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...

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Young adult fiction is not all about sex!

Dancing on the inside...
Firstly a bit of an explanation, I have been seriously amiss with my blog, for which apologise, but there has been a good reason. I am frantically writing a book for Palgrave on writing young adult fiction at the moment, and I am afraid that has been my focus for my precious words rather than this.

But I couldn't not blog about this  because recently I became really angry when I saw an article in the New York Daily News regarding writing young adult fiction  (don't worry the link I have used will ensure that it shows no traffic to the site because I don't believe they deserve it). I did decide to calm down before I wrote the post otherwise it would have just been a tirade of abuse. It included interviews with an agent suggesting that all young adult fiction should have threesomes and sex. There were potentially some valid and useful points if used correctly. However it showed a scant understanding of either young adults or the genre. Instead they were peddling these 'truths' to any writer desperate to know what do in order to write a 'best selling' young adult fiction. While jumping on a band wagon and going for shock value. Nothing better for a headline grabber than a bit of teenage sex no doubt.

Very rapidly the wonderful Christina Li penned a truly eloquent response. Christina is a young adult and a writer therefore a member of the target audience in both aspects. She highlights something that I have been concerned about recently. The idea that young adult fiction has been appropriated. We need to return it to its rightful owner - the teen audience. This is not the first time I have heard about teenagers being made to feel uncomfortable. Step back adults these are not our books. Young adult fiction is written for teens. Just because adults are reading it does not mean the way it should be written or marketed should be changed. (Note the writers I know have not done any of this I am just sounding a warning bell). As Christina highlights we should be listening to the right audience as should the publishers.

Young adult fiction has always been a place to take risks and push the boundaries. However, I do have concern though that since it has become such a cash cow for publishers they are less likely to take these risks and might rather stay in their comfort zone/be formulaic. Young adult fiction has a responsibility because not only is it about great stories but it is a place for the target audience to escape where teens can explore and play with their identity in safety, asking questions of themselves and the text. Working out who they are and just as importantly who they are not. Publishers must not lose sight of that. We, as writers, must remain focused on our audience and listen to what they have to say, so the likes of Christina don't feel left out. I know the majority of writers that I know do that already but when advice like the article mentioned previously are being put out there saying that all books need sex in them, we need to keep shouting because we all know that's not true. Some stories might, other stories don't. Stories need to reflect all sorts of teen concerns as suggested by Christina that fit with the narrative and are not contrived. Write the story you want to write, tell the tale that is dancing on the inside...

Jonas & Jane Whispered

Monday, 27 July 2015

Researching Creative Writing by Jen Webb


I was delighted to be asked to review a copy of Researching Creative Writing. (ISBN-13: 978-1907076374 - £66.02) I have been waiting for a book like this for years. I just wish it had been around when I was doing my PhD.

It is another fabulous booked published by Creative Writing Studies and written by the inimitable Professor Jen Webb, Distinguished Professor, Creative Practice, at the University of Canberra. 

When I was doing my own Creative Writing PhD a few years ago I was often faced with various battles as I had to 'fit' my practice driven PhD into the the university's more 'traditional' format/expectations. It wasn't always a comfortable fit and we tended to bumble along together. This book answers all those questions that I had then. It would have enabled me to have been less stressed. I also would have felt more secure in my arguments having had solid research behind me or more specifically research that backs up the reasoning behind doing a creative writing PhD.

This book is going to be become an important book. It is a joy to read, whether dipping in or reading the whole thing, because it is learned yet accessible without being patronising. A difficult balance to achieve by anyone. The text deals with some very complex ideas relating to practice driven research embedded within creativity and criticality. It is a fascinating read because Jen Webb has successfully made it personal by using anecdotes of  other's research experiences alongside the academic rigour. This adds to its accessibility and is certainly not to its detriment. It creates a feeling of empathy as you read. 

After an initial question about what is research in a creative and critical context, the book is split into three parts: Part 1 Designing the Research, which which is about fine turning and understanding your project; Part 2 Doing the Research including writing as research, and finally, Part 3 From Materials to the Published Works, this explores ways of handing the results of your research and how to get your work out there in various ways - not always the obvious.  

Whether a PhD student or a supervisor or in fact just interested in creative writing research I recommend you get this book. It will soon become an important stalwart of your library and one that you delve into often. 

And just because