What am I teaching this week?

This week in one of my classes I’m prepping a session called, ‘What to do to make your readers fall in love with you.’

In the two hour session on my Short Stories and Flash Fiction course at Bristol Folk House we’re going to cover showing not telling, tension and suspense and characterisation. For the show not tell exercise I refer to a crime novel, popular in the 1920s where the plot thumps and the language is comically overdone. (Best not reveal my sources!)

On the longer introductory course to Creative Writing, we’re delving into poetry. Last week I asked my students to write a list poem for homework or look at the Poetry Foundation Org. website to find a structure of poem they liked and to write a poem, copying the structure – whether it’s a sonnet, haiku or villanelle.

One of  the best pieces of advice I received on my MA was to read, read widely and read more. It’s the quickest way to improve your writing. The other is to write, of course!

 

Appearances and publications

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Here’s a round-up of some successes so far this year

  • My flash fiction 1971 was selected for the wonderful live story-telling event, Talking Tales, February 2018 

1971

This story is a piece of historical flash about family secrets, about my great-grandmother’s suicide. I read it out to a packed audience at Stokes Croft Writers.

I won’t post it here as I might want to try it out for one of the larger competitions.

  • My prose poem, Sound Scrabble, was long listed from over 500 entries for the 2018 Tongues & Grooves Prose Poem Award 2018. I was invited to read my poem out at The Square Tower, in Portsmouth in March.
  • ‘No such thing as a free lunch,’ flash fiction was selected for inclusion on the Flash Walk on National Flash Fiction Day. in June 2018

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch by Grace Palmer. Performer: Poppy Hocken

The skyline’s full of triangle-topped houses but the breeze is blowing in as the tidal bore rises. Martha skips around the M Shed, hop-scotching the train lines, a fat ice cream in her pink hands.

Martha’s Mum looks at her phone, realises she cannot meet her lover.

Martha’s Dad looks at his daughter and thinks he is unbelievably lucky.

When they get to the bacon-hut they place orders for coffees now the wind is up.

Inside, Dave flicks fat onto his apron, dreams of when it will go right. His regulars are chewing the fat and chewing the rind.

Martha’s Mother pays.

And pays. And pays.

  • I attended the Flash Fiction Festival July 2018 and went to workshops with Vanessa Gebbie, Nuala O’Connor, Ingird Jendrzejewski and Carrie Etter
  • My flash fiction, ‘In 1960…’ was accepted for publication by  Flash Back Fiction Publication date is November 2018
  • A short story, ‘Once the Trees,’ has been accepted for an anthology, Tales from the Graveyard, by North Bristol Writers. Publication, late autumn 2018.
  • A poem, Rest in Peace, was selected and read out at the Ways to Peace festival at Tintern Abbey in September 2018
  • I attended Folk Fiction course with Zoe Gilbert, of London Lit Lab. October 2018
  • In November 2018 I begin teaching a six week course in flash and short stories for Bristol Folk House.
  • November 13th 2018 My story ‘In 1960’ is published in a major UK e-zine, with FlashBack Fiction, 
  • You can hear author questions, an audio recording of the reading and read the story on FlashBack Fiction

 

On graduating with an MA in Creative Writing

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So there I was, cheered on by my children at my graduation ceremony. I’d given myself a year to devote to writing, to plunge more deeply into the world of my novel. It didn’t go exactly as planned.

At times it was excruciating – being forced to consider the mistakes and writing tics that I’d picked up over the years and needed to shed. Frustration at the way the modules were organised so that I wasn’t able to access the tutors I wanted or the modules that were my first choice. And during those first months a depression I couldn’t shift following the death of my nephew, for that, I’m grateful that the university provided a counselling service that helped enormously.

On one of the modules, I was taught by poet, Tim Liardet and wondered how the course and the fellow poets would help my prose. In fact, the writing in that module – where we close studied texts – gave rise to writing that went onto be recognized. My story, ‘The cows are out for spring.’ was long-listed for the Bristol Short Story Prize and ‘Sound Scrabble,’ a flash fiction piece about hearing impairment, long-listed for Tongues and Groove prose poetry competition.

Being amongst serious talent and passionate writers was wonderful. These writers pushed themselves and supported me and others along the way.

After I’d handed in my final 40,000 draft of my novel and the course ended, there was an inevitable sense of disappointment and loss as all the structures that had been provided for us slipped away.

Luckily I belong to a critique group of MA students where we carry on workshopping our works in progress. It is inspiring to see their work and think that their work could be published, (come on, #agents!). And I still belong to Bristol Novelists writing group.

For me personally, the MA had always been a life-long ambition. Back when I finished a creative writing and literature degree at Sheffield Poly I dreamt of doing an MA, but going onto further study seemed out of the question. I needed to work. In my family I was the first to go to university and studying an arts subject was seen as a waste of time and money and a risk. My parents both left school aged fourteen. Although my dad was a great aural storyteller, the keeper of family history and sayings, he told me I was wasting my time going to university. My mum stepped in to support me however and smoothed the way.

While bringing up children the dream of studying remained just that and later as a single mum for years it was also out of the question. It was only when my children were through education and a student loan for post-grad study became available that I contemplated the MA again. I sent off my stories before the deadline, not expecting to even get an interview so was both surprised and delighted to get a place.

Now I’ve finished the MA my new ambition is not to work towards publication but to be published. And that means grafting, sitting down daily with my words and working through the doubt, misgivings and sheer complexity of writing a novel.

My aim is to for my work to be read by others and good enough to land on a literary agents desk and for them to say, yes. 

 

 

Creative Adventure workshop review

My rendezvous point for the outdoor creativity workshop with Creative Adventurer, Morwhenna Woolcock, was the Rock of Ages car park in Burrington Coombe, bounded by limestone rocks, thrusting above us.

The workshop, designed to tap into creativity and an absolute steal at £10, appealed to my sense of adventure.

On a day threatening rain I saw climbers, volunteer litter pickers and some wild goats, high on the rocks, staring down at me. Lorries and motorbikes thrashed through the narrow bypass between the rocks. It was an unsettling start. So much noise in such a beautiful place. And shouldn’t I be writing my novel, finishing off my 40,000 for my MA?

Morwhenna instantly put me at ease and we began chatting and, like the best workshop hosts, she drew out of me a story of what was happening in my creative life at that moment, rather than imposing any ‘rules’ upon me.

I’ve long admired Morwhenna and first heard about her years ago as she developed a project, creating bags with ‘do what you love,’ on them which she left at locations around Bristol with the request that people take them for free, but take photos of them. The bags travelled all around the world, garnering publicity for Morwhenna. Like Morwhenna I’d attended a course called, ‘Screw Work, let’s play,’ with the purpose of achieving a creative project in thirty days. My first project was Novel Nights, which is still going four years later. I loved catching up with her years later to find out how she’s living her creative life.

Morwhenna’s project for 2017 is to travel to all the UK islands and she’s also been running Creative Adventurer courses for a few years with the tagline, ‘An Adventure begins when you decide to have one.’ She was recently featured in Psychologies magazine.

I’m in the middle of an MA and writing my second novel, but stuck with the character and the writing, that nagging feeling that it isn’t quite right. I know I need to go deeper with the writing and the character. Morwhenna asked me to think of a question at the start of the workshop and then forget about it. My tools for the morning were a worksheet of tasks, crayons and Morwhenna’s gentle support and encouragement.

I was given a number of exercises to do. The first was ‘sound mapping,’ to connect with my surroundings and my senses and draw them. Noticing is one of the pre-requisites of a writer. I listened to wind stirring branches in eddies and commented that rain was near. It was something I’d learned as a child – nature craft if you like – but not something I’d thought about for years. ‘Put it in your book,’ she said. Of course! I focused on the noises of lorries and tuned into birdsong and to create a sound map.

In the second exercise, I was invited to use free word association to study and explore a rock that I liked. What did it feel like, what symbols lay within it? What emerged were metaphors and poetic expressions. The exercise put me into a deep writing zone, aligning myself without censure to the subconscious where words bubble and flow from within.

The rock I was drawn to was a striking piece of limestone with a deep split within it. From one angle it looked like a lion’s head. The crevice protected and sheltered plants, lichens and I spotted my favourite flower, a harebell.

Then I saw a small green plaque. This was, fittingly, the Rock of Ages. It was here that the  Rev, Augustus Toplady sheltered from a storm in Burrington Coombe. As the lightning thrashed around him and the rain stung, he scribbled down some lines in 1763, and this flash of literary inspiration has made him famous, with the hymn, still sung today. I sat on the rock, felt it, drew it, delighted that I was drawn to a location which provided inspiration to write.

Later, I discovered a burned twig and drew with the charcoal, a visceral pleasure. Play, as Jeremy Irons said in a previous workshop, is the prerequisite to creativity.

Morwhenna then invited me to explore and notice my surroundings. She made a beautiful art installation and I used a small hand mirror to look at the scenery from a different angle. Try it for a magical effect.

By the end of the session I had, inadvertently answered my question, ‘How can I drop down into my character and writing’, and the answer was not one I was expecting, but it had come from deep within my subconscious and was, (forgive the pun) a rock-solid suggestion to a plotting question I’d been grappling with as if it were a maths puzzle.

The value of the workshop was the way she’d enabled me to focus on my creativity and how it unlocked something deep within the subconscious.

Thank you, Morwhenna. You can find Morwhenna on Facebook   Her Creative Adventure series of workshops take place at outdoor locations around Somerset.

The Bristol Short Story Prize

I’m thrilled that I’ve been long-listed for the Bristol Short Story Prize. This writing competition is prestigious and being mentioned is not only a huge achievement but a huge endorsement of my writing. It’s given me encouragement that what I’m writing has an audience and a future.

This is the fourth year I’ve entered and the first time I’ve been long-listed. Despite the name Bristol in the title, this is an international competition, won for the last couple of years by international writers.

I believed in this story and I’m delighted that at last I’m on the map. I have to wait until 26th July to see if the story has been short-listed. If so it will be published in an anthology, out in October 2017.

In the meantime, don’t give up submitting and writing. Edit your work to make it shine.

Fingers crossed.

 

 

A creativity workshop with Jeremy Irons

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Freeing Creativity – a workshop with Jeremy Irons.

We were told to wear loose clothes to the Jeremy Irons Freeing Creativity Workshop so I practised a few high kicks and lunges to test out my shortish dress in the comfort of my own home. Fortunately, there was no crawling around or jumping on the floor of the Gainsborough Hotel in Bath, though we did have to stand for incisive questioning.

Jeremy is Chancellor at Bath Spa University, and around eighteen MA students from different courses gathered for the workshop. He made an imposing figure, loose-limbed, trainered, his dog’s lead looped loosely around his neck. The dog, a small, white, poodly breed, spent most of the time on its back with its legs in the air being tickled by pooch-lovers.

The first thing he said to the group was that we could leave if we were going to be offended by anything he said to us. Each of us had to stand up and present ourselves to the group. ‘You have to sell yourselves,’ he said. Speak up, use consonants, hold yourselves. It could have been intimidating but his natural authority and integrity reassured.

He’s a natural interviewee, or perhaps communicator, drawing every individual out so we found some fascinating information about our fellow students. A jockey’s fall that ended one career led to a psychology MA. People opened up in ways that usually only close friends do.

A shepherdess / fine-artist explained many farmers bury fleeces as the cost of processing this natural material is un-economic. She turns her flock’s fleece into lamp shades and other articles and manages her flock, four children and her artistic career all at once. Jeremy cautioned her to make space for her art.

When it came to my turn to speak, he said, ‘your posture is terrible’, and physically rearranged my body so my shoulders were down, bottom out. He said that past hurts and damage get trapped in the body and can cause problems internally, recommending the Alexander technique to me.

I said I was interested in unblocking creativity. What can stop writers writing is the editing or analytical side of our brains which stops us allowing ourselves to create and play. Jeremy agreed using the example of how kids freely explore. He recommended I take a drama class, explaining that drama helps you with channelling art, and to become a clear channel for this.

In my own practice, there is often a moment when my writing is going well that I drop down into the task and this is a state I aspire to, that magic moment when I’m in flow, so his suggestion resonated.

I was fascinated by the other MA disciplines whose approach to their artistic endeavours seemed to have more solidity in the outside world than for the writers. As Creative Writing students, we have no certainty of publication. The fine artists or sculptors are working with tangible products and the business and artistic side of their art seems more closely woven together.

Jeremy commented later that writers have to expose their traumas, dig deep, because that is what readers are interested in, arguing that you can’t compartmentalise your life. He thought that you had to be willing to speak about such things in public too. Perhaps it’s different for actors, but for me and other writer friends, speaking and writing are very different activities. I go to the page to find out what I think or what those traumas are. They only exist on the page and lose their power when I speak. Speaking is an entirely different process for me. Stephen King recommends writing a first draft with the door closed and I agree with that too.

The irony of the day was that our masterclass didn’t materialise. There was not enough time as eighteen people told the story of what they did before studying their MA, their work and future plans.

We ran over time but on reflection, it was a perfect example of the old cliche, ‘show not tell’ for writers. By being utterly present to listen to each of us the Chancellor allowed a little alchemy to happen and the subject of creativity and story-telling emerged along the way.

We ended with Jeremy telling us how walking in Nepal (should one afford it), away from sensory input, helped his imagination to soar. His last piece of advice was to have a mentor to aspire to.

If only we’d had more time. Those nuggets from him were priceless. As we chatted over coffee afterwards he made a point of checking my posture again (and the weight of my handbag) and reminding me of how important it is to look after oneself as you get older. I found myself giving him a friendly pat on the back which felt completely natural though not something I normally do to men I’ve just met, let alone famous Oscar-winning ones.

Bath Spa Uni is very lucky that he is Chancellor. He’s definitely a man of the people.

 

Review David Almond talk Bath Spa University

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Image of David Almond

David Almond

In the darkness of the television studio at Bath Spa University the children’s author, David Almond, sat behind a table patiently waiting for the audience to abandon the wine table and the event to start.

I knew Skellig of course, but wasn’t aware of all his other novels and plays. Julia Green, who runs the MA in Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa, led out a dizzying list of publications. My Name is Mina, The Savage, The Tightrope Walkers, A Song for Ella Grey were mentioned as well as his four doctorates and numerous prizes.

He grew up in the North East, in a small place called Felling. The sound scape was the Latin of Catholic mass, women who could reduce a room to laughter or tears by the stories they told, steel seams being smoothed by pneumatic hammers rising from the Tyne so the ‘ships were as tight as a drum,’ and above David’s council flat on the hill, the ripening call of skylarks.

At a young age he fell in love with print – his Uncle had a print shop – and he still delights to see black ink on white paper.

But as a young man with working class roots, writing from the regions, he asked himself what could he write about? Others asked that too. Literature seemed to belong to the London elite and the way forward seemed to be to emulate them, to change himself, to move but he resisted and eventually the stories that wanted to be told came through.

The answer of what to write about, for David, lay within. He explained how he found his voice by echoing the voices of those around him in Felling. He began to write stories about where he was from – it almost sounded as if writing being channelled through him. After initial set backs and being dismissed as a Northern writer again he sent off some stories to his agent. But as he walked back from the post box the first line of Skellig came to him, directly into his head and that seemed to mark the turning point for him as a writer.

‘Writing is about being brave, saying yes,’  he said. This was in the context of writing using the beauty of Geordie phrases – one example being ‘nowt’ and ‘bliddee’. He pointed out that tastes and traditions vary. His American editors were sympathetic and accepted all the words in the book while the UK counterparts and reviewers were less enthusiastic. He mentioned Huck Finn and pointed to a greater acceptance of place and respect for regional voices in America. His point was that the current wisdom is to shy away from using dialect, but it was the right thing to do for him as a writer and gained critical acclaim in the U.S.

He cautioned writers not to abandon their roots, ‘if you’re not writing in your own voice, where is it going to come from?’ He asked us.

‘Accept the story knows better than you,’ he said. This was becoming almost mystical but I knew what he meant. It’s that magical moment as a writer, a little like dreaming as he described it when the writing takes over, roars off and races onwards.

I asked him at the end what happens if your story gets stuck and although I was hoping for an answer that was magical and mysterious he said, like countless other writers before him, ‘keep going’. He described how one of his books was hell. He hated writing and editing it but ploughed on, day by day, as writers must, to get it finished. It was only months later that he thought, ‘that’s not so bad.’ I was encouraged by this as even great writers, like Almond, have books that do not come easily.

He explained when someone asked him about his working process that when he’s working on a novel he has a spreadsheet and writes down how many words he’s done on a given day and tallies up the word count each week.

The conversation moved onto writing for children. While he never set out to write for children the genre allows him to be experimental in the way other genres aren’t. He touched on the qualities that children have – he’s clearly passionate about working with them and enjoys their innate creativity. He showed us some of his working notebooks and they were covered in pictures drawn in coloured pencils. He tapped his head. ‘Writing isn’t about the brain,’ he said, ‘it’s far more. Kids don’t see the boundaries that we do between plays or books.’

The things I responded to from this insightful evening was that stories want to be written, they come from a place deep within so finding your writing voice is the key to success, so give yourself permission to write about stories that come from within yourself. Mix what you know with your imagination.

For working class writers one of your greatest assets is the experience you have. He said he realised that what might be thought of as disadvantages were, in fact, privileges. He described a job he’d had cleaning the inside of a steel ship, and how he could use that experience in his writing. These are the things that make him unique. I was reminded of a similar talk I’d listened to recently –  with the Australian writer, Tim Winton, who writes so beautifully about small town experiences. Both writers find universal themes in the small details of life.

The evening ended with an evocative reading about a childhood walk with his sisters visiting his sister and father’s grave. It was full of humour, warmth and love.

Flash Stories: It had something to do with…

Overhead conversation:  

I used to get a lacing when I was young. Yeah, a regular beating, because I was on fire, but, you know what? It kept me straight.

One time, brave I was, running around the sofa. Mum went one way and I went the other. There was the big spoon hanging up in the kitchen, as long as my arm, she took that down and had it in her hand, cold as fury.

I was faster than her and she wouldn’t have got me, but Grandma came in and pushed the dusty sofa back so I was trapped in the corner. I tried to vault the back of it  but Mum caught me and thwacked that spoon right down on my knee. Man, it hurt. And that night we went to my Uncles and he said, ‘Why’re you limpin?’ and I said nothing but Mum told him and he nearly walloped me again for getting her so upset.

And, I still limp from that spoon. See, I could’ve been in the first division, I was up for selection to the football team but that knee did for me, burnt my football bridges. She feels so bad about it now, but you know she kept us straight. Taught us the line and what would happen if we went rocking the wrong way.


Prompt from Meg Pokrass for Nanowrimo

Flash stories

Expectations not met

You don’t want to cross Mary when she’s in a mood.

She was polishing bones until they were bleached white and suitable for stuffing into the Damien Hurst. When that was done the waste intestines were thrown into a large plastic drum. They landed like spent Durex, still knotty and silken with unnameable fluids.

Fancying a cuppa she cleared the sink of debris. The trap had collected lumpy gristle and nests of hair. She tugged gently at the waste with a blue gloved finger. Slowly, the tangled fibres came up from their death bed bringing with it a sour stench of drains.

She ran clear water in the sink and anointed the enamel with Fairy to clean the surface before she dared wash her cup.

This was no way for an arts graduate to live.


This story was based on a prompt from Meg Pokrass, and contains the words: tangle, waste, lump, trap, mood.