Thursday, 21 February 2019

And breathe...

Yesterday I went for the second time to see a voice coach. On my first visit this wonderful coach 'found' my voice again, and on the second, yesterday, she brought it definitively out from the shadows, mainly after repeating the exercises we did last time, but also by really concentrating on my breathing.

It seems that in all those years whilst caring, my main problem was that I had forgotten how to breathe! It seems so silly and obvious, but I  was simply not taking in enough air, and as soon as she got me to properly breathe, I felt a huge difference and so much more energy. I ended the session standing up and singing the song I had sung as a solo at three friend's weddings, and thought i would never sing again . I sang it loud and clear and hit all the high notes and felt empowered and energised and so amazed and happy again. My homework is to be aware of my breathing and keep singing. I think this could really impact my life apart from singing  and  really improve my health and energy in so many ways.

I think that trying to make a living as a  writer can be very stressful, and that it is possible some people reading this are also forgetting to breathe!

So check - are you breathing in a good way - and are you filling your lungs and taking good, deep breaths? Are constant deadlines  making you breathe in an anxious way?

Some writers reading this may also be forgetting to metaphorically breathe - to take weekends and evenings off, or to go on holiday, or let themselves read outside their genre or have hobbies not related to the day job or to exercise (all of these apply to me!).

It might be that someone reading this may need to learn to breathe again, to change their way of life and not think that how they live now is the only way they can live

- they may need to cut down on other work, to keep themselves breathing space to write.

- they may need to stop trying to make a living as a full-time writer and go back to work full or part-time for a while so that they can cut down on stress and maybe get some oxygen from being with others and not being self-employed.

-they may need to apply for a grant from The Society of authors or  other organisation like the Arts Council.

They may need to go on a writers' retreat - and there are grants available from places like The Arvon Foundation so that you can actually get 5 days free to write in a beautiful place, with the input of professional writers tutoring it, but  also the inspiration of fellow students.

There are other places to go for retreats - like Chez Castillon  in France or Retreats for You in Devon.

There are places to go for religious retreats and yoga retreats. I loved my time in silence at St Beuno's  in Wales, for example.

Someone reading this  may need to check that their relationships are giving them the oxygen they need. They may need to seek out supportive friends and avoid overly-critical people, and maybe, most of all, deal with any overly -critical voices in their own heads. I found working through  The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron  to be so helpful in discovering my negative 'blurts'.  This is a wonderful book if you feel creatively blocked, and will give you a boost. The exercises are great ad lots of fun too.

I know this sounds so obvious - but someone reading this may need to check  they are eating and drinking properly - all mind-boggingly simple and obvious things -

but I can't talk -  I forgot to breathe!

Here is lovely Mary Oliver - being wise as usual - and sharing how trees show her how to 'go easy'.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Chapter 14 by Joan Lennon

Chapter 14.  I'm pretty sure every book has one.  Of course, it could be called something else, like chapter 10 or chapter 6 or chapter 27.  I mean, if it were ALWAYS chapter 14, you could just refuse to have one in your book - skip it and boldly go straight from chapter 13 to chapter 15.  But no, it moves about.  I've even known a version to occur in poetry, though there we're talking about a line or even a word, not a chapter.  But in the novel I'm currently writing, it's chapter 14.

It's the beast. 

(Dunkleosteus marsaisi - Wiki Commons)

I am really, really close to being finished* writing this book.  Draft after draft, I have grappled and manipulated and wooed my tiny socks off.  And chapter 14 has fought me/is still fighting me every step of the way.  I have science to cut back on, inconsistencies of tone to fix, tension to keep cranking and a character I'm particularly fond of to shoot.**  I WILL domesticate this beast of mine, but it may take some time.  Some MORE time.

That's my beast.  Anyone out there wrestling a beast or two of their own that they'd like to tell us about?  

Be brave - you can do it!

* It's hard to find images of "really, really close to being finished".  The best I could think of is "something really, really small".  So here a couple of pygmy marmosets from Edinburgh Zoo.

** (Well, not me personally, but there are some snipers and their intentions are not benign.)

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

Tuesday, 19 February 2019


Today the longlists for the 2019 Carnegie and Greenaway Awards are out - and what an interesting selection they are.

This post, however, is a cry, asking people to pause, and look at, and note down these longlist titles now, before the bigger, louder judging and shadowing gets underway in schools and elsewhere.

Briefly, as I understand things - and I may be wrong - the Carnegie Award goes to a book for the older, teen reader, where the quality of writing and the stretching of ideas and boundaries and - dare I suggest - final newsworthiness -  are important factors.

The Greenaway, however, delights in illustrated books, although these may well not be picture books for the youngest, "on the lap" reader. These miniature,paper galleries are often sophisticated, subtle and  intended for a wide range of ages. "Spot" they are not.

(Hmm. We'll keep quiet about the needs for the &-9 year old reader for today. )

Later in the year, when the 2019 shortlists and then Award Winners are announced will be god and great and all that. 

However, those few titles will be the results of a long, busy and competitive process where - necessarily - some good stuff gets lost on the way: probably books that are too long for many to read in time, books that aren't as of the moment as others, books that don't have exactly the right voice or cover or theme, books and authors that are not yet famous enough and books that are just plain quirky.

The Awards, when they come, will be wonderful and high profile and there will probably be a bit of title-tussling too.

But, NOW, RIGHT NOW, do reserve a bit of time for looking through these long-lists and admiring the range of books on offer for the young, teen and YA readers today: it's time to love the glory of the long lists!

Here - I hope - is the link :

 (And I'm sure some of those authors, writers and illustrators have been here, posting on Awfully Big Blog Adventure, before or even now. Come on, Team ABBA?)

Monday, 18 February 2019

Back to the Bronze Age - by Lu Hersey

Most writers do a lot of research of one kind or another – in fact we can be quite a nerdy bunch. Having just spent an intensive period in a future, post climate change world, looking into plant and animal species that survive desert conditions and working out how to keep people alive through periods of intense heat and drought, I’ve recently taken a quick break in the Bronze Age. 
My replica Bronze Age dagger after a bit of filing

Research can be fun. Sometimes more fun than writing. Writing Deep Water involved a lot of time snorkelling over Cornish seas, studying the sea-life, watching the way the light reflects underwater. Hours. Days. Probably way longer than I needed to. I also visited Fowey Aquarium frequently, communing with the conger eel, watching the pollock swim, and admiring the massive blue lobster. It felt like an essential part of the process… but was it actually just a form of procrastination?

My research for Broken Ground (hopefully out early next year) meant spending hot summer days and even late summer nights in crop circles, wondering at the immensity and complexity of design. Hours of watching water bubbling up in springs. Yes, of course I’ve heard of google – but give me an excuse to do some live research, and I’m there.

Entering a crop circle at twilight

Which is how I came to spend a day earlier this month making a replica Bronze Age dagger. Okay, none of the characters in my current work in progress are actually dagger makers, but after a lethargic, bleak January, I wanted to (literally) fire some energy back into my writing.

stylishly dressed ready for hot metal pouring

Creating something beautiful and potentially useful sounded just the thing to get me started. Not only that, the course was run by an archaeologist who brought finds of Neolithic polished axes and arrow heads with him, as well as a bronze age torc bracelet – AND WE WERE ALLOWED TO PICK THEM UP AND FEEL THEM! For someone like me, that’s close to being in heaven.

Making the mould for the dagger

The process of creating our moulds, using bellows to heat the furnace to an intense, copper-melting temperature, and pouring the liquid metal was almost magical. (In case you’re nerdy enough to be wondering, you add the tin when the copper has already melted – tin melts much faster)

Furnace hot enough to melt copper and tin to make bronze

And the work that goes in when the metal cools down is so much more than I expected – a good few hours of intensive filing, hammering the blade edge, and sanding with glass paper. The result? A rather imperfect, pitted specimen that still needs work – but an invaluable piece of research. Er, probably.

All this research activity may well be stopping me from becoming a Stephen King, who famously just keeps his bum on his seat and writes - and I have to admit he's considerably more productive and successful than me. But sometimes the joy of doing something different can be inspirational in itself.

As writers we spend so many hours, days, weeks, months and even years creating a story, I can really recommend doing something practical for a change. Making something physical, tangible – possibly even useful. Not just a world in your head.

Anyway, not everyone can be Stephen King.

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites
Some photos courtesy of Laura Daligan and Esther Winckles
Bronze Age dagger making course held at Berrycroft Hub with archaeologist James Dilley

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Poetry Please Help Us! by Tracy Darnton

In a rather busy month, I thought I’d share some rambling thoughts on poetry. 

I’m judging a school poetry competition at the moment which has turned out to be a Herculean task due to the sheer brilliance and diversity of the entries, and it’s made me reflect on poetry and how I react to it - and how it helps me to find a moment of calm and insight.
I still know many of these by heart

I’m a life-long learner and every Wednesday morning I spend a couple of hours with like-minded folk looking at art, literature, film and social history. In recent months, we’ve studied and enjoyed the poetry of Byron, Keats, Shelley, Yeats, Hardy, Heaney, Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Rossetti, Blake, Carol Ann Duffy and – too many to mention – and thought about poems within their social context.

What will we make of today’s poetry looking back? According to The Guardian the other week, sales of poetry were at their highest ever level last year. The rise of poetry is one of the unintended consequences of all the current uncertainties in life, the upheaval of Brexit, the cheapening of language and the blurring of truth and lies. As language gets abbreviated into text speak, as words are tossed casually around, there’s something powerful in falling back on the English language and revelling in the rhythms. As we grapple to find some sense in what the heck’s going on in the world, well-chosen lines of poetry can fill that gap.

We can share poetry now so easily on social media, in competitions, poetry slams, open mic nights, YouTube, Instagram. Poets who struggled to reach an audience before can now have millions of followers.  

Advertisers have long recognised that poems have the power to move us and give us that elusive feeling. Who’d have thought a poem could be used effectively to sell something as dry as financial services, a savings account or a mortgage? But the Nationwide Building Society campaign didn’t focus on the endless form filling or being put on hold. Instead, they used poets speaking direct to camera, making us feel about family and milestones in our lives. Centreparcs adverts have used the William Henry Davies hundred-year-old Leisure poem (What is this life, if full of care etc...) and recently the modern musings of a Dad, Mum and teenager ‘This is Family’ campaign which I can’t help but find moving, despite myself.

At the Sassie retreat in December, June Crebbin ran a poetry workshop and it was startling how many of us poured deep-held feelings into such short pieces. June herself wrote a poem in another session which struck an emotional chord with many. It was circulated afterwards to those of us – myself included – who cheerily said we’d like it at our funerals! I marvel at how the arrangement of so few lines – ten beautifully crafted ones in June’s case – generates such a reaction.

So, as I deliberate between the poems on remembering and forgetting scattered across my desk, I have June’s poem pinned up too, as a reminder of the power of words to move us, to give us time out and a much-needed breath in a hectic and confusing world.

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies, currently shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019.

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Fictional Felines by Claire Fayers

Before I became a cat-owner, I had a fantasy. I would sit and write, and my cat would sleep in the cat bed nearby. Every so often I’d look up and say ‘All right, cat?’ My cat would reply ‘Mrowl,’ and we’d both go back to writing or sleeping.

The reality, of course, was somewhat different.

My first cat, Moosh, liked to sleep curled up behind me on my chair so I wrote with raging back ache. Then Penelope came along. Named after Penelope Pitstop and her constant cries of ‘Heyulp! Heyulp!’ she wouldn’t even come into my office but stood at the door and shouted at me. She grew in confidence as she got older, and would bring me gifts of dead flies which she deposited gently on my feet while I was writing.


...and Penelope

The least said about our third cat, Tallis, the better. He spends most of the day outside annoying the neighbours. He thinks my sole purpose in life is to open and shut the door for him.

I popped into the British Library this week to see their Cats on the Page exhibition. It’s on until the 17th March so there’s still time to catch it. I had an excellent time reacquainting myself with favourite fictional felines. Here are some of my own favourites.

Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams

I came across this book as a child – or rather, my sister did. She came home from school in tears, sobbing ‘It’s over! It’s over!’ It turned out her class had just finished reading this book. It’s the only time I saw my non-reading sister affected by a book, proving that there is a story out there for everyone. It also underlines the importance of reading aloud to children, whether at home or in class. 

Gobbolino is a sweet tale of a witch's cat who wants a normal life. It comes with a big thank you to all teachers who read to their classes.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

This book had me sobbing into the pages. Why do so many cat books make their readers cry? It’s the tale of an orphan girl and her cat Taggle, who, through a magician’s bargain, gains the power of speech. The dark and compelling story explores friendship, family, sacrifice and grief. If you haven’t read it, please do, but keep the tissues close by.

The Last Free Cat by Jon Blake

A happy cat book! Jon Blake imagines a future where a deadly cat flu has meant that cats are now registered and monitored, and only the super-rich can afford them. When Jade finds a cat without a collar, she’s determined to save it, and they go on the run together. An adventurous story, set in a dystopian Britain, it will appeal to teen readers.

Varjak Paw SF Said

I have to include the cat martial-artist Varjak Paw. I’m a big fan of the evil black cats. They are thoroughly creepy and yet I feel an odd pity for them.I do enjoy villains that gain the reader's sympathy. But the best part of the book, of course, is Varjak. He's a true hero – brave, tough and determined, he starts off as the underdog (undercat?) and proves himself over and over again.

To Be a Cat by Matt Haig

Who wouldn’t want to be a cat? Well, Barney Willow for a start, and so he’s not too happy when he swaps bodies with a cat. The fun story deals with some deeper themes of family break-up, friendship, and accepting yourself for who you are. And I love the villainous headmistress.

Storm Hound by Claire Fayers

It’s a bit of a cheek to sneak this one in, but Storm Hound is published next week and I'm a little bit excited. As a lifelong cat person, it was a surprise to find myself writing about a dog. Storm is a ferocious stormhound from the Wild Hunt. Crash-landed on Earth and transformed into a very cute little puppy he has to come to terms with life as a pet.

There is, of course, a cat. Nutmeg, Storm’s feline neighbour, is based on my Penelope. I made her a few years younger, but I kept her imperious tone, her unassailable belief in her own superiority, and her cautious attempts at assistance because she is the cat with the kindest heart.

Then of course, there are all TS Eliot’s cats; the Cat in the Hat; the Cheshire Cat; the Owl and the Pussycat; Puss in Boots; Dick Whittington’s cat, and all the other cats I don’t have space to mention. Which ones are your favourites?

This blog post was written in memory of Penelope who died last month, age 19 and a bit. She was the best cat.

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates series, Mirror Magic and Storm Hound. Website Twitter @clairefayers

Friday, 15 February 2019

Barmier & barmier: our Kafkaesque approach to fiction & teens - by Rowena House

Trawling through online teaching advice for the now-defunct A-level course in creative writing (with the intention of scavenging the best bits to help design my own fiction writing lessons) is a sad and salutary experience.
England’s last A-level creative writing students will re-sit their exams this summer and then that’s it. All over. 16-to-18 year olds who want to write their own original stories now have to be satisfied with a short module in another course.

Meanwhile, 16-18 year olds who fluffed their first English language GCSE still have to write an original story as part of their re-sit regardless of how difficult they find it.

My heart goes out to both groups of young people.

During its brief years of existence, the exam board which offered the creative writing A-level, AQA, said this about it: “Creative writing is a distinct discipline in higher education. It encourages the development of skills that are essential for further study and a range of professional careers. This A-level enables aspiring writers to start on the path to professional practice and is equally useful for anyone interested in improving their creative and critical thinking and communication skills.”

Amen to that!

Thousands of teachers and students signed a petition to stop it being axed.

In the past few weeks I, too, have seen for myself how well-thought out the course was, and how different to English language and literature, despite the Department for Education insisting it overlapped both.

Back in my day, creative writing wasn’t an option at school or sixth-form. But then, nor were Netflix, YouTube, Snapchat, What’s App etc. Instead, by 16, I had devoured hundreds of books. The local public library had been my bolt-hole as a child - as for so many writers. Then, collectively, my teenage friends and I discovered Tolkien and Middle Earth became our escape, our go-to safe space when being a teen got too tough.

Today, with the Harry Potter generation grown up, I can’t find a contemporary book that is shared in that same, immerse way.

For films, there are the Marvel franchises. The Twilight series and The Hunger Games also still seem widely known among teens. But a novel? By a contemporary author? So far, whenever I’ve asked, all I’ve drawn are blanks.

Now, back at that defunct A-level, among the many excellent bits of advice I found in its study programme was a recommendation that students follow authors on Twitter, and discover through them the immense wealth of blogs about creative writing written by professional writers.

In recent weeks, any student who’d followed that advice might well have stumbled across a fascinating discussion initiated by journalist Charlotte Eyre, of The Bookseller, involving two top literary agents, Joanna Moult and the founder of the Skylark agency, Amber Caraveo, along with Waterstones, Piccadilly, and various published and pre-published writers. The subject: a 21.5% drop in Young Adult novel sales last year, and associated issues surrounding  the younger teen book market.

This exchange included one tweet from Waterstones complaining about the dearth of books for the early teen market (!?!). Amber, in reply, suggested that Waterstones could make these books more visible by having a dedicated space for teen readers, which (rather surprisingly, imho) drew a positive response from the Piccadilly branch.

This whole chicken-and-egg discussion (are there too few books written for early teens or not enough exposure to generate a viable market?) reminded me of a debate I heard years ago about motor bikes in the USA. (This is from memory so please take the details with a pinch of salt.) The USA had, apparently, banned imports of smaller Japanese bikes to protect sales of the bigger US models like their famous Harley Davidsons. The trouble was, younger riders couldn’t afford big Harleys, and without access to cheaper Japanese bikes, fewer people became bikers so demand for Harleys fell over time.

Something similar is, presumably, happening with young people’s fiction.

Parents and grandparents still buy middle-grade books for children, while primary schools also actively promote reading for pleasure to these age groups. But then keen readers, who want to make their own choices at 11-to-12 years old, can’t find books to suit them. By that age, too, secondary school is demanding more and more of their time, and the manifold digital lures of our age are increasingly tempting as well.

Little wonder, then, if many of them stop reading for pleasure entirely. Like the USA bikers who never bought a Harley, even when they were old and rich enough to afford one, so these once keen readers are lost to the world of fiction. They aren’t around to discover YA, except if it’s linked to a Hollywood film, profits for which seem to have peaked with Twilight and The Hunger Games, hence we haven’t seen a really big YA novel for years.

I know this isn’t a new or an original argument, not by a long way. But given the well-documented drop-off in reading among teens, plus recent evidence of weak YA sales, it does seem to me that trends in the publishing world have ramifications for young people’s education, and therefore their job prospects.

If, for example, decisions about the content of English language exams rest on outdated assumptions about teens’ reading habits, then GCSEs are in fact far harder than they might appear to adults who come from a reading-for-pleasure generation.

As adults, we might bemoan this lost art of reading; we might even be right to do so. But to demand that young people write 500-word stories under exam conditions (and condemn them to try again and again if they can’t) when we couldn’t dream of flying a drone via our smart phones, let alone how to make a YouTube video out of our drone footage, then rig our phones to relay that film to a PS4 while simultaneously playing music, smacks to me of a highly blinkered mind set.