Saturday, 25 November 2017

Terry Pratchett: HisWorld - by Sue Purkiss

A few days ago, I went to see the Terry Pratchett exhibition at Salisbury Museum. (Apologies to my companions, OH and two friends from Salisbury, none of whom have ever read a Terry Pratchett book - and thanks to them for their patience, as I wandered round chortling and sometimes a little misty-eyed, while they were simply mystified. And thanks too to the two guides, who clearly shared my enthusiasm. One of them was also called Susan, and we bonded over the picture of Death's granddaughter, Susan, and Terry's explanation of why he gave her the name. I didn't make a note of it, but it was something to the effect that he felt sorry for Susans, who tend to be the sort of people who make the sandwiches - nice but rather dull - so he decided to give them a boost by calling this very special character Susan. Thanks, Terry.)

The exhibition was largely structured round the illustrations of Josh Kirby and Paul Kidby, though there were other exhibits too - notably a mock-up of Terry's study, with its six computer screens, wall of book shelves, and various memorabilia - such as this lifesize model of The Luggage. (If you're a fan, you'll know what I'm talking about, and if you're not, then there really isn't much point in trying to explain. You just need to read the books. And keep out of the way if you see it heading towards you.)

And there were costumes you could try on. No idea who this manic-looking peron in a pointy hat is. It's in black and white because, trust me, the colour version was far too scary for a family blog.

The labels, or captions, were mostly in Terry's own words. Here he talks about how it all began - incorporating a useful tip for parents trying to help their children to learn to read: 'I didn't enjoy primary school, Mr Tame, my headmaster, thought he could tell how successful we would be in later life by how well we could read or write at the age of six. He told me I would never amount to anything... My mum wasn't having any of that. She taught me to read, with love, care and affection. When that didn't work, bribery, at a penny a page when I read perfectly.' (I noticed, as we went round, that this is how Terry's humour often works: he writes a few apparently serious sentences, and then undercuts them with something sharp, unexpected, and funny.)

Here's a picture of the Discworld by Alan Smith. As many of you will know, it floats through space on the back of a giant turtle. (Sorry about the reflections.) I was intrigued by this from Terry: 'I write about people who live on the Discworld. They worry about the sort of thing we worry about, like death, taxes and not falling off. There are no magic swords or mighty quests. There are just people like us, give or take the odd pointy hat, trying to make sense of it all. Just like us.'

Here's the cover art for Reaper Man, by Josh Kirby. It features Death, one of my favourite characters. Terry gives full credit to the artists who worked with him: 'I didn't know what Discworld trolls actually looked like until Josh drew them. The artwork for the covers are masterpieces, especially Reaper Man. It's a shame they have to be spoiled with the title.'

Here's Susan. Not a bad namesake to have. I may begin to wear black.

I had just re-read Wyrd Sisters, so was intrigued to see this picture of Granny Weatherwax's home in Lancre. (That's not a sun, it's a reflection from my phone camera.) Charming, don't you think?

I've always thought of the Discworld novels as fantasy. So this was interesting. 'I've seen a 16th-century woodcut of something like the Discworld. The idea that the world goes through space on the back of an enormous turtle is something that's common to a large number of this planet's cultures, past and present. I don't know why. It's not an obvious beast to carry the world through space; I mean they go underwater quite a lot. I needed a ridiculous world... I wanted to write, in effect, an antidote to fantasy. I thought let's take a ridiculously, self-evidently foolish world, put the people on it, and make them as real as possible.'

I'll leave you with this ensemble picture of the cast of Discworld characters. The exhibition continues at Salisbury Museum till Sunday, January 14th, 2018.

Friday, 24 November 2017

You need friends by Tracy Alexander

I started writing by accident. I was on my way home from the supermarket when I stopped to look in the window of the bookshop and saw an advertisement for a writing group. I'd been electively unemployed for a few weeks – after twenty years of working – and was already bored by being at home. I went to the class. And my writing life began. For a fuller version of this story see: Sliding Doors
For a blissful year I spent every Wednesday morning with writers of all shapes and smells, sharing our attempts at the homework and throwing ourselves into the exercise of the day. It was great. I still remember certain pieces that had us all silenced be it by their power, their insight, their rolling gait. Trevor's personification of an Old Master, the life support machine, Joan's description of standing on a London train station in a red dress, Dawn's cleverly clipped poetry. But it wasn't the outputs, it was the relationships that were buoying. We all know how vulnerable it feels to give voice to something that has only ever lived in a word file. Being the recipient of all of those first airings was something to treasure.
The next school year came and I reluctantly left the class to enrol on the University of Bristol's Creative Writing Diploma. A new group to bob along with. We spent two years crafting both our writing and our criticism of others. Naturally there were those I looked forward to hearing from, and others whose words didn't ever resonate. The feedback was similar, much was helpful but writing isn't meant to please everyone and you choose your critics. All good learning. The twenty or so who started the course fell to just eleven by the time we graduated. Eleven souls that I'd seen the inside of.

A lull after that. I became a published writer and sat alone in my study. Years passed.
Until an invitation in that same supermarket to join three other writers in a supportive group. Marvellous. It was the smallest group I'd brought my writing to and the most intensive because we were all writing novels. What a plus to have people to remind you that you've missed a trick, or gone off at too great a tangent, or lost the plot. We laughed. We occasionally forgot to be kind and assassinated each other's darlings. But we celebrated our union at the book launches, giving credit for our writing friends' strokes of genius when we'd written ourselves into the bottom of a dark, dank well. We met for many years and then, in the way of things, we started to meet less, circumstances changed and contributions became more sparse, and, slowly, the group dwindled away.
And here I am.
Life has got in the way of my writing these last couple of years and it's dawned on me that to get my mojo back I need writing friends. I need the discipline that comes with a regular meeting where you're expected to contribute. I need the kind words and the cruel. In fact, any words. I've spent too long inside my own head and it's crammed full. So, it might take a few weeks, but I'm going to find my new family. I'll study their faces and tune my ear to their cadence and, as the weeks go by, I'll start to know who they are, whether they intend me to or not. And they will see the truth of me. I can't wait . . .

Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Fine Art of Not Housekeeping by Steve Gladwin

There must be something happening in the abba blogisphere. People have been writing a great deal about the way they work, about the highs and lows of social media, about avoiding distraction and even about their state of mind.

I’m about to add to this – mostly - serious thread, and I hope you won’t consider it too frivolous. I thought of the idea almost three weeks ago before anyone had posted any of the above topics. Rather than back away and think of something else, I was determined to go through with it. Posts often have tended towards the serious and I’ve been as responsible for that as anyone. We all need a break into the slight and chucklesome, but there is also a point at the heart of this. So here for your delectation is a blog about how to use writing to avoid housework.

It’s like this. I hate housework, and I love writing. One I find sometimes alarmingly easy (and I realise this may be tempting fate so I’m touching wood as I write), whereas the other I somehow manage to either get out of, set up a whole load of avoidance tactics for, or do a token amount of and that grudgingly. I know I have the excuse of being a bloke, but it’s not really good enough, is it?

I have my reasons of course. I lived with someone for five years who had cleaning and ironing OCD and wasn’t afraid to impose it. I have a bit of a housework phobia in the same way as I have a kettle and washing machine phobia – because they were on all the time and I couldn’t escape them. I am also dyspraxic which means I get easily side-tracked, (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!) Now I live with someone who once worked as a chambermaid and hates housework about as much as I do. Yet somehow our house stays clean enough not to disgrace us, and I actually quite enjoy cleaning the kitchen now. OK, I admit it, Rosie does most of it!

But if I do want to steer clear of the housework I have a simple strategy. I write! It’s alarming how easy it is to find inspiration when  the household tasks are piling up, or it’s my turn to do whatever. And you should try it sometime, you writers who want to avoid the housework. Hours and even half days can go by before you need to worry about it again, and in the meantime you might have had a brand new creative idea, or made a deadline earlier than you expected, or created a winning story entry. And where’s the harm if the pots pile up, or the hoover stays in a corner or your clothes are slightly creased?

When can I get back to the writing?

So if anyone’s interested in this strategy, here are my top ten (fairly) fool-proof suggestions.
*Begin writing as early as you can - say after you’ve had breakfast and /or a shower and got dressed. Better still begin when you get up because it’s amazing how many chores you can avoid if you make an early start.

*Play music while you write, either loudly, so you can't hear the sound of undone housework, or better still plug yourself in. Being lost in two worlds at once is a great way of ensuring that the horrible world doesn’t intrude and ruin it.

*Set impossible deadlines for your day that you simply have to complete, and that means there’s just no time for anything else, sorry. And should your deadline/schedule be so impossible for that day you have the perfect excuse for moving the rest to the next day, and the day after that etc.

*Have a list of tasks or target list, (mainly to do with writing – you’re a writer after all!) on a piece of paper. You can include things like a walk, doing yoga, eating biscuits, but the important thing is not to put housework on there, or you’ll suffer a pang of conscience and we can’t have that!

*Try the putting off until tomorrow approach. Most writers try this one on with challenging chapter re-writes or tedious close edits of their MS, or worst of all working through an editor’s pedantic notes, but at least if your housework doesn’t get done because of it, you can feel smug about your writing.

*Encourage long winded phone or skype calls with fellow writers and creative collaborators - especially those who you can guarantee will talk a lot - which take up the valuable time you might have been side-tracked hoovering or ironing. This may have the added bonus of leading to new work or ideas, or even both, and so what if you end up sneezing because of all the unhoovered dust, and looking like a dog's breakfast because of your scrunched up clothes, you’re a writer, right? You're supposed to look bohemian, You probably should live in a garret!

*Pretend you’re some kind of foreigner and scratch your head in amazed confusion when your partner tries to instruct you in the use of the washing machine. Alternatively find the actual instructions, but somehow miss the tiny bits written in English and instead struggle over the Swedish or Russian with a suitable frown. Now exhausted by all that effort, you can return to the snug safety of your writing where foreign instructions will never hurt you.

Confused of Powys

*Boast to all of your writer friends on social media about the huge amount of housework you’re doing. This may be an outright lie but at least it’s writing!

*Better still set up an online writing support group with a few like-minded friends. Make sure you all time your conference calls just when the household tasks are piling up. Feel better about your ignored burden by helping your fellows writers with theirs.

*Take the ‘walking always leads to wonderful creative ideas’ approach, (it always does for me!). Make sure you set out early and come back late with no time for housework in between, and too exhausted to think about it when you get back.

There, I hope this has been useful. And let me know if anyone wants to set up that group! Now I've exhausted myself thinking about it all. Time to lie down. The housework can wait until tomorrow.

Thunderbirds are go! Zzz


Wednesday, 22 November 2017

My Top Five Movies about Writers, by Dan Metcalf

I'm not going to lie, I'm a movie fan. I was a movie fan even before I was a book fan, and there is nothing I love more than sitting down in the cinema or slouching on the sofa with a film and a jumbo bucket of popcorn bigger than my own head. As writers, we have been much maligned in movies; we are often protrayed by filmmakers as sensitive types prone to outbursts (HOW DARE THEY!). So for my post today I thought I would show you my top five movies about writers.

1. Adaptation is a 2002 movie directed by Spike Jonze. It focuses on the real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and his not-real-life twin brother Donald, as Charlie is tasked with adapting the 1998 non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean. Adaptation is both the movie of that book, and the story of the process of writing it. Confusingly, the screenplay is credited to both Charlie and Donald Kaufman.
With me so far? No? It’s a tricky thing to describe, so here’s the Wikipedia entry (with spoilers). 

Kaufman writes himself as a neurotic worrier, a loner and introvert, which is ably played by Nicolas Cage. The twist comes when looking at Donald, the twin brother who does not exist in real life, but in this fictional world is excitable, enthusiastic, and has a lust for life. He is unconcerned by how others perceive him and is in every sense the other half of Charlie. Charlie however, can’t stand him. The film also portrays Susan Orlean as a Manhattenite journalist who is seemingly bored with her cosy life, and is drawn to the wild character of Laroche, the Orchid Thief of the book’s title. For Kaufman, it seems the life of a writer is a lonely and despondent one.

The real twist comes when the twins take action to try to save Charlie’s meandering screenplay, and experience a moment of resolution. In the ensuing climax SPOILERS: Donald is shot and the end scene sees Charlie come to terms with his brother’s death, and seemingly inherit the hope and positivity that Donald embodied.
The film is a must-see for its plays on film structure and the nature of writing as an internal pursuit, and the performances are top notch - the brilliant Meryl Streep alongside Chris Carter and the double helping of Nic Cage (who I normally can’t abide). A film which seemingly rejects the classic Hollywood film structure, but really embraces it.

2. Wonder Boys is based on a novel by Michael Chabon and adapted to the screen by soon-to-be Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves. It centres on Grady Tripp, a novelist and writing professor who over has been trying to complete his novel for the past seven years. Ah, the procrastinating writer! If what Hollywood says about novelists is true, then it is a wonder that any novels get written at all, as the movies would have us believe that most writers walk about in our dressing gowns, watching quiz shows, knocking back Jack Daniels and occasionally looking guiltily at the typewriter in the corner. (The reality is, of course, that only half of this is true).

Tripp’s problem is not that he can’t write – he can’t stop writing. The manuscript has waffled on for hundreds of pages and he can’t seem to grasp hold of the narrative. He has a body of work, but even he struggles to call it a ‘novel’.

The plot takes us around a weekend from hell, in which Tripp picks up his agent who is hungry for the promised manuscript, babysits a troubled student, accidently bumps off his lover’s dog, and tries to avoid sleeping with his lodger. It is all excellently written and played, and the performance by a pre-Spiderman Tobey Maguire of the depressed and dramatic student James Leer who appears to be the next Big Thing, is one to be noted.

The screenplay has a great charm and memorable scenes, in what could have been played out as a Fawlty Towers-type farce. Kloves manages to get us to like both the pot-smoking Tripp and the almost catatonic Leer as they act disgracefully. One of my favourite films and one which every writer with an interest in great characters should make time to watch.

3. Misery is the infamous book by Stephen King about a writer kept prisoner by his mentally unstable 'biggest' fan. The movie was made by Rob Reiner, the director who defies pigeonholing by making wildly different movies such as This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. Don't expect to see shades of any of those previous films in Misery, however; the script is eerie and dark, with great turns by James Caan (who sits in bed for most of the movie, lazy so-and-so) and Kathy Bates.

Stephen King is famed for writing about writers (I guess he's in the 'Write what you know' camp) and I would have included The Shining in this list, were it not for Stanley Kubrick's perculiarly cold interpretation of King's very personal novel, about a writer marooned in a snow-bound hotel dealing with his very murderous demons.

4. The Player is Robert Altman's film based on the novel by Michael Tolkin. It stars Tim Robbins as a merciless Hollywood Executive who comes across an unhinged screenwriter and kills him in the heat of the moment. 

Not a great role for the screenwriter to be honest, but it is the details of the movie and its portrayal of LA lifestyle and the business of show which really earns it its place on this mini countdown.

5. Barton Fink is a masterpiece of letting the camera linger. John Turturro plays a gritty yet sensitive playright from New York who reluctantly travels to Los Angeles to work in moving pictures. 

He is alienated by Hollywood and its facade, and is trapped in his own private hell as he faces writer's block in a sweaty hotel room which he shares with a mosquito. Famously written by the Coen Brothers (Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski) in a time when they were suffering from writer's block themselves, it gets across what it is like to be stuck inside your own head. Also features a terrifying turn from the usually-cuddly John Goodman.

So that's my five. Yes, I left off Wilde. And Sylvia. And Finding Neverland (Can't watch it without blubbing anyway). But it's MY five. What's on yours?
Dan Metcalf is a children's writer, author of Codebusters and The Lottie Lipton Adventures. Say hi at

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Words and Silence by Anne Booth

By the time this blog post is published I will be nearly at the end of a 7 day silent retreat at  St. Beuno’s retreat Centre  in North Wales. It is the 14th November and I have just arrived. The silence doesn’t officially start until after 8 pm, but I am already feeling challenged as I have been gently encouraged, not only not to talk, but not to go on social media. It isn’t that I am a particularly noisy person, but somehow I hadn’t realised how much I need to talk, to go on social media, to facebook my children and check up on my family. I don’t know what to do with myself. Right now, 7 days seems a long, long time to fill.

The thing is, the reason why I signed up voluntarily to do this retreat is that inside me is too noisy. There are too many competing voices and concerns - ideas for books, worries about the future, regrets about the past, insecurity about the present. I log on and read all about the whole world, I sign and share petitions, I send and receive emails, I watch TV and I talk to people in real life and I don’t stop to listen to the silence. But I am sure I should - I am sure that I have things to learn.

I hope I can post this tonight before the retreat, as there is nothing holy about letting people down and I have just remembered about my blog post (!) - but then I hope I have the nerve to hold to the silence and listen to the stories which may emerge.  I will meet with a director every day, but the rest of the time I will be on my own. In the silence there will be stories coming out of my own life - perhaps they may become changed in the future into published ones, or just acknowledged and honoured and left. I don’t know. I hope this time of silence will help me speak - verbally or in the written word in my children's  books - with more truth and honesty and compassion. I hope it will help me to have more integrity and truth in my life and writing - and also to uncover more of the hidden joy in life and pass it on in my books. I have just discovered that Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote a great deal of his poetry in this very house - so even though right now  I do feel full of trepidation, I will cling to that. I've already noticed lots of birds outside my window - blue tits and robins and blackbirds to name but three - and there are lovely grounds to wander in.  See you on the other side!

Monday, 20 November 2017

Eudaimonia - Joan Lennon

This is how it seems to me.  Writing is a job of work.  There are moments of inspiration and miracle, but they're the extra bits and can only be welcomed, not scheduled.  When I'm very, very sad, I can't write, I can't remember writing and I can't imagine ever writing again.  When I'm only very sad, I long to write again.  When I'm just sad, I can write and it's the thing that makes other things bearable.  So when someone put me on to this short video about eudaimonia, I thought, "Interesting." * 

Happiness is a pleasure to experience but not a prerequisite for this writing job.  That's how it seems to me, any way.

What do you think?  

I also thought, "Those are REALLY UGLY papier-mache figures!" 

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Does Social Media Affect Your Creativity? - Lucy Coats

Does the use of social media affect my creativity? It's a question I've been asking myself a lot, especially this year, when all platforms are full of increasingly bad news from around the world, in a seemingly unremitting stream. As writers, we are often alone, and social media platforms can provide a way to reach out and connect with the world -- and more importantly with other writers. However, they can also be a time eater, a procrastination tool, and a mood depressor. I've put a little survey below for those who are interested in thinking about this question.

Create your own user feedback survey

How did you do? Did you tick mostly ones? If so, well done, your social media use is minimal. But I suspect the majority of us score somewhat higher. For me, I have found that I've had to take breaks this year, and when I have, my creativity has gone up, simply because my brain is not full of gloom and doom. Before the middle of last year, I didn't really have a problem. But now I think I do, and it's the all-pervasive gloom and doom that is directly responsible. I get sucked down a black hole, where article link leads to article link, and the more I click on, the more Facebook (in particular) shows me about that subject. So right now, I've deleted every social app on my phone, my tablet and my computer. Yes, I will miss some nice news from friends and fellow authors. But I've already feeling freer, and they can always phone or email or text, or (shock horror) even meet in person. I'd love to know if anyone wants to join me -- I'm going social media free till the New Year at least. Do let me know in the comments.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy blogs at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure (No. 1 UK Literature Blog) 
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency