Sunday, 19 December 2010

All things post-Nano

I've been rather quiet for a while. The last stages of NaNoWriMo kept me busy, but, as you know, that finished nearly three weeks ago. So, what's the news? I hear you ask.

Well, I finished the 50,000 words required by NaNoWriMo on 28th November - 2 days before the deadline - but I have yet to actually finish the book. Without the external deadline pushing me on (plus the embarrassment of failure after all my going-on about it) it just hasn't been a priority. Plus, I already know in my head how it all ends, so the impetus to find out by writing has also dropped away. Add to that the burden of teaching and marking and it just hasn't been done. Which is not to say that nothing has been done with it. Thanks to pressure applied by my partner, Kath, I have completed all but the final chapter and the epilogue, and over the Christmas break I hope to write those too.

So what next for the Nano-book? Well, once it's finished I plan to do a quick clean-up on it, and then I'm going to send it off to anyone who wants to read it and give me feedback. If you think you might like a look, drop me a line and I'll add you to the list.

In other news, I've had more stories accepted - two in Flash and one in the delinquent - and have been doing some other writing of flash fictions.

I've also been doing some readings for the Bugged anthology, and one for the Bad Language anthology, all of which have been very rewarding. I even managed to end up on Radio Lancashire/Radio Manchester's Late Show last week, being interviewed about Bugged and writing in general for about 40 mins.

So, all in all, it's an exciting time in my writing life. When I get round to it I shall blog about all the things I learned from doing Nano - of which there are many - and about my plans for 2011. But that's for another day. Today, I shall just use the approaching end of the year to bask in the successes, and send out many thanks to all of you who have helped and supported me.

So, Kath, Elaine, Jo, Ness, Mike, Ian, Daniel, Angi, Liz, Carrie, Mignon and Becky, this blog's for you.

Monday, 22 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Day Twenty Two (Sorry, been too busy writing to blog)

Important pre-writing activities undertaken (non-procrastinatory):
- Oh, you know, life.

Procrastination undertaken:
- Other types of life.

Writing music used:
- Various including They Might be Giants and Little Feat.

Important Writing Creative Decisions taken:
- Bringing in new character focii, despite the novel starting to head towards its end.

Important Realisation:
- That just pushing through and not caring how little you actually want to write can still be productive. Okay, so those days might need more rewriting than others, but at least the story is moving. And some of the words might just be okay.

Daily goal: 1,667.
Today's actual amount (according to Nano): 1,748.

Today's cumulative word goal: 36,667.
Today's actual total (according to NaNo): 42,552.

Chocolate treat to be eaten:
- Guinness. No, not chocolate, but tasty and treaty nonetheless.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Day Thirteen

Important pre-writing activities undertaken (non-procrastinatory):
- Visiting my mum.

Procrastination undertaken:
- Watching tv, doing the washing-up, eating. You know, life.

Writing music used:
The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show on 6 Music.

Important Writing Creative Decisions taken:
- Allowing one of the character's story-lines to lie dormant for a few chapters while I followed the other one.
- To go back and delete a flash-forward I had written as it just wasn't going to work, and I was trying to skew the story in its direction, rather than letting it flow.

Important Realisation:
- That the concept of an 'Ivory Tower' for writing - a particular space, using a particular chair, and an uninterruptable block of time - which I had thought was necessary, isn't. In the last week I have taken my netbook (a new computer, not my usual 'writing' one) to a number of locations, and written equally easily in each of them. I have also written in tiny blocks, sometimes as small as 10 or 15 words between interruptions, and have still found that the story flowed.
- That a structure for writing is a wonderful thing. I have been more productive in the last 13 days than in the last 2 years.
- That my remaining wordcount for NaNoWriMo success - 21,667 - is the same as the amount I should have written by today. That feels significant but probably isn't.

Daily goal: 1,667.
Today's actual amount (according to Nano): 2,554.

Today's cumulative word goal: 21,667.
Today's actual total (according to NaNo): 28,333.

Chocolate treat to be eaten:
- Oreos.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Day Nine (apologies for the break in transmission...)

Important pre-writing activities undertaken (non-procrastinary):
- Eating tea and thinking about that the heck I was going to write tonight.

Procrastination undertaken:
- None. Ate tea and then sat right down.

Writing music used:

Important Writing Creative Decisions taken:
- Decided, once the opening section was over, to expand the focussed third-person narration to include new characters. Some of these may not survive.
- To just relax and have fun.
- Whenever I get bored I am allowed to blow something else up (in the book, that is...)

Important Realisation:
- That somewhere along the line, around the same time as I started teaching and studying for my PhD, that I became somewhat ashamed of writing sci-fi, action, fantasy etc. For some reason I have always allowed myself a little crime or magic realism, but this is the first really 'imaginative' fiction I have written in a while. It's incredibly character-based, but it still has aliens and zombies in it. It's nice to be back.

Daily goal: 1,667.
Today's actual amount: 1,676.

Today's cumulative word goal: 15,003.
Today's actual total: 20,254.

Chocolate treat to be eaten:
- Maltesers.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Day Four

Important pre-writing activities undertaken (non-procrastinary):
- Just getting out of bed was an effort.

Procrastination undertaken:
- Loads. Facebook, reading, watching tv, marking essays. All kinds of non-writing things.

Writing music used:
- The Number of the Beast - Iron Maiden.

Important Writing Creative Decisions taken:
- To bring other characters into the book, and start to create tension between my two leads so I can resolve it later.

Important Realisation:
- I have now written over 10,000 words and yet not even 30 mins have passed. This book might be longer than I anticipate.
- That the beginning is over, and it's time to get stuck in.

Daily goal: 1,667.
Today's actual amount: 2,513.

Today's cumulative word goal: 6,668.
Today's actual total: 10,096.

Chocolate treat to be eaten:
- Ice Cream Mars Bar.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Day Three

Important pre-writing activities undertaken (non-procrastinary):
- Student assignment marking, so that writing feels like a reward.

Procrastination undertaken:
- Looking out of the window and taking the 'Which rock musician do you most resemble?' quiz on Facebook.

Writing music used:
- None.

Important Writing Creative Decisions taken:
- Allowing myself to write chapters of different lengths. My last novel had uniform chapters of about 2000 words. In this one, because of shifting perspective, I have decided it's okay to allow short chapters of only 400 words, or longer ones of 3000 or more, if necessary.
- I'm still not happy with the male character name (thanks, Kath, for helping me clarify this thought) but I don't know what else to use. Global search and replace will sort this later.

Important Realisation:
- Writing a third person narrative with multiple characters is much different to my last novel - first person autobiographical style - not least because I get to include dialogue. I realise how much I missed that and how much I like writing dialogue.

Daily goal: 1,667.
Today's actual amount: 3,456.

Today's cumulative word goal: 5,001.
Today's actual total: 7,582

Chocolate treat to be eaten:
- Another Tesco's Cookie.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Day Two

Important pre-writing activities undertaken (non-procrastinary):
- Getting out of bed.
- Not emptying the bin.

Procrastination undertaken:
- Answering student emails and playing around on Facebook.

Writing music used:
- Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd

Important Writing Creative Decisions taken:
- Realised that the name I had chosen for my main male character, an irresponsible love-rat and photocopier salesman was the name of the main bad guy in the Christopher Brookmyre book I've just finished reading, so changed it from 'Simon' to 'Tony'.
- Decided to start describing the book as The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells not Tom Cruise) meets Much Ado About Nothing.
- Chose some very useful 80s rock hits as symbolic references.

Today's cumulative word goal: 3,334.
Today's actual total: 4,131.

Chocolate treat to be eaten:
- Tesco's Cookie.

Monday, 1 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Day One

Here are the statistics:

Day One

Important pre-writing activities undertaken (non-procrastinary):
- Clipped fingernails to aid typing.
- Bought tasty chocolately reward to be allowed when word count reached.

Procrastination undertaken:
- None. (But it is only day one.)

Writing music used:
- Glass Houses - Billy Joel
- Graceland - Paul Simon

Important Writing Creative Decisions taken:
- To name rather than number chapters. Although there will be a large amount of mayhem and 'fantasy' death (whatever that is) in the book, I also want it to be light and, at times, amusing. So I have decided to use song lyrics as chapter titles. Chapter one is taken from Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody and is entitled 'Thunderbolt and Lightning'.
- To not name my main female character 'Carol' but instead 'Nicola'. I want to make her feisty (what else?) and thought that a later argument over someone calling her 'Nicky' could be useful. Carol has no useful abbreviations. I also decided to call her daughter 'Alyssa' as 'Sasha' just wasn't doing it for me.

Today's cumulative word goal: 1,667.
Today's actual total: 1,917.

Time spent writing: 1 hr 7 mins.

Chocolate treat to be eaten:
- Minstrels.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The deep breath, the holding of the nose, and the run up...

Pinch and punch, first of the month!

Okay, so I'm early. But tomorrow is the first day of November. For some it is the sign of Bonfire parties hoving into view, for others it is the last month to wait through before the one which contains Christmas. For me, it is the start of NaNoWriMo, the event which asks its participants to attempt to write a whole novel in a single month.

The novel need only be 50,000 - the same length as classics such as 1984 and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - and so all that is required is 1667 words a day. Every day. For a month.


It's quite a tall order, but as I look at it from the day before, it seems doable. What makes it even easier is that I already know what I'm writing and have had a number of long car journeys to mull over character biographies and the like.

In a previous post, I offered a selection of ideas that I might be trying. I asked for your votes. From the lack of response, I could tell that, far from being apathetic, you were quietly willing me to pick idea number 2, but were too polite to foist your wishes on me. But, who am I to ignore your silent demands. Number 2 it is.

(I'm not going to go back over the idea, check back and see what it was, then come back. I'll wait...
Okay? Up to speed? Good. I'll carry on.)

I'm glad you all picked this one. It is going to be a sea-change from my last idea, as this one is all action and adventure without the stress and suicides. The first idea, which looked like the front-runner for a while till you all wordlessly spoke, is much in the same vein. And because of this it looks like I might just be allowed to have fun! If I'm going to spend the dark November nights locking horns with this beast of a project, I think a little fun should be allowed, don't you?

I shall endeavour to blog about the experience as I go through it, though I might occasionally have to sacrifice the analysis for the actual writing. But stay tuned, and feel free to chivvy me if you think I'm falling behind. Even if you do it silently, I'll know.

And if you don't, and I fail to complete the project, it'll all be your fault, won't it?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Structural Analysis for Cylons

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a boy, later a man, who could watch TV and read books simply to enjoy the story. Part of him is still inside me and he likes a good tale, whether it's told by Charles Dickens, Terry Pratchett or Joss Wheedon. But, as a writer, and as an academic who, let's face it, spends a lot of his time deconstructing texts, there is now always a part of me casting a critical eye over whatever I read or watch, whether it is Northanger Abbey, The Wasp Factory or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

My current favourite waste of time is the third season of the new version of Battlestar Galactica. Much has been written about how this series is a critique of the events of 9/11 and the war in Iran and Afghanistan, and all of that has passed through my mind as I've watched it. But, above and beyond all that, it is a well-told story which works. The realisation of that is the point at which my inner critic starts to pick that story apart to try and find out why it works.

Some of the things it does - and I'm talking about the third season here - are particular to serial drama. At the end of the second series everything has changed and all the things we think we know are overturned. As a result, the season starts by showing us the intractable problems of all this change and then slowly, piece by piece, it returns us to the status quo. This is typical of this kind of drama. Normality - even if this is the whole of humanity on the run in a small number of spaceships from an overwhelming and evil force of Cylons - needs to be maintained for the story to continue. Back in the 80s, the story-writing guidelines for Star Trek: The Next Generation were publicly available and they made this clear. No-one could be killed, ships could not be destroyed, things that were known to be could not be otherwise unless, that is, they were returned somehow at the end of the story. There must be continuity.

But, within this larger arc of continuation, there are the ups and downs which make this highly acclaimed series so engaging and addictive and each episode features the things we would expect from any great show, box-office success, or award-winning novel.

First, there is conflict. Any writing teacher will tell you that drama and plot emerge from conflict. Those who are together will split. Those who are apart will find a way back together. Friends will become enemies, traitors will be revealed as trusted allies, the weak will find a way to be strong.

In the course of any single episode there will be a set-up in which questions are posed. Some of these are based in the past; in previous conflicts. Some propose possibilities for the future. As the story carries on, these questions will be unpicked as the missing details are revealed. At about the 2/3 point there will be a major conflict which seems, in some way, to be the premature end of the story, but instead merely leads to the confrontation which forms the real end of the story. These are often, but not always, the result of two seperate sub-plots which in some way mirror each other - either directly or in opposition.

And so, as the episode closes, the story has moved on to a new place, with new questions to be unravelled in a future episode and old questions settled. The status quo is maintained, all the main characters are alive, the things that are needed to move the whole story forward are still there, but allegiances have shifted and the plot, as a whole, has moved on.

I'm not saying that we should all write books, or dramas, based on spaceships fleeing the destruction of the human race, and in search of the mythical 'Earth'. I'm also not saying that this structure is one which underpins all good drama or literature, and nor should it be. But I am saying that there is something in these TV series which can be analysed and understood on the basic levels of good-story-telling and may give us insights into the dynamics that in the end make a story engaging for the viewer or reader.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Novels, Novels, everywhere...

The combination of low summer sun, recasting the smears on my windscreen as opaque tigerstripes, and Radio 4's Book Programme whispering in my ears seems to be my recipe for inspiration. So, another long journey yesterday: another novel idea.

My mind is working on novels at the moment as National Novel Writing Month approaches. NaNoWriMo, as it's known, asks you to write a brand new 50,000 word novel, from scratch, in the 30 days of November. Only one week of actually planning is allowed, but that doesn't preclude thinking about it and casting about for ideas.

The idea behind this was originally to get non-writers to take part and see what they could do, so why am I, I hear you ask, taking part in this? Well, as you might already have worked out, I need a deadline. And, being a budding novellist, the only deadline you have is a self-imposed one. We all know how stretchy they can be. So, by taking the challenge of NaNoWriMo - and by telling everyone that I'm taking the challenge! - I hope to force myself into producing at least a workable first draft of a new work before the 1st December.

So, as the month approaches, and I start to think about what I'm taking on, my mind, as I say, has been throwing novel ideas out at an alarming rate. I now have three completely different ideas to chose from and I find myself in a quandary. So, I shall turn myself over to you, and let you make the decision.

What follows are short indications of the three ideas I've had. Let me know, by commenting, by email, by text, by call, by pigeon, or by letter held in a cleft stick by a small boy, which one you want me to write, and I will:

1. A novel about the lives of a depressed man and a troubled teenage girl.

2. An action-type story in which the protagonist is caught in the backwash of a much larger story.

3. The walls of reality and imagination break down and only a man with no imagination can help.

So... that's it. Let me know what you think, and then keep watching as I slowly disintegrate over the month .

For more on NaNoWriMo go to

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain

I'm poorly.

One week back to teaching and the mingled bugs of a thousand students have wormed their ways past my defences to give me a good old-fashioned cold. The red eyes, the streaming nose, the tissues and cough-sweet wrappers scattering from my pockets. It's not pretty.

But elsewhere, something has happened. On their way to attack mucous membranes and alveoli, the bugs seem to have unlocked doors in my head.

Two night ago, tired of sneezing and coughing, I turned the light out and lay down, in search of an early night. But instead of passing into a lemsip-induced coma as I wished, I found myself plotting parts of a new novel. This is the book that I intend to write for NaNoWriMo in November (more on this at a later date) and already I found small ideas and scenes coming together in my head. Unlike other late-night mental writings, I found these were still present in my mind the following morning, and I'm starting to look forward even more to my novelling month so I can get them down on paper.

And then, last night, with the cold at it's peak, and feeling as rough as I can remember in a while, once again my mind delved into my 'pending' file and started work on an idea that I've been toying with for a few years.

A couple of years ago, my friend Mike and I started to write a collaborative project set around the idea of multiple characters in a hotel. The result would be published on the web as a hypertext which allowed for navigation between characters and also a progression through time. It was a nice idea, and we wrote a few room's-worth of stories before it ground to a halt. Partly this was due to other things getting in the way, partly it was due to my not being able to work out how to structure the thing to make it work. Well, last night I found my brain pondering the problem again, and this morning I was able to sit down and write out the structure of the hotel and a series of rules for how it would work.

My next plan is to set the thing up and then invite other writers to come and take rooms in the hotel, to create a vast, online, collaborative story, using the power of hypertext to create a web of narrative. Not bad for a fever dream, eh?

So, today I'm feeling a little better, and part of me is slightly disappointed. Tonight I may well have a good night's sleep. What a loss that will be.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Grinding my nose

And so the academic year has started up again. I'm teaching 6 different classes - more than many full-time lecturers - but, hey, it pays the bills. For the practise of writing the start of the new year has two effects.

The first is the one you would expect. I am now busy with all kinds of teaching related activities. Preparing seminars and lectures, planning ahead for the term, reading the texts I shall be teaching, reminding myself of the theories I need to cover and, oh yes, teaching the classes themselves. As a result, the time I have to dedicate to writing has been vastly truncated. Where, in the summer, I had the luxury of time, now, if I want to write, I have to squeeze it in around my work. You would think the result would be less writing.

But that is where the other effect comes in to play. Over the summer, the vast endless tracts of time sucked up motivation and urgency. There seemed to be so much time that nothing had to be done right away. I did get a lot done, but not as much as I wanted, and probably not as much as I could. Now, with time short, the urgency is back and so the motivation is there to work on writing when I get the chance.

The other effect of teaching starting is like having my brain jump-started. A summer of reading and occasional writing and, let's face it, growing lethargy, didn't help at all. But now that I have to get up, have to get my classes ready, and have to go out and teach, my energy levels are up, my brain is firing again, and my motivation is returning.

I have had to devote the last couple of weeks to preparation for the new term. New courses meant new books to read and new concepts to get my head around. But now that it has all started, I can see how to fit in all the things I want to do with all the things I have to do.

So, more stories have already been finished off and submitted, and my head is once more bowing over my novel. Penguin are accepting unsolicited manuscripts up to the end of October, and I plan to get my book to them within that time. And November is time for Nanowrimo's 'write a novel in a month', and I'm already planning for that.

So, despite the new teaching load, I will carry on with the writing, and let the stimulation of teaching feed into it. And you'll be hearing lots more from me about all of this and more. So, all together... 'Hi ho, hi ho...'

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Words, Words, Words.

You will hopefully be pleased to know that at the weekend I learned that another of my stories, "2o Words" has been accepted for the Bad Language anthology, to be published later in the autumn. Beyond the obvious pleasure at having a story accepted, I am pleased that this story in particular has been picked up as it is one of my personal favourites.

It has this position for two reasons. First, it was the story which broke my creative logjam and led to a productive summer of writing. From Jan to Nov 2009 I wrote nothing creative at all. After that, although I started writing again, the pieces I created came from prompts rather than internal inspiration. Ideas were not swimming around in my head, but the desire to write was still there, so I would sit down and jump-start my brain with a trigger-word, phrase or image. I've written about this process earlier when talking about Flash fiction, so check back if you want to know more about that.

Anyway, "20 words" simply came to me one day in late spring, when I wasn't thinking of anything much. I was in the shower, actually, and suddenly the opening line was in my head. I then got the chance to do the thing which had eluded me so long, that thing which makes writing so exciting, which was to hurry up what I was doing so I could get to the computer (still dripping!) and start to write because the story was coming, like a premature baby, forcing its way out ready or not.

The other reason I like the story is that it aims to the core of what I feel writing is about. It shows rather than tells, it asks the reader to make their own decisions and to provide their own input, and it concerns the importance of words in our lives. The story tells, in only around 300 words, the story of a life through the important words uttered by a man over the course of that life. What is key for me is that these are not large, long, important words, but the simple building blocks of everyday transaction and communication which, in context, can change everything.

As such, this story, the first product of my recharged battery, shows how important words and language are in describing and changing our lives. As you can tell, I like it

If you're intrigued and want to read the story, the Bad Language anthology will be out later in the year. I will put a note up here when it's out, or you can keep a track at their website:

Monday, 6 September 2010

Beautiful Baby Competition

Please tell me it's pretty, please don't tell me it's ugly. Look, the ears are symetrical and the eyes are such a pale blue. The hair is so fine and blonde and the skin so soft and pink. The sentences are balanced, the words well chosen and the plot finely honed. Please tell me you like it.

For years I have been telling my students that sending out short stories for publication is like showing your baby to the world and asking for kindness. Your writing is so personal, and so close to your heart, that sending them out is like leaving your baby at the creche for the first day and hoping the other children will play with them.

Okay, maybe I'm going a little over the top, but it is nerve wracking!

In the last couple of weeks I have had a story I am particularly fond of rejected. Entitled 'Palimpsest' it was written as a flash fiction, but then honed to make sure all the layers could be read, one through the other. I sent it out in Februrary and it has only just come back, so - with so long to dwell on it - I had innured myself to the possibility of disappontment. It still stings, as all rejections do.

However, at almost the same time the lovely people at Bugged - the eavesdropping project I have waffled on about in previous posts - have accepted a different story, also written as flash fiction and entitled 'The Four' for publication in their anothology which comes out in mid-October. And that eases the sting and warms the heart. They liked my child enough to put his photo in the gallery!

Surrounding these two events I have been researching and reading and editing and rewriting and sending out stories to a variety of places. Over a dozen have gone out in the last week. I know most of them will come back to me to be sent out once again for adoption. But some of them - I hope! - will find good homes where they can grow and prosper. I will, of course, keep you posted.

In amongst all this story work, I have also been working on my novel. I have re-read it, and given it to my girlfriend to read and comment on too (Thanks, Kath!). If you think it's bad having someone read a story, ask them to read a novel. This is far more personal than asking for compliments for your baby. This is asking for your soul to be evaluated. Thankfully, it seems to pass muster (the book, that is, I can't comment on my soul), and now I am onto the work of rewriting and reworking into the second draft. After that, and maybe some more tinkering, it will be time to send that out into the world too. You'll know when that happens as I will be online every five minutes, sharing my worries.

Sometimes I ask why I put myself through this torment, but it's the age old thing. If I write a story and show it to no-one then it might as well not have been written. Only when a story is shared and read does it really exist. And so, it's not so much sending the child out into the world, having a manuscript accepted is the very act of birth itself, giving life to something new.

So, I shall go back to my gestation and let you know as and when the brood increases. I shall push and I shall do my best to remember my breathing. If you'll just hold my hand, mop my brow, and ignore the screams, I think we can get through this.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Stardom at last!

I haven't blogged for a little while - I've actually been getting on with some writing and rewriting - but was going to sit down yesterday and talk about the recent spate of submissions I have been sending. That post is still to come, but the day kinda got away from me. At midday I got a phone-call asking me if I would do a radio interview later in the afternoon.

The call came from my head of department at Edge Hill. They had been approached by Radio Lancashire who, prompted by the publication of Tony Blair's memoirs, wanted to talk to someone about Life Writing. Well, as that's the creative writing subject I teach for EH, they came to me. The idea was to give the listeners some ideas on the role of life writing - biographies and memoirs in particular - and also what they should think about if they were going to write their own.

I have never given a radio interview before and so was pretty nervous. It didn't help that it was going to be live rather than a pre-recorded interview, but I figured it was exactly the stuff that I know about, so I was happy to do it. The process was interesting.

First I spoke to the presenter of the programme, to introduce myself and he then proceeded to ask me what would be good questions for him to ask. We agreed them between us and I gave him some quick sketchy answers and that was that, I just had to wait for the radio station to ring me at about 5.15 to give the interview.

Butterflies took up residence in my stomach as the time approached, but the time was usefully spent refining what I was going to say. The flutters multiplied when the phone went and they asked me to wait another 20 mins. Finally, they called and I was patched through to the studio. I listened to about 5 minutes of the programme and then, with a rather over-the-top introduction, I was live.

It went pretty well. There were a few ums and ahs, and I changed tack at one point. I also managed to be really snobby at the end, but in the main I feel I got the information across in a concise and interesting way, answered all the questions as asked, and didn't sound too much of a prat. The interview finished, he thanked me, the line went dead, and that was that.

Thanks to the wonders of the web I was soon able to 'Listen Again' to the interview. I scrolled the slider through the programme to about the point where I thought I would be. A voice was talking and I presumed it was the item after me, but then I recognised some of the words and realised I was listening to myself. I didn't recognise my voice at all! Still, I listened back and was quite pleased with it. I sounded rather posh - a combination teaching/phone voice - and there was a trace of my father's tone in there, especially when he used to give interviews on radio or TV, but I sounded confident and like someone who knows what they're talking about. So that's not so bad, eh?

And that was that: my brush with fame. It was only 3 minutes, so if Andy Warhol's right then I still have another 12 minutes to have some other time. If it's like yesterday, I think I might just be looking forward to it.

The interview is available to listen to at until 7th Sept. I'm on at about the 1 hour 37 mark. Let me know what you think, either of my performance or what I had to say. All feedback welcome.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Adventures in Rewiring

Take the thick wire and follow it through walls, under floorboards, round the various sockets and light-fittings. Then, once you know its length and path, yank it out and replace it with a thicker, dual-core wire which will work better and not send the house up in smoke. Done that? Good. Now do it with the other 96 wires, make sure none of them take a wrong turn or will short-circuit the others, and you're done.

No, I've not changed jobs and ditched writing altogether in favour of a life as an electrician, but it seemed like an apt analogy for the job I am currently undertaking. After a hiatus of 18 months, I am returning to my novel, Endless Days, with its twisty-turny fragmented storyline (and a disintegrating narrative voice, don't forget that - like pulling the wires through crumbly dry-rot), and attempting to rewrite, edit and generally sort the damn thing out.

I started the book way back in the beginning of 2007. I ground to halt around May of that year, with just 11,000 words done. Following some personal interruptions, I picked it up again in early 2008 and finally finished the 100,000 words in January 2009. Since then more personal interruptions have stopped me returning to it - or wanting to - but now I've been drawn back to it.

I did wonder, last year, if I would ever return to it. Maybe it was dead and maybe it was better to leave it like that. But a couple of months ago, on a long car journey, I suddenly discovered that I was thinking about it and wondering if that section from chapter 30 might not make a better opening. And should my epilogue be my prologue? And should I change the narrative voice? If so, how? And on, and on... And so I find myself with the block of paper in my hand, setting out to trace all the conduits and see if I can't get the lights on again.

Rewriting is always a strange thing, but doing it with something which has lain fallow for so long is very strange, as it seems familiar but it no longer feels like your words. In some ways that is good, as you can be more objective and so hack and trim without a care. In other ways it's strange, as you discover things you had forgotten and start to feel a little abstracted from it, like you are floating above the work and looking down at it with detached interest but none of the emotional connection which made you write it in the first place.

All that notwithstanding, I am currently in the reading phase, and despite the problems with those first 11,000 words, which seem to belong to a different book, I am enjoying it. The distance means I can read it like any old book and enjoy it for what it was. At the moment, I am not trying to work out how to solve the problems, I am letting the little guy who lives in the back of my brain work on those, as he does on so much else. Instead I am just taking it in, soaking in it, letting it diffuse through my pores and fill me up again. Then it will be out with the pliers, the wire-trimmers and we'll start restringing those cables.

I will update on the process as I go along, and let you know every time I electrocute myself or black out the whole block. Hopefully, by the end, the house will still be standing and the lights will be blazing. Here's hoping.

PS. Ever noticed how easy it is to write the word 'rewiring' when you mean 'rewriting'...?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Waste Land

Last week I gave myself a 'writing day'. I didn't answer emails, I didn't do any of the little writing or editing jobs that I often tinker around with. It was a day to do nothing more than write new work. On that day I managed to write 5 completely new and individual short stories. Today, I gave myself another writing day. And the result?


Despite having a list of prompts, I have not been able to find my way into writing a single new story. My motivation has disappeared into the garden to catch some rays, and my inspiration has gone with it to keep it company.

I'm not worried, though. Any writer will tell you that sometimes this just happens. It's all very well putting aside the time to work on your magnum (or minimum) opus. And sometimes the brain will rise to the challenge. But sitting down, with no plan of what you intend to write, and hoping for the Muse to pay a visit, is a very hit and miss affair. You sit and look at the blank page and wait for your brain to bleed and nothing happens. Some emails get answered instead, maybe; a phone call or two are made; you finally pay those bills, and some vitally important games of Solitaire are played, but nothing gets written.

However, this is the time when the bane of a writer's life can be his salvation. You've set the day aside for creative work, but no creation is happening. Time to get to grips with the editing. Even more than the writing, it is the greatest cause of displacement activity, but when you enter a creative wilderness, it can give you focus and direction.

So, today, instead of creating new works, I am rewriting, redrafting, and editing old ones. I'm getting to grips with stories which just need a polish and some which were never really finished but put aside for another day. Today is that day. And the wonderful thing about this, is reconnecting with your old work, seeing where you have been before and you can already feel your brain brewing new potions to spring forth the next time you try to prime the pump.

So, today isn't a wash out, and maybe, just maybe, if I try for another writing day later in the week, the words will flow like wine. (But hopefully without the cliches.)

Friday, 16 July 2010

A little something...

(This was one of the stories written last week for the Bugged project. Thought you might like to see it. Any comments more than welcome.)

By Calum Kerr

"Oh, God, I'm so nervous."

Lizzie could tell her friend wasn't making it up. Janet was literally shaking. The coffee cup was rattling against it's saucer as she tried to put it back down, some of the foam and coffee slopping over the edge. She reached out and took the cup from her, putting it back down, and then took hold of her friend's hands, trying to still them. They felt cool and a little sweaty.

"Look, it'll be okay. It's only a job interview. It's not life and death." She rubbed at Janet's hands trying to warm them and remove some of the moisture. She had always thought that the phrase 'cold sweat' was simply a cliché, but now she had found it's origin in fact. "You'll go in, you'll wow them, and you'll get the job. No worries."

Janet gave a nervous laugh, a strand of her dark hair coming loose from the band that exposed her face so severely. Lizzie wanted to tell her to take it off, to let herself go a little, to stop being so controlled and confined. In the days since she got the letter inviting her for interview, Lizzie had watched Janet become more and more tightly wound, letting her nerves take her over until there was nothing recognisable left of her confident, easy-going friend.

"I just want this job so badly. It's such a wonderful chance. Good pay, good prospects, the chance to meet all kinds of people and to travel. It's just so important and I know I'm going to mess it up." Janet's voice was not only shaking in time with her hands, there was an edge of hysteria to it that would guarantee that her fears would come true.

"No, you're not," Lizzie tried to comfort, attempting to put a confidence into her own words that she was no longer feeling. It was hard to have to bolster someone who was so clearly falling apart. She glanced up at the clock and was surprised to see how much time had passed. They'd barely touched their drinks, but it was time to go.

Lizzie had planned to say goodbye and good luck to Janet here, but was worried that without her guidance, Janet wouldn't even make it to the building across the street where the interviews were being held. Where was the girl she had always known?

"Come on," she said, "It's time."

"Oh God!" Janet's voice was almost a wail, but she stood up and brushed herself down. Lizzie, although starting to be a little frustrated with her friend's pessimism, was proud of Janet as she watched her try to pull herself together. Janet's hands even started to shake a little less as she smoothed her skirt.

The girls stood, donning jackets and bags, and with a hand on her back to guide her, Lizzie helped her friend through the tables of the coffee shop to the door.

It was bright and sunny outside, the heat of the day a shock after dark, cool of the café. The pavement was busy with all the people who had no idea of the turmoil that was emerging into their midst. Lizzie led her friend by the hand, afraid that if she let go the girl would either collapse or simply turn and run. The traffic slowed in front of them as the lights at the top of the road turned red, and they moved out amongst the stationary cars.

Halfway across, Janet's hand came free, and Lizzie looked back over her shoulder to check on her friend. Janet was reaching up to her hair. Lizzie thought maybe she was going to tuck the errant strand of hair back under the band, but instead she grasped the band and pulled it free. She shook her head and her hair loosened out, spreading down onto her shoulders, curling round the edges of her face and softening its shape.

They carried on across the road, Lizzie only half aware of the cars they were stepping between as she watched her friend undergo a transformation. With each step she seemed steadier and her face warmed as the blood finally started to return to skin which had been on the green edge of pale for days. Janet straightened, her shoulders pushing back to fill the hollows in her jacket, and her stride lengthened so that the two girls reached the far pavement at the same time, neither leading, neither being led.

Lizzie all but gaped as her friend moved towards the doors of the imposing building and turned. She looked older, more mature, and more attractive than Lizzie could ever remember. All of a sudden Lizzie felt like a child in the presence of an important adult.

Janet took a deep breath and smiled. "Right," she said, with no trace of tremor in a voice which seemed to have deepened and softened, "let's do this." She gave Lizzie a kiss on the cheek, turned, and with a strong straight arm, pushed in through the doors into the lobby beyond.

Lizzie stood for a moment, unsure what had happened, then set off to find a shop to sell her a 'Congratulations on your New Job' card.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Under Pressure

I decided that today would be a writing day. Having taken part in the Bugged project, as mentioned in previous blogs, I had a raft of story prompts to use, and I decided to set aside one day to use as many as I could. I sat down this morning with ten of them and the intention to write as many stories as I could in the day.

Five stories later, I'm done. And I'm happy.

All of them were prompted by the overheard lines I wrote down on 1st July, and I have plans to send at least two of them in for the Bugged project to see what they think. Others will hopefully find publication elsewhere, once they've been redrafted and tidied up. I tried to make them as different from one another as possible: to change perspective, topic, character-types and language from story to story. Where would be the fun in repeating myself?

Did I notice any themes emerging? Well, there seems to be quite a lot of violence, but I'm not worried about that. It was just the way that the stories tended, I don't think it says anything too serious about me. (I hope.) But, more than that, there was a questioning of perception. All the stories seem to deal with how we see others, ourselves, and the world, and the preconceptions we bring to bear on them.

My plan now is to rewrite the pieces and then start sending them off. And, if you're very good, I might post one or two of them here, just to see what you think.

All in all I'm pleased with my day's work. I don't remember a day like this where I set myself such a task and then was able to follow it through. I wrote nearly 4600 words across the stories, which, while not my record for a single day's writing, comes a close second. And my previous best (just shy of 7000 words) was on a novel, so was quite different. It's something which I feel I should do again, putting myself under a specific pressure to be productive and varied. It felt really good. Maybe you should try it too.

(Today's title is courtesy of Queen, of course.)

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Fear of a Blank Planet

Two blogs in one day. Anyone would think I'm avoiding something.

And maybe I am. Yesterday I got an idea for a new short story. I have a structure, I have a plot, I even have a small handful of characters, and yet I find myself delaying.

All writer's know the problem of the blank page, where to start, what to say, how to say it. It doesn't even matter if, as in my case, you know what you are going to write. The moment when you open a new screen, helpfully titled Document1, and set out to write the first words, is one of fear mixed with hope. The fear comes from having to create something new, something interesting, something which will speak to your readers. The hope comes from knowing that you have the whole of time and space - real and imagined - to play with, and an almost infinite combination of words to use in new and surprising ways to act as your method of exploration. And that's the second source of fear.

I blogged a while ago about the journey never being quite what you expected, and that being the joy of writing. But it's also the curse, because you have to forge the path yourself. And if your route goes off course, then you have no-one else to blame. At the moment before you type your first word - take your first step on the path - all is possible. But once you start to move, you don't know if you are heading anywhere near the right direction until you get to your destination.

And, of course, that is also an exciting thing. The lure of the unknown. This is a journey into territory that has never been taken before. The story you write will be a combination of words which has never existed before. You are weaving a fabric from threads of your own invention.

The only way to solve the fear, and to feed the excitement is to write, and the more you do it, the more the excitement overcomes the fear. But the fear never goes away, and if it did I think the writing might die.

So, anyway, diversionary-blog over, it's time for me to go and write. I have my machete, my compass, and a flask of water. I should be okay. See you on the other side.

PS. Blog title courtesy of Porcupine Tree by way of Public Enemy.

Life in a nutshell

If you follow my blog then you know I've recently been working on some study-guide essays. As part of the deal with the company I write for, I was also asked to write short biographies of two authors. Yesterday I finished the first of these, a biography of Daniel Handler, aka. Lemony Snicket.

The format of the biographies asks me to write a potted history of the author's life and short sections on each of their main works. Now, I have to admit that until I accepted the assignment I had never heard of Daniel Handler and had only a vague, 'oh yes, I've heard the name', acquaintance with Lemony Snicket. So, this was a ground-up research job.

Most research I do these days - whether for a story or a conference paper, or even for teaching materials - is a case of finding the information or the suitable quotation to back up what I already want to say. Even when writing a study guide, my first source is the text in question, and my analysis is usually based on my own reading with research backing it up. But when putting together the life of a writer, there is no primary source. There is no single place to go to for the information you want. So, it's one of those cases where everything comes from research.

As a result I have spent the last few days involved in the kind of research which I haven't really undertaken since I finished my PhD back in 2005. I have been reading, absorbing, sorting, sifting, condensing and writing. At times it has left my head spinning, but was also, in a strange way, quite fun. Assimilating all that knowledge at speed and then spitting it out again in condensed form (such as reducing all 13 Lemony Snicket books down to fewer than 500 words!) leaves you feeling gorged on information. Exhilarating, in it's way.

And the result? Well, I wrote something for which I will be paid, which is always nice. But I also found that, in conversation with my girlfriend about what I was working on, I was able to talk knowledgeably about Handler and about all his books, where just days before I barely knew who he was. After the event it feels a little like being Neo in The Matrix; as though I have downloaded a 'Daniel Handler module' into my head. And this, I guess, gets to the root of why I do what I do: all this writing, researching and teaching. I do it because after a BA, an MA and a PhD, I have learned is that there is still so much more to learn, and I want to know it all.

Now, the keen eyed amongst you will note that I have two biographies to write. With one down, who is the other one? Well, it's a man called William Woodruff. At this point I know that he was a historian who wrote two books with the place-name Nab's End in the titles. Ask me again after I've downloaded the module, and I'll tell you the rest.

PS. Thanks to Barenaked Ladies for today's blog title. No research required.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Flash... aha!

I have been Bugging today. Last week I blogged about a project called 'Bugged' where the idea is to head out into the world, listen in on fellow humans, and use the overheard words as source materials for writing. The day for listening is today, so that's what I've been doing.

At first it was frustrating, lunch in the pub had seemed like a good idea, but the pub was almost empty so sitting close enough to someone to hear what they were saying would have been far too obvious. A trip round Morrison's gave me a few choice titbits, but not very much. I am also planning a trip to the pub tonight, but after lunchtime I didn't want to leave it to chance, so I headed into the town centre to do some lurking.

I found myself, at times, alongside people who had stopped to have a proper chat, but these weren't always that fruitful. It's not easy to pick a particular phrase when you have the full conversation, and being given context and background makes those phrase less inspiring. The best ones were snippets overheard from people walking past, mid-conversation: "People come and talk to me.", "I'll ring that lot and tell them we'll just leave it.", "And then it goes all criss-cross which is why I like it."

However, amongst these more interesting eavesdroppings, I was slightly disappointed at how much was mundane: "Okay, I'll call you later." and, of course, "I need a wee." But then I realised that it was only mundane in the original context. In the hands of a writer, even these things could be given new life. It was at that point that I realised how wonderful an exercise this was for generating prompts for flash fiction.

For those who don't know, flash fiction is very short fiction (mostly fewer than 500 words), written with no planning, in a single sitting, usually with a time limit, and from a prompt of some kind. The idea is to start from the prompt and simply see where the story takes you. It is a great way of getting started in the morning and often takes you to places you didn't expect. Writers gather words, phrases and images to use as prompts, and it occurred to me, as I lurked in the town centre, that 'bugging' is a great way of generating them.

I have gathered about a dozen phrases today, and hope to get some more tonight, and I plan to use my favourite to write a story for the Bugged project. But I will keep all the others, and when the urge to write a flash comes over me, I shall refer back to them, heading out and replenishing the list whenever it runs low. It provides you with material which is inspiring, intriguing, and wonderfully random. And, best of all, coming from others, they start you in places outside of your usual thought processes, always useful for making your writing more interesting and varied.

If you haven't been out and Bugged today, there's still time. For more info on the project, go to or visit 'Bugged' on Facebook.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Tell me everything...

Writing study guides is a strange thing. When I teach essay writing skills to students we make the point of telling them to answer the question only. I make the point of telling them that it is not an exercise in 'telling everything you know'. However, when it comes to writing study guides, that's exactly what you have to do.

At the beginning of last year I wrote the York Notes Advanced guide on Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. There had been almost no critical writing on the book, and there was very little material to go. The result was that I did something that one very rarely gets to do in academia. I just wrote what I thought. I didn't rely on secondary sources. I didn't quote from what people had previously said. I had no giants on whose shoulders I could stand, I just looked at the book, decided on an interpretation, and went for it. It was remarkably liberating. Of course, I had all the close reading skills I had ever learned, all the theoretical standpoints I had brushed up against, and a whole body of comparative literary studies to work from, but you know what I mean. And in that case, it really was about 'telling everything I knew'.

Recently I have been finishing off two smaller guides. One on Stephen King's The Stand, and one on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The first has been a little like my work on the The Kite Runner. There isn't a lot out there, so I've been able to provide my own interpretations. Of course, with Shakespeare, pretty much everything has been said, so it's more a job of collation than of creation. But still, in both cases, as with The Kite Runner, compiling a study guide, a written account to try and help a student to a rounded understanding, is a really interesting thing to do.

Okay, so, anyone who knows me will know I complain about writing them. They are, after all, work, and who enjoys that? But to immerse yourself in a text to that extent, to try and explain all the aspects of a book or play, to try and find the 'everything' so you can tell it, is a chance that you don't often get. Even when you teach a text, you don't often have the chance - or the time - to explore all the various facets of a text. So, for all that I complain, I do enjoy doing them. I wouldn't keep coming back if I didn't.

Anyway, enough of all this. After I finish off these guides and submit them, I'm going to work on my own novel. A very different proposition, much more creative, but another chance to tell everything I know. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Hear, there and everywhere

"No, Will, that's naughty!"
"Oh, dear..."
"No! it's naughty!"
"Oh, dear..."
"William, that's naughty!"
"Oh, dear..."
"Come away from that, William!"
"Eat your doughnut, Willie..."

What was going on? What had William done that was so bad? How had he managed whatever it was when he should have been eating his doughnut?

I have no idea the answers to these questions, the fence was too high to see what was happening, and standing on something to peer over would probably have been at best nosey, at worst ridiculous and intrusive. But it was all good practise for next week. On Thursday next week I have already booked a pub-lunch with a friend, and I plan to head into other public spaces with my ears open and my notebook in my hand. Why? Am I some kind of Peeping Tom? One with a timetable and a work ethic?

Well, in a way, yes. But I have an excuse. Next Thursday, the first of July, an event has been created for writers to work together on a mass project. Jo Bell (poet) and David Calcutt (playwright and novelist) have asked for writers to go out, eavesdrop on the world, and then write a creative response - poem, story, script or flash fiction - to be submitted for an anthology of work. The whole thing comes under the title of 'Bugged' and many, many writers have already signed up for it.

Personally, I always enjoy working to a brief. I like being asked for a piece of work, given a deadline, and aiming to do the best I can to satisfy. So this is perfect for me. I have been writing a lot of Flash this year, so that might be my route, but I won't know until I get home from my day of officially-sanctioned voyeurism. I'll keep you posted.

Why not go to or visit 'Bugged' on Facebook and join the project?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

And the story rolls on...

After I finished my PhD in 2005 I didn't write any new stories for nearly a year. At that point it had been over six months since I had finished the creative part of the thesis, so it added up to a break of over eighteen months. When I came back to writing fiction it was with a new voice, a new approach and new stories, many of which surprised me.

The thing which surprised me most was how much of myself I was now putting into my stories. Whole chunks of my autobiography would find their way in, often without me noticing. It was at times, disturbing to discover how much of myself I had inadvertently used, but over time I got used to it and learned to control it.

For different reasons it has once again been about eighteen months since I have written a full story. In that time I have finished a novel and written a number of flash fictions, but these are different beasts from a full short story. They're more like keeping an engine ticking over than opening it up full-throttle and taking it for a burn.

And then, over the weekend at a conference, a discussion provoked an idea for a story and I found myself taking notes during sessions, waking up with my mind already word-processing, and even took a time-out to start writing it. This morning I finished writing it and now I'm stepping back to look at what I've done.

My original idea was heavily autobiographical, calling on a range of things that have happened to me in the last year or so. But, having written it, I am slightly surprised to see how much fiction is in there. Yes, there are elements of myself, as their must be in any work of fiction, I feel. But the reality of situations has been twisted further than has happened in a while, all to fit the themes of the story.

I guess any extended break is going to change you as a writer, but it's always interesting, and, to be honest, slightly discomfiting, when it happens. All of this is part of my progression as I writer, I feel. I started with fiction as pure as I could make it, but little emotional engagement. I then engaged with emotion, through autobiography, but perhaps at the expense of story. Maybe I have now found the balance between the two, serving the story but also the reality of emotion too. I can only hope that's the case.

Ahead of me lies the rewriting and editing before submission. And then we'll see if it's good enough by other standards than my own. For myself, I'm pleased with it, not least because it felt so good to be writing again that I know I can use it to motivate my writing over the oncoming summer.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Call of the Conference

I spent last weekend in Bangor at this year's Great Writing Conference. It is the 6th year I have attended and it keeps calling me back. For an associate lecturer in particular there is something wonderful about spending such a block of time with Creative Writing colleagues, discussing all the things that interest you.

There was a great variety at this year's conference, from creative work by poets such as J. Matthew Boyleston and story-writers Sam Francis and Philippa Holloway; pedagogical work by Kate North and, well, me; discussions of work in progress from the likes of Andy Thatcher, Brooke Davis and Heather Richardson; and theoretical explanations from Nigel McLoughlin, Simon Holloway and Anthony Caleshu. Everything I saw was interesting and stimulating and has sent me back to my desk with my mind whirling with ideas and plans.

It's a tiring weekend, partly because of the many papers which you cram into your head, swelling your cortex with new information, but also because of late nights and beer-soaked conversations. But it is a wonderful experience that feeds me as a writer, a teacher, a thinker and, at quite a basic level, as a person.

And this year I have come away with two projects which wouldn't have happened without the conference. The first is a short story which has been requested for a journal - about which I shall blog more at a later date - and the second is an idea for an article which was inspired by the conference as a whole. There was a feeling to the conference that the tribe of Creative Writing academics have started to grow tired of forelock-tugging with regard to the English Dept.s that spawned them, and are finally standing up straight and proud. There is something there worthy of investigation, I just need to work out what it is. More on that when I've worked out what it all means. But in the meantime, Say it Loud: I'm a Creative Writer and I'm proud!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The journey changes the destination

Having blogged last week about starting to write my conference paper, now that I've completed it I thought I would write about the process and the finished thing.

Something I forget until I go through the process, is how an idea can shift and morph under your hands as you bring it into being. Writing for me is always a journey, and I never end up quite where I thought I would be as I set out. It doesn't matter if it is a story, a paper or even a novel, the sheer act of writing changes the content and I discover new aspects and concepts as I travel.

The analogy of a journey is a useful one. When I set out I can see the first few steps of the path in front of me. I can see landmarks on the horizon, and I have a basic map in my hands. As I walk along the trail, the landmarks come closer and appear clearer in my vision. But somehow, up close, they never look quite like they did from a distance. They have more facets, more detailed crenellations and carving on the gargoyles. Eventually I find myself standing alongside them on the ridge, looking onward to the next section of the path, and a new set of landmarks in the distance. The path has taken a subtle turn and the sun is now off to the other side. Looking back, I can see the twists and turns which have pointed me in this new direction but which were hidden when I set off.

As I continue my journey I realise that I am going to end up somewhere different from where I intended; not where I thought I would be, but definitely where I want to be.

This has been the case with this paper. It still explores the things I intended to explore, but the journey has been richer and had more interesting cairns littering the side of the path than I realised it would. The result is something which I am pleased with and which has done a good job of telling me what I think about the subject.

Like many others, I write because I want to know what I think, but don't really know it until I put it down in words. However, in line with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in the act of examining what I think, I change it, so the destination I set out for is never the one I reach, not because it's really changed, but because the journey itself has changed me. And that, I guess, is really why I write, because travel broadens the mind.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Art meet life. Life, this is art.

Today I have started work on my conference paper for this year's Great Writing conference at Bangor. I plan to look at the way in which fiction writing and life-writing cross over and interact.

The paper was inspired by my first experience of teaching Life Writing, which was this year at Edge Hill University. I had previously taught elements of it in Adult Ed writing courses, and done some 'Reminiscence' writing with older people for Stockport Education Authority, but had never taught it at HE level before. It was a steep learning curve, but one I enjoyed immensely.

I discovered that there were a host of problems with teaching life-writing, as it is not something that students normally do once they are past the age of 11 and no longer writing 'What I did on my holidays'-style essays. One is getting them away from exactly that juvenile style of "We went here, then we did this, then we did that, etc." auto-biographic writing. Another is to get them to write about a more interesting topic than just a holiday or a party but to deal with something more emotional, more personal, and more involved. Lastly there is the whole problem of how much they are allowed to bend the truth to fit the art.

Over the course of the year I devised a range of exercises which allowed the students to stretch themselves in all these areas, and many of them rose to the challenge and will feature in my paper. Some of the exercises were invented during my drive to the University to teach the class, and then were later quoted back to me by the students as being incredibly useful.

In my other job, I was also still teaching fiction writing. However, my experience teaching life-writing made me realise that I could use the same exercises to fix a whole different range of problems in fiction writing: lack of realism, lack of emotional involvement, poor dialogue. So I did.

All of which has made for a fascinating year in my teaching career, but also a great topic for a paper. Now, all I have to do is finish writing it.

And all you have to do is decide whether any of the above tale actually happened, or did I make it all up?

Thursday, 3 June 2010

In brief.

Today's task has been to start work on my study guide essays. These are for an online database leased to schools, colleges and universities, and provide students with information about a variety of texts along with sources of further reading.

I've complete a number of these over the years - they're a reliable source of income from writing - from Fight Club to 'The Yellow Wallpaper' and from Candide to Metamorphosis to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

My current essay is The Stand by Stephen King, and my first job is to write the synopsis of the text. The text itself is over 700 pages long and my job is to summarise all its complexities in about 3500 words. No mean feat!

Writing a synopsis is not something I was ever taught to do, it's not a skill we tend to teach at universities even though we are told we will have to write one of our own book when we are looking for a publisher. It is an interesting process which involves trying to find the through-line in a text and pull out all the strands which make it work, in the smallest number of words possible. It is a really useful way to get to grips with the themes in a book, and works wonders on making your writing concise.

Along with simply regurgitating the story, I try to capture something of the tone of the text being synopsised (is that a word...). The synopsis for Fight Club had short punchy sentences. Slaughterhouse 5 was conversational and fractured. Shakespeare is always a little lyrical and I have to avoid the temptation to write in iambic pentameter.

After the synopsis comes the research, but for the moment, it's back to simplifying the post-apocalyptic world of the superflu.

The next essay is Twelfth Night. Variety is life-spicy indeed.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

And so it begins...

With the bank holiday weekend now passed, and the last of the teaching admin sorted for the year, today has been that red-letter day, the writing of the 'To Do' list.

It's quite long and contains a lot of entries which start with the word 'write', its brother 'rewrite', and its cousin 'finish'. As I go through what I want to accomplish over the summer it seems that I have more things to finish off - either by actually writing the remainder of an abandoned work, or by redrafting a first draft - than I actually want to start from scratch. Hopefully, as I work on those older pieces and reconnect with what made me want to start them in the first place, they will inspire other new works.

Among the things to work on are the novel I finished at the beginning of last year but have been unable to work on until now for a variety of reasons. However, in the last weeks, I have found my mind returning to it and starting to work on it without me being conscious of planning to do so.

I also have two plays - one for radio, one for stage - which are only each a quarter finished, but which still run round in my mind from time to time.

Add to this the range of stories, flash fictions and poems which have been written but never sent out and I have more than enough to keep me going.

However, these are not my first priority. I shall be starting with something which is much more like 'work'. I occasionally write study-guides for the EBSCO Literary Contexts database. I have a few of these to write by the end of June, so I shall be starting with these. They will be interspersed with writing my conference paper for the Great Writing conference in Bangor later this month. I'm presenting on my experiences of teaching both life-writing and fiction writing this year and the way the two crossed over, but more on that in a later blog post, I think.

Oh, and the first entry on the 'To Do' list (after the already crossed off 'Write 'to do' list', of course) is 'Write Blog post', so I shall start with the feeling of accomplishment that comes from crossing that one off. Now to start work on all those others.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Marking has come to an end and the long academic summer (longer even for us 'associates') stretches before me. My plan for these light-eveninged days? To write.

I have plans for essays, papers, stories, plays, poems and a novel. Some of it will be new, some re-writing, some working on part-finished projects abandoned some time ago.

The problem with so much time and so many things to work on is finding the motivation to work. So, here is my blog, a way for me to write about my writing - a wonderful diversionary tactic - but also a good way to force myself to write. If others are following what I'm doing then I will feel the need to keep up the work. So, if you feel like watching over my shoulder and providing a silent (or not so silent) monitoring presence to ensure I'm hard at it, then please feel free follow me.

For those of you wondering about the title of the blog. Well, it's a Frank Zappa quote and the title of one of his albums. But, additionally, I also think that blogging about my writing makes an assumption that you will think it's important enough for me to spout on about it. So, if you can forgive my unmitigated audacity, then why not come on this journey with me.

Come on, the engine's running, the tank is full, and the door is unlocked. Open it up and climb in, let's see where this road leads.