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Headspace and New Goals

Creative Writing Posted on Sun, September 08, 2019 18:45:56

As anyone who’s asked about my writing recently will know, I’ve been going through a frustrating hiatus.

It’s down to lack of time, to some extent, but that’s not the main issue. It’s really about headspace.

Of course, if you want to teach creative writing, you should be a successful practitioner. By that I mean you should have had at least one book commercially published. (I say “commercially published” because that’s what most students of writing want to achieve. And while there are some fantastic self-published writers out there, the hard fact is that anyone can bung something on Am***n and call themselves an author, no matter how shocking the writing).

But the more time a writer spends looking at other people’s work, correcting, editing and making suggestions, the less time and headspace they have for their own creative writing. This creates something of an anomaly: how to do both.

I know the theory: get up early, so that you can write before anything else takes over your brain. Sorry, but I get up quite early already and as I still have the circadian rhythms of a teenager, it’s quite difficult enough to be functioning and coherent at 9am, let alone before then. I’m really much nicer after mid-day.

Okay, you say. Stay up later. I would – except I have to get up early in the mornings for work! I already work into the evenings so by the time I go to bed, my brain’s pretty fried. Often with other people’s shiz (sorry).

So… what’s the solution?

The annual holiday helped. After just 24 hours when I didn’t have to answer emails/social media or carry out niggling domestic tasks, I found myself freely writing a novel that I thought I may have to abandon. After a fortnight I had written 10,000 words and that still left me time to breathe, drink wine and eat too many tapas.

But it’s not possible to write a novel in two weeks a year and sadly, I can’t afford to be on holiday for longer than that. So what’s the solution?

The nice thing was how much I enjoyed getting back into writing, so I have to find a way to keep it up. I read a blog lately that claimed one can write a novel in a year by just scraping out 200 words a day. Two hundred! That’s nothing! And it works out. Even if I miss this risible goal on some of the days, I’ll end up with more than 70,000 words after 12 months.

I suppose it’s like the kitchen timer trick, too. If you promise yourself you only need to spend a short time on something, then it feels psychologically more achievable and you’re more likely to start (and keep going for longer).

So that’s the new goal. A mere 200 words a day. And if I can’t manage that, I’m giving up. I’ll keep you posted!

Other kinds of writing

Journalism Posted on Mon, July 01, 2019 12:32:56

Like most writers, I have a day job (or two!).
I teach journalism at Leeds Beckett University and I am programme leader for creative writing with the Open College of the Arts. Something writing and academics have in common, though, is a great love of researching.
And anyone who works in academia will also know the importance of getting that research published in recognised journals.
It’s a slow process: all articles have to be peer reviewed and in all cases, that means revisions are required before they can be published.
I’m happy to say that my article on Commoners Choir has just been published by the Journal of Language and Politics. For anyone interested in campaigning choirs, or unusual forms of journalism, this may be of interest – so I’ve attached it here as a PDF.

Digging for stories

Creative Writing Posted on Thu, June 06, 2019 21:21:56

It’s not the most obvious tourist destination: a cemetery.

But bear with me here. I’m going to explain why a trip to a
graveyard was a high point of a visit to New Orleans (and why, as a writer, it
had me rubbing my hands).

When I had the chance to give a conference paper in The Big
Easy last month, I was determined not to go all that way without taking in some
of the local culture. A few internet
searches kept coming up with the same advice: visit the cemeteries.

What’s so interesting about the way the dead are disposed of
in N’awlins? They can’t bury them, for one thing. The city’s built below sea
level. So instead, they created the most elaborate and beautiful marble
chambers above ground. They’re worth a wander just for that.

But go with someone who knows their local history and you’ll
come away with some mind-boggling facts. For example: you’ll see that the
mausoleums usually have several small doorways and you’ll learn that they can
house dozens or even hundreds of the family deceased.

Not because they’re like the Tardis and bigger on the inside
than the outside. But because they’re also nicknamed “clay ovens”. The temperature
inside can get up to 500 degrees – so basically, although they’re buried, the
bodies actually get cremated in those monuments.

After the official mourning period of a year and a day, the
front can be reopened and the ashes removed to a lower level, making space for
the next of the family’s dear departed.

As a writer, the phrase “What if…” is never far from my
tongue. So what if a second family member passed away before that mourning
period was up? They can actually “rent” a grave until the time comes for them
to move into their last resting place.

What if a family runs out of money and can’t contribute to
the monument’s upkeep? That depends on lots of things – but their dear departed
may well have to move out.

There are several of these cemeteries around the city, but I
went to St. Louis No 1, the oldest, a few blocks from the Mississippi and
opened in 1789. (Be aware: for this one, you need to go with an official guide.
The Save Our Cemeteries group wants to protect it from vandalism and part of
your fee will go to their restoration projects).

Here lie everyone from slave owners to nineteenth century mayors
to pirates and chess champions. The chambers are not all crumbling away – that modern pyramid
structure that looks like it’s just landed belongs to actor Nicholas Cage, who’s
bought it to guarantee his future resting place.

One of the most visited tombs belongs to Marie Laveau, the
famous voodoo queen. Because she was a former hairdresser as well as a voodoo
priestess (interesting side hustle!), it’s scattered with offerings of ribbons
and hair slides from those who hope she might still help them out from beyond the

Writers: I defy you to wander out of here without a dozen
story ideas. Just make sure you go with someone who knows where the bodies are
buried (sorry!) and will help you dig the dirt (sorry again! It’s the tabloid
journo in me).

You’ll also learn all sorts of snippets about the local history,
cultural attitudes and all that jazz, so morbid as it sounds, put the interred on
your itinerary.

Seeing your words in print

Creative Writing Posted on Sun, November 25, 2018 18:27:54

Last year, I was proud to be invited to the Cleckheaton
Literature Festival in Yorkshire. I ran two workshops – one on writing short
stories and one on writing for children, in the very beautiful old library
building there.

The best moment had to be when a young boy came in by mistake
– he was meant to be in the Lego Club! – but decided he was enjoying the
exercises enough to stay and write a story instead. But I also met some lovely
people and talented writers over the two days.

It’s a great shame that the organisers of this lovely event
weren’t able to secure enough finding to enable it to carry on beyond 2017.

But the best festivals should have some kind of legacy, and
in this case an anthology of writing from all the featured authors was printed
and it arrived in my post this week.

All writers will tell you that seeing their work in a printed
book – as opposed to online, or self-printed for editing, for instance – is a special
moment. It seems to give the writing a solidity that other formats do not.

Commercially-published novelists will also tell you that
these moments are a long time in coming. Self-published writers can, of course,
knock up print-on-demand quickly if they wish, but the traditional publication
process is slow.

So working on short stories and submitting them to
anthologies is one way to see your work in print more regularly.

I’ve been lucky enough to be in two anthologies from the
annual short fiction competitions run by Momaya and now this book published by
the Cleckheaton Festival

I contributed a short story called ‘Peacock Feathers’. I am slow at writing short fiction – a good short story can take me as long as the draft of a full novel. So it was good to see this complete and in print.

It made me remember that although writing can be hard work –
isolating, slow and sometimes thankless!
– it also brings with it some amazing rewards.

Interview for Cheshire Cat Books

Creative Writing Posted on Sat, October 06, 2018 18:33:08

Cheshire Cat Books is a new and exciting publisher based in the north-east of England. I’m very proud to say that Tony Hutchinson, one of the brains behind it, is a former student of mine on the crime writing course I ran at Newcastle University a little while ago.

He’s now published his work via Cheshire Cat and they look great.

It was lovely to be asked to talk about my writing for the publisher’s new blog, Nine Lives. The full interview is here:

It’s fantastic to see a new publisher based in this part of the world and I am not surprised to hear they’re being inundated with submissions. Good luck, Cheshire Cat!

The Rules of Magic

Creative Writing Posted on Sat, April 28, 2018 20:17:22

* This post was originally published on the Author Allsorts blog on 23rd April 2018.*

I blame Bewitched.

It was my must-see TV series when I was growing up and I still love it, even though I now watch through my fingers because of the rather repetitive plots and the reactionary attitudes to women.

Not surprisingly I adored Samantha, the pretty, well-meaning witch trying to keep her magic to a minimum (to please her dullard husband). These days I see the real role model is Endora, the archly wise and glamorous ‘baddie’. But I think it instilled in me a longing for magic that never quite went away.

When I think back to the books that I loved best as a child, they were always the ones with magic in them. Much as I enjoyed the adventure stories of the likes of the Famous Five or the school stories of St Clare’s and Malory Towers, deep down I knew they would never happen to me. I wasn’t smart enough to solve a crime and I wasn’t cool, rich or sporty enough to be one of midnight-feasters at boarding school.

But magic – well, that could happen to anyone, couldn’t it?

When I think back to the books that disappointed me as a child, they were the ones that promised magic but didn’t deliver. I vaguely remember one that boasted a witch in the title, for instance, but she turned out to be a kindly old lady and it was all about not judging people by appearances. Pah – a morality tale in disguise. And there were the books that weren’t quite magic-y enough – where the magic was so small and underwhelming that it wasn’t worth the trouble.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that magic keeps creeping into my own writing.

What may be surprising is that magic – in all its chaos and weirdness – almost always comes with rules.

Even those whacky Bewitched episodes had rules. If one witch casts a spell, another can’t remove it, for instance. But they can sometimes cast another spell to mitigate it – which of course takes us right back to Sleeping Beauty and the good fairies at the christening.

In my first children’s novel, The Serpent House (Curious Fox, 2014) the magic was time travel. And it turned out, as I was doing my research, that you can’t just bob back and forward through time, willy-nilly. There are all sorts of conventions and these date back to the first ever children’s time travel story, which was arguably Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906).

For example, time travel can’t happen anywhere – there has to be a portal that enables the transportation, whether it’s a door or a piece of jewellery or a machine. Time moves differently in your ‘primary’ world when you’re travelling to the past (or future) – you can be away for months but find that only minutes have passed in your present day. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t (usually) change things in the past because it has too severe an effect on the future. You can mess with these rules – writers always like to try – but you’re asking for trouble.

The Misper (Conrad Press, 2018) wasn’t meant to be at all magical. Aimed at ages thirteen-plus, it’s primarily about friendships and it’s set in present-day Normal Town. But then my characters started trying magic out and it was hard to stop them (teenagers, you know). And things began to happen. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether the magic’s real or whether it’s all in Anna and Zoe’s heads.

Something I have noticed in my writing is that magic rarely ends well. If this is another rule, then I’m not sure why it is – I feel so sure that if someone gave me a wand for a day I’d do all sorts of good with it. But maybe it’s the subliminal message I picked up from Bewitched at an impressionable age: that really, you shouldn’t meddle with what is normal and natural. It’s high time I ditched that notion and let more magic in – wouldn’t you agree?

The book I’d like to see reprinted

Creative Writing Posted on Sun, April 15, 2018 15:10:56

*This post was originally published on the Author Allsorts blog under the theme of the book I would like to see reprinted.*

Satchkin Patchkin, will
you lift the latchkin? Satchkin Patchkin, will you lift the latch?

When I read stories to my eldest daughter, one of her
absolute favourites was this book: Satchkin
, by Helen Morgan. Written
in 1966, it’s the story of a little green magic man who lives ‘like a leaf’ in
an apple tree.

It was the most comforting of bedtime stories. The apple
tree in question belongs to a poor old lady who’s always being bullied and
exploited by her landlord, who is ‘a lean man, a mean man, a man without a

In true fairy story fashion, in spite of her dire straits,
the old lady shows kindness to the little hobgoblin Satchkin Patchkin. And in
return, over a series of short and satisfying tales, Satchkin Patchkin pays her
back, by thwarting and foiling the rotten old landlord until, in the end, the
lovely old lady is well-off and comfortable.

(OK, I admit it: it’s the sort of story that has political
appeal too, in the same way as Martin Waddell’s Farmer Duck. I love it when a mean
old capitalist gets taught a lesson by a hardworking commoner. You can’t start
’em too young and we need the moral of the story today more than ever).

As blogger Nick Campbell points out on the A
Pile of Puffins
, the book was written at a time when there was a
renewed interest in ‘earth magic’ and the hobgoblin character featured in a few
children’s stories at the time. Perhaps another reason why it feels very
evocative to anyone from the the ‘Watch with Mother’ generation.

One of the other real charms about the book is the way it
lends itself so well to being read aloud to a young child. The author uses
language like a song: some favourite lines are repeated, so the reader and
listener know what’s coming.

Not too long ago, my daughter (now all grown up) was
reminiscing about it, so I went to fetch it from the bookshelf, only to
discover it had somehow disappeared. (Is there a book hobgoblin that pinches
stories, I wonder? I never throw
books away, and yet they somehow are often missing when I go to look for them).

And then I was heartbroken to discover it had gone out of
print. A certain international online bookstore had a couple of buying options
– one of them cost £10,000, so I had to pass, but in the end I did manage to
find a pre-loved copy online that wasn’t in too poor a condition. So Satchkin
Patchkin graces my library once more.

It made me wonder too about the author. Helen Morgan wrote
some stories that are apparently more famous – the Mary Kate series (1960s) and The
Witch Doll
(1991, I think). Because
Helen Morgan is not an unusual name, there are several authors who share it and
I am struggling to find any verifiable biographical details for her.

But I’d campaign for a reprint of this old favourite any
day. And I’d like her to know that those sing-song lines from Satchkin Patchkin still make me and my
daughter smile.

What’s going on?

Creative Writing Posted on Sun, February 04, 2018 13:34:22

Gosh – it’s proving hard to keep up with the blogging these days!

The Misper is to be published on 1st March and I’m now involved in organising a little publicity for it.

I’m pleased to say that some prominent book bloggers and reading sites have accepted it for review.

It should be available for pre-order within the next week or so.

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