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!

 

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.

 

 

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

Jonathan Safran Foer on writing and literature

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer

Last night I clumped over to Bath on my crutches to see Jonathan Safran Foer. Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights were hosting the author interview in the austerely grand setting of a methodist church on Argyle Street. (cream painted pews, gilded organ, lofty ceiling).

Whilst I haven’t read any of his books I wanted to find out more from the author who can produce such beautiful titles – Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and of course, his latest novel, Here I am.

One of the joys of beginning my MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa is the reading list and he’s on it. The second joy is to have your writing pre-conceptions turn upside down. I was delighted that the interview style gave Jonathan the opportunity to talk about his writing methods.

He began by talking about book tours and how often an audience will ask questions about his work that he’s never considered before.

He explains, “writing is not intellectualising, it’s being open to intuition.” Whilst writing, Here I am,  he didn’t talk to anyone about what he was doing; he sat in a room and let the writing emerge. He continued, “I try and repress questions – I’m not even thinking about what what I think about something. I couldn’t say I’d put something in the book intentionally.”

“The shallowest type of fiction is when you try and make sense of the world. I don’t think about the function of literature. I try and write for its own sake and liberate writing from utility – books are one of the last refuges where you can do something for it’s own sake.”

What I would have loved to have found out is how many drafts his work goes through. He went onto say that once he has the manuscript he sits down with his editor to go through it. At this point, “editing is intellectual – we shape it to be accessible and to conform to the form of the novel – but that’s the last 5% of the work. I’m just steering the ship beforehand.”

I found this staggering – all those ‘how to write novels’ book I’ve been devouring over the years where you lay out plot and theme and  write endless drafts and redrafts. Authors I know who say that when pitching ideas within a two book deal within genre fiction you have to pitch three or four story ideas which have to conform rigidly to that genre. But perhaps that is the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction.

Writing in this way must be liberating – but how does he achieve it? Scribbled in my notebook I’ve added these words from him.

“Submerge yourself in the writing – allow your sub-conscious to surface.”

“Ask yourself, is the character good company in the book?”

and,  “I like books that are primary. Books have to be perfect unto themselves and a book has speak for itself with nothing left out.” He gave, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison as an example.

and finally I’ve written, “Let the book go where it wants to go.”


Further reading: Guardian interview 

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights for events and to purchase the book

 

On starting an MA in Creative Writing

Decades after my first degree I have the freedom to study an MA. Both children graduated; one with a job and the other just setting out on finding a path in the world

Corsham Court

Corsham Court, Bath Spa Unviersity

Corsham Court Campus at Bath Spa University is very Jane Austen. Hobbling on crutches up the long driveway as peacocks squawked and sheep gazed beyond the ha-ha I felt as antique as the surroundings.

As a mature student I wasn’t in the minority; there is a great mix of ages though with any gathering of writers there are egos and anxieties to be managed. I was surprised at the distance students were travelling to the campus; London, Taunton and someone from Moscow – who suggested that I should have Gucci crutches or at least decorate them. I said I’d think about it.

We met in ‘the Barn’ around the back of the building, and to my delight Fay Weldon was there – one of the first writers who challenged and gripped me as a reader.

The grand piano was full of lecturer’s books – I was in the right place. These academics are writers who have grafted and worked and lived their craft combining this with teaching others. One by one they spoke about their first memory of writing and read from current work. We heard extracts from Fay Weldon, Gerard Woodward, Richard Kerridge, Nathan Filer, Gavin Cologne-Brooks and Tim Liardet.

I’ve written down scraps of insights/ discussions which I won’t attribute as my notes aren’t good enough to be accurate.

  • Keep your reader in mind at all times. Surprise them. Keep them hooked (Fay Weldon)
  • In your novel have a cosmic statement. What is it really about?
  • Are you writing about your father or your mother?
  •  It’s important to read aloud, to pace your novel, and to hear that (Nathan Filer)
  • What do you need to say in your novel?
  • (When thinking about subject matter for a novel) What do you care about ?
  • When writing get’s hard that when the work starts – and you need a great deal of hard work and application (Tim Liardet)

On re-writing: The essence of re-writing is being able to see why and clarify again and again and again.

On poetry: When poets try and put a collection together sometimes they have enough poems to fill a book, but that doesn’t make a great collection. ‘Poems need to hear one another, to run as a smooth sequence. Be aware of silence and how it is used in a book of poems. (Tim Liardet)

Favourite quote of the day; When Flaubert was asked where he got his ideas for Madame Bovary he said: “I thought of a woman in a dress the colour of a woodlouse” He didn’t think of the great sweep of things. But I think writer’s work in different ways and that’s allowed.

This quote led our seminar group to a discussion of observing precise objects and how we could use these in our writing. In our group we looked at black and white photographs from August Sander. Everyone spotted something different but the quality of the observation marked some students out. My old anxieties returned. The students who had just come from the BA course being good at this game.

Overall a very satisfactory first day, despite the hobbling up the myriad staircase.

 

 

Choosing titles

The Wish Bone has been the title of my novel for years and I’ve driven that title into the heart of the text like a brand. But, like sheep marked with a blue stain on their wooly white coats it now looks out of place.

The grand plot arc was to include ‘wishes’, but the novel pulled away from the 20 point plan on it’s own sweet journey with my character’s refusing to blindly follow me.

And in any case, looking through the titles of other books using the word bone they are mostly psychological thrillers or murder mysteries. My book is neither of these and for this reason the title, like a favourite armchair or comfortable but worn coat,  must be sent for recycling.

I don’t have any ideas for a new one but one must emerge as I prepare for this last bout of editing following my review from The Writers’ Workshop. 

A cupboard-full

You’re hungry again for knowledge, the sort that will shrink-wrap your tongue, leave your nose in a book for hours, wrinkle your brow, set coffee spoons stirring.

Cupboard’s not bare; there’s beans; lots. A rind of cheese and flour. Christmas pudding if you’re desperate to entertain.

The garrett is stirring with hope and itchy fingers.Get set for your Masters. Freedom to write and confidence to be.

No monthly pay-cheque to worry over, squander or save. Bills now scythe through your bank account. Something will happen; cupboards full, keyboard’s busy.

 

 

Giving up the day job for self employment

I’ve resigned from my well paid job !

So, I resigned; last Friday colleagues and friends (sometimes they’re both the same) joined me for a pint in the pub on my last day in Swindon. I was quite overwhelmed with the messages of support, encouragement and excitement that people expressed when they heard that I was going to try self-employment and to start an MA in Creative Writing.

The voice of doom

So many people were cheering me and the only negative cautious voice was my own trotting out tired vicious comments such as, what about your pension? What if you fail? What if you get depressed working alone? You haven’t got the right skills  / personality / sticking power to see this through.

Strategy?

Over the years this vicious internal voice has stopped me doing many things. Through practising Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques I’ve learned to recognise this voice more easily but it still crops up like a nasty dog nipping relentlessly at my heels.The first thing is to recognise that it’s only one version of my life, but as a novelist if I can create narratives, then surely I can create a ‘success narrative’ for myself? So, that’s what I’m doing; focusing on ‘doing’ ‘creating’ and practising counter arguments when I’m filled with doubt or worry.

Do what you love

A few years ago I started a ’30 day challenge’ to try out an idea I’d had for a long time – to create a literary event for novelists in Bristol. It didn’t exist so I created Novel Nights, putting into practice my years working in marketing and PR. Nearly three years later it is a roaring success and has taken over my life. I’d return from work in Swindon, have some food and then  feed the beast of Novel Nights, often up until midnight to finish some task.

Clearly something had to change as my energy was draining away and my health was suffering. I could have chosen to given up the thing that wasn’t making any money – Novel Nights – but I chose to give up work.

Income streams

As I see it, I am the same age as some women who are already retired. If I can find a sustainable income or income streams from different activities then that feels more secure to me than a salaried job which could end shortly, especially given the current climate. And, I need to find an income to support me during my MA.i don’t want a loan, so some other occupation seems a good plan.

Read my next blog to find out about my first week of self-employment