If you haven’t yet booked yourself a place at some of the events at the FREE Writers’ Retreat, Take a look!! And if you have been thinking of coming to the workshop I’ll be running on Thursday 9th June, don’t worry if you haven’t got any ‘family documents’ to bring with you – I’ve planned for ways to inspire your writing, whether you bring something with you or not.
I’ve been having a wonderfully restful and creative break recently – the first event was a weekend writing course that I’d booked several months ago at Holland House– in Copthorne, a small village in the Vale of Evesham. It was my third visit to this retreat centre with its four acres of inspiring gardens sweeping down to the river - it’s an ideal venue for inspiring creativity.
I’d forgotten to charge the batteries on my camera, so these pictures are ones I took in 2006. The course was well planned and enthusiastically delivered by Myra Schneider and John Killick
The theme of this course was ‘Time’ and it provided me with material for a couple of drafts, and several more ideas for future poems. I’m very slow at the process of producing, not just the ideas, but the words to express them, and I always enjoy hearing the other participants reading their work. John will be sending out a piece of writing from each of the fifteen of us on the course, (once we’ve emailed them to him) and I’m really looking forward to reading them at leisure – there were so many excellent poems.
Fortunately for me, I’ve (almost) stopped measuring my work and the pace of my output against that of everyone else’s, who always seem to be far more prolific than I am. After I’ve achieved a draft that feels as though it might be going somewhere, I enjoy the period of re-writing and re-writing, till I’m sure that every word is the best one in the best order for that poem. (This stage usually takes me two or three weeks, and sometimes even longer.)
I’m still working on a poem from a couple of weekends ago, so here’s one from my very first Holland House course, inspired by the yew hedges and other trees in the garden. I was delighted when it won 1st prize for the ‘single poem’ section of the New Writers’ Competition of 2006. (see the poem below)
As for ‘Wuthering Heights’ – this was the venue of another gathering of writers that I took part in last week. That wasn’t really the name of this large stone house on the highest point of a high ridge on the edge of the Dark Peak, not far from Kinder Scout – I called it that because of the persistent gale force winds that boomed and battered at the walls and windows for most of the week. It didn’t affect our enjoyment though, and we were able to stretch our legs most days, in spite of some lashing rain storms.
One afternoon we walked through the Longshaw estate, run by the National Trust.I was interested to find a tenuous connection between the nearby town of Hathersage and Emily Bronte, the author of Wuthering Heights (via her sister, Charlotte, who had spent some time there with a friend). You can find out about its link to her own well-known novel, Jane Eyre, here.
I arrived back home again on Friday afternoon, then on Saturday I was back in Derbyshire to meet up with some of my friends from my M.A. Writing Course at N.T.U.This time I was staying in the picturesque village of Ashover, situated in the Amber valley, just outside the Peak District National Park.
It’s surrounded by hills and we walked up to the top of one, behind my friend’s house, - This rock is called The Fabrick and apparently was once the site of an old Druid temple – it’s a landmark that can be seen from a miles around. The village was first mentioned in the Domesday book and it has been called the valley of ’silence and wild flowers’. You can’t get much more poetic than that!
When I Can Choose
I’ll live in a house with high ceilings,
and practise topiary.
Yew hedges will take root
along the skirting boards.
I’ll clip them into crenellations
below the roses on the coving,
gouge out small, square windows
to let green light spill in.
New fronds, bright as limes
will stroke my cheek, my palms,
and winter berries will kindle
the white tips of my fingers.
I’ll curl up on the springy floor
of camomile and thyme. Trace
familiar features in the dark.
Wind will stream up from the river,
clatter through the aspen leaves.
Drown out the one not chosen.
First of all, I want to let people know about a FREE writers’ week that starts on Monday 6th June and finishes on the following Saturday.
The main theme for the week is , ‘Memoirs’, and I’ve been asked to run one of the workshops, and also to give a talk about self publishing, so if you know anyone who is interested in creative writing and lives within a reasonably easy journey from Erdington in the north of Birmingham, please direct them to this site – whatever kind of writing you want to develop, there’s bound to be something there for you.
In my previous post I mentioned the latest Soundswrite Anthology of poetry. This cover was taken from a painting by the talented artist and poet, Helen Jayne Gunn, one of the many contributors to the anthology.
It will be available from the Soundswrite Website.
(This site is about to be about to be updated)
Anyone who has attended courses on writing poetry, is more than likely to have met Alice Beer, whose obituary appeared in The Guardian on Thursday 7th April 2011. Click
I’m posting this picture of ‘my’ local bluebell wood because it’s a place I visit several times every April, checking on the progress of the brand new beech leaves and the mass of bluebell spears. There was a bluebell wood not far from the house in Sussex where I spent my childhood, but this one is the best I’ve ever come across.
Here’s a poem I wrote several years ago – this photo doesn’t illustrate the poem, but it captures the beautiful light of an April day, two or three weeks ago
Taking Amy For A Walk
When we reach the wood, anemones
like sackfuls of spilt stars
lie scattered between birch
and sycamore. I can only guess
how green spears poised in shade
are holding hidden blue as tight as breath.
Wind tosses sunlight down through
restless branches - her long pale hair
becomes a blur of light. She wears
her denim the way a dryad might
disguise herself to walk with humans.
Eyes as far away as shards of sky.
I thought the bluebells would be out, she says,
half petulant, as though she’s been misled.
She hesitates beside a mound of earth,
amber and burnt sienna, glistening with
movement of seething bodies,
a million legs bent on a single purpose.
They clamber over identical neighbours
without a qualm – those brains
hold nothing singular or strange.
I wriggle a dead stick inches down into
their huge construction. I want to uncover
its hundreds of intricate channels, reach
into secret chambers where white eggs
are hatching in the dark, like thoughts.
I want to bring them into the light of day.
Amy shudders, watching the creatures
scurry and cluster along the stick.
I throw it down and take her cool dry hand.
I was about to post my latest (and probably final) information about Douglas Gordon Bruce, for my Mystery Challenge,
when I was suddenly whisked back to the end of June last year, at the Winchester Writers Conference, where the indomitable Director of the Conference, Barbara Large, MBE, kindly invited me to attend the plenary address on the Saturday morning, and say a few words about Novel Press and Paper Lanterns.
I was looking on the Conference website to see if the details of this year’s event had been published there yet, and I was reminded of an interview I’d given in the previous year. Some of the university students had been allocated the task of interviewing delegates from that year’s event.
I had walked out after Sir Terry Pratchett’s address to the conference into the blazing sunshine and was immediately accosted by a small group of young people wielding photographic instruments: Would I be willing to answer a few questions about why I was there, and what advice might I give to other aspiring writers?
When it comes to an opportunity for me to talk about writing in general (and mine in particular!) I’m not likely to turn it down, so I rattled on for several minutes, until I came to a natural ending. The interviewers were university students, and it was their project to make a record of the weekend for the university archives, with special reference to Terry Pratchett.
After that, I forgot all about it, so when I saw the yellow boxes on the left of the screen, I clicked on the one that was labelled ‘Delegates reactions to the 2010 WW Conference’. I started watching with interest, but without really expecting to see myself there.
I have to admit, that I did cringe a bit at the sight of me, jabbering away, seemingly non-stop. But on the other hand, I had to give myself some credit for being able talk off the cuff like that. Watching and listening a couple of times, I was slightly reassured to find that the words I’d spoken then were more or less what I’d say now, nearly a year later, (especially my final comment in the second section, on advice to other writers).
Although I’ve seen myself in action on a screen a few times, I don’t think I’ll ever get over the weird sensation of seeing myself in action, and what I must look like to others. Fortunately, I don’t give that a moment’s thought in everyday life! I was impressed by the clarity and calmness of the other five speakers – I wonder if any of them have had similar feelings.
I was pleased to see a pleasant man I’d had a conversation with, the evening before. He’d told me a little about his published book and it sounded very entertaining, but I’d forgotten all about him and his writing till I saw him on the video, so I was pleased to hear the title of his book, ‘Vet in Prospect’ and was able to find it on Amazon. I was delighted to hear that he’d landed a three-book deal as a result of attending the conference.
As you can see from the start of the video, he is not the only writer who has owed his success to this Conference over the last 30 years. I would heartily recommend this event to anyone who is serious about their own writing. There’s always a wealth of useful and encouraging information. Above all, it’s great fun!
It was my own monthly book group meeting yesterday evening, but while we were discussing Sebastian Barry’s ‘The Sacred Scripture’, (together with all sorts of non-book related topics ) none of us remembered that the winner of the Booker prize was being revealed at that very time. It wasn’t till I opened my daily briefing from the Bookseller after work today that I discovered the winner.
I have to say that I haven’t yet read any of the 6 books on the shortlist, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed dipping into various book blogging sites and reading reviews. (A few of my favourite sites are mentioned below) Not only do these act as an enjoyable displacement activity taking me away from my own writing projects, they can almost persuade me that I’ve actually read these books!
I did say ‘almost’ but that itself is a gross exaggeration - or is it wishful thinking? No, the reviews inspire me to be reading these books, not to have read them. It’s the state of being in-the-middle-of a good book that I love. The state of having-just-finished one can make me feel bereft.
Mmm. I’ll have to think about that. Actually, there is also pleasure in reflecting on what I’ve just read – a kind of mental meandering around the edges of the book’s territory, and making forays back into its heart. But that’s enough aimless musing for one day.
Back to the Booker winner, HilaryMantel. I’ve just googled her to check out the names of the two of hers that I read and enjoyed, ages ago: Mother’s Day’ and ‘Fludd’ . I was fascinated to see the speed with which Wikepedia gets updated- the wording of the short extract below makes it seem as if 2009 were already done and dusted – as if the year isn’t rattling past fast enough as it is.
“The long novel Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell, was published in 2009 to high critical acclaim. The book went on to win that year’s Man Booker Prize and upon winning the award, Mantel stated “I can tell you at this moment I am happily flying through the air”.[“
Reading the various articles about Hilary Mantel has taken me back about eleven years to the lecture hall at Nottingham Trent University where I was doing my part-time MA in writing – two evenings per week for two years. One of the joys of that course was the ‘Core’ module. All we had to do was to turn up on the Monday evenings, sit back and listen enthralled to a visiting author who’d been invited to inspire us to follow in their footsteps to fame and fortune (or at the very least, to publication.)
One thing I remember from Hilary Mantel’s visit was her advice to make sure we were working on our next novel well before the one that had just been accepted came out in print. That was the first time I realised that it could take up to two years from acceptance to publication. There were other authors too, who spoke in an equally down-to-earth manner about their journeys towards publication. In a strange way, this made the possibility of our own eventual publication both more, and at the same time less, attainable.
At that time I don’t think I really believed that a novel of mine would ever appear in a book shop. How wrong I was! Here’s a link to an article about my own experience of what happened after my novel was acceptedfor publication.
My niece’s wedding on Saturday was held in an idyllic setting in the Devon countryside - a beautiful ancient church, accessed by a long flight of steps - you can get an idea of it from this photo
Fortunately the sun shone throughout the whole event - it might not have felt quite so idyllic if we’d all been squelching up the aisle and dripping rainwater all over the pews. Our journey down the M5 the day before had been accompanied by torrential storms, and the skies opened on us again this evening when we got back home.
One good thing for me about long car journeys is that for the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been able to read a book when I’m in the passenger seat. This weekend, my book was the aptly named A Seriously Useful Author’s Guide to Marketing and Publicising Books by Mary Cavanagh. I know I’m going to be dipping into various chapters over the next few months, while I’m working at getting my next novel, Paper Lanterns, into print. (Thank you, Mary, for producing this well-timed book!)
In my previous posts I was talking about my first writing course on the island of Kithera in Crete. There have been a lot of changes in the world of publishing and marketing books since then (about seven years ago now).
I’d say that the ‘real’ start of The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society was during that week in Kithera, in June 2001. It was my individual tutorials with Helen Carey that helped me discover my main character’s back-story and her motivations for the future - I already had a general idea of what was going to happen to seventy-five year old Agnes Borrowdale, but it wasn’t till Helen asked a few key questions, that I realised I was focusing too much on the intricacies of the plot, and didn’t yet know my characters from the inside out.
One of difficulties that Helen identified was the relationship between Agnes and her son, Jack, who places her in an old people’s home, from which she escapes at the start of the book. As the main protagonist, Agnes must engage the reader from the start, and maintain their interest and affections to the end. I had to show that Jack himself, though a flawed character, was not unsympathetic. I also needed to show why Jack, and his new partner, Monica, felt that The Harmony Home for The Young At Heart, was the best place for Agnes.
Gradually, these characters, and many more, developed both inner and outer lives of their own, as the action moved to and from Sussex to Nottingham and Birmingham. I had enormous fun in getting to know them all, and extricating them from the various awkward situations I landed them in.
Even now, as I think about them I can see and hear them in my head. They’re absolutely solid and real as the friends and relations I met up with again this weekend at the wedding. And yet at the same time, I’m fully aware of the fact that I invented everyone of them. (And I still regard myself as sane!)
I’ve been working on this blog-site for most of the weekend, and I’m gradually getting my head round some of the weird codes on the admin pages behind the scenes. There’s an amazing difference between these, and the effect they have created on the visible site that you’ll be looking at. Click here, and admire the spaces between the authors’ names - it took me hours of trial and error towork out how to do this!
Anyway, enough of that for the time being - I’m meant to be telling you more about my writing course on Kithera. It was organised by Andy Mullett, the driving force behind The Greek Experience – he used the local facilities, (including the tutor of the Greek course, whose main occupation was running his own delicatessen). The creative writing workshops and tutorials took place on the sheltered terrace of the small hotel, or outside one of the local bars. The art tutor lived in a nearby village, and her course took place outdoors, wherever there was an inspiring landscape, ruined farmhouse or small church.
The students on all the courses were allocated accommodation scattered around the little town of Chora. This itself was not one single place – the old ‘town’ of Chora was up at the top of a hill, and the other part was the harbour front, a long, steep road of at least a kilometre, though when walking uphill it felt like more than double that distance.
Tutors for writing courses came mainly from England. Mine, was a novelist called Helen Carey. I’d sent her parts of the novel I’d intended to work on at Arvon, and also the first few chapters of my new novel. By the end of May, I’d already won the prize of a free read from TLC, so, since I was about to get feedback on that novel, it made more sense for me to ask Helen to discuss the new novel with me. At that stage, I hadn’t got a title for this book which was to become my first published novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society
Helen offered me some useful suggestions, and pointed out some possible pitfalls that I needed to be aware of, if my main character, Agnes was to keep the sympathy of the reader.
The sun shone, the mountain slopes were crisscrossed with narrow winding tracks, the air was scented with wild thyme. The sea was clear turquoise above the flat white rocks. It couldn’t have been more different from the Midlands urban setting of the novel whose characters were beginning to emerge.
It was one of the best (and most productive) holidays of my life. I was lucky enough to have another week there the following year, and that opened up yet more opportunities - but I’ll come to that later.
(Unfortunately, Andy Mullet stopped organising these activity holidays a few years ago.)
If you’re wondering about any possible connection between the terrible Foot-and-Mouth outbreak of 2001/2 , and an idyllic Greek island, read on! (if you haven’t read my previous post, it might make more sense if you read that one first)
I thought this peaceful picture of a typical Greek Island
would be a more soothing way for you to approach a post that includes mention of Foot and Mouth.
Having gained so much from my first Arvon course, I decided to apply for an ‘advanced’ fiction course, which was to be held at Totleigh Barton in Devon in March 2001. I was to bring my novel to work on and to get feedback from the tutors. This was shortly before In The Lamb-White Days had undergone its final re-write after the help I’d had from TLC.
I sent the first part of this manuscript as part of my application, and was thrilled to be accepted on the course. I knew that more work was needed on this, but I wasn’t quite sure what was missing, and/or what needed to be added. Agnes Borrowdale was already whispering in my ear, pushing for her story to be discovered, but she’d have to wait till I’d got my first novel sorted.
Anyone who’s been connected in any way with farming, or has lived/was living in the countryside in the spring of 2001, basically, anyone who watched the flaming pyres on TV news night after night, will understand that a venue set in farmland in the middle Devon, could not take the risk of encouraging visitors, who might inadvertently spread the terrible disease.
I’d realised this, even before the letter arrived, but was still disappointed. I’d been so looking forward to this week since the previous autumn, and now it had been snatched away. My brain quickly kicked into action: first, to scold me for my selfishness, when all my sympathy should be directed to those who were losing their treasured stock, and their livelihood. My sister, Jo, who had moved with her family to a small organic farm just a few years earlier, was in the middle of an infected area herself.
Then, as my brain has a helpful tendency to do, it switched my thinking on to the bright side, and encouraged me to search out a writing course somewhere unaffected by foot and mouth.
On a recent trip to Cannon Poets, I’d picked up a few leaflets with information about competitions and new poetry collections. In the middle of these, was one that I’d barely glanced at, until now: The Greek Experience – writing courses held in May/June and September/October on a small island called Kithera, in the south of the Peloponnese . There was one on fiction writing, and it fell during the Whitsun week.
I rang the contact number. There was space for me on the course.
Arvon would have been wonderful, but the combination of sunshine on a Greek island, and help with developing my novel, sounded like a very fair exchange. And so it proved to be.
This post is about starting to write what I consider as my first ‘proper’ novel, but I’ve been whisked back into the world of poetry for a moment, after reading an article in Times 2 in which Libby Purves expresses her views on the row about the Oxford poetry professorship. I admire Ruth Padel’s poetry and when I first heard about her resignation I did wonder what the actual (as opposed to the reported) facts were.
I have to admit that it’s taken me years (decades, even) to stop and think before I make judgements based on a media story - there’s almost invariably an opposing way of looking at the same event, so it was nice to read Libby’s measured view of the incident. It’s one thing to hold politicians to account for what they say to journalists, but poets aren’t expected to be constantly on the alert in that way.
And now, back to what I was saying in my last post about feeling vulnerable on my MA course - it wasn’t until the following term that I began to feel more at ease with myself and with the others in the group. The main reason for my surge in confidence was Rosie Jackson, the tutor who took over our small fiction tutorial group of six. ‘Right, it’s time for a larger project now,’ she announced. ‘I want you to bring the start of a novel for next week.’
We all gulped.
‘This doesn’t have to be the actual beginning,’ Rosie went on, breaking a shocked silence, ‘You can start anywhere. The main thing is, to write.’
Then she explained the method we would all follow for giving feedback to each other. To start with, nothing negative would be written. Instead, a highlighter pen would be used on any sections that seemed to the reader to be genuine, to ‘sing’. Any queries or suggestions for improvement would be given verbally later.
This approach unplugged the block that had been building up in my head over the previous term. I wrote freely for the first time in ages, without striving to produce something that would be of a suitable standard for an M.A. course.
I handed it in the following week, and waited nervously for it to be returned to me. There’s something very positive about colours, any colour, but especially the green of the highlighter pen that Rosie had used across great chunks of my printed pages.
This was the start of what I think of as my first ‘real’ novel, In The Lamb-White Days.
When the fiction year of the MA course came to an end, our writing group (five of us, by that time) continued to meet to work on our developing novels. It was Helen H who’d suggested our monthly meetings outside of the official course times. She’d started her MA the previous year, so our first year had been her final one, and she’d realised the value of keeping in touch as a working fiction-writing group.
There was something a bit weird (as well as wondeful) in being part of the process of the making of four other novels in addition to my own. We all knew that the places, characters and plots that we were discussing were total inventions, but it was sometimes hard to remember that these stories weren’t yet ‘real’, and that their writers were almost as much in the dark about what would happen next as the readers were. At the same time, we were working on our next section of the MA course – in my case, poetry, but we still meet up to discuss our fiction writing.
This post might make more sense if you read the ones below first – or at least An Arvon course and a poetry prize
It’s the half term break, but I was at work anyway – I know that lots of people would be envious of my 10 weeks annual leave, but to be honest, it was partly because of the long holidays that I went into teaching in the first place, and when I started working in Adult Education, I got 14 weeks, so having that reduced to 10 in the last few years, hit me quite hard – but at least I still get a certain amount of satisfaction from it, and I’m pretty sure that this is due to my other ‘career’ – my writing.
I’ve already mentioned that the Arvon course at Lumb Bank changed my life, but there was a lot more to it than winning first prize in the Envoi poetry competition, and being invited to be part of the poetry ensemble, Late Shift.
I’ll be saying more about Late Shift soon, but first, there are other opportunities that can also be traced back to that same course. Maybe the most important for my writing development was the fact that I became a life member of the Friends of Arvon, and this entailed a regular news letter. The first one I received mentioned that there were still a few places left for the M.A. writing course at Nottingham Trent. The part-time option would involve a two year commitment of two evenings per week during term times.
I rang for more details, and liked what I read: This didn’t seem like a strictly academic approach, involving huge amounts of research into Eng Lit. It sounded very practical – everything would be based on our own writing and on critiquing each other’s work, with guidance from a small team of lecturers. There was a compulsory core programme which comprised weekly lectures given by relevant members of the university staff, and by visiting published writers. The other evening of each week would be set aside for the chosen subject area, one for the first year, the other for the second. I chose to start with fiction and then move on to poetry.
Just as I had sensed the need for a poetry writing group that would offer me challenge as well as support, I had already realised that, for my fiction in particular, I needed to be mixing with other writers who had the same needs, and taught by those who had already enjoyed some level of public recognition for their work.
To start with, though, what I felt I needed was support. In bucket-loads.
I had become (gradually) a confident , outgoing, outspoken person in my workplace. I enjoyed my job, which brought me into daily contact with all sorts of people. In fact, one of the unforeseen benefits of enrolling on the MA course, was that it would force me to cut back on the ‘gift time’ I was donating to my job, often working four evenings a week, instead of the expected two, simply because I found it so stimulating working with the students, constantly trying out new ways of helping them to use the wealth of the English language to express their own ideas more effectively.
I knew who I was in that environment – but here, back at university after all those years, conscious of being one of the few, much older ‘mature students’, unsure of the quality of my own expressive skills and creativity, I was suddenly as vulnerable as my teenage self had been.
(This post might make more sense if you read the ones below, first)
It’s ages now since I’ve managed to get to one of the monthly workshops at Cannon Poets – this Sunday is one when I’d be free to go, but it doesn’t happen to be the first one in the month. I’ll be visiting my mother in Sussex on the weekend of the June meeting – and so another month will slip by. I’m only an associate member now, but I still feel attached to the group, and very grateful for all the opportunities that it gave me.(Yes, I will make it to a meeting at least once this year!)
Not the least of the benefits of this group, is their practice of reading aloud round the huge, angular table in a room at the top of the Midlands Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park. (Now temporarily meeting at a different venue, during the renovation the MAC) There were often more than twenty of us there, and at first I found the readings very daunting – we started the meeting with poems of our choice, by established poets, alive or dead, and finished by reading one that we’d just been working on. To encourage us to develop our delivery of these poems, everyone had the chance of putting their name forward to fill the monthly twenty-minutes member’s slot.
By the time my turn came round, about a year after joining, my voice had grown accustomed to this large audience and was managing to remain not only steady, but also, reasonably expressive.
It was after this reading that I was approached by an experienced poet, Don Barnard, who later became Poet Laureate of Birmingham, and asked if I’d like to be the fourth member of a group that he was putting together with one other woman and another man, both of whom lived further south, and were keen to take part in this venture.
And so my role as a member of the performing poetry group, Late Shift, began.