Thursday, 8 October 2015

Festival season is here again.

So, the littlest child is settled at school and I have begun a wondrous new regime of doing only writing-related work, Monday-Friday, 9-3pm. Well, I still have to walk the dog and have done a bit of clearing out of the house and we have the usual hospital appointments and other domestic stuff to fit in but still, I'm writing more than I have for a while, which is great. The novel is coming along well, 23,000 words and counting.

Aside from writing, I'm re-establishing my coaching practice, so if you know anyone who needs some help staying on track with their creative work, or someone who needs to find a new path, please send them my way. I also finally have a website which is a bit of a work in progress but it feels good to pull all of my work together in one place and the blog will be moving there soon. You can view my website at

My regular writing group is going swimmingly. We meet at the Mugen Tea Rooms on Scotland Street on Wednesdays, from 11am-1pm and exercise our writing muscles as well as giving feedback and sharing our tips for surviving the writers' journey which can be tough and lonely at times without the company of fellow writers. New members are always welcome and it's just a fiver per session.

And now I'm gearing up for the usual busyness of the Off the Shelf festival which has already kicked off. I'm involved in a few things this year. First up is the DIY Publishing event which I'm chairing next week on Tuesday 13th October, also at the  Mugen Tea Rooms. The event will launch the Sheffield Authors Network which I've recently become a part of and will feature local authors and publishers talking about alternatives to mainstream publishing. It should be a really interesting evening and a good complement to the Road to Publication event that I'm also involved in. Here I'll be reading from my work and talking about the turbulent journey to getting published, alongside the other members of Hallam Writers who have all had interesting experiences with agents, publishers and literary prizes. If you want to find out more about the reality of the writer's life, it's a good event to attend.

Always a highlight for me, the Novel Slam is taking place again at Bank Street on Tuesday 27th October. We have the usual panel of X-factor style judges, namely local authors: Gavin Extence, Stacey Sampson, Bryony Doran and Daniel Blythe and the wonderful Iain Broome as our compere. I'm thinking I might take part with my new novel though I haven't quite decided yet. It's a fabulous opportunity to hone your pitching skills, to get fantastic feedback and also this year we have a reading by Joanna Swainson (literary agent) as one of the prizes. An event not to be missed if you're an aspiring novelist.

Finally, I'm getting to don my wings as Fairy Tale and looking forward to working alongside my good friend, Madame Zuccini on Tuesday 27th October in the market on the moor. We'll be helping children to make vegetable superheroes and to write about their characters which will be a wonderful antidote to all this serious adult writing stuff.

Of course, there are hundreds of other events and I'll be doing my best to get to something. Have a look at the online brochure for inspiration.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Losing the plot

Summer's here and the kids are off school which means there won't be much writing time for me for a while. Luckily I have just filled my writing tank up with a week at Ty Newydd in Wales where I've been doing a course in writing Women's Popular fiction with Julie Cohen and Rowan Coleman.

I'm about 20,000 words into my romantic novel, which is provisionally entitled Perhaps, and the course has really helped me to think about the plot, structure and narrative arc of the story. Julie Cohen is a self-confessed analytical planner and mistress of the colour-coded post-it note, which was really interesting to someone like me who tends to wing it slightly when I'm writing fiction (more in the style of Rowan). As a teacher of creative writing, I thought I knew quite a lot about plot and structure but it turns out I still had much to learn.

At the same time as being the proponent of detailed planning, Julie was also reassuringly an advocate of writing what she terms, "the shitty first draft". Once you have something on the page, you have something to work with, where, if you're too afraid of putting a wrong word on the screen, you're sentencing yourself to never getting off the starting blocks.

Meanwhile, I've been quiet on here for a while because I've been dealing with an unexpected plot twist in my own life, where the hero of my story inconveniently went off piste. As a romantic and a writer, I often realise that I have a bit of a problem with confusing fiction and real life and, as he broke my heart, I did actually say to him , "but you're the ending to the my novel!" As it turned out, he was just a plot twist and one of the other things we discussed on the course was the fact that "fiction is more plausible than real life". We like reading popular fiction because it satisfies our need for order and sense, where our own lives can be more chaotic.

I didn't get much writing done while I was away because the course was quite intense and I was still recovering from 'end of termitis' but I did write a little ditty encapsulating what I've learned about plot and, though it was trite, it helped me to move on to the next chapter of my life. It amused the course participants so maybe it will amuse someone else:

I thought you were the happy ever after
The resolution of all the threads
You filled my life with love and laughter
I believed all the wonderful things you said.
But now I've had the mid-point reversal*,
I've looked in the mirror and can't go back.
Things will get better, they can't get worse, I'll
Keep moving forwards in spite of your lack.
Just when I thought it was all going smoothly
You pulled the rug** out from under my feet
Left in the dark*** where nothing could soothe me
And things were as bad as bad can be.           
But now you're a sub-plot, a plot-twist, a herring
And there will be other fish in the sea
Just as handsome, as loving, as caring
Time to move on into act three***.
It wasn't the ending, there's no husband or wife
But the heroine will keep striving for a better life.

Oh, and another thing that Julie advocates is champagne, when you've finished the shitty first draft and when you've published the final book (and at lots of stages in between). In the last few weeks I've finished the first draft of a picture book for the Ehlers Danlos society about a disco-dancing zebra, and my book, Archie Nolan: Family Detective is out in a week or so.

Time to get out the bubbly! I'll need it with 5 more weeks of schools holidays to get through.

* the point at which the heroine realises she's in too deep to turn back
** the rug-pulling moment: when things seem to be going well and then suddenly it all goes wrong. Aargh!
*** the heroine's darkest hour (following the rug-pulling moment)
**** Act 3 - the third act of the three act structure - where things will be resolved

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

What is a writer?

"I am not a writer except for when I write" Juan Carlos Onetti

Yesterday I saw the cover of a book that I have written for the first time. It is the first book that will have my name on the cover and it felt like a monumental moment for me. 64 of my Facebook friends (and counting) agree which is not really an indication of the validity of anything but it occurs to me that more virtual friends have applauded the creation of my first book, than the birth of my children, which is fair enough really: there are probably more writers than mothers amongst my Facebook friends and they know what it takes to write a book. In fact, for most people, creating a human being is easy in comparison (gestating them, giving birth to them and looking after them once they're born - not so much.)

Not that it is my first book of course. In fact, it's my fourth book. The others took just as long to write (probably longer) and all of them have had a good reception, as unpublished books go. The first one gained me a distinction on my MA and could have been "a bestseller" according to one of London's top literary agents. The second one got through an agent to an editor before being ultimately rejected. The third one won me £2000 and a Northern Writers Award but is still unpublished. I've written hundreds of poems (some published), have written endless copy for websites and handbooks, have a mountain of notebooks full of my scribbles and I even have an MA in Writing. I'm known as a facilitator of writing and increasingly writing forms more of my public persona and yet, there's something about the publishing of a book with my name on that gives credibility to my life's work.  Particularly for people who don't write, writers are the J K Rowlings and Maeve Binchys of this world and, if you don't have a book with your name on, you may as well be a failure. It is the curse of the novelist in particular that, unlike poets, no-one reads unpublished novels. Until you  have a book with your name on it, it's easy to feel like you don't deserve the title of 'writer', which is nonsense of course, but pervasive nonsense!

It's something I talk about a lot with other writers: when can you call yourself a writer? It has taken me a long time to own that title but I do believe what I tell my writing group: a writer is a person who writes. Nothing more and nothing less. I've been a writer since I was 5 years old and I will be a writer until I die and I only stop being a writer when I lose my way and stop putting words on paper or screen. And yet, in spite of this, I can't help feeling a glow of pride when I see my name on the cover of my first published book. It is another step on the writers' journey and I will enjoy it.

The other thing I outlaw in my writing group is apologising for your work. We're not allowed to preface our readings with disclaimers like, "it's not very good," "I don't know why I'm reading it", "it's probably nonsense" and so I won't allow myself to say that the book with my name on it isn't published by a 'real' publisher. It's a book, with my name on it that will hopefully help hundreds of children around the world and that's good enough for me. You can buy it here, if you like:

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The company of writers

I love being in the company of writers. Whether they're famous novelists, performance poets, young writers or total beginners, I simply love being around people who write. I love them because so often they're kind-hearted people with generous spirits and because they're often people who like to look below the surface or beyond the horizon of our day to day lives. And I love them because, in spite of all the cliches of tortured poets (and let's face it, many of us have our tortured sides) writers are grown-ups (or children!) who remember how to play - with words and ideas and with each other.

Yesterday I walked into a meeting between my colleagues Joe Kriss and Matt Black who were talking about a funding bid (yawn). I asked if I should leave them to it and Matt said he was leaving and that I had created a neat segue between meetings. Cue a discussion about the wonder and origin of the word segue and it's relationship with the segway. There was banter, laughter, hugs and even mime as I tried to explain the art of segwaying which, if you're interested, looks like this and nothing like the action I was demonstrating. I guess, laughing about words isn't everybody's cup of tea but my cup runneth over when I'm with people who love words like I do.

Often, when people ask where I'm happiest, this is what I think of. I think of all of the writing groups I've been part of and the groups that I've run. I think of writing retreats and courses and all of the people who have shared their words and their souls in those precious moments together. The people in those rooms feel like people who are my friends for life even if so many of them live far and wide and the only access I have to their faces and words is via my Facebook newsfeed. They are people with whom I have shared something special.

The poet and novelist, Sarah Salway, is one such person. I met Sarah on NAWE's Coaching for Writers course. Her recent blog on this theme resonated so strongly with me and I loved the line from Yasmin Khan Mughai's poem about her group in which writers share confidences like this is our last night alive. That's exactly how it feels in a writing group sometimes. Like everything mundane has been stripped away and we are looking into the very heart of what it means to be human. And it is a heart that is shared by everyone in the room.

Sarah's blog reminded me how much I was missing being part of and running a writing group. Since becoming a single parent, I find it hard to get out in the evening and I rarely get to run the Writing Yorkshire young writers' groups because 5-7pm is what's known as the witching hour in households with small children and it's not a convenient time to be out. So, it prompted me to set up a new group which will be in the daytime on a Wednesday, when I can get out and share my skills and my words with others. I've called it Get Writing and I hope it will inspire others and myself to do just that. Please get in touch if you'd like to come along and share in the magic. It also prompted me to plan a Writing Yorkshire masterclass on running writing workshops and to set up the first Writing Yorkshire retreat. Writing inspires people and being amongst writers makes me happy.

Of course, I'm also happy in the arms of someone I love and I'm happy when I look into the beautiful faces of my children or when I gaze at a gorgeous view of the sea. But, truly, many of the happiest times of my life have been when I'm in room full of writers. On a writing retreat at Ty Newydd last year, we were asked to write about why we write and I wrote these words:

I write because what else is there but the flow of ink on paper?
Because, sitting here with this pen in my hand,
hearing the pens of neighbours pouring forth, I feel at home.

I feel whole. I feel this is where I belong.

With writers is where I belong and I am so lucky that I spend so much of my time in their company. Thank you to all of the writers I know who have inspired me and shared themselves and their words with me.