In which I think about teaching

I’ve been a bit of a lax bloggificator of late. I had a good run back there in October/November of posting every week, but I think, if we’re honest, we all knew that wasn’t going to last didn’t we? At some point, it was really inevitable that I’d become distracted by cheese or an interesting stain on my pyjama top or something twitter reckoned and I’d forget to do blogging. So sorry about that. I’m back now though, and feeling like I’ve already missed the window for doing the traditional start of year resolution post. If you feel you’re missing out then just read last year’s or the year before.

I don’t want to diss the whole resolution notion, which I am generally a huge fan of, but my resolutions really are basically exactly the same – lose weight, get over the driving terror, read more, write more/better. So there we go – 2016; in terms of good intentions it’s really very much like 2015.

However, I do have one further more general resolution. In 2016 I shall do more stuff that makes me happy. It’s ridiculously easy to while away time in the modern world by automatically picking up one’s phone and scrolling through some random bits of internet. And sometimes a random bit of internet can be jolly. I very much hope that you’re enjoying this random bit of internet, for example, but overall trying to keep up with everything that is reckoned on the internet is a real time suck. So less of that in 2016 and more actually doing stuff, like making cake, or reading a proper book, or learning how to thread my sewing machine without swearing a lot.*

I’m also resolved to try really hard in 2016 to build up my creative writing tutoring. There are good and sensible reasons for doing this. It involves getting paid, which is a rare and beautiful thing in a writer’s life. It also involves making use of some bits of my ridiculously overlong education. But mainly I want to do more tutoring because I absolutely bloody love it.

There are very few activities more fun than talking to developing writers about writing and helping them work out what sort of writer they want to be. The moment where you see a student realise something, or understand an idea for the first time, is just ridiculously good fun. So I’m aiming to spend a fair amount of 2016 doing just that. I’ve got four courses in the schedule already, including two weekend retreats with my regular co-conspirator, Janet Gover, and I’m, as always, open to offers to come and run workshops with writing groups. All I need now are some students… Roll up! Roll up! I promise to send you home inspired, invigorated, and probably slightly knackered.

 

* This may not be possible. I suspect the swearing is actually an integral part of the process without which the little foot thingy won’t click down properly and the needle bit won’t bob.

In which I muse on what I learnt at the RNA Conference 2015

Yes. it’s that time of year again already, when I do my annual ramble about what nuggets of educational loveliness came into my head at this year’s RNA conference. So here we go – this year I learnt…

1. That writing novels set in the twentieth century is a minefield

Jean Fullerton did one of my favourite talks at this year’s conference about the perils and pitfalls of writing 20th century fiction. Those pitfalls are essentially threefold. Firstly, there’s just so much more research material available than if you write about tenth century peasants. Secondly, lots of the people who read the novel will remember and they will judge you if you get it wrong. And thirdly, the attitudes of the mid/early twentieth century can be very alien to modern readers even though it’s relatively close in time. That last point was particularly interesting to me. It’s mind-blowing to think how quickly cultural attitudes to gender, race and sexuality, in particular, have changed over the last century. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in England in 1967, and in Scotland in 1980. If you write a character in 2015 who is homophobic then you’d probably be expecting your reader to see that as a very negative character trait. In the 1950s or 60s it would have been entirely normal, if sexuality was even mentioned at all. And the difficulty is heightened because the proximity in time of the mid-twentieth century tricks us into expecting the people to be ‘just like us.’ That presents a challenge for writers – how do you write a good and attractive hero, for example, when to fit realistically into the time period that character may well have to be sexist, racist and homophobic?

 

2. That writers shouldn’t be grateful for any offer from any publisher

This is a really tough lesson for most writers to accept, but it was the message that came across loud and clear from the agents’ panel on the first morning of conference, and from Daniel Hahn from the Society of Authors later in the weekend. There are situations where a bad contract is worse than no contract, so be prepared to get contracts checked by the Society of Authors, and negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

 

3. Flat shoes rock

After the shoes that nearly crippled me in 2013 I’m finally learning my lesson. This year I took three pairs of shoes to conference – all flat sneakers. For the big swanky gala dinner on Saturday night I went for purple converse. They matched my dress and I had comfy comfy feet all night long.

 

4. Fighting the flab doesn’t involve giving up wine or chocolate. Apparently.

On the last afternoon Jane Wenham-Jones gave me a copy of her book, 100 Ways to Fight the Flab and still have wine and chocolate. I should make clear that she had a free copy to give away in return for feedback on how well it works, and I grabbed it. She wasn’t just wandering the building looking for fatties to thrust diet advice at against their wills. That would be Very Wrong. So far I’ve had the book two days and read the first quarter. I’m not thinner yet, but I imagine I have to at the very least read the whole thing to see any effect. Watch this (hopefully rapidly decreasing) space.

 

5. Don’t try to get across London in a tube strike.

Don’t. Just don’t. It’s carnage out there I tell you.

 

And that’s this year’s snapshot of what I learnt at the RNA conference. There was a lot more asides from that to do with the importance of friendship and loveliness and wine, but you’re all very wise so I’m sure you appreciate all of those things already.

 

 

In which I go to ChipLitFest and think about The Fear

This weekend was the annual ChipLitFest which is the popular name for Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and not a litfest that mainly focuses on chips. Although chips are great. Someone should do that. Books and chips. Mmmm… lovely.

Sorry. What was I saying? Oh yes. ChipLitFest is a really fun festival to go along to – it seems to hit the balance between events for writers and events for readers really nicely, and it always seems to have a very friendly buzzy atmosphere. I went to three events this year – Pitch the Agent with Carole Blake, The Richard & Judy Book Club, unsurprisingly with Richard, and indeed also Judy, and The Art of the Rewrite with Julie Cohen and her many many post it notes.

All three events were interesting and well presented. Julie Cohen did interviewer duty for Richard and Judy and did a really good job of getting a pair of professional interviewers to sit back and answer the questions. Julie’s session on rewriting was also excellent, even though she could clearly have waxed lyrical on the wonders of prettily coloured stationery for much longer than the measly hour she was allowed. And listening to Carole Blake’s considered responses to five very different novels was fascinating. It also demonstrated how subjective books and reading ultimately are. The one novel where Carole Blake questioned the storyline – where a young woman disguises herself as a man to enlist in WW1 – was the one that I thought sounded awesome. Assuming the piece was well-written and structured I’d be championing that book without hesitation if I was a literary agent. Unfortunately for the author I’m not. Sorry.

The other attraction of events like ChipLitFest is the social element. This was the first year that I’ve gone along on my lonesome, but fortunately there were a lot of RNA and local writer chums around to hang out with which was lovely. One topic that came up a lot in the social chat, and during the formal sessions, and which I hear about a lot from writing students, was the issue of who sees your work before you submit or publish it. My answer is generally pretty simple – nobody. Occasionally I’ll put one or two chapters in front of a workshop session or critique group, and occasionally I’ll ask a specific person a specific question about a short passage or story idea, but essentially no one reads my drafts. I don’t use beta readers anymore – although I did have one for my very first book, and I would consider it if I was making a substantial shift in terms of genre or writing style. I don’t have a critique partner. My friends and family don’t read my drafts.

When I tell people that, it’s often mistaken for a sign of Great Confidence, which is definitely isn’t. I don’t think I’ve met a writer who possesses Great Confidence in their work. We have moments of feeling like a piece might be slightly less rubbish than we feared, and moments where a short section flows from our typing fingers with such grace and ease that we momentarily think it might be sort of nearly acceptable, but that’s pretty much as good as it gets. The reason nobody reads my drafts is because my belief in those drafts is delicate and tenuous – one poorly-worded or ill thought out critique comment can break that tenuous belief.

I also think that if you seek too many opinions on a piece you can end up editing out your own voice, your own unique take on the world. You can lose that elusive thing that made the story a story that only you could tell. That doesn’t mean that no one else looks at my books until they’re published. I write for Choc Lit, and everything they publish goes through a Tasting Panel of readers before it’s accepted. My novels and novella are then read by my editor, who pulls together the feedback from the tasting panel (so I don’t see that feedback in its ‘raw’ form) along with her own thoughts, into a revision report that I use to guide me through one, two, three, or more rounds of edits until we get to a book that we’re both happy with. If I was with an agent, then they’d read my work pre-publication, probably pre-submission to publisher, as well and possibly suggest revisions too.

Editors and agents though, I would hope, are reading from the point of view of ‘How can we bring out the best of this author’s voice, or the best of this story/character idea?’ If you’re looking for a critique partner or beta reader, I would suggest that you need to find someone with that same outlook. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to be universally positive, but criticisms need to be constructive. And never forget that it’s your book, not theirs. The person who needs to believe in it ultimately is you. Years ago I went to a talk by Miranda Dickinson, who gave out postcards and stickers with motivational sayings for writers on them. At the time I remember rolling my eyes in a cynical Northern girl sort of way, but I still kept the sticker that says ‘Be your novel’s biggest fan.’ It may be cheesey but it’s also absolutely necessary. Don’t put on rose-tinted glasses so you’re unable to see and fix your novel’s flaws, but be wary of anything that makes your belief in your story falter. That belief can be delicate, and is absolutely precious. Hold onto it, and be wary of anyone who makes that belief falter or crack.

And here endeth the lesson.

Don’t forget that if you want an awesome weekend to focus on your own writing – including some positive constructive belief-building critique – then Janet Gover and I are offering just that this October. Details here

In which I randomly assert that writers are not special

I have two jobs. I have one job where I sit just exactly here on my rapidly expanding bottom and type words into documents that I hope one day people will want to read. In my other job I try to help people learn stuff. Sometimes I help them learn how to understand the welfare benefits system. Sometimes I help them learn how to write books. In the past I’ve helped people learn good interview skills, presentations skills, employment law, IT skills and various other things besides. It’s never crossed my mind that there might be some careers that you can’t learn to do. But some people think that my first job – the bottom sitting one – is just such a thing.

Back in March, Hanif Kureishi termed creative writing courses a ‘waste of time’. This caused a heightened level of eyebrow raising because Kureishi is a professor teaching in various areas of writing at Kingston University. It’s always good to see a tutor who’s confident in the quality of their own work, isn’t it? Having said that, other writers agreed with Kureishi about the limitations of creative writing courses, and he wasn’t the first to express reservations. Ray Bradbury, for example, told the Paris Review that college was a ‘very bad place for writers.

It seems to me that there are two things going on here. Firstly, there’s an unjustified leap in logic between identifying a bad course or poor teacher, and concluding that something can’t be taught. I’ve never been to one of Professor Kureishi’s lectures or tutorials, but if you find that a high percentage of your students are failing to learn the thing you’re supposed to be teaching, you’ve got to wonder if the problem is you rather than them. Many of Bradbury’s criticisms centre on the problem of tutors teaching based on their own preferences and likes/dislikes – that’s not a sign that’s something’s unteachable. That’s just a crappy teacher. There are lousy courses out there in plumbing, maths, crocheting, engineering and Japanese – it doesn’t mean that any of those things can’t be taught and learnt either.

And that brings me to the second thing I suspect is going on here. Us writers do sometimes have a slightly unattractive tendency to think that we’re special. Again, that’s not something that’s exclusive to writers – we all like to think that we are special unique snowflakes sometimes, but I think that sometimes as writers we tell ourselves that what we do is somehow different from other jobs. And in some ways it is – there’s a lot more pajama wearing than the average, for example. But we’re part of a whole raft of creative careers – from writing to fine art to theatre to engineering to graphic design etc. Any job that involves a moment where somebody says ‘What if we do…’ and the next thing that comes out of their mouth is an idea that wasn’t there before is creative. Creativity is brilliant, and precious, and, if you take a minute to look, absolutely bleeding everywhere.

I share my living quarters with EngineerBoy, and people often assume that we must have little or nothing in common in terms of how we work and how our brains work. But actually we talk about work all the time.* Designing engineering solutions and writing a book have a lot in common. Both start with an idea of what you’re trying to get to. Both suffer from the fact that that idea will, inevitably, change part way through the process. Both work best when you keep things simple. Both are marked by a bit about a third of the way in where you’re absolutely 100% certain that what you’re working on is a massive pile of poo that will never work. And then another bit like that about two thirds of the way through. And then another one just around the time you have to hit send and deliver the thing to your customer/publisher.

Writing a lesson plan is another act of creativity with lots in common with writing a story. A good lesson has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a point that you hope the student will take away, and is has a great unknown quality that is beyond your control – for a lesson, that’s the student; for a story, it’s the reader. Both are going to take whatever you offer and respond to it, hopefully in the ways that you anticipated, sometimes in a completely different way, and sometimes, if you’re really lucky, in a way that makes the whole thing better, and richer and more successful than you ever thought.

Lots of jobs are like writing – some in small ways, some in much bigger ones, and generally we have very little problem with the notion that you can learn to do all those other jobs, but somehow we want writing to be innate. It’s not innate – at least not beyond the level at which human beings have a shared instinct to communicate and storytell. It’s something you can develop and improve. You can learn to be more creative, and you can learn to channel that creativity in specific ways. You can learn the skills of plotting and characterisation and editing and point of view.

And yes, part of the reason I’m saying this is because I’m a creative writing tutor and I have an upcoming workshop (spaces still available – click the link for details, go on, you know you want to) to promote. But it’s more than that. Telling people that certain skills can’t be taught is an example of people who’ve already achieved success adopting a mindset that keeps those who are still trying firmly in their place. It’s about saying ‘Well, I made it without any help. Why can’t you?’ And that’s just a bit of a miserable, divisive way of being. So bah humbug to that. Jolly good.

* Sounds dull, I know, but look. We’ve been married a really really long time. Any conversation beyond ‘What’s for tea?’ is frankly a marvel to be cherished at this stage.

In which I muse on what I learnt at the RNA Conference 2014

There was no post on Friday last week because I was off on my annual trip out into the world of ‘Real People who do talking and that’ at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference. As ever, conference was rather marvelous and I learnt many things. As is becoming traditional, I shall relay just some of those things to you by way of a numbered list.

1. Juxtaposing one’s thingy is important in more ways than you might think.

Now I’m presuming that you probably didn’t think juxtaposing your thingy was important at all, but that was the ‘take home’ message from Jane Lovering and Rhoda Baxter‘s talk on writing comedy. Juxtaposition is important in the serious business of being funny. A person giving a lecture isn’t a funny idea. A person wearing a penguin onesie is only a slightly funny idea. A person giving a lecture wearing a penguin onesie has comic potential. That’s juxtaposition that is.

Juxtaposition also came up in Clare Mackintosh‘s talk on creating a writing persona. Clare talked about writing things like the About Me section of an author website, and bios for inside books and on guest blog posts and the like. She also talked more generally about writing copy to promote yourself, and the need to provide an interesting hook for reporters to grab hold of. ‘Writer writes book’ isn’t news. ‘Retired burlesque dancer writes book’ might be. Juxtaposition again. It’s all over the shop, I tell you.

 

2. Sometimes it’s important to sit down and have a little plan

The one and only downside of the RNA Conference is that I come home every year with new ideas and new possibilities for what to work on next and what to do to try to move my writing career forward. This year emphasised how tough things are in the publishing industry at the moment. There are lots of opportunities, and smaller publishers, like Choc Lit, are really well placed to respond quickly to the way the market is changing, but, at the moment, incomes for writers are in decline. It’s not enough to write one really good book per year – if you want to make the bulk of your living from writing you need a plan and possibly a spreadsheet.

That means that right now I’m in a quandary where I have at least 4 different ideas for what my next book could be, and a couple of other interesting possibilities that came up in conversations with other writers during the conference. I need to take a minute to think What’s the best option? What moves me forward to a wider readership? Alongside the basic question of What am I really passionate about writing?

 

3. I have a gift for breaking dresses at crucial moments

At my first RNA Conference in 2011, I snapped the strap on my party dress while I was sitting in the bar before the big Gala Dinner. That meant I got to bond very quickly with the delightful Talli Roland who I hadn’t really met before, while she ran running repairs on my straps while I held my frock up to cover my boobs until she’d finished.

This year I pulled the crucial button off my wrap dress while I was getting ready and, despite best attempts to fix it with safety pins, ended up wearing jeans to the Gala night, which wasn’t very partyish, but did mean I got away with flat shoes that I could walk in, which was rather lovely.

Flat shoes!

 

4. Location, Location, Location isn’t just a TV show

My favourite session of the weekend was Janet Gover‘s talk on Location. I tend to think of a novel as a triumverate of three things – Character, Plot and Setting, andthe weakest of the three in my novelisting armoury is definitely Setting. My editor does, on occasion, have to ask things like ‘Where does this scene happen?’ Oops. So this talk was a must-see for me. And it was well worth dragging myself out of bed for the 9am start on Sunday morning. I came away with lots of ideas about how to strengthen the setting in my current novella-in-progress, particularly in terms of how the place that characters grow up and live might impact on the sort of people that they are.

 

5. And finally, it’s always worth balling up your confidence and talking to agenty, editory type people

The RNA Conference always offers the opportunity to do one-to-ones with agents and editors to get your writing in front of people who might be able to shepherd it out into the world. I don’t normally bother, because I’m awful at the whole elevator pitch thing. It’s really only in the last year that I’ve got my head around even being able to talk coherently about what I write, so talking about it to agents and editors is a bit scary.

This year I found myself in the position of having a project on the back burner that I’d been ignoring because I know it’s not suitable for my publisher, Choc Lit, who are a romance specialist. This is a more literary project with elements of family drama and crime, but when I looked at the conference schedule I saw that Lisa Eveleigh from Richford Becklow was offering one-to-ones, so I took a deep breathe and sent off my synopsis, and then took myself along to meet with her. And very lovely she was too. She offered a couple of really useful plot suggestions, seemed to have really understood what I was trying to do with the story, and said she’d be happy to take a look at the full manuscript once I’m at that stage. Which takes us all the way back to number 2 – time to sit down, take a minute and make a little plan of what to do next…

 

My current novel, Sweet Nothing, and novella, Holly’s Christmas Kiss,  are available now for kindle.

In which a year has passed and I muse on how it takes a village and all that guff

So this time next week I shall be in Telford getting ready for my fourth RNA Conference. That realisation made me also realise that it is now 1 whole year since I signed my first ever publishing contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing, followed later in the year with a second contact for Holly’s Christmas Kiss.

Sweet Nothing

Holly's Christmas Kiss

One year on from such great excitement seems like as good a time as any to get a bit melancholy, raise a glass of something suspiciously green-looking, and have a bit of a think about the process of getting from ‘Hey guys, I’m going to write a novel!’ to actually having a novel out there in the world, where unsuspecting strangers, some of whom aren’t even friends of your mum, might read it.

And the conclusion of that little think would be this: it takes a village to make a novel. Not an actual village. It’s not compulsory for budding novelists to move to Little Middlewitch and start helping out with the church flowers. I’m talking about one of those metaphorical villages that exist only for the purposes of slightly laboured and clichéd metaphor. The Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village takes in many helpful souls. There are the tutors and workshop leaders whose ideas I’ve cribbed and developed. There are the critique readers. There are the supportive wine-supplying friends who tolerate the fact that most of my gossip is about made up people. There’s the actual publisher who decided to invest their time and money in my work, and then there’s the editor, copy-editor, proofreader, cover designer and blurb writer. And then once the book is out there’s the audiobook people, and the pr dudes, and the book reviewers and bloggers who’ve featured me or my books on their site.

So it’s one whole year since I signed the contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing. It’s six years since I first decided I wanted to write a romantic comedy, and decided that I wanted to base it on what I consider to be the ultimate rom-com from stage, book or screen. And the end result is a story that owes everything to my random set of pre-occupations: love and how it’s not the same as romance, how clever people can do stupid things, how knowing stuff is brilliant, tequila is dangerous, and M&S party food is the highest form of food. All of that stuff is part of me, but none of it would be out there in a vaguely readable form without the rest of the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village.

So please all raise your glasses. Wait. I didn’t mention that you needed glasses, did I? Ok. Those of you who are already glass-ready, give everyone else a second to pour themselves a tiny drinkette. Right, so please raise your glasses and let’s make a toast, to everyone in the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village. Cheers, and thank-you all.

In which I undertake the traditional resolution making for the year ahead

Hello. Good morning and ahoy there my hearties. Welcome to 2014. I trust you have found it to be conducive to good cheer and ever so lightly flavoured with cinnamon so far, apart from the thing about it being flavoured with cinnamon. It’s a year. Years don’t really taste of anything, with the exception of 1994, which I think we can all agree was a more than a little bit minty.

Anyhow, given that that whole train of thought had somewhat got away from me, I’ve made the executive decision to start a brand new flavour-free paragraph so that we can all just move on. It is, as I believe I may have been wending my rather circuitous way towards saying, a whole new year, and traditionally at this point in the calendar I make a number of resolutions. Broadly speaking they are threefold:

1. Lose weight

2. Get over the driving phobia

3. Write more/better/more profitably/preferably all of the above.

And all three of those resolutions definitely apply this year, on account of how I totally failed to achieve 1. and 2. last year, and although there were some definite writing achievements in 2013, there is always further room for improvement. That means that my resolution making is a rather quick and speedy process. I’m pretty confident that I’ve got those resolutions locked down to come around every year for at least the next decade, which is marvellous because it frees up time and head space to get on with doing and achieving random things that you’d never think to aim for at the start of the year.

Last year, for example, although I had definite good intentions in the area of writing, I hadn’t thought of ‘Become the Cliff Richard of the kindle novella market’ as a specific aim, but I still managed to tick it off, when my little Christmas romance novella, Holly’s Christmas Kiss, went to no 1 in the Kindle short story chart and stayed there until Christmas Day. I had an actual Christmas Number 1. I shall now mainly be hanging out with the previously mentioned Sir Cliff of Richard, Noddy Holder, and that prison guard lady off of X-Factor.

Having your basic resolutions nailed down also gives you plenty of spare brain-time to really finesse your plans and systems for how those resolutions might be achieved. So far as the losing weight goes, I have constructed the most marvellously convoluted diet plan which involves dieting for 6 months in 3 week bursts over a 2 year period. And the worrying thing is that I totally have a rationale for why that is a good idea, based on actual science (or at least on things I have heard actual scientists say on telly, which I suspect might not be quite the same thing, but still, a plan is a plan so I’m sticking with it).

I also have a plan for the writing stuff to be done this year. It involves finishing one and a half novels and a novella, and getting back into teaching creative writing and offering workshops, and possibly a critiquing service for new writers. It’s almost certainly completely unrealistic, but I have a spreadsheet with all the different things I’m going to do marked on it and highlighted in a range of pretty colours, and making the spreadsheet was useful and not really procrastination at all.

So that just leaves the driving phobia, which is the only one where I don’t have a plan, beyond ‘try to sit in the driver’s seat without crying.’ Oh well, there’s always next year.

So, as I always ask you at this time of year, what are your resolutions? (And also, any of you who are budding writers please feel free to wave a hand via the Contact Me page if you’d be interested in workshops or courses at all.)