Park View 4 U Launches Lytham Lives: A Community In Writing

I know it’s been a while since I’ve stopped by here but my new website is coming soon. I’ll post details when it’s up.

In the meantime, Lytham Lives, the community fiction anthology I have co-edited with JA Brunning as part of the Festival of Stories project at Park View 4 U in Lytham  has finally been published and is launching tonight! Hurrah! Read on for details:

Park View 4 U Launches Lytham Lives: A Community In Writing.

On Location

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One of the perks of being a freelance writer is that you can pretty much work from anywhere. Right now, I’m on a farm in Staffordshire. Despite the the biting wind, the incessant rain and the occasional snow flurries, it’s pleasant here.There are two pigs living in a sty outside my rented living room window and a very old pony that stands in the field opposite, staring wistfully at the front door because I made the mistake of slipping him a couple of carrots on the day I arrived. When my family and I bother to leave the house, woolly brown cows wander over to the fence to greet us, whilst the small brood of hens that live in a coop by the drive continue to ignore us, despite my daughter taking a leaf out of David Attenborough’s book in her daily attempts to communicate with them in their own language.

Stafford-20130203-00590But I’m not here for the good life. I have to keep reminding myself of that. There are radio scripts to be written, pithy paragraphs to be crafted about business loans for young people and sales letters to knock out. So I try and structure my day.  This week it’s:

Feed pony, then pigs.  Take daughter out and show her the sights of Staffordshire (not many out of season apparently) Come back and work. Go back out and pick up husband. Make dinner. Work on novel. Bathtime. Storytime. Bed. Get back up and work on novel. Read someone else’s novel. Sleep (quality of which varies depending on what is going on in my mind and the comfort of the mattress – this week both are manageable).

It’s not always like this. There aren’t usually farm animals in the equation and usually my husband transports himself to and from wherever he happens to be working that week, but this time I demanded the car. As pretty as a farm is in February, it’s in the back of beyond. The nearest shop is six miles away and, lets face it, ponies loose their  novelty appeal after day two don’t they?

Stafford-20130206-00596So here I am in Staffordshire continuing to edit the novel. Yes, I am still doing that. No, I have no idea when I will finish. I had this vague idea of getting a second draft completed by the end of February so that I can give it to my readers to read, but it’s looking unlikely because I can’t seem to leave my first twenty five chapters alone. I’ve even started wondering whether I should rewrite the whole thing in a different tense. Yes, I’m at ‘that’ stage. But I am pushing on. I’ve been living and breathing this thing for over two years now and it’s as much a part of my conscious as real life. It’s been everywhere with me. From the arse end of Rotherham (where I stayed without a car) to a poolside in Lanzarote (no car needed). At the start of 2013 it was in the Austrian Alps. Six weeks later it’s in Staffordshire. So, my novel is not precious. It is happy to be written anywhere.

So I sort of feel I owe it to my novel to ensure it’s finished somewhere good. Somewhere, where I can look back and say, ‘Ah yes, the last chapter was penned in  – ‘ I’m due to be in Norwich in April. Perhaps I can finally lay my pen to rest there. Dear God, please, please let it be Norwich.

 

Happy New Year!

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Hello 2013! And Happy New Year to all the readers and followers of this blog. If this blog has alerted you to a new book, or encouraged you to re-read an old one, or to pick up a pen up, or put fingers to keyboard and start to write, or it has helped you to make a decision about studying creative writing, then I will be happy. It’s great to see the blog statistics going up, but it’s even better when someone bothers to post a comment or to send me an email because of something they’ve read here. So, please, keeping doing it.

2012 was a tough but fulfilling year for me. Finishing the MA in Creative Writing took up the majority of of my time, whilst the last four months of the year were spent recovering and re-acquainting myself with real life, whilst trying not to lose momentum on the novel editing process. What can I say, it’s still ongoing.

2012 was also the year I rediscovered poetry. Having written it by the bucket load in my teens, coming back to it as an adult has made a welcome change from the novel. I really hope to write and read more poetry in the coming year.

I also read some amazing books and I’ll be posting a list of my top ten reads of 2012 in the next few days, as well as a list of the books on my To Be Read pile.

In the meantime 2013 is shaping up to be a busy one on the writing front. As some of you may know, at the back end of last year, I launched a brand new community anthology and put a call out to the writing community for short story, poetry and life writing submissions. The Lytham Lives anthology is being editing by the writer, JA Brunning and the deadline for submissions is 5pm 28th February 2013. If you want to know more about this project and how to submit, click here or here.

This month I take on the role of Guest Editor at the Lancashire Writing Hub for three months, taking over from Carys Bray, so look out for my first post there soon.

In March, I’m looking forward to seeing Susan Fletcher coming to read at Plackitt and Booth’s bookshop in Lytham. My friend Moira and I are probably her biggest fans. So when I met her at the Edinburgh Festival I asked her if she would come to Lytham. Unbelievably she said yes!  So if you’re a Susan Fletcher fan, put March 14th in your diary and keep an eye on the Plackitt and Booth website for ticket details.

I’m also working on another HUGE literature project, which is currently at the bid stage so I can’t say too much yet. But if you live in Lancashire and you’re a lover of books and reading and storytelling, then please keep your fingers crossed for me this month and I promise you it will be worth it!

And if that wasn’t enough, I’m planning to finish the novel and send it out into the world.

So here’s to 2013. May it be a happy and fulfilling one for all of you.

MA From A Distance: Why Do A Course In Creative Writing?

It’s been a couple of weeks since I handed in my final portfolio and completed my MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. I thought I’d let the dust settle before I reflected on the experience. Now it’s over I feel…what do I feel? Exhausted; relieved; bereft.

Deciding to study for the MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University was definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life and certainly one of the most rewarding learning experiences I have ever had. Before I applied  I looked at various creative writing courses, but most of them seemed to be focused on delivering it as a one year full time course or as short courses. After having a baby and giving up full time work, I was keen for, and actively seeking, the rigour that an MA provides, to give my life some sort of structure that was not wholly centred on my daughter’s routine. I chose Lancaster because of its good reputation and because it offered a way of studying for the MA via distance learning over a two year duration.I’ll admit, I didn’t give too much though to the transcultural focus of the course, which is one of the aspects that sets the DLMA at Lancaster apart from its competitors.  I thought of the course only as a support mechanism to help me finish the novel I had been working on. Now, however, I realise that the transcultural element of the MA at Lancaster was key to my enjoyment of the course and also my development as a writer. Before the MA I don’t think I had ever really considered the impact that different cultures having on the reading and understanding of a piece of poetry or fiction writing. Now I realise that the best writing transcends social, cultural and racial boundaries and invites understanding whatever the subject or cultural content.

So what else I have learnt? The answer is, too much for one blog post. And so, I’ve decided to write a little mini series I’m calling ‘Why Do A Course In Creative Writing’. I know, it’s catchy, right?

Over the next few weeks I’ll outline some of my key learnings and observations  from studying for the MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, in the hope that the information might help someone else out there considering a course in Creative Writing. I’ll aim to keep my posts short and specific, but if there is anything anyone feels I’ve skimmed over or missed out completely, please post a comment and I will do my best to rectify. The first post covers that age old question: can creative writing be taught? It will be up shortly.

Good luck to anyone considering a course in creative writing. Hope this helps!

Susan Fletcher at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Whilst spending a few days in Edinburgh, I managed to catch a couple of the book festival events. The first of which, featured one of my favourite authors, Susan Fletcher.

Susan Fletcher isn’t one of those authors with a website, a Tumblr account and a Twitter stream (she joined Facebook in October 2011 but has since made not one post). She’s old school. Look for her on Google and you’ll find a couple of interviews, a few reviews, the odd author profile and one short video of her talking about Eve Green, her 2004 Whitbread Award winning debut novel. That’s because Susan Fletcher seems to prefer to let her writing do the talking for her and in this digital age, for someone so young, it makes a refreshing change.

True to form, at the event she shared with fellow author, Lian Hearn, at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, Susan introduced herself by giving a reading from her latest book, The Silver Dark Sea, whilst Lian Hearn spoke very eloquently and interestingly about the influences and processes involved in writing her latest book – which I haven’t read – Blossoms and Shadows. I think it’s fair to say that the audience was spellbound by Fletcher’s taut, lyrical prose. Yet whilst such modesty from such a talent is endearing, I wanted to hear more about her writing influences, her processes and reading passions.

Thankfully, however, when both authors had spoken, the chair of the event, Rosemary Burnett, used her skills to dig a little deeper into the literary enigma wrapped in mystery that is Susan Fletcher.

Originally from the Midlands, Fletcher moved to the west coast of Scotland four or five years ago, after writing her third, and my favourite, book, Corrag (now re-titled Witch Light). With her red curly hair, Fletcher’s Scottish roots are not too hard to decipher and it is clear from her writing, her beautiful descriptions of the rugged Scottish landscape, why she chose to settle here.
Much of the story of The Silver Dark Sea is set on the fictional Island of Parla, the inspiration for which came from Fletcher’s research around the islands surrounding Scotland. However Fletcher said she was keen to stress that Parla was not been to be viewed as a Scottish island, rather she wanted ‘the reader decide where the location of Parla was’, hoping that her description of the landscape, of the tiny details that make up the geography of Parla’s island community are vivid enough for the reader to be able to ‘see’ Parla in their own minds. It’s an aim she’s achieved, for the mythical island landscape she creates certainly seems as real as any actual place. Indeed, summoning up the landscape in the mind’s eye of readers is one of Fletcher’s great strengths. Her sensual writing picks out the details of the novel’s seascape to paint a picture of a place shrouded in myths, stories and secrets.

Myth making and storytelling are key themes of The Silver Dark Sea, which centres around a small island community brought together by a man washed up on the shore, whose sudden presence and physical looks reminds them all of local myth about a man who is half fish. The story of the fishman runs through the novel like a backbone, holding together the individual stories of the Parla’s community and acting as the touchstone that draws the narrative threads together at the end. As each new character (there are thirty two in all), another story unfolds. To read each one is to understand the context of another. Yet she does make one voice distinct from the rest: Maggie Bundy, written in the first person instead of third person narration like all the others. Maggie Bundy: the outsider; the grieving widow; the one the fishman comes to love; the one who comes to love the fishman. As story progresses it becomes apparent that this is Maggie’s story we’re being told. ‘I thought of Maggie as the centre of the flower, and all the other characters formed the petals around her,’ said Fletcher, characteristically whimsical.

So it’s a complex Russian doll of a narrative structure, but somehow Fletcher uses it to pull the reader into the hearts and minds of the characters with skilful ease and by the end of the book, I felt sad to leave the community of Parla. Fletcher apparently felt the same on finishing writing the novel, admitting that writing a large multi-voice narrative had made the experience harder to leave behind as a result.

Not all of the themes in The Silver Dark Sea are new, however. Fletcher revisits familiar ground with the story’s focus on emotional survival and overcoming grief and it is these she writes about most poignantly, resonating long after the book has been finished. The Silver Dark Sea is her most accomplished literary offering to date whilst retaining her trademark poetic prose and a nod to the fantastical.

Still, the audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival, acknowledging the rarity of her public appearance, wanted to know about her other books too. Specifically, Corrag, which was confusingly retitled after initial publication to Witch Light. Why? We all wanted to know. And here’s the shocking truth: one of the major UK’s booksellers refused to stock it under its original title, Corrag! It’s hard to believe that booksellers can have such an impact on what an author calls their books, or even the audacity to think it knows that its customers would prefer (clue to said bookseller: it’s not Witch Light). Yet apparently, this one did and Fletcher, characteristically modest, agreed to it because ‘she didn’t want to be a diva about it.’

Anyway, swallowing our shock, talk eventually turned to process and the way in which both authors preferred to edit. Hearn apparently writes everything down longhand before transferring to the computer. Fletcher however, finally belying her young age, stated that she wrote straight on to the computer, admitting she’d be lost without cut and paste. A ruthless editor, she also revealed the use of a folder she liked to call ’Bits’ which was full of discarded paragraphs and phrases. Apparently she regularly calls on the contents of her ‘Bits’ folder and ‘strips them for parts’ during the editing process. It’s a good idea and a real insight into how she works as it implies a very practical, method based approach, not at all what her ethereal writing and her notable absence from online forums leads us to believe about her.

So now we know, Susan Fletcher might prefer to spend her days sitting on a heather laden Scottish hill, her red hair blowing in the wind, as she dreams up whimsical stories with which to enthral the world, rather than piddling about on Twitter and Facebook, but in the end, even she has to sit in front of the computer and deal with winword errors in order to craft her words into books. Shame really, I rather liked the idea of her scratching out her stories on bits of papyrus and sending them by owl to her agent.

Sleeve Notes and Debuts

A couple of weeks ago I found out, through a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, that part of a review I’d written for this blog about a book called A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French is now being used in the sleeve notes of the paperback version. Just to be clear, DAWN FRENCH HAS INCLUDED MY REVIEW OF HER DEBUT NOVEL IN THE SLEEVE NOTES OF THE PAPERBACK VERSION!!!  There was some whooping going on in my house that day, I can tell you. Of course, I’m totally cool about it now.

I know it’s not actual publication, but it’s a start.

So thank you, Dawn French, and Penguin, for using my review. To have the opportunity to see my name in in print, in conjunction with DAWN FRENCH(!!!),inside an actual book, has given me the extra bit of encouragement I’ve been needing as I tackle the rewrites of The Empty Mirror and complete my MA.

I always like to congratulate writers (whether they’re Dawn French or not) and say something positive about a book if I’ve enjoyed it. I think it’s important. Writing is a very solitary activity. There’s no one there to give you appraisals or to offer you a pay rise once you’ve been working on something for a year. Usually there’s people saying, ‘Why don’t you get a job you hippie?’ or ‘Haven’t you finished it yet?’ or ‘Bloody hell, what are you writing, the sequel to War and Peace?’ (NB. Annoying comments taken from real life experience) So finding ways to motivate yourself is key.

Most of my motivation comes from reading and reading about the writers who’ve written books I admire, particularly debut novelists. I read a lot of debut novels. I think part of the reason I like them so much is because for the most part, there’s  a purity and a polish about someone’s first book that the second or third book doesn’t always have. You know they must have spent at least a couple of years on it, chiselling away, freting over structure and voice and language and the many different decisions writers make that most readers don’t even think about, until finally, finally they pluck up the courage to send it out into the world and hope beyond hope that this will be it so they won’t have to go back to their unfulfilling full time job without even the dream that one day they might get published.

So when I flicked through a copy of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals, a debut novel by Wendy Jones, I knew I had to buy it. Books like The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals are so wonderfully written, so fresh and original and meticulously crafted they make you feel restless. And that’s a good thing. For me, finding time and space to write can be tricksy.  Anything that can tempt me out of the proclivity to collapse on the sofa at the end of the day and watch The Holiday on DVD for the umpteenth time just so I can pause it and fawn over the scenes featuring the gorgeous house of Kate Winslet’s character, is doing well. So even though I have been on my knees with exhaustion the last few weeks, Jones’ book spurred me on to stay up late a few nights to finish editing a chapter and to rewrite some difficult sections.

So what’s it about?

The blurb on the back of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals gives a good summary, so I won’t try and reinvent it:

Wilfred Price, overcome with emotion on a sunny spring day, proposes to a girl he barely knows at a picnic. The girl, Grace, joyfully accepts and rushes to tell her family of Wilfred’s intentions.  But by this time, Wilfred has realised his mistake. He does not love her. 

On the verge of extricating himself, Wilfred’s situation suddenly becomes more serious when Grace’s father steps in. The young undertaker seems unable to control the swirling mess that now surrounds him and to add to Wilfred’s emotional turmoil, he thinks he may have just met the perfect girl for him.

As Wilfred struggles in an increasingly tangled web of expectation and duty, love and lies, Grace reveals a long-held secret that changes everything…

I loved this book. There’s a lightness of touch to Jones’ writing that was perfectly pitched to capture the spirit of a rural community in 1920’s Wales and the twist at the end of this book is both brilliant and extremely sad. If you’re looking for something  that’s well written, character driven and a little bit different, The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals is for you.

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A Life In The Day of A Very Frustrated Writer (Me)

Today a rare gem: a whole day to myself.   In order to take full advantage of seven child free hours, decide to go somewhere extra quiet to work on my thesis and to edit Chapter 1. Arrive at local library at 9.30am. Am pleased to find work room quiet and ‘the best’  table next to power source free. Take out hard copy manuscript; notes made by tutor and course peers; Blackberry; pencil case; USB stick; bottle of water; retrieve circuit breaker from librarians and set up net book. Hurrah! Ready to start work. Begin reading manuscript and ponder over paragraph am having great difficulty editing. Large concentration levels needed. In walk group of people with learning difficulties and seat themselves at computer stations behind me. Much loud talking and hilarity ensues. Continues in this way for around  half an hour. Become quite agitated as have now read same sentence seventeen times and it does not seem to be registering. Would very much like to tell them to be quiet ‘as this is a library’  but refrain for fear of coming across as prejudice or unsympathetic and consider that some of them might have hearing difficulties and therefore can not know how loud they are actually talking. Instead try to zone them out and concentrate on editing issues, of which there are many.

Succeed in inserting one comma and the removal of one word (and) from one sentence before another group arrives. Lots of huffing and puffing ensues as many of them are old and have problems with ‘me legs’. After some minutes it becomes apparent that they are a knitting circle as each procures large ball of wool and knitting needles from respective bags. Relief is short lived. Knitters begin to ‘chat’ extremely loudly. Steely glance given by me to no avail. As they are all quite old, there is much repetition of the same sentiment and a good deal of talk about chill blains and the cure for this. One lady refers to her recent holiday to Jersey no less than thirteen times. THIRTEEN TIMES! Conversation then ensues regarding which crime drama was filmed in Jersey. Minder; Howards Way and Morse all mentioned. Meanwhile I am unable to move on with editing because I am screaming ‘BERGERAC!!!’ inwardly. At that moment Librarian comes in and takes orders for tea from knitting group (since when is Library a cafe and why am I not offered one?).

By 11.30am give up hope of getting any work done and retire to local Cafe Nero. Purchase cheese and ham panini and decaf skinny vanilla latte and eat like it is my last meal on earth. Leave cafe having managed to resist white chocolate and raspberry muffin, feeling revived and ready to start work again. Consider where to go as library is clearly unsuitable and feel certain that even if was to return, woman with fur lined hooded gilet who spent the morning sitting behind me eating yoghurt very loudly  has stolen my seat. (Q. since when has eating been allowed in library?) Could go home but possibility of becoming distracted by daughter and husband very probable. Eventually retire to own parent’s living room which seems quiet as nobody is home. Take out hard copy manuscript; notes made by tutor and course peers; Blackberry; pencil case; USB stick; bottle of water and set up net book. Phone rings. It is my mother. What am I doing there she wonders? I explain requirement for quiet and issue with library. She understands and says she is on her way home but will not disturb, also father is due back from work as has an appointment, but he will not disturb also.  Return to desk and begin editing. Small progress made when phone rings again. PPI Insurance man. Mother then arrives homes and comes in for brief chat. Tells me of recent purchases and morning long struggle to find long white dress with cap sleeves for ten year old girl that is not at least £80. Suggest ebay. Half hour later offers to make cup of tea and leaves me to my work. Turn back to editing once more. In moment of ruthlessness cut one whole paragraph in entirety.  Mother returns with tea and asks do I not think the kitchen table would look better in dining room and what should she do with the drop leaf one in the corner. I say no and advise repainting drop leaf for use in dining room thereby saving great sums of money. Mother looks impressed by this idea and relays my advice to my father who has just returned home from work. Father enquires after my health, tells me that he has just secured a hire car for four days for £76 and asks do I think my husband has ever secured such a good deal on hire cars. I tell him that my husband has never needed to hire a car for four days and wonder at the male preoccupation with comparison. My mother then begs my father for an opinion on the table situation and also my advice, to which my father says that he does not understand why I don’t just forget the writing and become an interior designer. I reply that whilst I like interiors, writing is my passion, although it is unlikely to make me any money AS AM NEVER LIKELY TO FINISH ANYTHING!. Mother and father retire from room. Ten minutes later father goes out and mother comes back in with up of tea and enquires why I think it is that one cannot buy smart black trousers during the summer season. I refrain from answering and stare at my manuscript. She continues to talk at me / to herself in manner of Virginia Woolf stream of consciousness. It is now 3pm.

With one hour left I demand last half of it to self. Make series of rash edits that am sure will regret tomorrow and print off. Walk home through town feeling like day has been complete waste of time. On way pop into local charity shop whereupon I buy three books (Evelyn Waugh: Vile Bodies; Rebecca West: The Fountain Overflows; Elizabeth Von Arnim: The Enchanted April)  and a small glass vase, which sales assistant drops on floor twice, for £6. Return home anticipating onslaught of family but find daughter is in bed after spending afternoon in swimming pool with Husband and Husband is in front of TV watching football and DOES NOT WANT TO BE DISTURBED.

Consider using unexpected alone time for editing purposes but now not in the mood and find oneself updating blog instead and piddling around on Facebook / Twitter.