My Top 5 Writer’s Websites

One of the jobs on the list for this summer is to create a website.  I’m pretty illiterate when it comes to technology (although I keep doing technology-related things so maybe I won’t be able to say this for much longer), and I’ve discovered that with WordPress I can build my site around this blog.  As I’ve found setting up and maintaining this relatively straightforward, the do-ability factor has significantly increased.

In my search for ideas on visuals and content I’ve been reasearching other writer’s websites (with a specific focus on writers for teenagers), so I thought I’d bring you a selection of the ones that stood out for me.  They are numbered but they aren’t in any particular order, it’s just because I like to number stuff:

images-11.  Julia Green (Blue Moon, This Northern Sky) — Now, I’ve said I’m not giving preferences here, but just between you and me this is my favourite for illustrations and the concept of how you move around the site.  In the middle of the home page is a spiral-bound journal, with tabs that go from page to page.  This is surrounded by sketches of boats and seascapes that link to the settings of many of Julia’s books (click on her name above to see for yourself).  Excellent blurbs on her novels, with interesting background on the writer herself as well as writing tips.  Charming and informative.

images2.  Neil Gaiman (Coraline, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, Stardust and too many others to list as well as comics, films, TV… I’m exhausted just thinking about it) — A site that’s not so interesting visually but for sheer quantity and quality of content it is impressive.  There’s a personal journal/blog, free short stories, videos and essays alongside the usual details about his work.  He’s active on social media too so all the links are here, including access to Mr Bobo’s Remarkable Mouse Circus, his website dedicated to younger readers.  Very cool guy who clearly loves engaging with his readers.

images-23. Michael Grant (Gone, Hunger, Lies, and other one-word titles) — Straightforward layout/ graphics, etc, but what I like is the way he addresses his readers directly.  You get a real flavour of who he is as a person and a writer, and he gives great advice on starting a career in writing.  In the Links section there are some videos where he talks about his work, and he has some interesting things to say about the conflicting way teenagers are treated in today’s society.  No-nonsense approach from a no-nonsense writer.

images-34. John Boyne – (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) — Boyne writes for adults and children so it was interesting to see how he combines the two on his website.  He’s gone for an elegant and clear layout, very open that he writes for both markets on the Home page (there’s a lot of debate about crossing markets and how to engage all readers effectively), although it could be argued that the layout and tone are too austere for teenagers to spend much time here.  There is also a wide selection of short stories, some for free but the most recent asking for donations.  Overall a good compromise to showcase his work, but maybe more for his adult readership.

images-55.  Sally Gardner (Maggot Moon, I Coriander) — A great front page that shows the inside of a house, with an illustrated version of Sally herself sitting at a desk writing on her laptop (I like to think it’s a silver  MacBook Air).  On a page titled Sally’s Story, she talks about her struggles with dyslexia and how this affected her school and work life.  There are also links to Youtube so you can see her talking about her books, as well as showing an animated page video of how it might feel to be dyslexic.  Fascinating stuff.

So what have I learned from this trawl through the websites?  Well, firstly it’s important to let your voice come through, give a bit of yourself, because if you take the time to engage with your readers they will want to engage with you.  And secondly provide good content too, with information about yourself, your books, and maybe give an opportunity to read some of your work.

The websites above also give me something to aspire to.  Great graphics and a strong site concept (Gardner and Green) come from professional website builders and obviously come at a price.  I’m not in a position to do that at the moment, but hey, who said you should get everything you want straight away?  So while I’m slowly working my way through the list of things to do, I’m also creating a new one for the future, and as regular readers know, a good list always makes me happy.

I’ve barely touched the surface of all the amazing websites out there, so let me know your favourites for adults or teenagers…

How to Survive The Lifelong Learning Curve

It is a well known fact that writing is a long and slow process.  Writers have to be determined and resilient, as well as innovative and flexible, which is quite a high wire act to pull off over a long period of time.  You would hope that after writing five novels, three radio plays and too many short stories to count, I would have some idea of how to do this, but the high wire still feels a little too high for my liking.

This feeling of being on a constant learning curve has intensified since I changed my approach to the whole issue of publishing.  I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’ve decided to publish my YA novel, The Big Deep, as an ebook in a couple of months, and now the teaching year is over this project is in full swing.  My to-do list is longer than ever and the scary part is that every single thing on the list is something I’ve never done before.  Whether it’s designing a book cover, writing the blurb or building a platform (yes, I have a whole new vocabulary too), I am out of my comfort zone and consequently feeling rather vulnerable.

2610290104002(What I like about this diagram is the suggestion that if I don’t improve I’ll have to die, which is always a good incentive, possibly even better than cake)



So thank goodness for Mrs Editor Lady.  She is also a friend and my go-to person when my insecurities get the better of me.  She isn’t a comfort blanket though.  I trust her judgement because she isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.

A perfect example of this was the lunch meeting we had recently, where she said Sal, you need to do one more read through just to check for mistakes.  Now, we did a final edit a few months ago and I was confident that the manuscript was as good as it could possibly be, so my immediate reaction was Nah, we’ve done that, it’s as good as it can possibly be.  But because she isn’t afraid to tell it like it is and I trust her judgement, I did it anyway.

And guess what?  This final polish which started out as checking for spelling mistakes, glaring grammar howlers and continuity oversights, turned into a full blown edit because about half way through I realised my writing was really irritating me.  This is not a good thing.  If it’s irritating me, it sure as hell will irritate my readers, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t the reaction I’m looking for.

I’ve always known I have writing ticks, those words and phrases that I use repeatedly without even noticing them.  It’s a symptom of lazy writing, going for the most obvious, but what I realised in my read through was that many of these words and phrases were also caused by lack of confidence.  I wasn’t sure the reader would see the scene as I saw it, so I’d better spell it out.  Laziness and insecurity are a dangerous combination.  So I did what I often tell my students to do (and forget to do myself).  I did a cutting edit.  Went through the whole thing (60,000 words), just looking for things I could cut, and what I thought would take a day or two actually took eight days straight with one afternoon off for good behaviour.

And my reward?  The manuscript is now 55,000 words long, the narrative is leaner and cleaner, and the ticks have been well and truly ticked off.  Oh, and I hope I trust my reader to see what they want to see.

This writing business can be isolating, sitting alone and making up stories, but the writer’s life is changing with social media and technology having an ever bigger impact not just on the way we write but also the way we publish and market the finished product.  So having other people we trust involved in this process is crucial.  It gives us an honest perspective, it pushes us to improve, and it makes that long list of challenges slightly more achievable.

So this is a thank you to Mrs Editor Lady.  You’re the best, and in the lifelong learning curve of writing, you help me to be better too.

The New Children’s Laureate

Malorie Blackman has been appointed as the new Waterstones Children’s Laureate, a two year post that images-2will see her banging the drum for children’s literature, with a special focus on encouraging reading throughout the age groups.

One of Blackman’s best known works is the Noughts and Crosses trilogy, set in a dystopian world where the hierarchy of races has been swapped.  The Crosses are black skinned and the dominant force in society, running government, business and other positions of responsibility.  The white skinned Noughts are second class citizens, forced to take servile roles with few rights and little control over their own lives.

This world is utterly convincing and Blackman writes about her two main characters, Callum and Sephy, in a way that makes the reader fear for their safety from the very start.  But what really works for me are the little details that bring this world into stark focus.    images-3For example, if a white character cuts himself, the plaster he has to use will be black because that is the colour of the majority.  This situation in reverse happened to Blackman herself, and I can only imagine how this type of seemingly commonplace occurrance would feel, undermining a person’s place in society on a daily basis.

This is what literature has the power to do, with the strongest messages not necessarily coming from someone on a soapbox shouting slogans.  Instead, Blackman takes the time to show an alternative viewpoint.  The truthful reality she portrays is what has the power to change minds, which is why she is such an exciting appointment for children’s laureate.

In her interview with the Sunday Times last week, she talked about what she hopes to achieve.  Her main mission is to ensure every primary school child has a library card and is read to for ten minutes every day.  You would think this is an achievable target, but with libraries closing on a regular basis and the school curriculum ever more test focused (even at primary school level) it could be harder than you think.  She also wants to use a variety of media to encourage children’s interaction with stories, including film, music, and art, as well as supporting the use of ereaders.

images-4Now, being the relative Luddite that I am, I am constantly playing catch-up with the various platforms available nowadays.  I have to remind myself that children have grown up with this technology, so they don’t have the same learning barriers as me and feel comfortable reading from a screen.  I’m sure there will be the usual cries of indignation if children are not reading conventional books, but hopefully the more they have available to them, the more they will be prepared to experiment with what they are reading, whether that’s comics or graphic novels, short stories or poetry.  I don’t care if they read on paper or on a screen.  I just care that they’re reading.

A statistic that Blackman quotes in the interview is that ‘17% of young people would be embarrassed to be seen reading by a friend’.  But that means 83% of young people wouldn’t, which is a far more encouraging number, and I have high hopes that Blackman’s passion for literature and interest in new technologies will make this percentage even higher.

Under the Influence – Part Two

Following on from last week’s post I’ve been thinking about the books and writers that have affected my work, and my approach to writing.

images-1The very first influence has to be Conan Doyle’s The Short Stories of Sherlock Holmes.  I was lucky enough to study it for O’level and loved the brilliant mind of Holmes and the macabre plots that were played out in the smoggy streets of London.  For homework we had to write our own crime story and mine seemed to grow and grow as the plot became ever more complicated, and while I don’t remember anything about the crime or my sleuth, I do remember the pivotal piece of evidence that solved the case.  For some reason the criminal had written a sinister message on a bedroom wall, and the indents left by the heel of her shoe were so well preserved the crest of the shoemaker could even be seen.  There were only a couple of pairs of this particular shoe made and of course the shoemaker kept excellent records.  Case closed.

This was all very Holmsean and the teacher said so with a palpable tone of disappointment.  I realise now that imitating the stories you admire is often how writers begin, and my experience was very possibly a comment on how creativity was treated in schools.  The fact that imitation is part of the creative process wasn’t recognised (or possibly understood) by the teacher, and I get the impression nothing has changed, thirty years later.

Anyway, from that unpromising beginning, my reading seemed to develop in phases.  I had my sex-and-shopping bonkbuster phase (anyone under the age of thirty-five won’t know what I’m talking about)  which involved copious amounts of Jackie Collins and the quite brilliant Lace, by Shirley Conran.  Then came the epic war phase of Lord of the Rings and Catch-22.  I was introduced to Tolkien by my work mates.  I was a laboratory technician at the time, and during our lunch break we would sit around a table in our white lab coats and read.  As you can probably gather I’ve been a geek for a very long time.  Then I went on to read The World According To Garp and became a John Irving addict, going through all of his novels and waited desperately for him to write the next one.  Then there was the time I wouldn’t read anything unless it was Thomas Hardy or Oscar Wilde.    Yes, that’s right, from Jackie Collins to Wilde in a few short years.


Looking back I can see I was searching for something in this very eclectic mix.  Not necessarily what kind of writer I wanted to be, because I don’t think I had a firm idea of what that meant back in my twenties, but more about the kind of stories I was interested in.  The novels that I mourn when I think back to the great book-giving-away of 2005 reflect the dark stories that I’m still drawn to now.  Can anyone read Jude The Obscure without feeling a deep howl of needless loss?  And what about the destruction of Dorian Gray, a reflection of how we could all potentially let our desires grow beyond our control.  I find the light and darkness of human behaviour compelling, as well as all the shades in between, and this twist in the human heart comes out in the stories I write too.

If I think about the writers that have affected my writing more directly, it has to be when I was doing the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.  The most challenging module of that year was The Poet’s Eye, taught by the wonderful Tim Liardet.  This is a module aimed at prose writers who want to bring the poet’s acute observation to their work, so alongside poetry we looked at Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, and the Selected Short Stories of Virginia Woolf.  I am still amazed by Nabokov and infuriated by Woolf in equal measure, and they both taught me how to use concrete and specific detail to build visual scenes. The image of Miranda sleeping beneath the apple trees and the box of tissues in the back of a car on Humbert Humbert’s journey with Lolita both stay with me.

More recent influences have been Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  Now, this is actually a images-2writing advice book, and sometimes you can read these and not feel you’ve learned anything new by the end.  But this book is something else.  Her writing is personal and insightful, and she has a way of finding the exact simile that perfectly illustrates what she is describing.  She made me realise I had to relax my writing and let it breathe.  She also helped me to see I should stop trying to be a perfectionist, because perfectionism is ‘based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die… people who aren’t even looking at their feet are doing a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.  Stop looking at your feet.’  This is what I tell myself when things aren’t going exactly as I want them to.

Stop looking at your feet.

And then finally I have to mention the most recent influence on my writing.  I was struggling with the voice of the main character in my YA novel The Big Deep.  Throughout the story she is experiencing paranoia and has a rather confused state of mind, but this just wasn’t coming across on the page.  She was too ordered, too controlled.  So I went back to look at House of Leaves (again), by Mark Z. Danielewski.  This book has multiple storylines that are told in different voices and forms, as well as an unconventional layout that reflects what is going on in the house.  I experimented with the idea that the words on the page could in some way mirror her confusion, changing the visual appearance to show something the usual block prose can’t.  Compared to other mediums, the novel is the closest form we have to depicting the workings of the mind, and while I’m well aware it can never convey its true complexity, I’m hoping this method works as a fictional representation at least.

I am currently reading The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer, about a man living with schizophrenia.  It has a strong first person voice and the story is told in a variety ways (no surprise that it appeals to me then), and I have a feeling it’s one of those books that’s so good I’ll want to jack it all in and pull on a white lab coat again.  I kid myself pretty much once a year that I’m going to give up writing and get a real job, but then I think back to Sherlock Holmes and wonder if Dr Watson would have given up writing about the cases they solved together, because let’s face it, Holmes didn’t make it easy for him.  But Watson enjoyed the writing.  He had something to say and he wrote about the things he cared about, and if he ever suffered from self-doubt he’d just sit patiently and listen to Holmes playing the violin while they waited for the next case, all the while hoping for well organised and efficient shoemakers.

I bet his teachers were never disappointed in him, and if they were, I bet he didn’t care, he just kept on writing regardless.

Under the Influence – Part One

images 15.12.43‘I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.’
 Kurt Vonnegut.

I am currently reading Slaughterhouse Five, arguably Vonnegut’s most famous novel about Billy Pilgrim, a time-travelling ex-soldier who claims he was abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.  If this is the result of significant amounts of farting around them I’m all for it, but as always I am reading with my editing head on, wishing I had a pen to circle, underline and make notes in the margin.  It is a writer’s curse to find reading for pleasure a difficult task, with that inner sponge waiting to absorb something new, or that inner critic wanting to change and improve, both constantly sitting there on the lookout for any kind of willing text.  I have been known to marvel at the instructions on a hand dryer, it was so lyrically written.  So it goes.

There are many passages in Vonnegut’s masterpiece that remind me of stories I’ve read by my students.  Stories I’ve criticised.  For example:
‘When she was gone, Billy opened the drapes and was no wiser as to what was outside.  The view was still blocked by a venetian blind, which he hoisted clatteringly.  Bright sunlight came crashing in.’
I would have gone to town on that paragraph.  Do we need this level of detail?  How relevant is this to your story?  Try not to over explain.  Avoid adverbs.  How can sunlight crash?  And so it goes.

Part of criticising another’s work is actually questioning their decisions.  I’m not a dictator who expects my students to follow my every instruction (a control freak, yes, but I haven’t formed my own private army just yet), and I know that a writer’s response to a suggestion may be to reject it.  But a question requires consideration on the part of the writer.  It requires thought, and that thought together with their reply becomes part of their decision making process.

In addition to this, there is a question that often goes back to the root of why they started writing the piece in the first place:  What are you trying to achieve here?  Understanding the writer’s vision will fundamentally affect the criticism and suggestions that I make.  It will help me see where they are coming from, and then I can see where they want to go and maybe how they can get there.  I guess it’s a bit like those instructions you get on restaurant websites, the page titled How to find us by car — you can only find the destination if you know what road you’ve come in on.  So during this hypothetical conversation with my student, the question Who has influenced you here? will probably get a mention, and after all my queries about unnecessary detail and the physics of crashing sunlight, the answer may well be Kurt Vonnegut, and my response would have to be Oh, ok then. That’s pretty good.

Of course the potential scuppering of this theory is if I haven’t actually read the writer or book that has influenced the student.  Then I have to confess ignorance (a lot of teachers are reluctant to do this apparently, they think it undermines their authority or something), and if circumstances permit I’ll pootle off to do some research and get back to them with some proper feedback.  This not only makes me feel like I’m doing my job properly (and fee-paying students hopefully feel like they’re getting value for money), but I’m also discovering a new writer for myself, and that’s never a bad thing.

At the beginning of each semester we do have a quick conversation on favourite writers as a kind of getting-to-know-you exercise.  Interestingly, most of the writers that come up are contemporary.  There are always the dependable YA writers such as JK Rowling, Lucy Christopher and Stephanie Meyer, the fantasy contingent including Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, a smattering of Stephen King and writers with an interest in realism and modern issues, such as Jodi Picoult.

images-3 15.12.45images-2 15.12.40images-1 12.05.07images 12.05.09

Sometimes they’ll mention someone I’ve never heard of which will get me scurrying for my pen, but the classic writers rarely get a mention.  I’ve always thought this was because they’ve spent their GCSEs and A-levels dissecting the classics to death, but maybe this isn’t the full picture.  I wonder if it isn’t more to do with age.  When you’re young you want to do things your own way, you want to create something new and striking, something that will change the world’s view on a subject.  It is irrelevant who changed the world a hundred years ago, so you seek out who is trying to do it now, and when you find him or her it is like someone holding a light to show you the way.  You have all the time in the world to use that light to guide your own path and show people you have something new and exciting to tell them too.

And then, in the blink of an eye, you reach your forties.  You’ve read hundreds of books, some of which have influenced you as a writer, some not, but hopefully you still want to change the world, or at least show it something different.  The past inevitably becomes more of a pull because you’ve got as many years behind you as you still have left to live (I’m ever the optimist), and looking back doesn’t seem so irrelevant any more.  The classics have a habit of surging into contemporary life to show us how universal stories can be with recurring themes of ambition, loss and hope, and characters that still mean something to us.  The Great Gatsby is the most current example of this.  So maybe it’s actually how old we are and where we are in our lives that dictate the books we choose to read, the way they may affect us, and the answer we give when we’re asked the question, Who is your favourite writer?

Slaughterhouse Five is considered a modern classic, and I’m not sure yet what kind of impact it is going to have on my own writing, if any.  But it has made me think about who influenced me when I was young and in the earliest stages of my writing experience.  I’ll ponder this over the coming week and write about it in my next post, but in the meantime tell me about the writers that have influenced you, past or present…

Economy with Words

Unknown 18.21.21The shortest short story is reputedly by Ernest Hemingway and it goes something like this:

For Sale.  Baby Shoes.  Never worn.

Now, you many argue that this isn’t a short story, that six words can’t possibly create a narrative.  But it does have a beginning, middle and an end.  It does raise questions and therefore has conflict.  And it does have characters – a baby and therefore parents.  What happened to them we’ll never know, because this is the kind of story where the reader gets to decide.  Yes, that’s right folks, Hemingway trusted you to decide on things for yourselves.  This is one of the great attractions of reading not only Hemingway’s work but any well crafted short story.  The writer trusts you, the reader, which means he or she can get on with the business end of the story, focus on the economy of words, a moment in time that will reveal a character and his or her situation, a dilemma or conflict that may or may not be resolved by the end.

I have started writing short stories again, after many long years of writing novels, and have recently have been drawn to flash fiction too.  This shorter form of fiction is classified as a complete story of 1,000 words or under, but competitions often ask for a smaller wordcount than that.  In the absence of a short story to submit to the Bridport Prize this year (caused by the whole character-walking-out-on-my-story drama of a few weeks ago), I considered their 250 word maximum for flash fiction.  Could I do that?  I consider myself primarily to be a novelist, with my stories having a habit of expanding beyond such tight parameters.  But this suddenly became a challenge, possibly made easier because I remembered a story from way back that could work at least as a starting point.

The story in question was already relatively short at 760 words, and was written for submission to Mslexia.   They didn’t accept it and has stayed in a folder of miscellaneous writings that I haven’t looked at in years.  In all other areas of my life I’m pretty good at chucking stuff out (I even got rid of 120 books when I moved house, which still hurts when I think about it), but when it comes to writing I’m a complete hoarder.  So I reacquainted myself with its characters and story arc, then started whittling, cutting and cutting until it was a formless collection of sentences. Deleting a word became unreasonably enjoyable and finding one word to replace three even more so.  A novelist?  Me?  You must have mistaken me for somebody else.

Finally I went about reshaping these words, just the essence of a narrative now, into something cohesive again.  The finished piece was ok, a perfectly adequate story, but adequate won’t do for a competition entry, so I started doing some research, reading previous Bridport winners and looking at the various flash fiction websites.  I’d set my story out in a conventional way with paragraphs, speech marks for dialogue, etc, but there were many stories that looked more like prose poems, with no line breaks and using italics for speech.  I didn’t think this would work for my piece but thought I’d give it a try for experimental purposes.  And the result was quite astonishing.  The combination of continuous prose with integrated dialogue created a story that was so much more fluid and immersive, almost as though the reader was wrapped up in the first person voice. I also found that using a line break for the final line added emphasis, where before there was a risk it would just peter out.  The story has now become a distillation of its formal self and is a submission-friendly 242 words long.

So here are the writing lessons I’ve learned this week:

  1. I’m not just a novelist – with the right mind-set I can do short and concise too.
  2. Being a writing hoarder is good – if the time wasn’t right for it before, it might be sometime in the future.
  3. Do research, learn from others, experiment.
  4. Never, ever, get rid of books.

My submission has now flown through the ether to the Bridport Prize cyber in-tray, but here is one of my favourite flash fiction stories from my research.  It won first prize in a competition run for National Flash-Fiction Day on June 22nd:

A Handful, by Tim Stevenson

I thought he’d been in the river for a year, down amongst the roots and tumbling stones.
My mother told me otherwise.
On a bookshelf something remained.
She’d taken it from the crematorium, she said, and he’s as useful around the house now as images 18.21.18he ever was alive.
I wondered about the jar of grey ashes, which bit of him hadn’t made it to the river: an ear, a nose, the hand that clenched his pipe?
Incomplete, my father flows away, and somewhere a fisherman eats his catch, picks grit from his teeth and thinks, inexplicably, about tobacco.

The Changing Landscape

This week saw my last day on campus for this academic year.  Assignments are handed in, marking is well under way, and I found a lovely thank you card from a third year student on my desk.  There was an unexpected bonus too.  I received a nomination for a teaching award, which felt particularly special because the nominations were made by students.  A presentation was held yesterday afternoon at Main House where there was champagne and strawberries, and the top award of Teacher of the Year went to the wonderful Nicola Presley, who was so shocked she did a great impersonation of a teary Hollywood actress. Congratulations Nic!

I always have mixed feelings about the last week.  No teaching means I’ll be able to get my own writing done, but I enjoy meeting with my students, talking about writing and books, sometime debating, sometimes struggling alongside them to understand the complexities of what we want to learn as writers.  I will miss this community.  I always do. images So as I left campus yesterday I took a last walk around to absorb that sense of community, my final fix until the autumn.  By then the building work will have moved on apace, with new classrooms and offices due for completion this time next year.  The landscape of the campus is changing, with the Castle, the Gatehouse and the cows grazing on the hillside just some of the things that will remain constant, the reliable observers.

The landscape of my teaching has changed this year too, with involvement in the Teaching Writing module — yes, that’s teaching about teaching.  I’ve found that by going back to look at the theory and practice (essential if I was going to keep up with the students), I’ve had to review the way I approach classes, trying to make seminars more varied and lectures more entertaining (and informative, of course).  This is all good.  It makes me feel like I know stuff.

And in a few short weeks I’ll be back to my own writing, another changing landscape, with a more focused return to short story writing, maybe even flash fiction too, a website to create, and the whole ebook project waiting in my in-tray like a monster of many guises.  Writing this blog has already changed the way I write.  The discipline of producing a coherent piece each week seems to have created a rolling thought process, with ideas constantly being sparked, not just for subjects to post about but creative work too.  My notebook, and my calendar, have never been so busy.

I’ve talked about my schedule before, how I obsess over deadlines and berate myself if I don’t meet them.  I used to think it was the antithesis of creativity to set down week by week, month by month what I wanted to achieve.  I mean, I’m a creative person aren’t I?

6c_mansfield_diaryShouldn’t I be going with the flow, letting my mind expand beyond the little confining squares of calendar days?  Then I started reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries (a dog-eared find at a second-hand book stall), and found she was constantly thinking about her schedule, the weeks she’ll be editing, the weeks set aside for articles and reviews, the self-imposed deadline for finishing that first draft.  So this made me relax (if giving yourself a strict schedule can be called relaxing). If it’s good enough for VW it’s good enough for me.

And so the year moves on, with the future holding achievement and failure in varying degrees because that is the stuff of life and without it we’d be lost.

As the great Bob Dylan once sang, ‘…you better start swimmin’ / or you’ll sink like a stone / For the times they are a changin.’

The Science of Mooning Around

MV5BODk2MDc4MDk2OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTcyODY1OA@@._V1_SY317_CR1,0,214,317_Last week I watched a thrillingly inventive film called Holy Motors.  It follows a day in the life of an actor as he’s driven to various jobs, but when he’s working the cameras are hidden and nothing is as it seems.  From the strange bearded character who ate fingers, to Kylie Minogue singing a song before doing something a tad destructive, to the actor driving his daughter home, you’re never sure what’s real and what’s just another acting job.  Now, I realise some people may find this lack of plot and randomness of events frustrating, but I was immersed in its visually striking scenes and unpredictability, and by the end I was left wondering about the writer/director Leos Carax.  He clearly has a mind that pushes the boundaries of creativity, and I’d love to sit him down with a cappuccino (and probably a slice of cake) and ask him about the way he works, how he conceives his ideas and then allows them to grow in such unexpected directions.

I’ve always had a fascination with the creative process, not just the way we build stories, create characters and structure, but also how our mind works in order to make up these stories in the first place.  The general view is that our subconscious is a mysterious and intangible creature, often linked to the ethereal ‘muse’ and a sense that we are not in control of what happens within the deep pockets of our brain.

However.  Anyone who has been working as a creative person over a long period of time will know this isn’t entirely true.  There are practical ways to harness your thoughts, things people do every day that engage with creativity without being aware it is even happening.  For me personally, if I have a scene I need to work out or a character that is being evasive, my subconscious will figure it out while I’m driving the car (but it has to be a journey that takes at least 30 minutes), or a long bath (again, 30 minutes).  These activities for that length of time work a treat.  For others it is smoking (not recommended), walking, ironing, train journeys, gardening, vacuuming… the list is pretty endless.  The common thread is that the body is either doing very little, or a repetitive task that requires little thought.  Alarming, especially when driving, but heck, whatever works.

And the result of all this latent brain activity?  For some reason, this is the way we make connections between ideas that are already in our subconscious.  These connections, between a problem and a solution, are what creates bright ideas.  An example of this is how themes can develop in a novel — in the first draft you are just writing the story, figuring out the plot and characters, but once that first messy draft is written, if you allow your mind to wander, to step back and let it do its own hunting, the right side of your brain, the creative side, will bring strands together you didn’t notice before, allowing you to go back and make the connections stronger, build the themes in a more purposeful way.

This may sound fanciful, mooning around all day letting my mind drift off into the ether hoping it will do random acts of kindness, and my students do look at me like I’m bonkers when I talk to them about it.  But then I’ll get a student who has tried it out and comes back so excited with the new direction it has taken her that I can see it will change the way she works.

And there is actual science behind this, honest.  Anyone who isn’t convinced should read images-1Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer.  This book starts with a quote from T.S. Eliot, in his introduction to Dante’s Inferno, ‘Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing’.  According to Lehrer, the brain has ‘flutterings of neurons in the prefrontal cortex’, and he talks about how this can be harnessed in the pursuit of creativity.

This isn’t just relevant to people working alone like hermits, scavaging for any bit of inspiration they can find.  He also explores the benefits of working collaboratively to create original ideas, not just in the arts, but also scientific research, business and industry too.  How do you think Apple got to be so successful?  In their headquarters they’ve created spaces where staff from different areas of the business get to bump into each other, chat and mull over problems and ideas, and other spaces where they can go off and moon around when they feel like it.  This is one of the ideal scenarios for making connections in the brain and solving problems, creating solutions and coming up with inventive and exciting new products (I’m an Apple fan in case you didn’t notice).

The real mystery for me though is why everyone is so different in their methods of discovery.  Long walks don’t work for me (except as a way of turning my back on a character and hoping he gets annoyed enough to tap me on the shoulder and tell me who he is), but they might be a revelation for someone else.  You have to try things out to find out what works.  And practice too, because life has a rude way of interfering with the process, such as prodding you with a list of what you need to get at the shops for dinner, and don’t forget that brake light that needs replacing on the car.

Creativity is like any other activity – if you want to do it well, you need discipline and determination over a long period of time.

Watch Holy Motors and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

The Strange Wildness of Life

Those of you who read my last post will know I’ve been finding the balance of writing and DSCF0287 19.48.56teaching a challenge in the past few weeks.  The pace of university life is increasing and I’ve got a short story that’s fallen apart because my main character decided to go AWOL.  So it was with a sense of furtive escape that I went away last weekend to Abbey Dore Court in Herefordshire with the Wordsmiths.

It was everything I’d hoped it would be.  A houseful of dedicated writers, space to engage the imagination, no mobile signal and an enormous amount of cake.  On the journey up my main character did manage a cursory introduction, at least telling me what he does for a living, so in that symbiotic way that happens sometimes, by knowing that small piece of information about him I now feel I have a better idea of who he is as a person.  This doesn’t rewrite my story for me, but it is progress at least.  For me though, the real success of the weekend was sitting in the vast ballroom style sitting-room doing the writing exercises run by Lucy English and Rachel Bentham.  We discussed theme, plot and character, and this kick-started a story that has been bothering the back of my mind for a while.  Yes, this means I now have two incomplete stories on my laptop, but I am reassured by the fact that when I’ve finished marking they are ready and waiting for me.  Something to look forward to, a bit like a nice piece of carrot cake.

So the weekend was restful, productive and inspiring.  These interludes in the modern writing life can be rare, and have the potential to be life changing.  The first time I  experienced this was on a course with the Arvon Foundation in Devon in 2004.  Up to that date I’d been writing at home with no formal tuition, so when I was suddenly surrounded by like-minded people, talking and thinking about writing for three days, my mind was buzzing with conversations.  And I didn’t write a jot, I was too busy buzzing.  What it did make me realise was that if I was going to move forward, this was exactly what I needed.  A community of writers.

A few months later I applied to do the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, fairly confident I wouldn’t get in because I had no undergraduate degree.  I remember my interview vividly and the feeling of mortification afterwards because I’d rambled on about writing in the car in Sainsbury’s car park when I needed peace and quiet.  It didn’t seem to put them off though and they offered me a place, either in spite of or because of my loon tendencies.

I still feel the impact of the day the letter arrived even now.  My emotional reaction wasn’t just that I had the opportunity to attend one of the best postgraduate programmes in the country.  It was also a validation.  They thought I could write.  They thought I was worth the tuition.  It’s not an over statement to say I was overjoyed.  But then things went strangely out of kilter.  The date was 7th July 2005, and at lunchtime bombs were going off in London, people were dying, and my achievement felt small and cheap and guilty.  I’ve never been able to express the contradictions I felt that day, but perhaps putting these two events together in the same paragraph will go some way to reflecting the unpredictability and strange wildness of how the world looked in that moment.

Later that year I started my studies.  I found what I’d been looking for and was lucky enough to meet fellow students that I’m still in touch with today. The real privilege of course is now being able to teach there as a creative writing lecturer, and going away with the Wordsmiths is a part of that.

All this happened because in 2004 I went on an Arvon course and saw what I needed to do.

So if you ever get the opportunity to go on a writing retreat/weekend/holiday, whatever you want to call it, make sure you take it.  And if the opportunity isn’t presented to you, go and seek it out, because you never know who you could meet, what you might write, or where it will lead you.

Paperclip Girl loses the plot (and her character)

This is the time of year when the high wire act of balancing teaching and writing becomes most tricky.  End-of-semester submissions have been handed in with another batch due at the beginning of May.  This means I’m going to be marking, immersed in other people’s writing, for around six weeks.  In addition to this, there are several deadlines for short story competitions coming up, competitions I’d like to enter (and win, it goes without saying).

images-2Now, I’m a pretty organised person, very good at setting my own deadlines and sticking to them.  While on the MA for Creative Writing at BSU my organisational skills earned me the nickname Paperclip Girl, so yes, I’m organised, some would say to the point of control freakery.

Over the past few weeks my aim has been to get two stories out to competitions by the time I started marking.  Very doable, you would think.  Just two stories.  And I was half way there with the first one workshopped, redrafted and sent out by the beginning of April.  Tick in the box (I love ticking things off a list almost as much as making the list itself), and Paperclip Girl ruled supreme.

And then I came to workshop the second story, just a week or so ago.  The story itself has been troubling me for years.  Or I’ve been troubling it, depending on your perspective.  I knew it still wasn’t right but I couldn’t diagnose what the problem was.  So I did a rewrite, hoping my (relatively new) workshop buddy would say yep, just rework this bit, add some sparky dialogue there, cut the final line and you’re good to go.

But no.  The feedback was more damaging than that and particularly vexing because even though this w/s relationship is new, his judgement has been impeccable so far.  So I knew deep down (and all you writers out there know I mean deep, deep down, at the point beyond your soul where you hide the things you don’t want to acknowledge in safe-like compartments with combination locks), I knew he was right.

The diagnosis, that the main character does not fit the writing style, is spot on.  This is why the story hasn’t been working.  For years.  Two fundamental elements of the story don’t belong together.  You would have thought after twenty years of writing I would have noticed this basic problem, it’s nuts and bolts, elementary school level, surely?  That’s probably true, but while it’s frustrating in the extreme it’s also what I love about writing.  I will never know everything.  I will always be learning.

So the result of my w/s buddy’s annoyingly astute observation is that Paperclip Girl’s schedule is now seriously out of whack.  What this story needs isn’t just a leisurely bit of tinkering over a nice cappuccino and a chocolate croissant.  This requires a major rethink that will involve multiple walks, deep baths and several train journeys of significant length because basically, my main character has to be a different person.

There is a small, I mean tiny, possibility my OCD-style schedule will stay on track (this is Paperclip girl trying to assert her authority here), because I’m about to leave on a long journey today, in fact.  I’m going on my first writing weekend in about ten years with the Wordsmiths in Herefordshire (, and I’ll be holed up in a beautiful house surrounded by beautiful gardens.  So I’ve been asking myself if I can use that long journey to figure out my character?  Can I spend those free hours in the afternoons to shut myself away in a lofty room or a quiet nook in the garden?

It’s possible, but in truth I know what will happen.  My good intentions will disappear as soon as I get there.  I’ll be surrounded by other writers, I’ll be having writerly conversations, I’ll be thinking and breathing writing, and my character won’t get a look in because I’m having such a good time, meeting some really interesting people while eating an awful lot of cake. Writing Girl is stronger than Paperclip Girl, and if they ever get involved in an arm wrestle, I know which one I’d back.

images-1 19.37.07So I’ve been mulling this over for the past week: marking, writing, cake, competitions, cake, weekend away, cake… trying to look for a way that I can do it all.  And then I remembered why I’m writing this blog.  I’m supposed to be embracing these conflicts to make the balancing easier. The centre of gravity, remember?  So I looked at the bigger picture and decided to push my main character to the back of my mind (and Paperclip Girl off a cliff).  The brain has a nifty way of figuring out problems while you’re not thinking about them, so while I’m driving on the motorway, having wonderful conversations with fellow writers, eating delicious cake and then getting back to marking, my sub-conscious will be doing all the hard work for me. And then maybe, when I do finally return to the story, my main character will be there, waiting to tell me who he is.

Either way it’s a win win situation… did I mention the cake?