Friday, 9 September 2016

Studying Creative Writing Successfully - Review

Excellent Book
It is that time of year - certainly in the UK anyway. Universities are gearing up to welcome back students and open the doors to all those eager new students. I do all the Open Days at the University of Winchester where I talk to prospective students about the merits of studying Creative Writing. I love doing it. I am passionate about our course but even more enamoured about writing. It is my raison d’être.

I was therefore particularly interested when I was sent this book. Studying Creative Writing Successfully. It is edited by Stephanie Vanderslice and is a collection of useful chapters aimed at those studying creative writing at university or college. Or perhaps considering doing and so and wants some insights into the processes.

It has practical and sensible approach that is realistic about the realities of studying the programme. With chapter headings such as 'Studying Creative Writing at Today's College or University: What Should I expect and What Skills Should I Bring?' by Trent Hergenrader; 'Invention: Get Started and Keep Going' by Travis Nicholson; ' going right through the process to 'Beyond Graduation: Sustaining yourself as a writer' by Anna Leahy.  It is a book to keep at your side throughout your studies, from the moment you start considering studying creative writing to when you start considering that first job. It is a book to dip in and out of as the mood takes you. to refer back to when you need reminding why you decided to study creative writing. It should become a good friend.

If you know anyone who is thinking of studying creative writing or about to start, I recommend you get them a copy. Perhaps pop it into their bag so it is their waiting for them when they get into Halls as a surprise. 

These are the details: Studying Creative Writing Successfully, edited by Stephanie Vanderslice, published by Creative Writing Studies. ISBN 978-1-907076-86-2

At this year of year, it is a time of new beginnings as 'Everybody is changing'

Wednesday, 7 September 2016


Just keep going...
I know several people who are going through the submission process at the moment. Listening to them I realise there is nothing quite as painful, or lonely, as the whole submission and rejection process, however, sugar coated it might have been. A rejection leaves a raw patch that gnaws away, however much you tell yourself you are being pragmatic, and that what will be, will be.

But that is your head speaking. Your heart has a totally different agenda. Your heart has spent years pouring everything into that novel, and it is not quite so willing to roll over and accept whatever is said, with an enigmatic smile, and an 'oh well.' Your heart is actually running screaming to the hills, going 'How could you not love it, what have you done to me?' Before it rolls around the floor sobbing. No one sees that of course. No one admits that.

What also happens is another small part of you feels like it has died. It was not meant to be like this. It was supposed to be snapped up. Even though you know it is only one person's opinion. And these rejections appear after enduring weeks and weeks of silence.

There used to be a different process where it was done via post, when there was a physicality to it. A slapping of an envelope as it dropped through your letterbox. But now, with email, it is all a bit rapid and a risk that people may rush it.  Submitting it before it is truly ready (Not anyone I know I should add). And now the rejection arrives with the ping of doom via an email.

When you are submitting, it is important to send it when it is as polished as it can be, and to the right people. Research who you want to send it to, making sure you adhere to their guidelines. They are there for a reason.  Create a spreadsheet so that you know where you have sent it to, on what date and then list the response. Every time you do get a rejection read what it says. If several rejections are coming up with the same issue, then it is time to go back to your story, and address it before you send it out again. Plan your campaign carefully. Once you receive a rejection, are you sending it straight out to another agent, or waiting until you have heard from them all, if you are sending it out in batches?

You might have this campaign going on in the background, but to fill these hours of silence, you need to forget about it, you need to move on. Instead of sitting waiting for the responses you start a new story. Think about new beginnings. This will show any agent/publisher that you are not a 'one trick pony' as well as distracting you. Enjoy the thrill of doing something creative, let yourself free for a while and don't let those rejections knock you down. Your book will find its home when it is meant to. Good luck to everyone who is going through the process and keep the faith.

This has to be the aspiring writer's mantra

Friday, 22 July 2016

Stories for hope

I am a grown up...honest!
This week I became a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. The HEA Fellowship is 'an international recognition of a commitment to professionalism in teaching and learning in higher in education', while the senior bit recognises management and leadership of specific aspects of teaching.  And yes, I was quietly thrilled. Back in 2002 when I started at university doing my degree I had no idea this is where I would end up. This is way beyond my wildest dreams. I write children's books, I lecture and mentor aspiring children's writers.

Everything I do feeds in to each other and informs them. Making me better at each job. I meet the most amazing people. I have the pleasure of hearing incredible stories. I get the chance to watch people, whether students or Eggs, develop and grow as writers. I work with people who are inspiring, caring and driven, all of whom want to help others achieve their dreams and do their best.

The world is a frightening place at the moment. It is so insecure. Politics has gone mad. So much hatred, so much anger.  I spend my life thinking I am going to wake up and it was all a crazy dream. But it is a time to hold on to creativity, to remember the importance of books and stories. They will be where hope remains and the power of good will always be embedded. Where the inklings of change can begin. Where children can understand, it doesn't have to be like this.

And yes, I did become a Senior Fellow, which is wonderful, but actually that is just a small thing in the big picture, it is the stories I write, I see, I hear. Those are the important things. Those are the things that really matter. Those are things that can make a difference to this world.

Rothwell's Nobody's Nothing

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Trust your gut...and your editor

Trust your editor -
Even if she does use you as a head rest!
I am in the final stages of Flight and I had one of those conversations with Imogen Cooper, my editor. You know the sort - It's not ending in the right place, you know that don't you? And yes I did. I had known it for quite a while but just wouldn't listen to my gut. And what do I always advise my students - listen to your gut - but obviously seemed incapable of doing the same myself.

This is what happened. My current WIP, Flight, consists of several journeys including a journey home, which logically should be the ending, shouldn't it? That is how I wrote it, but it felt wrong. It felt contrived and added on. It felt like it was a whole new story. I rewrote it several times over.  I did a mass of extra research to add depth. Adding in several additional incidences to make it exciting.  But it still didn't feel right, and I, in my wisdom, kept ignoring the fact, kept hoping it was my imagination, and I was just being too fussy.

It actually came as a great relief when Imogen said everything I was thinking. Firstly it meant I wasn't going mad. Secondly, it meant I should have just trusted my gut. But I think I needed to write the end of the journey in order to know when it should finish. There is in fact a natural ending that ends on hope but doesn't get them home. It feels right though.

This is why it is so wonderful working with a good editor and one that you trust. You need someone who will trust your gut too and who understands how you work. Who will pick up these things and not hesitate to say that they don't think they are working. They will ask the right questions of the narrative and the author. I do wonder, if I hadn't been working with an editor, how long I would have left it as it was because I would have convinced myself that they needed to finish the journey. Would my gut have shouted loudly enough and with enough confidence?  I am grateful that Imogen understands me and my novel. Hopefully Flight will be flying soon.

I find it really satisfying and rewarding to discuss edits of their work either with my students or with Eggs from Golden Egg Academy. It always surprises me that it is easier to find issues in someone else's work than it is your own. Why is it like that?  

Keep writing, have faith in yourself, your gut and your editor. They have your back.

Anyone who knows what my WIP is about will understand the choice of music

Friday, 5 February 2016

Social Media and the benefits

See I don't blog for months and then you get two in a week. It's a bit like buses! But I have had an exciting week that has made me think and I thought I would share with you. I was asked to sit on a panel.  I had no idea what this meant in this instance, but it sounded interesting, so I said yes of
Team work
course - as you do! Well, when I got there it was much bigger than I anticipated. My fellow panelists were Khalid Aziz, former journalist and communication consultant (plus someone I had worked with in my past life!); Andrew Westood, Professor of Politics and Policy at the University of Winchester and Manchester, as well as previously being special adviser to the Secretary of State at the Department of Innovation, and Sam Jones, Director of Communications and Marketing at the University. The panel was chaired by former BBC education correspondent, Susan Littlemore. It was organised by Andrew Scott. As you can see, some pretty heavy weights...and me! I was there as an expert apparently.

Our topic of discussion was the media and, in particular, social media and its benefits. I found it fascinating and it continued to highlight how important social media is when used constructively and appropriately. We are all aware of people who let social media control their lives or use it to share every moment of their life, both good and bad. However, social media can prove a very useful tool as can be seen with our activities at the Golden Egg Academy. We use it very effectively. Just check out our #geaqa every Monday night at 7.30pm, when everyone gets to ask authors, agents, editors or publishers, or whoever happens to be our guest that night, questions for half an hour. Or look at our Facebook page where we share useful articles and information that are relevant and pertinent to aspiring writings. We have also created 'nests'. Secure groups on Facebook which are only open to current 'Eggs' or editors undertaking the Editors' course. These are places where they can go and talk happily with others who they know understand what they are doing. We like to constantly create a sense of community and social media is a wonderful tool for that. Both team work,  and this community, are central to the holistic approach that is at the core of GEA.

I often hear social media portrayed negatively by those who don't understand it or can't be bothered to embrace it. They slam it as time wasting. It doesn't have to be if you use it properly and you limit your time spent doing it. I don't check Twitter all the time otherwise there is a risk it just becomes a loud noise. I don't post everything I am doing instead I post things that I believe people might be interested in and that are relevant. As someone once so brilliantly described it, Twitter is like having random chats at a cocktail party. It is a great resource. If you need to know something or need help, ask Twitter. A year or so ago I was looking for some work experience for a student. I put a call out on Twitter and got some fantastic offers. I have asked research questions connected with my writing and someone always knows the answer. People are generous on Twitter. Yes, of course there are the idiots out there who can spoil the fun but let's ignore them. They are not worth giving space to. 

Facebook is more personal. I am connected through there to my family and friends. My settings are set to private because I don't want my students or random people having access. Most recently my nephew and his wife created a closed group enabling us all to follow their baby son's battle against leukemia. This meant they could keep us all up to date with progress and photographs without having to ring us all and repeat the same story over and over again. It also meant we could send messages of love and support. We were there for them during the dark times and able to celebrate the good. It was wonderful. I am also connected to some fabulous authors and aspiring writers through there. If someone is going through a bad time the support is overwhelming. On the other hand when someone has something to celebrate we do it in style. This week Kathryn Evan's debut novel, MORE OF ME was published. She is a great friend and a member of my critique group. On the day of publication she awoke to find all her friends, wanting to cheer her on, had changed their profile picture to a version of the cover of her book but using their own face. (With thanks to the very clever Candy Gourlay for doing all the clever photo manipulation).  I have some amazing Facebook friends and it certainly spread the word about Kathy's book.

Blogging is another great way to raise your profile but only if you use it to say something. There is nothing worse than a blog that says nothing at all. I refuse to blog unless I have something worthwhile to say. On Monday some of our former students came to talk to our third years. It was inspirational hearing what they were getting up to. One of them was Grace Latter, she is a blogger and has got work as a direct result of her blogging. Something I have told my students time and time again. You never know what might happen. 

So my message for today, don't dismiss social media. Think how you are going to use it and what image you are going to portray through it.

Earlier this week Terry Wogan lost his battle with cancer, one that none of us knew he was fighting. A private man right to the end, as it should be. There were some wonderful tributes to him. It brought back many memories. He was a great favourite of my mother's and a lot of the music he played was the sound track of my child hood and growing up. It would be playing in the back ground as my mother always had her radio on. This was one of his and her favourites so it seems appropriate.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Submitting Three Chapters - some thoughts

Ready to edit

I know, it has been a while. I am sorry but there has been a lot going on. Also I am great believer in not posting unless you have something useful to say, which I believer I do now!

In one of my roles  I have to read submissions. We ask for three chapters and I have noticed recently that more and more often people are insisting on submitting later chapters or non consecutive chapters, perhaps starting at chapter 3. I find this intriguing because to me it automatically rings alarm bells. They obviously do not believe the beginning of their book is good enough for submission or they don't have enough faith in their story or their writing to let it speak for itself. I end up asking myself - why would you submit something that is not perhaps good enough?

We are not expecting it to be perfect because if it was why would you be submitting it to be us? People need to trust in their writing to showcase themselves and show that their writing is doing its job. For me when reading random chapter it is difficult to know whether the writer has done the job properly beforehand. Have they set up their characters properly, created their world because I am coming in blind and have no idea who these people or why this world works the way it does. I am more likely to be hesitant to take someone on if they do not send me the first chapters.

One of the Eggs who will be published later this year nearly didn't get taken on because they sent in random chapters. It was just something in the writing that made me email them and ask them to send me consecutive chapters so I could see how the story really worked. That was the best decision I ever made because on the basis of those chapters I could assess the writing properly and I realised my gut niggle was right. We took him on and the rest is history. But it could so easily have been a different story.

So what is the point of this blog? To suggest to writers if you are thinking of submitting to seriously consider what you are submitting. What image are are you creating? You might think you are being very clever by submitting those few chapters in the middle of the book, which you think are the most exciting. Potentially what you are actually doing is making the reader wonder why isn't the beginning good enough.

Write your whole story, get it down on the page as a complete novel, then go back and polish it. Get the beginning as good as you can get it before you submit it. Then, personally, I would submit those first three chapters, let them do your talking. If you haven't got confidence in them, I suggest you look at them again until you do. They are your hook, your selling point.

Obviously, this is my personal opinion, and other people may be happy to receive submissions in different ways, which is why it is always so important to read the website of the organisation you are submitting to plus any guidelines /videos/tips they offer. Make sure you follow them.

On a different note this is my music to go to at the moment to escape. I was introduced to it by Danuta Kean and it is just beautiful. It is Sufjan Stevens and is the first song from their album Carrie and Lowell.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Write what you know...or not

Seeing Marina Abramovic's 512 Hours
Many creative writing experts/books tell you to "write what you know!" Seems a logical idea doesn't it at face value anyway. But if you unpack it and think about it seriously, it is really quite limiting because how much do you actually know and how interesting would it really be to another person? To be honest if people had only written what they knew a lot of the best books would never have been written. For example, if J K Rowling had written only what she knew could she have written the fabulous Harry Potter series that purportedly got so many children back into reading? My glorious nemesis and friend Foucault says there is no point writing anything unless the author is going to learn something. Well you're not going to do that if you already know it and I have to say I agree with him With all four novels that I have written so far I have learnt something new from the research I have undertaken, whether it was from sleeping on the streets, visiting drug rehabilitation centres or doing all the incredible research with horses or looking into the past for my latest WIP.

So let's be real and take that phrase for a walk and expand it a bit just like Cec Murphy suggests by saying 'write what you know, write what you want to know more about; write what you're afraid to write.' Now to me that seems far more sensible and reflects what we really do. It challenges you as the writer to expand your ideas and actually gives you so many options to write what you want. Now more recently I came across another idea which was once again a variation on a theme and that was 'writing what you feel.' Another interesting idea which seemed to open out all sorts of possibilities.

However, what they all seem to forget to mention is one vital factor. Not once do they mention story. And to me that seems quite a crucial element. It doesn't matter what you don't know, do know, want to know or even how much research you've you done if you have no story, nothing will really happen. Get that story first and then think about what you do or don't know. Be open to respond to where the story takes you.

The photograph is an example of being willing to respond to the story. 512 Hours was Marina Abramovic's durational performance in 2014 at the Serpentine Gallery. You went in and had to leave everything outside, bags, watches, phones. Inside you were given headphones so you could hear no noise and were taken in to the rooms. Nobody spoke unless you were the priviledge few that MA spoke to (yes I was one she had a couple of conversations with moments I will treasure) There were some chairs and benches in some rooms. In one room you could separate black rice from white rice and count it. MA would walk amongst the people occasionally taking people's hands and placing them at various places in the room. Sometimes even making them face a wall. At other times walking up and down with them.Always in silence. I had read about the exhibition. I knew what to expect. Or put it another way, (and this is slightly tenuous but trust me you'll see what I mean ) 'I'd write what I know' but actually when I was in the room and I opened my eyes and took in everything, I started to open my mind, I stopped just knowing and started being. The stories then began to flow. In other words, for me, writing what you know is not enough, if that makes sense.

 Just because it is 9 o'clock on a Saturday...