Thursday, 31 May 2012

Who'd be a writer? Er, me.

Just like any job, being a professional author has its ups and downs, and if you are serious about pursuing a career in writing I think you should do so with your eyes wide open to what these might be. With this in mind, I've put together a potted little guide to try and help anyone contemplating setting out on this mad, bad and sometimes dangerous journey. This blog entry comes with a warning to those of you dead set on choosing this path: hold on to your Mont Blancs, some of this might not be very palatable.

Let’s start with the good stuff:


  • You are your own boss, and despite deadlines you can work hours to suit you.
  • You get to meet lots of wonderful people who share your love of reading and writing, and many of these like, if not love, what you choose to do.
  • You are doing something you love to do, and your job allows you to express yourself in a way very few others can.
  • You entertain and/or enlighten those people who read your work, and you get to hear back from these same people in the form of letters or emails or face-to-face meetings at events.
  • If you are very lucky and you hit upon ‘the next big thing’, you could earn a considerable amount of money.
And now the not so good stuff:

  • You work alone, day in and day out. (This might be seen as a pro point for some.)
  • It’s all down to you. You have no backstop, no safety net. If you can’t get the book written or if the ideas refuse to come, the buck stops with you and you alone.
  • You need a strong sense of self-discipline. The hardest thing about working alone (more often than not in your house) is that there are a billion things to distract you from doing what you should be doing on a daily basis: writing.
  • Once you have written the book and turned it over to the publisher, you have very little control over what happens next. The publishing industry works in a way and at a pace that can be difficult to come to terms with, and this inevitably leads to frustration and concern. Here’s a small list of the kind of thing you can encounter -
o    You may not have final say over the cover, title or layout of your work.
o    You may not be the lead title for your publisher (you may not even be close to being the lead title), and rue the fact that other works appear to be getting a much higher publicity and marketing spend than yours.
o    You’ll be asked to make changes to your flawless masterpiece (I've always found the editing process useful and constructive, others do not).
o    You’ll be writing to strict deadlines (and you have to deliver).
o    The means by which (and the amount) you are paid is sporadic and extremely difficult to predict.
  • Unless you DO turn out to be ‘the next big thing’ (or you are extremely prolific) it’s unlikely you will earn a wage you believe is commensurate with the effort you have expended on your work. So be prepared NOT to give up the day job (or have a spouse who is willing to work to help support you).

When I'm asked why I chose to be a writer, I respond by saying that I'm really not qualified to do anything else. It's a glib, throwaway answer to a difficult question, but there is a hint of truth in my retort. Despite coming late to writing, I now find it difficult to imagine doing anything else. I have become more aware of the precarious nature of what I do and just how difficult it can be to make a living from my art. 
I suppose the real question to ask should not be why I chose to become a writer, but would I, knowing what I now know, still go into it? And the answer would be a resounding YES!

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

How did *that* happen? - Anne Rooney

Some writers work out what's going to happen in a story before they write it. They plan, in more or less detail, and then follow the plan, near enough. I'm in awe of them - I can't do that. I have a general idea of the sort of thing that is going to happen, and a clear idea of when and where the story will happen. Then as I research the when/where, interesting things will pop up and in they go. This means the story is as much a surprise to me as to anyone. Of course, there's a lot of rewriting to do. The first time through - well, it's all a bit of a splurge.

The book I'm writing at the moment is even more of a splurge. For a good reason I won't bore you with, I decided to write the whole first draft in eleven days just before the London Book Fair. Consequently, it's a very rough draft. But on the third day, quite a big thing happened which I hadn't been expecting at all. A character walked into the very limited space (it's highly claustrophobic, most of the action taking place in one room) and committed a terrible act. Once he'd done it, the whole thing was a lot more complicated. For one thing, that act is going to present a real gatekeeper problem - but I can't unwrite it now. It came as a surprise to everyone - to me, the two main characters, and I think even the perpetrator himself. Good grief, you can't leave your characters alone for five minutes without them doing something awful. But it's absolutely what would happen. I don't know why I didn't see it coming.

Everything after that act is tainted now. Nothing can ever be the same again. Even if I threw away the scene and wrote something else, its stain would still be on the book. It would remain a ghost event - I would know it was once there, and there would be a hole in the book, a hole where every reader would (I think) be wondering why something awful didn't happen, given the vulnerability of the characters at that point. So it has to stay. It's none of my doing. Don't blame me for that act, I just wrote it down; I didn't want it to happen.

Before day 3, I had no idea how to get to the end of the book, or even quite what the end was going to be. But now this act leads to a death and some errors of judgment, and they lead to the greatest catastrophe possible. I knew the larger catastrophe was going to happen, but I didn't really know why. But now I do. It's rather like the rhyme in which the lack of a nail for a horseshoe costs the whole kingdom; and it's just how real life is. The biggest things start with the tiniest acts. Why did the First World War happen? Because Archduke Ferdinand's driver took a different route through Sarajevo. OK, that's a simplification - but things would have been different if...History is riveted together by these tiny incidents that have unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences.

It's as though I had been wandering up and down one bank of a river, looking across at the other side, knowing I had to get there but with no bridge or boat in sight. And there, a bit further on, was the bridge. But there was a troll under it. One big, fat, hairy, greedy, lethal troll. No matter - every bridge needs its troll. At least I now have a bridge.

Do others have examples of totally unexpected incidents writing themselves and turning out to be hingepins of the plot? How do you explain it? Is it your subconscious working overtime? Or is it more like seeding a cloud - it's all there waiting to fall out, but needs a tiny push to make it happen?

My most recent collection of unforeseen events is the Vampire Dawn series, published by Ransom Publishing in April 2012.
Stroppy Author's Guide to Publishing
Anne Rooney

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Testing Times by Keren David

Please forgive me if I am a little distracted.  Today is a big day. My daughter, like thousands of other 15 and 16 year olds is sitting her English Language GCSE.

I’m feeling quite emotional, and it’s not just the stress and tension of my first stint as Exam Mum, ready with cups of tea, ice lollies, sympathy and encouragement.  It’s just that it’s hit me that this is an end of an era. All being well (fingers firmly crossed), this should be the end of her formal instruction in the English language.

She started her education at an international school, blessed with a beautiful well-stocked library and a curriculum (the International Baccalaureate primary years programme) which was blissfully free of formal tests and emphasised the enjoyment of both reading and writing. I remember her planning, writing, editing, illustrating and creating her own book (Ted Moss goes on Holiday) aged 6.

A few years later she started a writer’s notebook, in which she was encouraged to stick pictures, write down ideas, work on stories and poems.  She wrote books reviews and reports, learned to write a bibliography and when her English peers were sitting their Y6 SATS, co-wrote an extended presentation on art therapy, which she and her friend presented to an audience of parents and students.

 And then we came to England. English education turned into a utilitarian grind of instruction leaflets, business letters, writing down dialogue from soap operas and analysing articles about Cheryl Cole.  English literature hardly featured. I don’t blame her teachers for this. They were teaching towards two tests. English literature GCSE(last week) meant studying Of Mice and Men, some poems about conflict, an anthology of short stories and a few scenes from Macbeth.  English language GCSE(today)  will require her to analyse some pieces of non-fiction (a holiday brochure, perhaps, or a health and safety leaflet) and write some ‘journalism’ or articles for a website.

The exams are remarkable for their cynical lack of ambition  about how literature and language could and should be taught. They are unpopular with teachers, students, employers and universities.  They simultaneously bore and patronise students. Of all the subjects that my daughter is taking, English GCSE stands out as a beacon of mediocrity.

 A bit of history: back in the 1970s I took English Language O level. I had to answer comprehension questions on a piece of prose, and then had the choice of an essay or a story. I still remember enjoying writing my story, about a child’s attempts to marry off her mother (a recycled effort from earlier in the year. For English literature O level I studied A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, EM Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (a bizarre book for teenage girls to study, featuring as it does the passion of a middle-aged English woman for a young Italian man, a story we found baffling and disgusting) and Flora Thompson’s From Lark Rise to Candleford, which was terribly dull.  I enjoyed English Literature A level, was sad that I couldn’t take English Language in the sixth form and left school for a job in journalism.

Meanwhile in Manchester my husband was at a secondary modern school where no one was allowed to take O level English Literature. Instead  he took the less-valued CSE qualification for which he had to write 15 book reviews, taken from a list of 40 books, and then take an exam answering questions about the books. The questions were not very difficult, as far as he can remember, and he was pleased to escape to the grammar school for A levels and thence to Oxford where he studied English literature.

Modern GCSEs came about as an attempt to blend CSEs and O levels, to end the pernicious two tier system that left so many kids with worthless qualifications. Once it featured coursework and exams, now we have the ridiculous controlled assessments, which require kids to compose and memorise essays then regurgitate them under exam conditions.

There are plans afoot to simplify the system and return to a single exam at the end of two years of study. But what should those exams test? I have a list.

-        an understanding of English grammar, punctuation and spelling. Give children the tools they need to use their own language.

-        A wide range of reading, including classic novels, plays, poetry and  contemporary books. An ability to review, analyse and discuss all types of literature.

-        A greater emphasis on creative and imaginative writing.  If you forget how to use your imagination at the age of 12,you lose an important skill.

-        An ability to express yourself clearly and thoughtfully, weighing and using facts which you do not make up. (I am incandescent that GCSE English requires children to write 'journalism' with no facts on which to base their reports,leaving them no choice but to conjure quotes and statistics out of the air. Look at the Leveson enquiry to see where that sort of thinking leads)

My daughter’s chance to have this sort of education is over (ahem. Fingers crossed). She didn’t even consider studying English for A level, preferring a blend of science and social science.  I hope that one day when school is just a distant memory she’ll rediscover her interest in writing and reading.  
In the meantime I’m extremely proud of her, whatever her results, and to everyone taking English today I wish you the best of luck.

Monday, 28 May 2012

'There is a willow grows aslant a brook...' by Sue Purkiss

First of all, an apology: this post will be late, because I'd written on my calendar that it was due for tomorrow. And it's not the first time I've done that, either, so extra apologies...

In Somerset, willows don't grow, as in Hamlet, aslant brooks; they grow beside rhynes. A rhyne is a ditch which has been constructed to drain marshland; the marshland in question is the Somerset Levels. You may have seen pictures of them on the news a few weeks ago, when there was so much rain that even the rhynes couldn't cope, and fields were flooded at a time of year when they shouldn't have been.

Anyway, the willows. They are grown as a crop in these parts. The trees are regularly pollarded, so that young, whippy shoots are produced which can be woven into all sorts of things - baskets, furniture, garden structures - even coffins. There are also artists who use willow to create - what? It's difficult to know what to call them. Sculptures? But sculptures are made out of stone, or metal, aren't they? Living sculptures? But they're not really living, not once the willow's been cut, and dying sculptures doesn't sound very attractive. But they are dying, in a sense, from the moment they're finished; because the wood, pliable to begin with, grows brittle as it dries out and cracks and snaps, so the nature of the willow figure changes.

What started off this chain of thought was a horse. On the way from Cheddar to Wells is the house of Sophie Courtiour. Outside her house are, or were until recently, two horses woven by her from willow. Somerset is scattered with objects such as this, not necessarily made from willow: near Glastonbury there's a beautifully painted giraffe, beside the M5 there are two camels and a large dinosaur - you get used to seeing them, and nodding a polite hello or giving a cheery wave. A few weeks ago, though, one of the horses disappeared, and now his friend looks a little forlorn.

But last Friday, I went to a book group meeting at a friend's house. it was one of these gorgeous evenings, so we went outside into the garden - and there, looking at ease under the trees, was the missing horse! As I admired it, I realised that I could trace a network of links from this gorgeous creature, all coils and loops, gleaming in the evening sun.

The most recent was this bear. I saw it first last summer, in a place called Ebbor Gorge. It was completely unexpected: walking through a clearing in the woods, there was a shadow in the corner of the eye. Turn your head - and there! Rearing up, magnificent - a bear! This spring, my grandson was staying. I told him we would go down to the woods today, and there would definitely be a big surprise. Sadly, however, the bear was only a remnant of his former self: only his metal skeleton, his head and his upraised paws were left. Oskar was still impressed, though, and so was I.

A week or two later I was leafing through a local magazine in a coffee shop, and discovered that Sophie had made the bear too, with the help of local schoolchildren.

And this reminded me of another sculpture Sophie made. I wrote a book a few years ago called The Willow Man. (Do buy it - it's still available!) The book was partly inspired by the huge Willow Man which stands beside the M5 near Bridgwater . The Willow Man was made by another willow weaver, Serena de la Hey, and it's wonderful, even in its current state, hemmed in by recent buildings.

When the book came out, Ottakar's in Wells (now Waterstones) - did a wonderful window display, and they asked Sophie to do a willow sculpture as a centrepiece. She made a head and torso. The window looked gorgeous, and for about six weeks, The Willow Man was their best-selling book.

So now the trail has led to Serena. When I wrote The Willow Man, I went to see her in her workshop which was near Stoke St Gregory on the Levels. Not long after that, I was planning my next book, Warrior King, about Alfred the Great. I discovered that Athelney, where he hid in the marshes from the Vikings and possibly had a mishap with some cakes, was on the Levels - and only a stone's throw from Serena's studio.

And finally, The Willows and Wetlands Centre, also near Stoke, makes and sells willow artefacts of all kinds, and you can go and see the willow plantations and find out how it's grown and about the history of the industry. It has a shop - which has sold a steady stream of my two willow-connected books.

So there we are. Willow, and the pattern it has woven for me. If you'r in the area - it's between Glastonbury and Taunton - the Centre is well worth a visit. Good cakes, too.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

A Bracelet of Bright Hair - Frances Thomas

This was a book I never meant to write. When I say ‘meant’ there were none of the usual scribbled plans and dodgy diagrams and imaginary family trees that usually precede starting a book. I hadn’t dreamed about writing it, or worked out various versions of it inside my head. It simply started as a plan for myself, as I realised with a jolt that I’d more or less stopped reading poetry and it was about time to start again. So – a new poem every day – that was my plan. Still didn’t mean to write a book. Of course I had to keep a list of the poems I’d read, and I had to jot down my impressions, otherwise with my fairly rubbish memory, I’d forget everything.

But then a strange thing happened. The poems I chose and the day’s events started to become closely linked together. Sometimes it was obvious – a snowy day, so a poem about snow. Sometimes less so; I found that a particular experience in my mind was always bound up with a particular poem. For example, as I sat in a speeding express train, a child’s poem would always be running through my head in time to the rhythm of the wheels; Faster than fairies, faster than witches… Sometimes a line from a half forgotten poem just flashed into my head and I had to track it down – only to find that it too was linked to what I was doing that day. Sometimes I found a poem new to me and was so excited I couldn’t wait to share it. By now, I was starting to imagine a reader. The thing is, even though I’d forgotten it, poetry hadn’t forgotten me; it was embedded in my bones, entwined in my DNA.

And I knew that I wasn’t alone in this; most people of my generation have had poetry instilled into them at school. We didn’t always like the poems, or appreciate having to learn them by heart, but they’re still there, inside us. And maybe there’s a younger generation who feel more tentative about approaching poetry – I hope this might be a book that will open a door into traditional poetry for them. Traditional – because I had to regretfully take the decision to exclude copyright poems from the finished book; it would have added too many costs and complications. But though I lost some lovely poems that way, so many remain. Here’s a poem that I remember first reading as a student – I loved it then and I love it now. The image of a lonely Caesar in the tent poring over maps - even though he’s probably planning to slaughter hapless Gauls – is one which has haunted me for years: the intense concentration of a moment that’s a turning point in history.

Long-legged Fly
W.B. Yeats

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most slowly if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That no-body looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on the scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo,
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Booklover's Diary 1931 by Lynda Waterhouse

Writers are magpies stealing the shiny bits of other people’s lives to line the nest of our imaginations. My magpie instincts are always on the alert at car boot sales. A small brown object on the edge of a blanket caught my eye. I was drawn to the object and as soon as I held it in my hands I did not want to part with it. It was a Booklover’s Diary. It cost me 50p
The diary was from 1931 and it cost one shilling. It belonged to Olive. Her full name and address is printed inside.  She did not have a telephone but she had a Library number – W.D. 4839. There is an entry for most days.
 The diary also contains the list of the 83 British publishers, libraries, literary prizes and modern authors. Olive has ticked the ones she liked including Anita Loos, Ethel Mannin, Rose Macaulay, Somerset Maugham and the romantic novelist Berta Ruck is both ticked and underlined.
Each week an author was asked to say at the time of writing which book would they most like to be judged on. Somerset Maugham chose ‘Of Human Bondage.’ Francis Brett Young said ‘the best book is invariably the one I am writing.’ Bernard Shaw said ‘all of them’. By contrast Edgar Wallace said. ’There is no work of mine by which I should wish to be judged.’  Olive highlighted John Erskine who said, ‘my favourite among my published works is Adam and Eve largely because I have a weakness for the character of Lilith.’

 Phillip Gibbs chose his book ‘Realities of War,’ because it is a record of four tragic years during which I was an eye witness of unforgettable things, written down in this book as a memorial of dead youth and as a warning to a future generation.’
In 1931 the 26th May fell on a Tuesday and was the day after a Bank Holiday. It was also the day that another diarist, Samuel Pepys died. The featured living author that week was Radclyffe Hall.

 On 26th May Olive took the bus to town, took tea at Beatties and went to the Hippodrome. The day before she had been to the Criterion cinema see Will Roger’s film ‘Lightnin.’
 I like to think Olive and I would get on. We both work in education and  love reading, the theatre, the film star Ronald Coleman and afternoon tea. She seemed to have enjoyed 1931. She was probably a young girl during the First World War and in a few years time would be facing another war.
One of the questions I always ask my friends is ‘What are you reading?’  A shared love of E.M. Young’s Miss Mole cemented one of my closest and enduring friendships. .Sharing Olive’s diary and the books she loved makes her feel like a friend too.
The foreword written by Lord Riddell says;
‘This Diary is unlike other diaries, inasmuch as it deals with books and authors, so that the user can brighten up his daily life by nice little tit-bits of literary information.’
Reminds me of the delight I take in reading the daily posts on this  blog. 
How would you answer the question, 'Which book would you like to be judged by?'

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Dark Side... Savita Kalhan

Yes, I have one. I’m told that a lot. In a light-hearted question and answer session with a group of authors (The Edge) where the question was – Who is the most likely to have a body buried in the basement? – the majority vote was cast for, yes, you’ve guessed it. Me. I don’t happen to have a basement at home, and it’s probably just as well... But then I probably wouldn’t use my own basement should that kind of need arise...

I have written about the darker side of life even though my main audience are teenagers or young adults. I don’t spare them the dark themes, sensitive issues, or molly-coddle them in any way, but I do spare them any gratuitous gruesome details, extraneous graphic imagery, and from endings with no hope. The Long Weekend is pretty dark. All the teens and young adults who have read it have finished it with no problem, but the same isn’t true of some adults. A book reviewer very apologetically said she could not finish it – she was the mum of two kids.

Hell Wood

My current work in progress is, once again, very dark. When I finish it I’ll put it in a drawer for a few months and then reread it because only by taking that step away from it can I judge if it’s any good. I like to work with a title, but that title can change by the end of the first chapter. It started as ‘Fly Away’. Now it has become Hell Wood, which feels so right that I’m hoping it will be the final title. The name is real – I didn’t have to make it up as it exists in the area the book is set in, although I didn’t know that when I set about writing the story. The research came after the book was halfway through – it sometimes works that way.

Here are a few more pictures of Hell Wood, just imagine it darker...

Scum Pond

Badger Hole

Twisted Tree

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Plus ca change and the Moment of Aaaah!

Many writers are less than adept at adapting.  We struggle - oh, how we struggle - with changing technologies.  And yet, in spite of this, we do, all, sometimes, find our way to a moment of Aaaaah!

In the past, it was no different.  Read on, and you will see what I mean ...

P.G. Wodehouse has left behind his trusty typewriter and the crick in his back that attends its use, considered briefly (and with horror) the idea of dictating his book to a stenographer, and bravely opted for ...

"... one of those machines where you talk into a mouth-piece and have your observations recorded on wax, and I started Thank You, Jeeves, on it.  And after the first few paragraphs I thought I would run back and play the stuff over to hear how it sounded.

It sounded too awful for human consumption.  Until that moment I had never realized that I had a voice like that of a very pompous school-master addressing the young scholars in his charge from the pulpit in the school chapel.  There was a kind of foggy dreariness about it that chilled the spirits.  It stunned me.  I had been hoping, if all went well, to make Thank You, Jeeves an amusing book - gay, if you see what I mean, rollicking if you still follow me and debonair, and it was plain to me that a man with a voice like that could never come within several miles of being debonair.  With him at the controls the thing would develop into one of those dim tragedies of peasant life which we return to the library after a quick glance at Page One.  I sold the machine next day and felt like the Ancient Mariner when he got rid of the albatross.  So now I confine myself to the good old typewriter.

Writing my stories I enjoy.  It is the thinking them out that is apt to blot the sunshine from my life.  You can't think out plots like mine without getting a suspicion from time to time that something has gone seriously wrong with the brain's two hemispheres and the broad bank of transversely running fibres known as the corpus collosum.  It is my practice to make about 400 pages of notes before starting a novel, and during this process there always comes a moment when I say to myself 'Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown.'  The odd thing is that just as I am feeling that I must get a proposer and seconder and have myself put up for the loony bin, something always clicks and after that all is joy and jollity."

from the Preface to Thank You, Jeeves

So raise your glasses and join me in a toast - here's to the shuffling off of albatrosses new and old, and joy and jollity for all!

Cheers, Joan.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Writing Britain - Dianne Hofmeyr

What is landscape to a writer? Waterland, Wuthering Heights, Far From the Madding Crowd are novels I read a long time ago without ever visiting the terrain and yet the landscape seeped into my consciousness… strong, powerful… never to be forgotten.  If we start with books read from childhood, the list might go on forever of experiencing a landscape for the first time through the eyes of a writer. And this is what makes the new exhibition at the British Library: Writing Britain – Wasteland to Wonderland, so fascinating.

Anyone who is slightly voyeuristic (what writers aren’t?) will find the exhibition utterly intriguing.  Access to so many writers’ journals, diaries, notes, sketches, edits, proofs and musings, is the height of voyeurism. In the dimly lit quiet rooms it’s like being a ghost peering over the writer’s shoulder.

Fortify yourself. The exhibition is huge. But as writers or lovers of books, you’ll be richly rewarded. It moves from rural dreams, to the satanic mills of industry and from wild places to water lands, the city and places beyond the city to show how stories are shaped not just by the physical but the imagined physical. If you have an idea of the extent of the exhibition beforehand, you can set the pace. A break in the middle for lunch or coffee is a good option. The dim lighting, lack of bright visuals and... odd to say as a writer – the predominance of text and need to be up close to each glass case to read the words, even the stance of reading standing upright, make it tiring. But the rewards are there.

As I experienced the swirls and loops and fluid flow of ink from Wordsworth's pen, Bronté’s neat and spidery hand, Katherine Mansfield’s firm script in her Suburban Fairy tale, Angela Carter’s italic in her manuscript for Wise Children, the neat child-like hand of Lewis Carroll in his Alice’s Adventure Underground and the fat cursive letters of Virginia Woolf writing her newspaper as a child – it occurred to me that I’m becoming unused to deciphering and reading real handwriting. Will our children’s children lose this skill entirely?

But it’s not just the script and inkblots that makes this all so personal. It’s the very true feeling of knowing how the writer has anguished and altered the words – drawings by John Betjeman overlaid with words, Thomas Hardy’s handwritten insertions on the proof copy of Far from the Madding Crowd, JK Rowling corrections to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And what must come as comforting to any writer the huge red crossings-out of James Joyce on a handwritten page of Ulysses where the amount of red far outweighs the written word.

It’s a heady mix. Interviews with writers talking about landscape, recordings of writers reading their work, poems of Sylvia Plath, Fay Godwin’s haunting photographs illustrating the moorlands Ted Hughes describes, Wordsworth writing of his sister Dorothy on their walks, ‘She gave me eyes. She gave me ears.’ The Waterlands of Swift and the Wessex of Hardy are conjured up alongside the Willesden of Zadie Smith and the bleak visions of modern urban life as seen in the stark opening lines of J.G. Ballard’s Crash:
Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.

It’s an exhibition that needs revisiting and each time I’m sure a new hidden gem will emerge.

What for me was one of the most moving exhibits was Liz Matthew’s 17 metre concertina book, Thames to Dunkirk, with the names of the Little Boats that went across to Dunkirk written into the water of the Thames combined below the with the words from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in calligraphy done with a piece of Thames’ driftwood. It seemed to show not just the spirit of those men in the small boats but also the spirit of writers who dare. 

What writer's landscape has affected you most?

Monday, 21 May 2012

When Writers Play - by Rosalie Warren

How often do you play? In your work, I mean? In your writing, if that's what you do?

Most writers start out, I think, by 'playing' at writing - however young or old we may be at the time. In those early days, writing is probably a hobby - perhaps an escape from real life in the form of a dull or demanding job and/or a challenging home life. At the beginning, we are often bursting with enthusiasm and ideas, and what we lack is the space, time and (perhaps) expertise to get them into shape.

If we persevere and have a hefty dose of luck, we may end up earning something for our efforts. In the past, if not so much so today, some writers could make a part-time or even a full-time career out of it. If they were very lucky, they might even become rich, though of course most never did, however good they were.

The danger is that as our writing careers progress, it's so easy to lose that intial sense of fun and play. Writing becomes the thing we have to do - either to please a publisher or even just ourselves. I'm all in favour of self-discipline - the 'sit down at your desk at 9am (if only!) so the muse knows where to find you' and the 'minimum word count per day' frame of mind. Mostly, these things work for me. But it's when I lose that sense of play that trouble looms.

I've experienced this before, way back in another life, when I studied for a PhD and then became a researcher and, eventually, a university lecturer. As a student, my research was mostly fun. OK, I was lucky - I know that PhDs can sometimes be a terrible slog. But I happened upon a topic that fascinated me, had a good supervisor and made encouraging progress from the start. My main problem was combining this with caring for two young children. Not easy, but still, on the whole, satisfying and fun.

The fun continued when I gained an EPSRC research fellowhip for three years to do postdoctoral research. In fact that was eaiser, as it was actually a 2-year fellowship spread out over three years, which suited me fine.

The trouble started after that. My marriage broke up, which didn't help. I spent a year looking for a job in the city where my ex worked so my children could see us both. After months of struggling to get by, doing tutoring and gardening and PhD supervision, often all at the same time (well, in the same morning, anyway), I managed to get a lectureship at a unviersity. Perfect - except that I was now so busy, with several hours' commuting each day, a high teaching load, masses of admin, supervising students, giving pastoral advice, etc etc etc - my research slid into the back seat. It was no longer fun - and all my creativity dried up. It became something I had to do - in order to keep my job - and something I had to do well. In the odd hour or so between other commitments, I had to come up with earth-shaking new projects and theories. Hmmm....

The human brain just doesn't work that way. Or mine doesn't. A move south (the children older now) and a new job helped a bit at first, but the pattern was soon reestablished and the commute even longer. What's more, I now had an invalid mother-in-law waiting for me with all her demands when I got home - and two teenage step-children. Then my mother died and my father (110 miles away) became very ill. Something had to give and it was my health. I had a breakdown and was very lucky to be offered early retirement on a small pension, which put me in a position (just) of being able to fulfil my lifelong dream and spend my time writing.

That was wonderful - and still is. But just recently, six years on, writing has begun to feel like work. Like something other people expect of me, rather than a game I play because it's fun. And yes, there's bound to be some of this. I have obligations to my publisher and I want to help and encorage other writers as much as I can. And anything worthwhile is sometimes sheer hard slog. But I'm very wary of losing that sense of play.

Last week, after a month or so of hard work, I decided to give myself a few days off. Just a couple of days' messing about at home, not trying to do any writing at all. I even gave myself permission to stay in bed all day (bliss!) Catching up on reading, listening to Radio 4, dozing on and off...

Heaven. And then, after an hour or so of this, a little idea popped up, which I hastily scribbled down. After half an hour's scribbling I got out of bed and transferred it to my computer.

I kept writing until 11.30pm and at the end of the day I'd done 6500 words (very unusual for me! Possibly an all-time record. Usually 2K a day is my maximum for new work).

It all goes to show - take the pressure off and the ideas will bubble up. Maybe not always, but often.

Of course, finding time to play is not easy, for many people. But if we can - and if we can give ourselves, even occasionally, whole mornings or whole days just to mess around, with permission not to produce anything - who knows what might happen?

Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.
— Heraclitus 500 BCE, philosopher

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.
—Carl Jung

Happy playing!
Best wishes

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Saturday, 19 May 2012

Read a book: change the world - Lily Hyde

Anyone remember Joseph Kony?

The Ugandan recruiter of child soldiers was one of the most famous people in the Western world for a week or so in March, when the film Kony 2012 went viral. Then Kony was overtaken by Katniss as the name on everyone’s lips. 

Kony is a real person; Katniss is fictional. Fame is one thing they have in common. Another is age. Katniss is the heroine of The Hunger Games, first in a trilogy of novels (now a film) for young adults; Kony 2012 was made for school kids. And another is that they have both become linked to social activism.

The narrator of Kony 2012 turned his documentary subject into a children’s story he was telling to his young son. In the process, key facts were left out or glossed over, and the film was heavily criticised for simplifying its subject. 

The film-maker’s response (taken from an interview here) was that
We make films that speak the language of kids. We say, "You may live thousands of miles away from these problems in Uganda, but those kids are just like you, and you can do something to help them by getting your government and your self involved." 
 It may be underestimating, not to mention patronising, children to assume they can’t understand some background and context to the world’s problems. But it’s a laudable aim, to encourage young people to be interested in social injustices, empathise with those who are suffering, and desire to change the world for the better. Kony 2012 was intended to get viewers directly involved in a campaign to bring Joseph Kony to justice.

The Hunger Games is fiction, but with its themes of violence as entertainment and entertainment as social control, it also encourages readers to think about what’s wrong with the world now, and what it might become. And activists are trying to harness the popularity of this and similar books to effect real social and political change. Imagine Better is a project getting fans of Harry Potter and Katniss involved in real-world campaigning. It’s not alone; this article gives an excellent overview of the growing phenomenon of fan activism. 

As a writer for children and young people, I'm fascinated by this spill-over from fiction into reality. Kony 2012 took fact and turned it into a children’s story. Here the opposite is happening; young literary fans are being asked to take the ideas and ideals contained in the books they love, and apply them to the real world.

I don’t write my novels with any overtly didactic purpose to send children on crusades; I believe you have to put a good story first. When I think about many of the books I read growing up, I remember them foremost as great reads. But there’s no question that they broadly and fundamentally influenced my attitude to the world. 

TH White’s The Sword in the Stone made me see that might is not right. Joan Aiken’s heroine Dido Twite showed that girls can be independent and adventurous. Rosemary Sutcliff taught me that war and invasion are not simple matters of winners and losers. From Robert Cormier and William Golding and SE Hinton I learned about the dangers of group mentality; Watership Down gave me lessons in community building as well as the human relationship to nature... 

From these books I learned, I think, how to be a better person without ever realising I was being taught. That is the way of all the best lessons. 

The best young adult novels challenge one's worldview and suggest what can be possible.  They are timeless in a way that Kony 2012 is not. I have come back to these books as an adult, both to nostalgically enjoy them but also to analyse how they work. My analysis turned out one basic truth. They work not because they are simplified, or sensational, or patronising, but because they are great stories, imaginatively and empathetically told.

Anyone remember Kony? Anyone remember Katniss, and Harry Potter? How extraordinary that long after a real-life tyrant is deservedly buried and forgotten (although not so easily forgotten, I do realise, in his own country), the immortal ones may well turn out to be the fictional people. A really great character in a story is like a really great idea; once it’s in your head you can’t get rid of it. It might change you so much you go on to change the world.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Toad Work - Andrew Strong

Sorry.  I can’t write this now.  I don’t have the time. I’m too distracted and I’m too tired. I just want to sleep.  If I manage to write anything, it’ll be a mess. So, if there are words below these, I’m sorry. I should have just drawn a picture. Or posted a photograph of my bed.  That would have said it all.  And I didn’t leave this to the last minute. Oh no.  I’ve sat down here several times this week to try and write something.  I wanted to write about William Hazlitt, but I couldn’t do it.  I sounded pompous and I hate pomposity.  And then I thought I’d write about Project Nim, you know, the talking chimp film. But I couldn’t arrange all the words in the right order to make any sense, or that didn’t sound clichéd.  (I hate the thought of writing something that’s hackneyed and riddled with clichés.) (Is ‘riddled with clichés’ a cliché?)

No, you can bet, however much is written here, it took hours. I spent ages on it. But every time I sat down to write, I couldn’t concentrate. Not that I’m that easily distracted. (I am very easily distracted. Please distract me. Come over. Bring a bottle.)

Every day I try and squeeze out some writing time, whether it’s for a tweet, a haiku, or if I have long enough, to get on with my children’s book.  Recently, however, I’ve found I’m so weary I can’t even compose a text.  The pressures of the day job plague me with one psychosomatic illness after another - temporary deafness, Bell’s Palsy, skin rashes, palpitations – my heart is telling me to give up and do something less demanding, but I can’t because I don’t know anything else.  I find fewer and fewer moments to write and even when I do I am so muddled and befuddled I can’t focus.

I know that I can never stop writing, so have to try and find a few hours each week to go back to my book, a masterpiece if you really want to know, editors will have pistols at dawn to sign me up, and so on and so on.  But it gets harder and harder.

How do you lot afford to live? I need at least three incomes and I live frugally.  I have two children about to begin tertiary education, and my calculations so far estimate that three years at college will cost about half a million pounds.  And that’s just what they’ll spend on booze. Add the fees and all that, and we’re into billions. 

We’re all going to have to keep working until we’re a hundred!  No Saga cruises for us. A bag of Werther’s Originals will have to last a month.

Do most writers have rich spouses or some sort of inheritance? If so, boo hoo, it’s not fair. My writing has slowed to a steamroller pace. What I’m steamrollering I don’t know. But everything looks and feels flat.

(Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen a real steamroller for years.  Do they still exist?)

Sleep is one great pleasure that’s still reasonably cheap. Those last few minutes of the day I savour more than ever, and just before I turn off the light, I read, I read, I read.  I’ve never read as much. As if to make up for words I’m not writing, I have to consume words. 

The less I write, the less I reflect. I become a half-wit.  I’m already a one-third-wit. I’m not sure I know what I’m doing any more.  As Bertie Wooster said, ‘Life, Jeeves, it’s just one thing after another.’ And so it is with me. One distraction after another, one obligation followed by another, and squatting over it all, the warty palpitating day job.  Larkin called work a toad. And I think he meant his day job, not his poetry job. He was right, the old grump, work is a toad.

So what do I do? Do I give up writing, or the hope of ever writing anything any good, or do I give up my day job and spend the next ten years worrying that if I can’t support my children into adulthood they will resent my selfishness forever?

(Actually I already know the answer to this. I will not give up my job, and I will keep writing. So no need to consider this a real question.)

There we are. I’ve written something. And so it will be that I will eventually finish my book.  It will be a triumph of hope over amphibians. The toad work won’t get the better of me. 

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Writing Mentors - Elen Caldecott

On Tuesday this week, I felt like a proud godparent. Two talented writers that I've been working with (and 13 others, that I haven't!) launched their anthology, Writes of Passage. I stood in Foyles Charing Cross with a glass of white wine, a label on my front declaring me to be a tutor and watched as agents and editors hustled to speak to 'our' writers.
Julia Green and agent Jodie Marsh

These students will always be special, as they are the first ones I tutored on the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa Uni. I say tutored, because that's what it says on my pay slip. But that isn't really what it felt like. They already had talent, technique and an excellent work ethic. So, I felt more like a mentor. My job really was to drink tea, read attentively and listen while they found solutions.

I love the idea of mentors. I have been very lucky as a number of writers who's careers are further along than mine have taken the time to listen to me, to give advice and say 'that's normal, we all feel like that'.

My own MA tutor, Julia Green (who has a new book out this month Bringing the Summer!) was such a graceful mentor. She told me I had to re-write the first half of my novel with such kindness that I left her office grinning, not crying.
Me and the anthology editor, Sarah Benwell

Other writers have given me wonderful pieces of advice; Marie-Louise Jensen told me about the Scattered Authors' Society, through which I've come to know some wonderful writers. Liz Kessler has been fab at making this industry feel like fun when it can so easily grind you down (see her post on her love affair with Twitter, somehow everything she works on feels like that). Actually, there's lots of great Liz-advice to choose from, but my favourite was during a discussion of commercial books: 'write whatever you want, but then stick wings or a tail on it'.

Molly Drury, Maudie Smith and Sarah Benwell
I remember wondering when I was a teenager how 'schools' of art could arise. At the time, the idea of working with other people, sharing with other people seemed impossible - I kept my angsty poetry close to my chest. But now, it seems obvious. You help people who can learn from you because you have been taught by others. And soon, your pupils will become teachers themselves. There's a lovely sense of inheritance to it; Julia Green was helped early in her career by David Almond. In a way, myself and my students are still benefiting from his mentorship.

Of course, there are writers who would rather stab themselves with their HB pencil than work with others, but I think they are in a minority. The students who launched their careers on Tuesday are joining a very welcoming community of children's writers and we are all the better for that.

Have you had a mentor, and how far back can you trace your 'sense of inheritance'?

For more info about Elen and her books, go to:
Elen's Facebook Page

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Sheds - Celia Rees

I recently visited the Boathouse in Laugharne. I'd been there before, and peered into Dylan Thomas' Writing Shed, but this time I was with my friend, the artist Julia Griffiths Jones, and she'd been inside! She had been allowed to go into the shed to draw. When she showed me the drawings that she had made there, and the photographs that she had taken, I must admit to being gripped by a strange excitement and considerable envy. There is something about the place where a writer works that exerts a peculiar fascination. Just to see what he or she had on the desk by way of distraction or because a particular object was special in some way; to see the pictures pinned up on the wall; the view, or lack of it from the window. These things serve to bring alive some of the process of mind that produced the work that one admires.

In Dylan Thomas' writing shed - Julia Griffiths-Jones

What I found especially wonderful here was the sheet of paper, stained and wrinkled, crisped by time, that was covered in lists and lists of words. Dylan Thomas is famous for the lyrical precision of his poetry,  the startling originality of his images, the sheer exuberance of the words he chooses. He once said that his first introduction to poetry was through nursery rhymes:

I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance.

But this list showed that his poems were hard won. He had to prepare, work at them, think about what appeared on the page. What seems natural, effortless is supremely crafted and writing is a hard and lonely process, as he describes it in My Craft or Sullen Art.

word splashed hut - Julia Griffiths- Jones
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Here, on his table, was a little bit of that crafting.  I don't know where he wrote the poem but from his shed window he would certainly have had an unimpeded view of the moon over the Taf estuary and the wide sweep of Carmarthen Bay. Just seeing these things brought the poet nearer, as though time and space were collapsing and death, indeed, had no dominion.  

I can't claim a shed myself, my garden just isn't big enough, but I will admit to shed envy. There are quite a few writers who work in a shed, or have worked in a shed. Philip Pullman famously wrote his Northern Lights Trilogy in a shed at the bottom of his garden in Oxford. 

Philip Pullman's Shed
Roald Dahl's Shed

Roald Dahl was another famous shed man. Again, I can feel the pull, the fascination of the table carpeted in objects, collected bits and pieces: fossils, model aeoroplanes, and the tools of a writer's trade: pens, pencils, scissors. The walls are covered in pictures, photographs, postcards pinned up, curling and interleaved - put up as aide memoire or inspiration. The touch telephone, so modern once, so dated now, gives a feeling of time stopped at the moment when Dahl left, never to return, the point when the building ceased to be a vibrant creative space and returned to being just a shed. A trace of him remains, though, caught and contained in the things he gathered about him. 

Writers are often elusive creatures, rarely showing their true nature, wanting their writing to speak for them, but these glimpses into their private place allow us a rare insight into who they were. There is an eloquence to the space, it speaks to us of the writers' true nature. 

Sheds are not just a male preserve. There are shed women, too. Virginia Woolf is perhaps the most notable example, although hers is, perhaps, more of a summer house.

Virginia's Shed


And there is, of course, our own Linda Newbery who used to work in this elegant little number, complete with a Virginia style verandah, although she tells me that she is shed-less at the moment. 

Linda's Shed

Linda also warned that having a shed comes with certain risks. The writer and journalist, Francis Wheen, recently lost his archive, his book collection and the novel he was working on in a disastrous shed fire. Even with that warning, I still feel the pangs of Shed Envy. Maybe, one day, until then I'll have to make do with a study. The important thing is to have, as Virginia Woolf says, a room of one's own. 

My non-shed
Shed or shed-less? Where do you write? What do you have around you? I'd love to know....