Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Why I teach what I teach - Kath Morgan




After several dog walks over Praa Sands, where we'd thrash out our plot challenges, and talk about our latest submissions (followed by a recuperative trip to the pub for coffee and hot chocolate), Kath Morgan agreed to write me a guest post. Here, she explains how and why she does it her way.



As the new academic year kicks into gear, and people turn to their adult education brochure seeking something to do to brighten up the dark evenings, several potential students have approached me, wanting to know about my Creative Writing for Beginners course. One question that keeps cropping up in one guise or another is, why do I teach what I teach? You see, my course isn’t the usual beginners’ banquet of knocking out first drafts and sharing them with your supportive but essentially non-critical class mates. It’s more structured, skills focused, and challenging.

Over the past twenty years or so, I have attended more creative writing classes and workshops than I’m capable of listing. I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve been inspired by some fantastic facilitators, been supported and encouraged by some fabulous writing folk, and flirted with a vast range of fiction techniques, such as character, settings, dialogue, etc. But - and this is possibly because I’m a bit dense – I exited time after time, happy and stimulated but none the wiser about how, exactly, I could become a better writer. Or even a half decent one. I learned a snippet or two about writing short stories, a bit about writing for radio, a tad about writing poetry. I wrote a lot, and had flashes of inspiration during which I produced some pretty palatable stuff. But I couldn’t replicate the success, because I didn’t understand why one piece worked while another didn’t. I didn’t know what I was doing.

It stuck me that there must be more to this fiction writing lark than these classes and workshops were letting on, at least in any form that I could access. I wasn’t willing to buy into the popular belief that good writers are simply born able to do it, that you are either born lucky or not. Truth is, I don’t like elitism in any form, so I threw myself into the task of discovering the elusive secret of writing good fiction. I read every book on the craft I could lay my hands on. I joined a couple of hard hitting critique groups and worked diligently on my (pretty terrible at that stage) first novel. I returned to University and took an MA in Professional Writing. I learned a lot.

Most of all I learned that the actual craft of writing good fiction is something that can and should be taught, and can and should be learned. We all possess various degrees of natural talent. To make the most of our allotted portion of it, we need to add craft and practice to our bundle.  So when, seven years ago, I was asked to run a creative writing course in Falmouth for the Cornwall Adult Education Service, I decided I would apply everything I had learned in my previous twenty years as a teacher to ‘teach’ the skills it had taken me so long to learn myself. This approach won't be everyone's cup of tea, but what is?

I designed a year-long course that takes a beginner writer on a roller coaster ride, by the end of which they will be armed with the fundamental skills they need to become a good writer. They will know how to create 3D characters that defy stereotype, how to bring settings to life, how to select and control point of view, how to write dialogue that either illuminates character or advances plot (and preferably both), how to structure a plot that resonates, what on earth show and tell is all about, and a whole host of ways to tighten their use of language. In short, they will have a clear understanding of how to write a good short story. No plays, no poems, no travel features. My aim is not to touch on a lot of things, but to teach one thing well: depth rather than breadth. The skills, once learned, transfer across genres. I want to enable my students to tackle their writing development from a position of knowledge, not ignorance. What they then do with that knowledge is up to them. That’s when the work really starts.


Links:


Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Value of Value

Ah, Sunday nights. Stanley Turrentine is caressing the speakers, my ginger beer bottle is empty and the rain is tip-tapping on the attic window. It must be time for some philosophising!


Some years ago (i.e. in the old days), I was a product launch manager for a project that wasn't going well. In fact, this particular project was in such poor health that - for a number of reasons - I was already planning the pre-launch recovery and the post-launch recovery too. While I was running around from team to team, trying to get people to do what they should have been doing the first time, a senior manager called me over and commiserated with a smile, adding, "When you're up to your arse in crocodiles, it's hard to remember you're supposed to be cleaning the pool."

Writers not only create fictional worlds for our characters, we also create fictional worlds for ourselves - whether we write fiction or not. Largely self-motivated (allowing for bills, luxuries and kudos), we set goals and decide on destination points that are really, often, quite arbitrary.

That may sound like a weakness, but it's also a strength. Because, when we recognise that our goals are literally that - our goals - we are at liberty to change them. In other words, it's the value we place upon them rather than any objective value.

Ever been here?

Halfway done novelists want to finish their novels.

First drafters want to get through a complete edit.

Third drafters want an agent, or a publisher.

Contracted writers want a lucrative deal, or significant sales - preferably both.

Second novelists want book number two to be better than book one, and better received.


Every aspiration is perfectly reasonable, but how often do we examine what lies behind it?

Here's a case in point. I'm also a freelance writer and one of the sites I use is People per Hour. (You may have noticed the ad on this blog!) Their blurb suggests that, on average, Cert5 writers earn four times more than Cert4 writers. And, by inference, Cert4ers do better than Cert3ers. 

I mention all this because I recently reached Cert4. The algorithm is a dynamic one so here's a screenshot in case I've slipped back a little by the time this post is out there. 





Cert4 is good, but what does it actually mean? I've seen the pages of some Cert5 writers (what, like you thought I wouldn't check out the profiles of competitors?) and some of them charge £3 per hour. So Cert5 doesn't guarantee a high rate. I've also seen some jobs go to a Cert2 writer even when a Cert5 has also submitted a bid. So Cert5 doesn't guarantee a competitive advantage. 

As the man said on TV recently: correlation does not mean causality.

To return to the world of books, goals are important. Without them, we'd never get past the tyranny and adventure of the first blank page. We may lust after or lament the achievement of others, but there's no value in that. It gains us nothing, and for every writer looking at the rung above there are countless more looking up at them.

What values then might be valuable to most if not every writer?

Here are a few ideas...
1. Value your words by getting them down, no matter how frivilous, or how amateur they seem to you at the time.
2. Value your time by carving out writing time, every day without exception.
3. Without exception, always have some way of capturing your thoughts - a pen and paper, recorder, tablet, till receipt and pencil, or whatever you can think of.
4. Think of the journey ahead, but stay in the moment. Books are written page by page. Sometimes it flows like honey; other times it's like hand-to-hand combat with the English language.
5. The English language is your friend. Its rich dversity gives you limitless ways to express yourself. Revel in that and strive to find and express your own voice.

None of the above values will guarantee you literary success, happiness, fulfilment or a contract. They will, however, make you a writer. And you can't put a value on that.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Write then - the fundamentals.


A post or two ago, I invited blog visitors to ask questions. It was a pretty open invitation and I was expecting questions about freelancing, money, the muse, balancing creativity and business, and a host of other tar pits that working writers (and whether you're being paid or not, you're working) have to contend with. 

However, as John Lennon reminded us, life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans (not that I had any responses planned, you understand).

Instead, what I received on the post comments were two deceptively simple questions that really go to the heart of the matter when it comes to writing. Rather than give you a single perspective on Monika's prompts, I thought it would be more fun to introduce a bit of diversity.  

The respondents below number among them a published performance poet, a published novelist, a novelist working on a second novel, a novelist embarking on a trilogy, and however I'm referring to myself this week. I consider all of them friends and I've even met some of them face to face. Here they are, in their own words.

A big thank you to Monika for these prompts:


1. What makes you think you're a writer?

"Although I have always written and loved writing, it has only been relatively recently that I actually call myself a writer (I identified more as a painter/artist for most of my life, but writing has kinda taken over!) The shift from 'artist' to 'writer' was exacerbated by many favourable comments and people being moved by my writing when I tentatively started sharing my poetry." - Jackie Juno

"I can still recall the thrill of squishing ideas together in primary school, and coming up with a story that surprised me and interested other people. (But let's not forget the time I was asked to stand up in front of the school and read out a poem about Christmas!) I'm a writer now because I stuck with it and 'dared' to put my work out there for scrutiny. Those two things are, in my opinion, the only way to be a writer and to develop your abilities." - Derek

"When I left school I believed I was not that good at anything involving the English language. I had a terrible stutter and dyslexia, and intelligible hand writing, partly I think because I am left handed. I could not even speak the queen’s English. So that was that, I had a CSE (remember them?) grade 5, the lowest pass available. Later I returned to night school and completed an O level English language, it was special programme for adults who had poor literacy skills, so I was taught one to one. I passed and got a grade B, something I never believed I would achieve. My teachers had lied to me. I had lied to myself.
   "I began to write stories in longhand, and just go hooked. I remember finding something inside of me, not just writing, but writing stories. That’s what I liked. I would sometimes just write constantly for hours until my wrist hurt so much I could not hold the pen anymore. I think all of this stuff is still in existence in my loft, I must look for it one day. That is what makes me think I’m a writer." - David Brown

"I'm a journalist so in effect, I'm a writer by profession. Having a qualification too, gives me more weight to be able to call myself a writer. It's not 'by experience,' it's having passed exams. As for being an author, my contract gives me a sense of confidence too. When I start earning from my books, I'll call myself a writer proper!" - Gillian McDade

"I think what makes me think I'm a writer is only that I write. It's not too do with how often or how much. It's the simple act of choosing to spend my time putting words on paper even though I don't have to. I feel there should be more to it than that - something about what makes me get up in the morning or what motivates me, but all that might be why I choose to be a writer not what makes me one." - Chloe Banks

"This is all about identity, isn't it? I've never thought to myself "I am a writer" any more than I've ever thought "I am a navigator" or "I am a development facilitator"; they're all things that I can do, skills I possess, rather than characteristics I have whether (in most cases) I like it or not (like being white and English). In short, they're roles.
 "I think it follows that there was no one time when I thought "I'm a writer"; the skill gradually developed. I've always enjoyed writing – mostly letters, when such things existed, but also articles, papers, reports etc, to which I could give a little more elegance, and maybe humour, than is generally the case. In terms of fiction, I started about eight years ago and after about five years started producing stuff that doesn't make me wince when I read it now. I suppose that was the when I became what in some trades would be called an 'Improver'. And yes, it did help when people whose judgement I trust started to say that they actually liked it." - Warren Stevenson


2. What keeps you writing when you are discouraged?

"I must admit I don't really get discouraged. My main concern is that I don't have enough time to write." - Jackie Juno

"I generally go straight into writing something else. I still get discouraged by rejections and by a sense of my own literary limitations, but my desire to write is greater than the inertia." - Derek

"I must write each day, even if it is just a single sentence, or a corny reply to a Facebook post from a family member. That is the minimum I have set myself. Sometimes people will post back, sometimes they might comment that it is funny, or causes a reaction of some sort. This gives me the incentive to keep going." - David Brown

"If I become discouraged, I tend to panic, and force myself back into it. However there are times of discouragement when I want to throw the towel in! But when I see success stories around me, the panic increases because I just can't let others enjoy the limelight by themselves." - Gillian McDade

"When I am discouraged I keep writing because I know how much I've put into writing so far and that I will keep improving if I keep writing, and I remember these times I've been encouraged! I also know that my husband believes in me and, most importantly, I believe it's what I'm meant to do. My faith in God is important and not only do I believe God told me to write in the first place, but just when I was starting to doubt it someone who didn't know me at all (or that I was trying to be a writer) told me that God wanted me to keep writing!" - Chloe Banks

"As for discouragement, I've been described by various people as 'stoical', 'phlegmatic', and 'laid back' – not your usual artistic personality profile I imagine – so although I often write a chunk which I then electronically tear up I don't take this as a personal failure. Probably the equivalent of planing and sanding down a piece of wood which then splits when you try to screw it into position. I've spent months producing work which I then find either isn't what I wanted, or just plain isn't good enough – too boring, too disjointed, over-demanding or whatever. The answer being to check the next bit of wood more carefully before you start, and at intervals during the process. I'm temperamentally an optimist, so I always believe tomorrow can be better, given the ability to learn from the past.
 "Maybe this sounds like a manual for technicians, but then that's a large part of what I am. The ideas complete the skill set, and they have to come from experience, so it's a good idea to have had quite a bit of that, in a variety of settings." - Warren Stevenson

My thanks to all my fellow contributors for their time and their honesty - please click generously:

Jackie Juno 


Gillian McDade


Chloe Banks

Friday, 19 September 2014

John Hanley - Bringing History to Life



Everyone has heard one of those apocryphal stories about going on holiday, on the far side of the world, only to meet someone from your home town. My version of that was a happy coincidence, encountering author John Hanley online and then finding out he is based in Truro - just up the road from me (if the road is 25 miles or so of the A394).


John is both a dab hand at using social media to promote his books and willing to share the fruits of his labours - a blogger's dream! 


1. John, we met over social media. How important has social media been to you as a writer?

When I started promoting my first book I had no experience of social media so I started with twitter by following tweeps who had confessed to enjoying reading in their profiles. I then extended this to those who followed authors who had published books similar to mine. Until I passed the 2,000 follower mark it was a bit of a struggle but now I'm picking up a dozen or so new tweeps each day. I did a cull recently after discovering that nearly 1,000 of those I was following were inactive! I use Just Unfollow to manage and categorise. Tweetdeck is also very helpful for retweeting and scheduling.

I read a few books on social media and plunged into facebook without really appreciating its nuts and bolts. I have been posting background detail especially photographs about my novels on my fb author page  for some time now rather than try to manage a blog on my website as it is far easier! I now use twitter to drive potential readers to both those sites.

Fortunately I discovered ASMSG (Authors Social Media Support Group) early on and now engage with their nearly 1,000 members in tweeting, retweeting, sharing on fb, liking on Amazon author pages and rating and voting on Goodreads.

LinkedIn has also proved a very useful resource and I've enjoyed networking with authors all over the world though I am still surprised by some of the requests I receive especially from members who are not authors.

2. How did the character of Jack Renouf first speak to you, and when did he appear?

Jack has been speaking to me for a very long time as we share so many interests though he is far more headstrong and adventurous than me! He was born in 1920 - the same year as my mother. I grew up in post-war Jersey where my mother had been trapped for five years by the German Occupation of the island. I had often wondered what it must have been like for a young man who had just left school in 1939 and how he would have coped with the harsh reality of war.  Nearly all young men of his age left the island though most of the young women didn't as they had family obligations.


3. Research is obviously a key aspect of your writing - have you discovered anything that changed how you wrote the books?

What I find quite amazing is that over 70 years later new facts are still being discovered about that period. After the liberation in 1945 the UK government carried out a full investigation into what had happed during the Occupation. The subsequent report has been sealed until the year 2045! However, from information I had picked up from family and friends I was aware of certain lines of enquiry that I might follow and have been able to unearth some stories which I have been using in my "fictional" work. 

My principle resource has been my extensive library of second world war books especially the 200 or so items specific to the Channel Islands which I have collected over the past 40 years. During the course of writing Against The Tide I collaborated with someone who had been a Hollywood screen writer and he suggested I beef up one of the sub plots of the novel. This involved a whole new line of research as I always try to make events as realistic as possible. In this case I constructed a complete story around a shipment of industrial diamonds from the Belgian Congo to Jersey. During the research I discovered that not only was there a law firm in the island which represented the very company around which I had based the story but that the Germans had been working along the same lines to defeat the embargo imposed by De Beers to prevent them acquiring these essential elements for their factories!

4. How did you choose Matador as a publisher?

I followed the traditional route of trying to find an agent for several years without success and, after retiring in 2006, decided to take the gamble I was asking of a publisher and risk some of my own money on my novels. I read Harry Bingham's book "Getting Published" which had been recommended by the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook and researched several alternatives before settling on Matador, which is the fiction imprint of Troubador - the mainly educational publishing company I had come across during my teaching career. Troubador offered a full publishing package and Jeremy Thomson the managing director was very honest about the potential outcomes and the poor chances there would be of actually making any sort of profit. The quality of their product was much superior to several other companies I approached though all were quite frank about the responsibility I would have to promote and market my own work.  In choosing an established publisher I have been through the same process as an agented author and experienced the joy of intensive copy editing and proofreading as the company will not print work until the editing is completed to their satisfaction!  I found the cover design process very interesting and even though I came up with most of the ideas Troubador's product management team was extremely helpful.

One aspect of publishing I hadn't really considered was the word count of my manuscripts. I'd read in several places that a first novel shouldn't really exceed 80,000 words. It was only when I discovered how heavily publishers had to discount their books for Amazon and other major booksellers that the penny dropped! Both my novels were over 120,000 words so the production costs were relatively high but the price point remains the same for most paperbacks which means profits and therefore royalties are severely squeezed once 100,000 words is exceeded. Of course the more books you print the better the unit costs but then they have to be stored prior to distribution and that costs as well. None of this applies to e-books but I still have a fondness for hardcopy and my next novels will not exceed 90,000 words!

Another aspect about which I was unaware was the kindness with which the taxman treats authors allowing initial losses to be set against non-writing income. My accountant told me about this though I doubt he would recommend authoring as a means of feeding a family.


5. Any tips for balancing being an author with the time and effort required to maintain the profile of your books? 

If you look at my facebook author page you will see that I spend a lot of time providing historical background for potential readers. I do find that an engaging process but add that into the basic social media activities then time left for actual creative writing quickly disappears. I'm not too worried at present as I'm still new to this business and am confident that I can find the necessary time for writing the next novel in the series especially as I've decided to limit the number of words!

6. Just out of curiosity, did you attend the Writers' Day in Truro in 2012, put on by me and Literature Works?

I didn't know about the Day but would have attended if I had.

7. Where can we find out more about you and your books?

Here are my links:

My website: AGAINST THE TIDE:  http://bit.ly/1hSTWoe
My website: THE LAST BOAT:  http://bit.ly/1kHD831
AGAINST THE TIDE regional Amazon link: http://bit.ly/1h9fLd8
THE LAST BOAT regional Amazon Link: http://bit.ly/1mjfkT1
Goodreads author page: http://bit.ly/1lOZyNK
Facebook Author Page: http://on.fb.me/1nNeCxa
Amazon Author page: http://amzn.to/TlgUKK
Troubador AGAINST THE TIDE: http://bit.ly/1oXgR3q
Troubador THE LAST BOAT: http://bit.ly/1uGqxjP
Review link:  http://bit.ly/1qxYZMf

8. Any other experiences you'd like to share about marketing your books?

I found the Cornish press quite helpful and have been interviewed by the West Briton and broadcast on BBC Radio Cornwall.

As the books are largely set in Jersey I was able to secure interviews with local press outlets there as well. As a by-product of publishing my first novel I was appointed as the adjudicator for Jersey's Eisteddfod Literary Section last year

I invited the Cornwall Library Service to stock my books and I now receive a small fee based on borrowings from the Public Library Lending Service each year.

Waterstones in Jersey were happy to stock my first novel especially after the publicity there surrounding the launch but I have not had any success with booksellers in Cornwall even though I have been on Radio Cornwall and appeared in the West Briton.

I've appeared at a couple of local organisations as an after dinner speaker and this is an excellent method of promoting and selling books though it can be quite exhausting!


Monday, 15 September 2014

Not Quite the Status Quo



Hello there,

Thanks for stopping by.  We may or may not know one another - it's even possible you found me by chance. Nonetheless, pull up a pew.

Of late, in this blog, I've talked about the identity crisis writers can face - and the one that I experience on a regular basis. Apart from, perhaps, plays and poetry, I've dipped my quill in most of the inkwells out there: short fiction, long fiction, jokes, sketches, monologues, parody songs, greetings cards, branding, copywriting, articles and features, speeches and speech rewrites. Plus blogging, of course - for me and for others.

Anyway, it occurred to me this morning that a good blog is a conversation and not merely a monologue. And that brings me to you, dear reader. My blog post title is a clue to the point of this point - Whatever You Want. (See what I did there? Sure you did.)

I've been doing this for a fair wee while now and it may just be that I have an answer for your question, a solution for your writing conundrum, or a match for your candle. Why not see if that's the case and ping me a writing related question in a comment (let's keep it clean, people). 

I'll answer them in one post, or maybe dedicate a separate post for something meaty. Remember, it's whatever is useful to you.

Like the dog we once had that used to raid the bin regularly, I'm at your disposal.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Harriet Hoult's Language of Art

I'm fortunate to number one or two artists in the UK among my closest friends. While I'm definitely a visual learner, the language of art generally eludes me and the creative process using colour and form (unless it's with words) is a mystery to me. Luckily, I recently met London based abstract artist, Harriet Hoult, who agreed to help clear the mists.

I'm really interested in that crossover point where a creative impetus arrives and can be interpreted or expressed in different ways by different people (or the same person at different times). My questions might seem a bit naive, but that's an art style too, apparently!

Over to Harriet...





Q1 As a visual artist, have you ever tried painting with words?

Actually, just very recently, I have begun introducing words into a few of my paintings. 

I have been working on a commission for a family in Kent. Before starting painting, I wrote each of their names onto the paper. It felt that in doing this, their energy was kind of imprinted into the paper and the painting was truly personal to them - even if the names are painted over and can not be seen when the painting is complete.

On another piece, I've written a word of exclamation to express a feeling I've had whilst working on it. This has been something that just came to me in that moment and I felt the urge to put it in writing.

Q2 Has any writing ever inspired you to produce a piece of work?


This is a difficult one because I am often inspired by reading books, blogs, or poetry or from hearing stories and interviews on the radio, but how that is transferred to the painting is generally more unknown to me. It's like in the moment I read or hear something, a rush of excitement or inspiration will be triggered inside me but I will not necessarily be painting at the time and so am not able to express it immediately. Therefore when I do come to paint, it's like it is a series of a whole host of impressions (from my conscious and unconscious mind) influence the work.  

Things that create that feeling of inspiration within me, are for example when I am reading a personal account of someone who has lived their life 'in their own way', and perhaps against the normal grain, but has reached a level of success that is truly aligned to them and has become somewhat of a pioneer in their field. This seems to trigger a faith in my own uniqueness and somehow a drive to express that through the paint. 


I am also fascinated by mysticism, and poetry or writing that hints at mysticism can inspire me. To me, my painting is a somewhat mystical process, in that I have often felt that something other than my consciously creating mind is being expressed through me, which can bring the painting together in a totally different and more pleasing way than I could have planned or foreseen.


Q3. Can you describe your own creative process?

My creative process is ever unfolding and the more I create, the more I am discovering about it. It's sort of like, it is the teacher and I am the student.

My inspiration comes in ebbs and flows, which are generally outside of my control. When I am in the inspired place, I feel fantastic, it's the best feeling ever and when I am not in that place, it can feel very dead and heavy. However what is interesting to me is that not all of my best work necessarily comes out of the 'inspired' place. Some of my favourite pieces were created when I was in the 'dead zone' - against all my feeling and expectation. I think part of this perhaps has to do with the fact that in the dead place comes there is more of an indifference and less of an expectation of and attachment to the outcome. Sometimes when I've been my most careless and bold, surprising results have come about. For me however, the real key seems to be in taking the action despite what I'm feeling, and from whichever of these places I am in. Just going at it moment by moment and seeing what happens. 



Q4. Describe your workspace.

My current workspace is a part wood, part brick built out-house on the side of my Dad's house in Richmond, London. It is pretty small, maybe 3m x 5m and it has a clear plastic roof which makes it fantastic in terms of light.  I am a very messy painter so it is absolutely covered in a multitude of splashes and drips of different coloured paint. At either end of the space, are shelves where I keep all of my paints and brushes. I paint against the wall - fixing the paper to the wall and working standing up. By standing, I find that I can move my body more freely and can be more reactive and expressive. In an ideal world I would love a really big studio with lots of space as I love working on multiple paintings at the same time.

Q5. Where can we find out about you and your work?

My website: harriethoult.com 


Q6. What's next for you?

I don't have any more exhibitions planned at present as right now I'm busy working on commissions and also building up my collection. Once I have these done then I will start to think about where to exhibit next.