Tuesday, 30 November 2010

What do I do for the next four years?

For the past four years of my life I have been writing my Hayling Cycle of three novels. I'm not sure when it turned into a cycle, but sometime during the writing of the first novel, Hidden, I had a wonderful idea for a second novel. At that point I decided that two was too symmetrical and I had to write three. So sometime during 2006 the ideas for the three novels were born. The inspiration for the second novel was a minor character, Lindy, who I felt had an important story to tell. So Lindy became the major character in the second novel, Illegal. During the writing of the second novel, another character, Jess presented herself as having a lot more to say. Jess is the main character of the third novel, Stuffed. In this way my cycle was born, all set on Hayling Island and featuring a rotating cycle of characters.

I started writing fiction for children and young people quite by accident. I pitched to Cancerbackup when they put out a call in 2004 for a children's writer. I was a published author and poet by then and had also taught terminally ill children. When they asked for a sample of writing they really liked what I sent them.
Peppermint Ward came out in 2006 and has gone all round the world, helping children and their families understand a diagnosis of cancer. Its one of the publications I feel most proud of.
You can find out more about the book at this link.

But once I started writing for children it felt like a tap had turned on. I pitched a story to Tony Bradman for his anthology, Give me Shelter,Francis Lincoln 2007 and he loved my contribution, Samir Hakkim's Healthy Eating Diary. It was from this short story that the first novel in my Hayling Cycle, Hidden, grew.
 Samir arrives at Heathrow as an unaccompanied asylum seeking child and is taken into care. He writes his diary to try and understand what has happened to him. The anthology was shortlisted for the UKLA Award, 2008.
We meet Samir again in Hidden. He is four years older but still an outsider in England. He becomes friendly with Alix, an English girl. Together they discover an illegal immigrant washed up on a Hayling beach and hide him to save him from being deported.

Meanwhile Tony Bradman put together another anthology on climate change, Under the Weather Francis Lincoln, 2009 and took my story, Tommo and the Bike Train. I love writing short fiction and I love writing to a brief. And so it felt right to take breaks from the novels from time to time to have a go at something different. I was also still very much a wannabee, without an agent or a publisher for my Y.A. novels and so getting published in anthologies was hopefully a good way to get myself noticed.
Tony Bradman has told me that over 15 of his anthology authors have gone on to publish novels. How lucky we were to have the support of this generous and talented author.

In 2009 I was approached by the BBC. I had been recommended to them by Cancerbackup. They needed an author for a booklet to explain the switch over from analogue to digital TV. I also had to find an illustrator and had the good fortune to work with the talented, David O'Connell. This time I had to learn how to write comic style - a completely different way of writing a story. Our booklet has gone all round the UK helping people with special needs understand how to cope with the nationwide change to digital.

It has taken me four years to complete my Hayling Cycle. I have a great agent, Eve White and excellent publishers, Meadowside. I just have to plan what to do next, I suppose.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Your SCWBI workshop let me go wild!

I ran two writing workshops on last weekend's SCWBI Conference in Winchester and 53 people came, 17 in the morning and 36 in the afternoon!
So why did they come?
"It's great to do some writing after so much listening."
"We're always learning, aren't we?"
"Odd process writing isn't it?"
"Helped to shake the cobwebs off my pen and brain and get writing."

Martin ( here on the left) said something which struck me as so true. "We write under such constraints normally, focusing on the work in progress. Your workshop just let me go wild for a bit."

So what did we do over four hours on the Sunday, after a big party the night before and hours of networking, listening and taking notes on the Saturday?  Here is a taster with some great ideas for schools workshops.

GIVE YOUR PLOT A FACELIFT - Sunday morning session.
What if?   Step outside your comfort zone, let your imagination fly free and start 'what-iffing' - essential for helping to lift a sagging plot.
We did a writing exercise - What if the slipper fitted the second ugly sister?
That got everyone going - we got murder, alien transformation, humour and sheer disbelief. 
My idea was that Cinders would be relieved - "I didn't fancy that prince anyway, I want to marry Buttons."

Everyone wrote and wrote and wrote. Here is what Mo sent me -
"No, its my turn now," shrieked Gwendolyn and she pushed her older sister off the chair. She sat her bony bottom down and removed her own shoe. "Gimme that," she ordered the page as he knelt before her offering the delicate glass slipper. Cinderella watched from the shadows.
 Prince Insincerely Charming stood behind the page. He crossed his fingers behind his back and mumbled, "Please don't fit. Anyone but her." Then he decided to cross his toes as well and even his eyebrows to be sure.
Gwendolyn poked her big toe into the slipper and wedged in her foot. It wasn't budging. She took it off, spat in the shoe and stuck her foot back into it. It fit. "Just needed a bit of lubrication," she said.

Tina Lemon wrote this 
It fitted. Oh my God, it fitted. The girl looked at her feet, her eyes wide with surprise. The prince's eyes had also formed into a similar shape but it wasn't surprise that was displayed on his face - it was pure horror instead. He was kneeling down in front of this oddly-shaped girl, visibly shell-shocked. Slowly he looked up at this girl that was soon to be his wife.

Lovely contrasting pieces from these writers.


It was Mariam who pointed out that this would make a great workshop in schools.
And yes, any age group, from Year 1- Year 13, I think it would work brilliantly with all of them.
Let me know if you try it out and I'll put together another blog.
Two more ideas :
What if  - Baby Bear found Goldilocks on his computer and she says over his shoulder, "I've fixed the virus, you're back online BB."
What if - Shrek turned into a handsome Prince.


Phillipa Francis had some fun with dialogue.
'Do stand still child.'
'Your pardon, Mama.'
Georgina focused on the shell-backed sconce above the fireplace.Mama moved around the table putting pins in as she folded the torn hem.
'Wretched child - what possessed you to climb like a hoyden in your best dimity?'
"What a difference it makes," writes Phillipa, "if I put the dialogue in red. Fascinating."

Absolutely Phillipa - writing workshops are the place where you can give yourself permission to try out new things and GO WILD.

One of the things I love the most about running workshops is the time when I look round the room and everyone is writing and a wonderful silence descends over us. The quality of this silence which is a combination of work and a deep sense of peace reminds me of the libraries in the old days when the librarians ruled OK! and no-one ever spoke. For me that old library silence is only really recreated in the silence of a room full of focused writers. Extraordinary.


We had a lot of takers for this session. They kept coming and coming until we used up half the chairs in the lecture theatre. 

I like to use texts to demonstrate the points I make in a workshop. For this workshop I used two of my favourite writers - Morris Gleitzman  and Guy de Maupassant.
I also used some examples from my short story, Samir Hakkim's Healthy Eating Diary, in Give me Shelter, Francis Lincoln.

Using texts is the best way to show the craft and techniques of writing and helps to bring alive what can be very dry and dusty stuff otherwise. I would always use texts in  workshops in schools and of course with adults.

Action and dialogue are the keys to bringing your characters alive.
I used an extract from Two weeks with the Queen by Gleiztman to show dialogue, action, internal monologue and keeping your reader on their toes - the all important element of surprise. 
Every single line in your text must serve to take the plot forward. This includes every single element of your characters. Action and dialogue bring your characters alive much more acutely than pages of description.

Kathryn Evans wrote to me, "Thanks again for another inspiring workshop. I had a penny dropping moment during the session, there's something about your writing exercises, that safe and nurturing environment - it unblocks furred up writing arteries :O)"

How can you make sure you give everyone a chance to read out their work in a session of 36 participants?

It is very important to me that everyone who wants to read out and get some feedback has the chance to in my workshops. So fortunately  I had decided to focus on Pen Portraits in the huge afternoon session. As people would only have to write one sentence I was able to give everyone a chance to read out, making the session dynamic and enabling for all the writers.

I chose a pen portrait from Maupassant's wonderful story, 
'The Piece of String.'

All the aristocracy of the plough were eating at Mait'  Jourdain's, innkeeper and horse dealer, a sharp fellow who had made a great deal of money in his day.

The innkeeper only appears in these few lines and yet in our discussion we agreed that he had made his money from possible underhand ways, he was not wholly trustworthy and yet had a strong position in the community, commanded grudging respect, maybe even admiration from his peers.

Bringing alive the minor characters is just as important as enriching the major characters in our stories. 

I set the following writing exercise - Write a one sentence pen portrait of the man who sells Jack the beans ( from Jack and the Beanstalk.) We reminded each other of the story and then wrote. 
Here are some of the results.

The man's contorted body looked like a sack into which all his bones had been dumped in no particular order but his eyes glowed with certainty and a dark knowledge.
Christian Colussi.

The ancient man grinned, his golden tooth winking in the yellow lamplight as he pulled me into a shadowy corner and lifted his ragged sleeve, his gnarled hand unfurling, claw-like, to reveal the beans, gleaming like jewels in his sweaty palm. "They're magic," he whispered, his breath stale as five day old vomit.
Katie Dale.

The man saw the big, fact, juicy cow coming towards him like a large barrel of gold on four hooves, one of them with a rope around it held by a boy; his next victim.
Paolo Romeo.

"Thank you for a great workshop - I've ordered the Morris Gleitzman," wrote Paolo.

When the man spoke a ragged line of blackened stumps appeared in his mouth and Jack stood back to avoid the fetid smell of swamp gas.
Jo Franklin.
Beak nosed and leather skinned, the old man's eyes were everywhere but on Jack.
Kathryn Evans
Jack saw a patchwork of a man. His arms whirred like a windmill and his eyes glimmered like spells.
Phillipa Francis
His gaze reached out and pulled Jack towards him, every detail of the boy grasped in those strong blue eyes and hoarded inside his shaven skull.
Benjamin Scott
The man's pig-eyes glinted and pushing his hat back with blackened forefinger he beamed a gap-toothed smile at the approaching boy.
Nicky Schmidt

PEN PORTRAITS WOULD MAKE A GREAT WORKSHOP TO TAKE INTO SCHOOLS and using a story and characters that everyone is familiar with gives everyone the same starting point.

"It always amuses me," said Julienne Durber, "how so many people say they can't write under pressure and then come out with some really vibrant stuff."

It was great to work with so many talented SCWBI writers and it is good to see that the future of children's fiction is in such safe hands. HAPPY WRITING EVERYONE.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Painting and poetry in Highgate.

It was such a cold week in October when I came across the Chewing Gum Artist, Ben Wilson, in Highgate. I'd just finished running a workshop at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution (HLSI), one of the oldest independent libraries in London. HLSI is a thriving cultural centre on Pond Square with around a thousand members. It has a wonderful library with over 25,000 books, as well as many old prints and documents regularly consulted by scholars. One of its rooms, the Colderidge Room, is dedicated to the great poet who lived the last part of his life in The Grove, a few minutes walk from the square.I have been leading writing workshops at HLSI for several years.

So I was delighted to see Ben working on one of his wonderful miniature paintings outside our door.
Ben Wilson has become a familiar figure on the streets of London in his one man campaign to draw attention to the quantity of gum spat out on our pavements. He believes that the gum is a symbol of our consumer society. "People have too much of everything today and so don't take care of the environment," says Ben.
I have blogged about Ben in a previous post when I met him outside the Royal Academy.

"Will you do a painting for me?" I asked Ben.
"Of course," he said. He handed me the notebook he always carries with him and asked me to draw out what I wanted. But of course, I'm a writer, so I needed words. I told Ben how Coleridge and Keats had famously met in Highgate and shaken hands. Afterwards Coleridge had remarked that Keats "was not long for this world." Had he felt the sickness in Keats' grip? Keats died at the age of 25 from TB. Even Coleridge with his heart problems and addiction to laudanum did better than that, dying in Highgate at the age of 62.
How could we fit all of this onto a piece of chewing gum a bit bigger than a ten pence piece?

"No problem," came Ben's cheery reply.Spoken like a true artist.
First of all he took a picture of myself and fellow writer, Judi Sissons, shaking hands.
Then we agreed on all the wording, including Coleridge, Keats, Highgate, HLSI, my name and whatever else Ben could fit on.
We agreed that Ben would ring me on the morning he started the painting so that I could come along and see the finished product.
I went home on the bus thinking, This is madness, there's no way he'll fit all that plus the handshake onto a piece of flattened gum.
In fact I rang him from the bus and said, "Maybe leave out Coleridge and Keats."
"Fine," he said, "let's see how it goes."
But I needn't have worried.
Ben Wilson is a tremendously talented miniature artist and the final product was absolutely wonderful.

These pictures give an idea of the scale of the work. 
What a wonderful celebration of writing in Highgate.

Ben takes care of his paintings, returning to them over the weeks to see how they are surviving. Kids come up to him and ask him to do their graffiti tags. He enjoys commissions and accepts donations. It can take Ben two hours to complete a painting, lying on the freezing cold pavements of London. He lies so close to the kerb he was even hit by a bus once.
I feel enormously privileged that I have featured in a painting by the Chewing Gum Artist.
And here is the link to the article in the Hampstead and Highgate newspaper.