Reading material

This post owes its parentage to Vanessa Harbour on ‘The importance of reading as a writer’ and Maureen Lynas’s writing about an approach to structure. I thank them both for getting me thinking about what I read and how it affects my writing.

One notable feature of the MA at West Dean was the challenge of reading in new genres. Without that I would never have discovered the emotional intensity of ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ by  R. J. Ellory  or to be honest ,the complex and satisfying structures used by Agatha Christie & Ngaio Marsh. I didn’t ‘do’ crime fiction before. It’s taught me to be an even wider ranging reader.

Now I enjoy being sent books by Vivienne Da Costa for Serendipity Reviews. There are joys like the sheer delight of seeing a much-liked author Chris Priestley come into his own – really using his deep knowledge  to create ‘Mister Creecher’. Or the pleasure of reviewing a colleague’s debut novel like ‘Slated’ by Teri Terry.

I am sent different age-ranges and genres – this helps me to see what I admire, and also what I don’t want to write.

Greg Mosse insists students understand that it’s not what we like in a Reading-Group-glass-of-wine-and-nibbles way that matters, but what works. To my family’s annoyance during the MA year I couldn’t watch anything without taking it apart to see the gears and cogs. I keep quiet now – but I’m still anatomising in my head.

And yet…

It’s not just that, however useful. It’s about inspiration. The things that make me want to write.

This will sound cringeworthy but it is true: I want to pay it forward.

I want to take readers to new worlds.

I loved Narnia and Earthsea and Pern and Middle Earth ( yes I know -it’s our world millenia ago). How wonderful to transport other people somewhere special.

I want to speak with my own voice.

I can hear writers like David Almond and Robert Westall, and Leon Garfield and Joan Aiken. They taught me I can be myself, Northern vowels and all. That you can use language to give flavour and identity. I want to share that.

I want to revel in reworked tradition.

I think of Alan Garner, George Mackay Brown Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and nowadays Katherine Langrish, Jackie Morris and Pat Walsh. They develop shared folklore, myth and legend and keep it alive. It’s too good not to pass on.

I want to express my delight in transformation.

Books move me far more than cinema or TV, they always have done. I can never forget the change in Mary Lennox in ‘The Secret Garden’, or Eustace Clarence Scrubb in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. And I’m still a soppy date about Scrooge & Silas Marner. Who wouldn’t want to show what people can become?

So, in short, I think you have to read and read and read  to be even a halfway decent writer. Or at least I do.

How about you?


Get over yourself

Yesterday I made a complete fool of myself. In public. In front of people whose good opinion I deeply desire and those I am supposed to be helping.#epicfail

I had to take part in a mock interview with a much-respected colleague as a demo for newer MA students. I was simply supposed to speak about my work-in-progress.

I really struggle to tell a story in mid-field, as it were. I can give you the grand sweeping overview – girl with magical powers has to choose between saving her mother or saving her city – or the close-up detail – Georgiana plays knucklebones with her friends the Blewcoat Boys. Anything inbetween I still find appallingly difficult. Before I’ve even opened my lips, what I have to say sounds so lame, I just dry up. And when I do venture something, it’s just plain wrong: not what I was asked to do.

So humiliating.

Those around me could not have been more supportive. No-one tried to make me feel pathetic – I was surrounded by encouragement.

But I still couldn’t do it.

Having been told it was both easy and an essential skill didn’t really help. Nor having it demonstrated with admirable skill by others. Currently, I feel an utter failure with no future in writing.

I know. Ridiculous. But it is how I feel amongst the tears.

But I’m still carrying on. I watch my friends stream ahead of me with book deals and agents and distinctions and just plain skill. I just crawl a bit further.

Give me a wave when you pass.


The view from the Big House

My bedroom window at West Dean College

An account of what I found useful as a writer for young readers at the 5th Chichester Writing Festival

Our first session focused on the experience of having work translated from Book to Film- a not too uncommon experience for some children’s writers. The key point was that adaptation has to embody the spirit of the book – not seek to replicate it slavishly. I found during the MA that retelling my story through drama helped me focus on what was key to my story. This approach might help with summarising for a synopsis, or honing your pitch.

Interestingly for me, some common themes cropped up in both the New Novelists and Poetry sessions. There was a good deal of debate about social media and other ways of reaching your readership. As was pointed out by Greg Mosse in the Writing for Children panel, that’s a normal thing for them. My take is that engaging with buyers and readers ( who are not necessarily the same people) is fruitful for both parties. Performance poetry develops more passion when people respond – and our readers engage more fully with reading when they relate to the author just the same as any reading group. This is a far more encouraging way of looking at interaction than as a cynical marketing exercise.

You might not think that the crime writer Mark Billingham would be that relevant to a writer for young people – but his account of learning to trust his readers, to allow them to create much of the story in their own heads stayed with me. Good advice for any writer, and for us, it avoids that awful pitfall of patronising our readers. More of that later.

Saturday found two sessions on Fiction and Non-Fiction. In both cases, the balance between making it up and rearranging the facts to create a better narrative was a matter of much discussion. Finally, it’s down to the writer’s integrity and judgement. That is no different in our world – though perhaps the debate over ‘bad’ language brings it more into focus.

Certainly what publishers and agents want outlined in the seventh session, is pretty much the same regardless of age written for –  a typescript bursting with truth and a committed passionate author to go with it.

‘A good agent or publisher can help a writer to think big.’ Felicity Bryan


Having paid for it (as a true Yorkshire woman) I went to the Military History discussion. I knew from previous conferences that the session you least relish can provide surprising insights – and I am always scared I might miss something. Here what struck me was that despite the apparent need for technical accuracy, it was the human responses that meant most. Truth to the experience was essential – and that the senses conveyed this best.

Many writers for young people are Inspired by History. An amusing  point from this panel for me was made by Jason Goodwin  – he spoke of ‘smuggling information through the entertainment’. I think this is a good approach to avoid ‘infodumps’ in any genre.

Joanna Trollope spoke on Saturday evening to a packed Sussex Barn. She exhorted us to

trust to the power of the unconscious mind.

Her focus has always been on the human drama – and we all know if your reader doesn’t engage with the central character then nothing else matters. She was surprisingly hard on her younger self – saying she had lacked courage. I felt I must resolve to dig deeper.

Sunday’s after breakfast panel looked at New Publishing: I’d say writers for young people need to be aware of the changes and to utilise them as our readership will. Again it comes down to that interaction idea – and that there are new and developing ways now. (You might want to look at Alison Baverstock’s The Naked Author on this subject)

Last, but oh so definitely not least, we had Sally Kindberg, Bridget Strevens and David Whitley. One remarkable and emblematic feature for me was just how much more literally colourful we writers/illustrators for young people are. Francesca Simon picked up a similar yet deeper point: if you want creativity and passion, read children’s lit. She made it quite clear she felt that some adult authors were missing out by ignoring our wealth of approaches and subjects.

I so much admired how hard these panellists tried not to talk down to the people holding their books. They all wanted to provide the best possible, not some watered-down pallid version of adult writing or art.

Finally, the theme of all this for me was that there is no ‘Great Divide’ between writing  for young people and adults. It’s a  continuum in which many things apply across the whole range. Truth to the narrative, considered application of technique and engagement with your readership are the same regardless of the age catered for.

So I’d recommend this to any of my SCBWI colleagues – and anyone interested in any form of writing precisely because the focus is on writing as a craft. Professionalism is the same for all.

 I would expect the Sixth Chichester Writing Festival to be in September 2013 – it will be worth going.




The Ambridge Delusion

The long-running serial ‘The Archers’ works best when it creates illusion of being there. The writers make the audience almost believe they are overhearing something as it occurs.How do they achieve this sense of immediacy?

First off, there is no prefiguring: no-one announces what will occur in the future. They cannot possibly know, so they don’t foretell. This applies well to a novel too.

Secondly, there is little back story. OK , sometimes a newly-arrived character will be brought up to speed – but that kind of exposition can be clumsy even in experienced hands. Best not to have ‘As you know…’ dialogue, then.

Thirdly, there are rarely more than two characters interacting in any one scene. There’s no confusion that way. This seems a reasonable idea to pursue, in dialogue especially – no problems with attribution then.

Furthermore, characters are created by layering. Habitual Archers listeners will have heard many different aspects of the regulars over the years – but only one at a time. We compose our view of the characters out of the evidence we’ve been given.

It cracks on because there is only dialogue and implied action. Nobody wastes time reflecting and informing you what they are thinking – you have to work it out.

Finally, there’s no voice-over. No busy-body author telling you what to think or describing the scene in boring detail – that’s left to a few choice sound effects and your imagination.

All-in-all, not a bad way to think about keeping it apparently real.

Writer for Sale or Rent

Vintage 1961 model in good working order

  •  includes brand new MA (Creative Writing)  from West Dean College
  • at home with Junior School children ( has previous as teacher)
  • however it would be fair to point out disturbing darker side to personality
  • addicted to anything maritime, the weirder aspects of folklore and ghost stories
  • excellent creator of imaginary worlds but definitely not streetwise
  • needs direction – middle grade, tweens or teens?
  • worryingly keen on dressing-up
  • grammar, punctuation & spelling in good condition
  • has demonstrated writing stamina
  • Yorkshire background – will work for tea and crumpets

All suggestions considered.


What sort of writer do you want to be?

The viva voce for my MA in Creative Writing was on Monday. I have passed ( thanks to superb tuition from Greg Mosse) – and I am immediately wondering which subset in the Venn diagram of authors I should inhabit.

I’ve been asked to consider writing for adults. Straight off I flinch at that. I will admit to an entire Harry Ramsden’s on my shoulder about the status of children’s writers. It is compounded of my experience as a teacher that your rank is in direct proportion to the age of the children taught; the same impulse that made the ‘Children’s Writing IS a proper job’ badge sell out so quickly in November 2010, and Martin Amis’s remarks in February about brain injury and writing for children. The subtext is that writing for adults is somehow better, cleverer, more valuable.

Well, I’m with John Dougherty:

Don’t worry Martin. We can’t all be imaginative and versatile.

One of the things I admire most about the literature published for young people is the sheer range and breadth of ideas. Big ideas, written for people who will not be blinded by the effulgent beauty of your prose nor give one microfortnight of attention to reviews by your literary chums.

It is notable that David Almond (a literary hero to me) found a sense of liberation in writing for the young. I am put in mind of this concept:

Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.

Robert Moss, Dreamgates 

Quite simply, I believe young people are more likely to be receptive to the stories following me about and asking to be told than adults. And I bother to write because of my belief in those same young people, and what stories are for.

 Every word written, every sentence, every story, no matter how dark the story itself might seem, is an act of optimism and hope, a stay against the forces of destruction.

David Almond, Hans Christian Anderson Award acceptance speech

Now before I get all too Messianic, I’d also like to point out that despite all the moaning of the pessimists, the children’s book market is thriving. According the ‘The Bookseller’ in 2001 it was worth £193 million – and in 2010 £325 million. Christopher Paolini’s ‘Inheritance’ sold more than 76,000 copies in UK in first week of publication this November.
Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ (Man Booker winner) ? 14,600.
Children’s books often demonstrate the effectiveness of long tail marketing: they carry on being bought long after the brass bands and banners have left town.
It’s possible for me and my colleagues to do well.
When I decided to get serious about writing, I read Alison Baverstock’s unsettling but finally very useful ‘Is there a Book in You?’. She made it quite clear how important a support system is for any writer. My best scaffolding comes from SCBWI – I know I can contact wonderful people who will talk me down off the parapet, sort out my formatting issues or just plain be there. The conference in Winchester is a highlight of my year.
What other sort of writer could I possibly want to be?
Then come the next questions: YA or middle grade? Fantasy or thriller? Ghost stories or sea stories?
 to be continued….

Passing it on

I’ve been away to Turkey on an activities holiday. It’s one way of counteracting that dreadful complaint ‘writer’s bottom’ and a good way of meeting new people. During introductions,  it usually got round to what you do for a living.  I decided to be bold and admit I write for children. The response was gratifying – it has to be said this was the middle classes at play – people were interested.

In particular, one family wanted me to chat to their son, Lewis, about his writing. As an ex-teacher, I couldn’t resist this appeal for help.

Now I have to admit this wasn’t entirely altruistic. I had taken my business cards and was quite happy to self-promote. As we all know, word-of-mouth is the best advertising. I had Kate Mosse’s voice in the back of my mind:

Never fail your constituency.

Not only that, but I have a viva voce to go before I complete my MA at West Dean and all practice is good. Explaining what I do and why clarifies things for me. As Frank Oppenheimer said:

The best way to learn is to teach.

So, not only did I enjoy reading Lewis’s high quality and instinctively dramatic work and the opportunity to hold forth, it was useful to me to examine what I had really learnt. Thus I am delighted to be asked by Greg Mosse to support the new MA students on a Tuesday: that’ll sharpen my ideas up.

It may be sentimental but the thought occurs to me that knowledge is like love – the more you share it about, the more you have.

Stringing it out…

As part of  my MA at West Dean College, I am writing episodic fragments of an original novel. Our tutor, Greg Mosse, has referred to them as ‘bricks’. Each one is a self-contained whole that can form part of the larger edifice.

I prefer to think of them as beads, or on a good day, jewels.

I have always liked jewellery. I even started studying jewellery design at Loughborough back in the Cretaceous. Words like ‘pendant’,’ talisman’ and ‘amulet’ are music to my ears – and I rather hoped I might find Firefrost or some other magical stone.

But I think I will stick to beads.

The holes line up allowing you to join them together. If I am to write a first book worth reading, it will have a single narrative thread. I know cleverer people than me can weave many strands into complex webs – but at least to start off with, I’ll go for one bit of band.

My episodes vary in length, colour and shape like faience or toho seeds. I can arrange them in groups to make a sequence that becomes steadily more dramatic – like a graduated row of pearls.

I need to work with all the right pieces and I need to believe I can create them one at a time.

I find I have to revise , to reorganise the pattern. Sometimes there are missing sections – like the  Murano chevron bead that rolled under the workbench. Sometimes a whole section has to be unstrung and redone. But always to an underlying structure.

And the structure has its rules. There are demands of genre – you don’t make short story earrings if your reader wants a an epic lariat. But rules can be played with. The mash-up of expectations can create wonderful things. Intersperse your Native American hair-pipe with your dichroic glass and see what happens. I am popping gargoyles into the world of Jane Austen and Celtic selkies in Heartbeat coastal Yorkshire. Why not?

It is through experiment bounded by a given form that new things can emerge – and its unique quality is the way the maker puts it together. This works as well with a novel as a necklace.

From the heart

Thursday 5th May 2011 I had the pleasure of attending a fundraiser for StonePillow , a local charity working with homeless people. I went to hear readings from three very local writers: Isabel Ashdown, Jane Rusbridge and Gabrielle Kimm. The quality of the extracts was excellent – and it gave me to thinking why.

The three main works were quite distinct – though all had an historical element. Both ‘Glasshopper’ by Isabel Ashdown  and ‘The Devil’s Music’ by Jane Rusbridge take place in England in the  recent past, whereas Gabrielle Kimm set  ‘His Last Duchess’ in 16th century Italy. But it wasn’t the vivid recreation of a previous era  that captvated: it was the emotion.

All three authors read with a clear sense of the emotion in their work. Speaking to them afterwards, it became clear that despite the distance between the reading and the publication, the feelings of their primary characters still animated the writers. And this in turn engaged their listeners.

This is critical to me as both reader and writer. I may have no idea how banquets were conducted at the Court of Alfonso d’Este – but I can connect with the tentative feelings of a young bride. Similarly, I can identify with  the experience of a frightened boy or an embarrassed  teenage girl in any time, location or culture because of their emotions. Emotions link us to all humans: and the single emotional thread was the first key concept Greg Mosse taught us on the Creative Writing MA.

These writers, and many more who engage with their readers, portray emotion with clarity and honesty. They use dialogue and action to reveal their characters’ emotional lives. Everyone experiences anger,  love and loss – and writers show these because they are inherent to the human experience. They don’t use emotions to draw the reader in – they experience the emotions of their characters and record them.

Therefore a creative writer shows anger, love and loss through distinct voices.  At this reading, I had the direct experience of hearing those voices and the physical emotion in them. As a reader, you ‘hear’ the voice of the characters in your head – and you also have a sense of the author’s voice. It is the intensity of feeling in the writer’s voice that draws us into their fictional world.

Better to travel…

There you are , not sure how to open your story.  You don’t really want to fire off all your exciting stuff immediately, – how could you build a crescendo from there? You could do worse than start with a journey.

Your reader will appreciate being introduced to your central character by herself, and then secondary characters individually. This can happen naturally with the preparations for a voyage or trip. How and what  your central character packs, for example, can say a lot about her. It’s not unlikely that further characters could board the bus, or walk up the gangplank one-by-one, giving your reader time to see them separately at the very least.

Another advantage of travel in fiction is the setting. You have the opportunity to show minor characters going about their business in active and interesting harbours, airports etc. and interacting with your main character. You also have the reaction of the main character to the place and its challenges – how does she cope?

There is nothing forced about description of a new place animated by action. There’s nothing forced about showing the reader a situation which is strange to your main character, so that’s all good too. You have forward movement because your character is doing something: the sense of place is integral to the small dramas like getting a visa stamp, misunderstandings about customs or simply choosing food.

And these little things, these mundane events can evolve. An insignificant interruption might lead to a delay. The delay might mean missing the connection, missing the connection might lead to a stay in a hotel on the wrong side of the tracks and so on. It could be comic, it could be tragic – but consequences of even a straightforward journey could be huge.

So if your writing’s going nowhere, try taking a holiday. Who knows where it might lead?