – the world of the Great War. They were stepping stones, and I’ll always treasure them.
The first, chronologically, was a venerable copy of The Complete Works of Wilfred Owen which I took with me to Étaples, the Channel port where I knew my story had to end. Owen (pictured above) himself spent time in this place. Like all British Empire infantrymen & officers, he passed through the huge reinforcement and hospital camp, which dominated Étaples’ old town, on his way to the Western Front. I’d been deeply upset by his war poems when we studied them at school. And here I was, a grown woman, weeping over them again.
The second book, The Price of GloryVerdun 1916, is a brilliant piece of narrative non-fiction by Alistair Horne. First published in 1962, he resurrects the dramatic personae of that gruelling battle with dexterity and detail, populating the horrific statistics of slaughter with living, breathing men.
The third book that opened unexpected doors in my mind was Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger, a German officer who survived the war. Dedicated to The Fallen, Jung gives an alternative perspective to the ‘pity of war’ that is deeply embedded in the British tradition of remembrance, thanks in part to the anti-war poets such as Owen. I brought Jung’s unapologetic account of courage and comradeship under fire in the bookshop at Thiepval, the Commonwealth war memorial to the missing of the Somme – that is, to soldiers whose bodies were so torn apart (evaporated even) by artillery bombardments that they were beyond identification as individual men.
The fourth & fifth books which stand out in my memory are both by Pat Baker, being the first and last in her Regeneration trilogy. If anyone asked me which single WW1 novel they should read, I would say The Ghost Road, the finale, every time. It may be that Owen is important here too, since he is a character in these stories, and his death vividly told. His fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon – at the time far better known than Owen – is central to the narrative as well. But I think it is the complexity of Dr Rivers that makes these novels so compelling, and the depth of the irony that, as a military psychiatrist, his job is to make officers who are suffering the most awful mental torment as a result of what they’ve seen and done in battle, well enough to go back to fight and kill and quite probably die, like millions upon millions of others.
Dear God, never again.
My own contribution to the stories inspired by this ‘war to end all wars’, The Goose Road, is a coming-of-age quest set in France in 1916. It will be published by Walker Books on April 5 and is available to pre-order on Amazon and from local bookshops now.
@houserowena (Twitter) @rowenahouse (Instagram)

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A Host of Heavenly Hs by Lynne Benton

Almost all my H authors, it turns out, are Author/Illustrators writing for young children, though I hadn't realised that when I made my list.  I want to start with

PAT HUTCHINS, who sadly died just before Christmas.  She wrote and illustrated over 40 books for young children, but her most famous is probably “Rosie’s Walk”, published in 1968. In this book only 32 words tell the simple story of Rosie the hen who takes a walk round the farmyard.  However, the illustrations show a fox stalking her but being foiled at every turn, so that Rosie returns to her home unscathed and unaware of the danger she has been in.  Many of Pat Hutchins' stories, such as “Titch” and “Where’s the Baby?” contained strong family themes, as did her longer books, including “The House that Sailed Away” and “Stop that Bus!”

TED HUGHES is probably mainly known as a poet, but generations of children were introduced to him via his stories for children, most particularly his science fiction story “The Iron Man”, published in 1968 (and subsequently read on “Jackanory” by Tom Baker.)  This is the story of a man made of iron who is misunderstood by the people among whom he has come to live, except for Hogarth, the boy who wants to help him, and eventually the Iron Man brings lasting peace to the earth.  Ted Hughes died in 1998.

KATHLEEN HALE is best-remembered for her series of books about “Orlando, the Marmalade Cat”.  The first of these was published in the late 1930s, though Orlando's popularity extended well beyond that, and the last in the series was published in 1972. The stories contained Kathleen’s quirky wit, and were all about adventure, friendship and family life.  She was awarded the OBE in 1976 and died in 2000 at the age of 101.

RUSSELL HOBAN was born in Pennsylvania, USA, in 1925, and has written many books for children and adults.  Probably his best-known stories are about the little badger, Frances, whose character and exploits were based on his own children.  “Bedtime for Frances” was published in 1960, and was followed by five sequels.  In 1967 he wrote a darker story for older children called “The Mouse and His Child”, shortly before the family moved to London.  On his divorce from his illustrator wife Lilian, the rest of the family returned to the US, but Russell remained in London for the rest of his life, writing for adults as well as for children.  He died in 2011.

SHIRLEY HUGHES is one of the best-known names in books for young children.  Born in West Kirby in 1927, she trained as an artist and began her career by illustrating books for writers such as Dorothy Edwards (My Naughty Little Sister) and Noel Streatfeild (The Bell Family) before beginning to write and illustrate her own stories.  She has won the Kate Greenaway medal twice for her delightful illustrations, once for “Dogger”, published in 1977, and once for “Ella’s Big Chance” in 2003, but possibly her best-loved books are her stories about Alfie and his little sister Anne-Rose.  She was awarded the CBE in 2017 for services to children’s literature.

COLIN AND JACQUI HAWKINS have created many idiosyncratic children’s books whose impish humour appeals to children and their parents alike.  They both trained in the graphic arts, and their books have an enduring appeal.  Many of their books involve their readers in learning activities, but with so much fun surrounding the lessons that children are unaware they are learning.  Their books have been translated into many different languages.

JANE HISSEY is another writer/illustrator who has written many books for young children about “Old Bear and Friends”, which subsequently became the basis for a BAFTA winning series for children’s television.  The original Old Bear toy was given to her as a child by her grandmother, and became the inspiration for these books.  She lives in Sussex.

Next time I’ll be combining the Is and Js, as there aren't too many of either.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Thanks Again! by Sheena Wilkinson


I’ve already announced this project on The History Girls (http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/words-as-well-as-deeds-by-sheena.html) but I make no apologies for doing it again, as it launches tomorrow and I’m really excited about it!

My novel Star By Star is about the 1918 general election, when women voted for the first time in this country. Stella, the main character, has been brought up by suffragettes, and on election day, though she’s too young to vote herself, she tries to show her gratitude by doing all in her power to get one woman to the polling station, despite events conspiring against her.

Throughout this year I’m taking Stella’s example and thanking some of the women whose lives and work and courage have made life better for all of us. I’ll be posting a specially designed Star By Star postcard on the Little Island Blog on the 14th of every month, culminating with the centenary of the election on 14th December.

Who will I thank? You’ll have to go to www.littleisland.ie to find out!

But it’s not just about me: anyone can get involved in the project. We’ll be distributing the postcards to selected bookshops and schools in the hope that as many people as possible will join us to say thank you to the inspirational women from history, from literature and from our own lives. Look out for the Star By Star postcards, but if you can’t find them, don’t worry: any postcard will do. 

Share your Thank Yous on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #StarByStarThankYous, and remember to tag me (@sheenawriter) and Little Island (@LittleIslandBks)

Check out the Little Island blog tomorrow, 14 January, for full details, and to see my first #StarByStarThankYou.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Writing Exercises I Have Loved: Part 2 - by Ruth Hatfield

A quick one today to cheer up drizzly January! This is one from a workshop I attended given by Olivia Laing, who wrote the wonderful ‘To The River’, which manages to be a nature walk, a soul search and an homage to Virginia Woolf all at the same time. Laing writes beautiful, expressive prose about the world around her – intricately descriptive but not overly rambling. 'To The River' is about a walk down the Ouse in Sussex, for the most part a reasonably well-travelled journey - how does she manage to write so freshly about a place that so many others have described before?

Go to the nearest window (Ok, so I did this exercise in a room in one of the Cambridge colleges and naturally the view was painfully beautiful, but don’t go further to pick one with a classically pretty view – just deal with what you’ve got to hand!).

Spend 5 minutes looking at the scene. Now spend 10 minutes describing it in writing (trying to write reasonably well and coherently).

Then walk away. Come back. Pick up your pen and spend 10 minutes describing the same scene, writing as badly as possible. Use all the adjectives you like, all the clichés, all the overblown or ill-fitting similies and metaphors. Repeat anything you like, as often as you like. Don’t censor yourself in any way – actively try to exaggerate and write badly.

Compare the two. Which one seems more full of life?

Obviously for me it was the second passage – really letting my self-censor go meant I had twice as much written, and had poked my pen into places I simply hadn’t seen when I was trying to persuade it to write elegant, studied prose. Perhaps it was because it was easier to knock aside the obvious points of the view with a few clichés and lists of adjectives, leaving me with spare time to look further into the landscape. But I’m sure there were other reasons, too.

We spend a lot of time trying to write ‘well’. But the point that this exercise made to me is that trying too hard can stifle us, sometimes catastrophically, to the point where we strip away our own thoughts and words because they seem inferior or clumsy. Then we compare the situations we’re writing about with others’ descriptions of similar situations, and often end up leaning on others’ writing. We might go so far as to use bald, overheard phrases in our descriptions, while suppressing words that leapt first to us as we looked out at the world through our own eyes.

Sometimes in writing, less is more. And sometimes more is more! I plan to spend drizzly January trying to let go, and seeing where I end up.

Happy writing!

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair! – Catherine Butler

Shelley’s traveller had his vast and trunkless legs of stone. Today, authors have second-hand bookshops.

It’s always bittersweet to find one’s own books being sold second hand. Nothing puts the ‘Ex” into “Ex Libris” like finding a story into which one poured a good portion of one’s soul on sale for pennies, but when it’s a presentation copy it coats the bitter pill in wormwood icing. I don’t want to say it’s exactly like seeing one’s own child being put up for adoption, but there’s a smack of that.

So anyway, I came across Death of a Ghost (2006) in the local Oxfam, and on opening it got the shock of dull surprise I always feel when I encounter my own handwriting in an unexpected place. There was my friendly dedication to a local school, written – I now remembered – during a visit there some ten years ago. My first instinct was to be a little offended that they had given the book away, but then I looked at the plate where all the library stamps should be, and got snow blindness:

My Badge of Shame

It seemed that no one had taken it out in all its ten years. At least I could comfort myself that it hadn’t been read and found wanting, but not to have been read at all? Is that really better?

I bought it, of course, and hurried it home, certain that every passer-by was looking at me and muttering “unsuccessful author” under their breath.

Ahem. That was all I had to say, really, but, looking at my watch, it seems I still have a few minutes left, so while I’m here, why don’t we lighten the mood by looking at a couple of other inscriptions in my possession?

Here’s one it took me over a year to obtain. This particular book belonged to my great-great-great-great grandfather, Weeden Butler. It is inside a copy of the clergyman William Dodd's Thoughts in Prison, which Weeden (who was Dodd’s amanuensis) helped copy and publish after Dodd was hanged for forging the Earl of Chesterfield’s signature in 1777 – the last person to be hanged for forgery in England. (If you want to know the rather colourful story of Dodd’s fall from grace, I’ve written about it here.) You can see Weeden’s own stamp, and then in pencil some notes made by his great-grandson Gerard in 1894, including these intriguing lines:

On page 8 is the reference to “Butler - midst a million faithful found”, which in the wave of popular revulsion after Dodd’s execution in 1777 made so much difference to Weeden Butler's fortunes.

At some point after Gerard wrote that mysterious note the book left the family, and I was very pleased to get it back into Butler hands, via an American bookseller.

I have no personal connection with my other example, which I bought second-hand for 75p about 35 years ago. It’s a copy of Dante’s Purgatorio, and the inscription is to one R. F. Gore Browne, dated September 1915. Gore Browne was a prisoner-of-war at the time, being held in an officer’s prison camp at Stralsund on the Baltic Coast. I was struck then, and still am, by what an appropriate gift the Purgatorio must have seemed in such circumstances.

Prompted by writing this blog, I’ve tried to find out a little more about the camp, and discovered an account by an American visitor, written earlier in the year (Gore Browne, a second-lieutenant in the artillery, was already a prisoner by that time). It sounds distinctly more comfortable than the conditions many of his comrades were experiencing on the Front:

The British officers live by themselves, occupying two good sized rooms, nine in one and 18 in the other, there being also one French officer in the larger room, which is partitioned off by wardrobes into three sections. All seemed well and in good spirits, and all were in communication with their friends at home. All agreed in saying that there was no discrimination against them, and none had any material complaint to make. Letters and parcels are received more promptly than they had been at Mainz. The commandant promised to consider their wishes in regard to the use of a special field for cricket. Tennis courts are already in use, and there is a large park in which the officers are permitted to walk.

Here's a picture of the place, taken the same year:

Possible Cricket Field?

In my last ABBA blog I talked about Carrie's War, a book set in the Second World War in which there are no bombs or battles. I like that book for showing a quiet corner of the world in a time of global trauma, and in similar vein it pleases me to think of Lt. Gore Browne spending most of the First World War in relative equanimity (after whatever early action resulted in his capture), playing tennis, or cricket if the commandant proved amenable, reading Dante on rainy days, and watching the war go by from his small island on the Baltic Sea.

What became of Gore Browne afterwards? His book, at least, returned to Blighty, where I eventually bought it. As for the man...

But alas, I have reached the end of my allotted blogging time, and must take my pedalo back to the man with the bag of change. Already I see the next blogger waiting impatiently. Still, perhaps it’s a research project for January?

Do you have any interesting inscriptions in books you own?

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Planning on planning by Jess Butterworth

Today I feel as if I'm in a film, because this afternoon I'm flying into London to surprise not one, but two, of my best friends for their birthdays (conveniently a few days apart).

And I'm so very excited.

I'll be doing other things too, like visiting bookshops and meeting my editor, which I also can't wait to do. 

All this has taken a lot of planning with many people involved. And with Christmas not being quite the successful catch-up time I had envisaged, a lot of deadlines are being met at the last minute (right now I'm counting on my four hour layover to be as productive as four hours in my office). 

This has got me thinking that for this year I want to try and be even more organised. Or, if I am doomed to a never-ending to-do list, then to at least effectively orchestrate the list in a balanced way. And, as I plan out my year, I've decided this means that the list should include things like time to deal with the unexpected, see friends and loved ones, go idea hunting/spend time outside.     

And sometimes all I want is to lock myself away from everything and write. A writing retreat sounds pretty wonderful. Maybe I should plan one of those too.  

Contemplating the new year. 

I know that planning every second of every day isn't very realistic or fun, but thinking about it helps me to be more mindful. And that's what I'm really aiming for.

Here's to a joyful 2018! 


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