Tag Archives: fiction

Friday is Writing Day

 Bishopsgate Institute_©_Mike_EllisIt’s a lovely idea. I’d arranged to meet a member of my Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ critique group each Friday, for some serious, no-chat, just get on with it writing.

This needed equally serious,no-chat,  just get on with it suroundings: away from home, and the ever-present risks of dispacement activity. We’re lucky enough to be able to visit the stunning Bishopsgate Institute,with its library of ‘ world-renowned collections on London history, labour and socialist history, free thought and humanism, co-operation, and protest and campaigning.’

It’s a gorgeous, old-school library: all wooden parquet floors, tall shelves and stunning stained glass windows, wonderfully combined with historial artefacts and all the current magazines you could possible want for a day’s displacement, I mean research, activity.

The first two weeks went by with us both unavailable. I opened out the last Friday of the month for any SCBWI-er in London to come along: also making it harder for me to chicken out. So I can report a wonderful day of productivity: steps closer to publication and an unqualified success. Hurrah! Or …

Friday: get up late. Persuade daughter that sad packed lunch of tiny bread and cheese and water is character-forming opportunity to cook for herself later. Swear at person slowly paying for Tube ticket in single coins of unknown currency. Sit in train in tunnel while driver says she isn’t sure why we are there. Make will in diary. Avoid psychotic black cab driver bent on pedestrian destruction. Shiver on icy street. Chat brightly to SCBWI member who has arrived and desperately try to recall meeting them at conference as described.

Gaze at lovely surroundings and take seat closest to radiator. Arrange six notebooks containing bits of writing, plot ideas, character sketches in optimum position on desk. Gaze some more. Hate main character. Gaze some more. Loo break. Look at postcards and consider purchase of tote bag to add to enormous collection of unused tote bags.

Sneaky look at social media. Set up app to prevent sneaky looks at social media. Rewrite first paragraph. Rewrite rewrite. Check how much of scheduled undisturbed 30 minutes has gone on new app. Decide it can’t be only two minutes. Gaze at surroundings. Discuss lunch and possible attendance at free classical concert in next room. Go for lunch.

Return to find out another writer has arrived. Whispered discussion of progress. Agree surroundings are magnificent. Reset app.  Spot stacks of books for sale. Examine dozens of books at length. Remember recent clearing of hundreds of books.

Reset non-disturbance app. Rewrite rewritten rewrite. Consider turning contemporary ghost story set in England into historical fantasy set abroad.  Start planning series of blog posts for newly-commissioned work. Gaze some more. Find text  from friend who has arrived for catch-up. Meet friend for hot chocolate with writer in cafe. Discuss translation, educational IT, websites, photos, daughters and NHS. Announce must return to writing.

Meet staff member and discuss London Fortean Society meetings, children and writing. Agree surroundings are magnificent. Anxious call from A Level burn-out casualty. Plan evening of writing to email for comment from writing partners. Divert to bookshop to buy two brilliant new books published this week by Robin Stevens and Melinda Salisbury. Robin_Stevens_Arsenic_for_Tea

Read.

Get inspired.

Write all evening.

sin-eater-cover-share

Photo of Library, Bishopsgate Institute, © Mike Ellis

Other photos from writers’ websites

Melinda Salisbury

Robin Stevens

Books: where is less is definitely more

The pile behind the sofa

The pile behind the sofa

The great Declutter continues and the focus turns to books. I thought this would be difficult and I was right.

As I mentioned in my last post, Tim Harford’s feature on dealing with the status quo bias that causes stuff to build up at home inspired me. He notes that Christmas books mean double-stacking the book shelves.  If only.

Triple or quadraple or any n-aple stacking wouldn’t deal with my book habit. The bookshelves and cases were rammed; cat hair-trap piles had built up behind the sofas and chairs, under the bed and desk, and the out-of-reach hall shelf. Books lurked on pretty much every available surface.

The clear out method Tim Harford’s used, by Marie Kondo, means piling items of one kind from anywhere in your home all together on the floor, then holding each one at a time and asking whether it sparks joy. If so, it stays.  It’s also important to do this in one session if possible. And no stopping to read.

Stage 2: which spark joy?

Stage 2: which spark joy?

Work and family and writing mean this can be challenging but I put aside hours at the end of last week. There’s still one little heap to finish but I’m so pleased with the results that I’m posting this now.

War and Peace: gone. I’ve tried to read that book time and time again over four decades. I’ve borrowed it and bought several editions. It just made me unhappy and guilty and feel stupid. No more. Take that, Russian classic. My copies of Emma and Mansfield Park are falling to bits and I love them and reread them often. But Persuasion went. And so on.

What a liberating, painful, tiring and just downright HARD thing to do. Note the loo paper for a mixture of flu-y snottiness and weeping at memories invoked at the interim, pick up and consider each thing stage.

But it works.  I’ve got what I wanted out of it. I can see floorboards, found missing papers and photos used as bookmarks, and removed unjoyful or repeat volumes to allow in the new. Where appropriate, of course. All Moomins, old and new, are still here.

And now I truly appreciate my visible books. I’ve got shelves of books that do bring me joy: personal, eclectic and relevant. There are new Young Adult and Middle Grade gems, precious signed books including Neil Gaiman and Russell Hoban and David Sedaris, and random loves from my diving handbook to a guide to Devon’s hedgerow birds from my honeymoon.

And the rest? Some have gone to people I know. A kind friend helped me load the others into his car and looked out for traffic wardens while I dragged bag after bag into an East London charity shop. The woman behind the desk was cheerful at first: ‘Lots of books? Fine!’ but started whispering ‘Oh my days!’ once I’d filled all the space in her store room.

Bedside books

Bedside books

I hope people will get something from them. I did, of course, from nearly all of those that went.

But now my living room shelves are terrific and, look,  the bedside bookcase is just the best.

It’s in glorious order: half of my previously dangerously wobbly To Be Read pile, research for my work in progress and a couple of comfort books in case of storms or insomnia. And room for more … Speaking of which, I liked this story of a reformed book buyer from the Perpetual Page-Turner blog.

 

 

 

Goodbye to Writeidea

Look at that amazing tweet. I’ll come back to it during this lengthy, rambling but happy post. I’ve been volunteering for East London’s free reading festival for the last two years and now I’m saying goodbye. Here’s my round-up from 2013 which pays a quick word of tribute to some of the amazing writers to take part last year.

This time was different and much more demanding as I was also curating the Festival Fringe. I’m very proud of introducing this idea last year and hope it continues. Unlike many of the big lit fests, the main festival Writeidea folk actually get paid. But the Fringe folk do it for free and they are a wonderful and noble race.

It seems very, very hard to single out anyone or any session from this year to mention and time is too fleeting to do them all justice. So I am going to mention some random personal highlights both in and around Writeidea, which should not be taken too seriously by those involved.They’re partly personal as they involve the folk I invited to take part, as this is my blog and it is all about Me.

Anyway, please don’t sue me or my tiny child will not have goose this Christmas (she won’t anyway as the Great Vegan Experiment is underway. Sort of):

Best Festival Footwear: A Gordian knot of a tie between Liz de Jager’s Boots of Awesome

Sarah Jackson’s category-creating shoes

and the Socks that Launched a Lambchop into Space, as wrangled by brilliant Nikesh Shukla.

Best Creative Use of a Fire Alarm

No, it wasn’t me smoking in the loos (honest) but someone did. Despite the fact that, among others, poor Jake Arnott had his fascinating talk full of 18th century slang interrupted: I’m almost glad that it happened. That alarm gave the world its first Create a Comic on the Street by a Supermarket masterclass, from the unflappable Louie Stowell.

Look here she is in the Guardian doing something similar but sans fire alarms. I met Louie through last year’s Writeidea, making it even more of a Good Thing.

Best Historical Talks

I live-tweeted Tom Holland on the origins of Islam until my tendons howled with multi-syllabic exhaustion

And I got to talk to him about cricket in the pub after. Alhough I missed his talk, archaeologist Dave Sankey on the Crossrail excavations beneath Stepney was standing room only and easily one of the most popular events this year.

Best Local and Alternative Histories

Organiser of the East End Suffragettes Festival Sarah Jackson read from her ace book about Sylvia Pankhurst and her awesome contemporaries – in the East End where it all happened, at a time of austerity and attacks on the freedoms on women. A real privilege to hear such a generous and talented person. That was followed up by the last but most definitely not least Fringe event: a fascinating look at London’s urban legends from Scott Wood of the London Fortean Society. From Springheeled Jack (talk coming up in January) to vengeance- (or not) inspired gargoyles, I could listen to Scott all night.

Best BSL Interpreted Talk

Another superb writer I invited but had to miss, darn it, as a Fringe Curator’s work is never done – star of the YA universe, here in his factual persona with This Book is Gay *bows*: the Queen of Teen, James Dawson. At least I got to meet him during that fire alarm break. And he got some lively signing done: ‘sexyfuntime’ caused no difficulties at all … 

Personal Biggest Coup Feel

Three top indie publishers – some of whom may well have done similar paid-for prestigious events elsewhere – came to talk book trade and times for free.  These are very special people. Meike of Peirene Press is bringing contemporary European literature to new audiences, Kit from Influx has published one of my favourite contemporary poets, Chimene Suleyman, and is doing amazingly radical work (watch out for the anonymous anarchist) and Sam from Galley Beggars brought us wonders as diverse as Simon Gough, Baileys’ prizewinner Eimar McBride and possibly the greatest author ever: Francis Plug.

Best New Getting Folk Involved Sessions

I know ‘interactive’ is the right word. But it feels a little impersonal for three events that were each in their own way very special ways for people to come together in real life. Lots  got together to eat cakes and write letters. Proper ones, on paper, thanks to the lovely Letter Lounge.

 

I am very, very proud to have organised the first Death Cafe in Tower Hamlets. Lots of us talked, listened, laughed and cried. We were really lucky to have this led by Annie Broadbent, again for free, gave a wonderful talk about dealing with bereaved people.

Another expert in dealing with difficult conversations, Ione Rojas of Furry Tales, came to help. And it all came just in time for me to deal with another death.

And there was #QuizYA created by Jim Dean of YaYeahYeah who has read more, preached more and inspired more people to read, love and be social over Young Adult (and other) books than anyone can possibly do with a mere 24 hours in the day. He’s busy bringing lots of lovely indie bookshops to daily view at the moment with #indieadvent. A real star.

Other generous people helped that to happen – that’s brilliant debut writer Robin Stevens on Jim’s left – @redbreastedbird mentioned at the beginning. She’s taking over the Young Agatha Christie mantle: one murder and bunbreak at a time. Robin also gave up her time for free, to chair a terrific session with Tanya Byrne: Tanya makes such beautiful, original writing look effortless. More pride here, at getting such hugely-talented YA writers involved. I don’t think I’ve ever written such a pleased with myself piece 😉

But that tweet, back at the beginning, has to be my Desert Island highlight: the one thought I’m taking away with me. This isn’t a humblebrag but a proper, delighted, ”I done good one. I helped out at a festival, invited writers and publicised it to booklovers. Sally, a young writer and bookblogger came to see, hear and meet writers she admires. Now she’s even more inspired to write. Here she is with Liz de Jager, author of the utterly brilliant Banished and Vowed, who also gave up lots of time and energy to give a brilliant free session on fan fiction.

I’m really sorry to step down as the Festival’s only non-staff  volunteer organiser but I’ve taken on a big role with the Society Of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and only have so much volunteering time to spare. But that tweet gives me a truly wonderful, my work here is done feeling. It’s been fun. And next year I will be in the audience.

 

 

 

Writing Not Writing

East_London_Suffragettes_FestivalWriting is strange. The word ‘meta’ sends me into a panic.

I also know I can disappear in unproductive mists of rumination if I start to try to write about writing.

Over the last fortnight, I’ve been writing a lot but have done nothing on the project I’m trying to finish. What I have written includes:

  • a blog post for a charity CEO
  •  news about the brilliant, wonderful and important East London Suffragette Festival (do come. It will be brilliant)
  • loads of varied content about the Writeidea Festival, including a submission that now means I’m curating this year’s Fringe
  • precis help for my daughter’s vet clinic work experience
  • two poems: both execrable
  • a short story about feet on the Underground
  • critiques of fellow SCBWI writers’ fiction
  • exercises on a Writing for Teenagers’ course

Not to mention tweets via various accounts, letters of complaint to council planning officers, a job application for unfamiliar work, daily scraps about stuff that may end up in fiction,a major edit of the opening of my middle grade novel and a whole lot more …Oh, okay, critical self: some of it is editing. How far is editing writing? There’s another rabbit hole down which to vanish and look, there goes another hour.

It’s all writing, in different ways: but none of it relates to the project I think is most important.

What with family and festival commitments, hospital appointments and pesky friends who insist on having birthdays EVERY year, I’ve been away from here for those two weeks. I value the Weekly Blog Club space; partly it’s the closest I come to keeping any form of diary or journal.

There’s nothing like trying to recreate your 17-year-old thoughts – for a novel – to make me wish I had done this. Maybe I’ll feel the same in 20 years’ time but it seems unlikely I’ll go through similar changes and such intense feelings.

I’ve mentioned the 750 Words process before. I’ve been neglecting that recently too. And it’s probably no coincidence that the piece I am having problems with is non fiction but personal.

I’ll try again later. Or tomorrow. Except I’m busy tomorrow.

 

#bookadayuk

John_Bauer_Sagovarld

John Bauer: sparks my imagination every time

#bookadayuk is one of the better Twitter hashtag events. A different book with a different theme, chosen by readers each day throughout June. Such a lovely, simple idea from new HarperCollinsUK imprint The Borough Press.

Here’s the full list, just in case you haven’t seen it. I didn’t spot it until today: 3 June and have been kicking myself for missing the first two days. Despite thinking off myself as a free-thinking, anarchic type, I have such an inbuilt nervous regard of rule and regulations that I just can’t bring myself to put my Day 1, 1st June, on Twitter today. So hurrah for Weekly Blog Club and the chance to play catch-up.

There are some categories that have got me thinking already. In fact, I will have to treat this like an advent calendar and not peek ahead to later days, or I can easily spend the whole day thinking of books. But I think I’m allowed to list a few here to inspire any one who’s yet to join in:

12th: Pretend to have read it: there’s a few that can go into this category. It’s possible there might even be one or two from university days, when I was terrified at the jump from finding myself Good at English to not having read ANY of the shelves and libraries full of texts that the omniscient people in my Modern Literature seminar had got through.

19th: Still can’t stop talking about it: I suppose I’ll have to make a vow that not every single book will be Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. If I’d had his blue-covered Turtle Diaries to hand, that would have been my choice for today: One with a blue cover.

27th: Want to be one of the characters. Wow: where to start with that? Perhaps I’m wrong and I should spend much of today considering it. These are serious choices. Anyway: time to catch up with Days One and Two. These are somewhat similar.

1st: Favourite book from childhood. It’s ‘book’, not ‘novel’, so that makes a difference and it’s book singular. Yes, I am taking this very seriously. I said I am a respecter of rules. Favourite novel would probably be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I won’t go into detail now because I’m writing a blog post to celebrate its 50th anniversary for Words and Pictures, the online magazine of the British Isles region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

‘Books’ would probably have been the Jill pony series by Ruby Ferguson. There are no words to describe how I loved them. I longed with all my heart to be Jill, while trapped in a pony-free home without enough money for riding lessons and over-protective parents who wouldn’t have let me within a mile of a scary horse anyway.

I didn’t have many books when I was a kid and once I got to school, I read my way throughout the bookshelves fast. So teachers used to take me to the town library. Skirting past the staircase (because upstairs, in the museum,  the nightmare-inducing skeleton used to grin at you)  I picked the same book, time and time again: Myths of the Norsemen, by Roger  Lancelyn Green. The link goes to a blog post that details all the chapters.

Everything in it spoke to me. I knew the Greek myths too well and was bored by them. Anyway, what tedious Greek god could compare with Loki the trickster, beautiful Baldur and his heart-breaking brother Hodur? I tried to work out how to pronounce Yggdrasill, the World Tree, and upgraded my pony fetish to an eight-legged horse. There was always something new to find out and wonder over and imagine. It set my reading tastes for good. Beside my bed, there’s Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Joanne Harris’s Gospel of Loki, both for re-reading. Reading her library tale in the link, we could be the same person: her being a wildly-successful author aside …

Fast forward some 40 years to June 2: Best bargain. John Bauer‘s Sagovarld – Swedish Faerie and Folk Tales, picked up for a few crowns in a Stockholm secondhand shop. So much has changed. I’ve found a huge birth family in Sweden: seven brothers and sisters, just like a fairy tale. I’ve walked thought the forests and swum in the lakes I used to dream about.

This could also go in for June 8th: Own more than one copy. My original, battered Swedish version is somewhere in a book pile. The picture is of a second copy closer to hand: a present from Swedish family. I’ve got copies in English too. Yes, I like John Bauer. Another book of Norse legends, bought for my daughter, has a blue cover, taking me back full circle to today’s choice.

#bookadayuk – the best kind of distraction.

*amended 10 June as the hashtag was changed by the organiser

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lists, writing and memory

Folkestone_Triennial_Spencer _Finch

‘THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.’

Ray Bradbury used lists to spark off his ideas for writing. The one above was detailed by Maria Popova, on her excellent Brain Pickings blog. There can’t be many people with an interest in any creative process who aren’t aware of her inspirational posts: it’s like having an enthusiastic friend who calls to say “Wow! Have you see THIS?” and you know it’s worth reading.

Bradbury elaborates: ‘…when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer.’

Just look at the words Bradbury’s subconscious throws up: a short story in themselves. Mine is more along the lines of THE CAT LITTER. THE WASHING. THE SHOPPING. THE DINNER. THE BANK. THE HOMEWORK. Someone save me from the tedium of my own thought processes. I can’t go on …

To be honest, that was a deliberate list. I didn’t use the unconscious processes most beneficial for triggering thought and associations. A look at the Weekly Blog Club summary up to remind myself of the optional theme: colour, and there’s mention of blue light and blue sky.

Blue. That’ll do nicely: ‘SEA. SKY. HARE. FLOWER. FILM. FALL.’

Mark_hearld_Pisanellos_hare

SEA. The sea in Folkestone can be the blue of postcards but this is rare. One of my favourite highlights of the last Folkestone Triennial was Spencer Finch’s  The Colour of Water You can still see the colour wheel pictured above and spin it to choose that day’s Channel hue. The second part of the piece was only up for the duration: a daily-hoisted flag chosen to match that day’s sea-colour.

SKY. HARE. The picture of Mark Hearld’s “Pisanello’s Hare” here does not show the mouth-wateringly glorious blue of the sky captured in an original print. I’m lucky enough to own one of these and it’s the colour I see when I think ‘sky.’ It really deserves some Doge: ‘Such clear. Many cerulean. Wow.’

FLOWER. A blue hyacinth: from a bulb I planted in the little communal space downstairs and rescued after a hail-deluge this week. It scents the whole flat. In homage to Janet E Davis and her stunning still life paintings, I created Blue Hyacinth with Blue Heirlooms and Random Blue Washing-Up Liquid Bottle Lid. Unlike multi-talented Janet, I’ll never be an artist.
Blue Heirlooms and Random Blue Washing-Up Liquid Bottle Lid

FILM: Blue, by Derek Jarman. I saw him introduce this hypnotic and unique film at Edinburgh in 1993 – not belong before his too-early death – at a screening with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Here’s one of Jarman’s last interviews, given at that time.

That’s more than 500 hundred words: my new self-imposed blog post limit. But it’s the last thought that might lead to something: FALL.

I’m 17, being followed by a drunk boy I don’t want to see, near the Road of Remembrance on the Leas in Folkestone (not far from the Spencer Finch work.) It’s the slope that some ten million soldiers marched down in two World Wars, to sail to Europe. LeavingForTheFront-300x155

I tell him to go away. He says he will, if that’s what I really want, then swings himself backwards over a drop of at least 50 feet. His fall is broken by bushes of rosemary planted in memory of those soldiers. I remember screaming.

There are flashing blue lights: police and ambulance. Who called them? No mobile phones back then.  ‘Did you push him?’ a policeman asks. I’m upset, angry: of course I didn’t.

We go to the hospital, miles from home, in which my father will die more than 34 years later.

I talk to a woman in a waiting room: we’re both from Folkestone. Her husband is being seen by doctors.  He’s a workmate of the boy. His name is Blue.

Soon after, I’ll go to university. The boy will be forgotten.

Pics: Folkestone Triennial, St jude’s Gallery, WW1 Centennial Network

Kill the Talking Elk

Leap_the_Elk  _and_Princess_Tuvstar_ John_Bauer

Leap the Elk and Princess Tuvstar, John Bauer

Not the rubbish sequel to Drop the Dead Donkey: writing advice from my daughter.

It hasn’t been quite the productive week for writing I planned, mainly because of two events. The first is lovely but has kept me busy: I’m volunteering to help organise this year’s Writeidea Festival, London’s only free literature festival. I’ll post about that as soon as the website is live. Do please follow @writeidea to find out more in the meantime.

The second wasn’t quite so much fun. I ran into a nasty git and was assaulted. I’ll post about that too after he’s been sentenced early next month. It’s preoccupied my thoughts to an extent that has taken me by surprise, hardened cynic that I am.

So: writing. It’s now 1120 on Friday morning and I have written about four words since I got up at 0700. I’ve edited the first 5K words again and am about to rewrite a first turning point, where the action steps up a gear and forces a change for the main character. Her name has also changed over the past week.

She was nicknamed Moo and this has altered to Mu. Because, reasons. It might not sound much but it feels like one of the family wandered home and announced they wanted to be known as something different.

Anyway, back to elk. I have rather a thing about elk. I have been to Sweden perhaps 20 times now and, apart from at Skansen, the wonderful open air museum in Stockholm, I have never seen an elk. This is a constant source of amusement to my Swedish family, who take a sadistic delight in pointing out the abundance of elk in my absence.

‘Oh, look over there! That’s where we saw the mama elk and her twin babies, yesterday before you arrived/the day after you left.’ I’ve seen elk-hunting platforms on all over Småland, where most of my siblings live, and evidently ex-brother-in-law Adolf (I bet no-one else has one of those round here) makes a comfortable living from organising such hunting.

They are beautiful creatures. Although I know they kill a number of people each year by running into cars, I love seeing the elk warning signs on the road and long to meet one face to face in the wild.

So, when I wanted some form of magical animal in my Young Adult fantasy novel, part of which is set in Swedish forests, elk seemed obvious. A talking elk might not be in the league of Pantalaimon, Lyra’s daemon by Phillip Pullman in His Dark Materials – the greatest animal sidekick in literature – but he was the best I could do.

Sadly, Amelia loathes him. She also dislikes my heroine but rather fancies one of the boys in the story. I’m taking any views to mean the characters have some three-dimensionality or credibility so am not too worried about them.

I’ve learning a lot about my writing. I begin loads of sentences with pronouns (see?) and repeat phrases constantly. Description comes hard to me and I’m naturally concise, probably as a result of years of news- rather than feature-based journalism and pr.

And I think that the elk stays. For the moment.

The pic is by John Bauer, illustrator of Swedish folk stories, taken from bauer.artpassions.net