Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Scary short stories from top Russian writer

'There once lived a woman who had a tiny little (sic) daughter named Droplet.' The baby never grew, which wasn't surprising, as the woman found her in the head of a cabbage.

'There once lived a woman who was so fat, she couldn't fit in a taxi, and when going into the subway she took up the whole width of the escalator.' She was really twin ballerinas who became victims of a magician.

Children's fairy tales? There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour's Baby is a most unusual collection of urban folk tales, dark and creepy with extraordinary plots and here and there a hint of humour. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's stories are published under Penguin's Modern Classics list and she is said to be one of Russia's most acclaimed authors. She has written 15 collections of prose and her novel, The Time: Night was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1992.

Her short story collection pulls you into forests, empty rooms in derelict buildings, hospitals, death, decay and other such dimensions, the stuff that nightmares, or scary paintings, are made of. If you need cheering up, they're not for you. They contain a strong scent of sadness, lost moments, missing children, neglect and distorted images. They trickle off at the end without satisfactory closure, open-ended so that readers can draw their own conclusions. They left me asking 'So what? What was all that about?' The trouble with an open end is that readers can feel cheated and unfulfilled.

What pulled me into them and eventually hooked me in the final section was the author's astonishing imagination, her flair for pacing and strong sense of place; but above all, her originality of plot and diversity of conflict. Like Alice's adventures, they contain one twist and turn after another. There are only so many stories to be told - seven it's said - and though they are re-told in many different ways, so often aspects and incidents seem undeniably familiar; here, we are presented with new and original ideas that aren't.

Themes cover loss, death, homelessness and poverty and loss of identity. They feature grotesques, bundles of clothing, rags, cloaks with hooded faces. Stories are told in a surreal world of unconsciousness, dreams or through near death experiences. As for fairy stories, we don't know what happens to Snow White in her coma but these stories unfold in that twilight state. It was almost a psycho-analytical experience of activity in the author's mind, like troubling dream sequences in need of interpretation.

It was therefore no surprise to learn from the translators' introduction that Petrushevskaya's writing had been banned in Russia. Her stories about Russian women were too dark and direct for Russian taste. Her plays were shut down. It was only with the breakdown of the Soviet Union that she was able to publish her work and become the national literary figure that she is today.

The stories are divided into four sections. To read the story Revenge from the first section: Songs of the Eastern Slavs, follow this link at Penguin Classics: http://www.penguinclassics.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780718192075,00.html 

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Campaigns for books and World Book Night give-away

Listed on the Society of Authors' website are a number of campaigns on the lookout for supporters to uphold the rights of writers and the future of books; some are under threat from lack of funding and others from annhilation by new technology or overzealous political correctors.

To help prevent our libraries from cuts and closures:
If you're against vetting in schools and visa restrictions on visiting artists and academics, try the Manifesto Club - http://www.manifestoclub.com/

To join the campaign for all UK children  to become readers, log on to the Just Read Campaign - http://www.justreadcampaign.co.uk/ and if you truly believe that e-books and readers are likely to sound the death knell for the printed book, join The Campaign for Real Books - http://www.campaignforrealbooks.org/

If you're a writer, you might want to sign the petition of the Libel Reform Campaign - http://www.libelreform.org/ or any of the following:

The Largest Book Give-away Ever

You have until 4 January 2011 to become a book giver for World Book Night (WBN), which will be inaugurated on Saturday, 5 March, just two days after World Book Day, the national reading campaign. A million books will be given away by 20,000 dedicated readers to the public in the UK and Ireland and the event will be broadcast by BBC2.

One of the 25 chosen titles
If you would like to participate, you will be expected to say in about 100 words why you want to give away 48 copies of your favourite book chosen from a selected list of 25 titles. Recipients may be reluctant readers or people who don't have easy access to books, bookshops and libraries. To enter, log onto http://www.worldbooknight.org/

Alan Yentob, Creative Director BBC and member of WBN editorial committee said: 'BBC2 will host World Book Night from its inception on December 2 through to the event itself on 5 March. Whether as a giver, recipient or viewer, we hope that BBC audiences will be inspired to get involved with this groundbreaking project.'

Author Margaret Atwood said: 'When Jamie Byng told me about World Book Night, I was amazed not only by its magnitude but by its simplicity. The love of writing, the love of reading - these are huge gifts. To be able to give someone else a book you treasure widens the gift circle. I was thrilled to be asked to support World Book Night, and doubly thrilled that The Blind Assassin was chosen to help launch it. Long may its voyage be!' 

The campaign is supported by such high profile people as Colin Firth, Antony Gormley, Seamus Heaney, Damien Hirst, Nigella Lawson, JK Rowling and many others and is backed by The Booksellers Association, The Publishers Association, Independent Publishers Guild, The Reading Agency, libraries, charities and other organisations.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Write a film review for Christmas and win £100

Fancy yourself as a film reviewer? Classical narrative structure works as well for movies as it does for novels but you'll be looking at image and action a little more closely. You only have until 24 December to come up with a film review of the greatest Christmas film never made.

Best for Film have launched a Christmas writing competition called Write Christmas to combat the Hollywood tat that turns up every year at this time. Invent the 'most ridiculous, potentially iconic Christmas film' that has never been made and you could win £100, publication on http://www.bestforfilm.com/ and an A1 poster of your movie by OTM Entertain, the team that designed posters for The Hurt Locker, In the Loop, Splice and The Losers.

Judges are Metro film editor, Larushka Ivan-Zadeh; actress, author, film critic for The Danny Baker Show, Emma Kennedy and parody film critic, author, blogger, Cleolinda Jones.

To enter, email your review before the deadline to info@bestforfilm.com with 'write Christmas' in the subject line. And you can read more about it on http://bestforfilm.com/community/write-christmas-competition  Good luck!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Mabel Lucie Attwell's story

Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964)

Rummaging round a second-hand book sale, I found an old quarto size Lucie Attwell's Annual, gifted to Nancy Brindle by her aunt for Christmas 1934. So, if you're wondering what happened to that chunky children's tome, Nancy, wherever you are, I've got it. These children's books were published by Dean & Son, Ltd of 6 La Belle Sauvage, Ludgate Hill, London EC4 and they were beautifully illustrated with colour plates mounted on the pages and glossy coloured prints of cherub-cheeked children, pixies and elves.

Attwell was a book illustrator in the early part of the 20th century, having studied at the Regent School of Art and Heatherley's School of Art but failed to complete her courses because she liked to have free rein over what she drew. The chubby-cheeked children with the chunky legs were modelled on her little daughter, Peggy Wickham who became an illustrator herself. Attwell also illustrated a Hodder & Stoughton edition of Peter Pan and Wendy by J M Barrie, among many that she drew for books, magazines, advertisements, postcards and greeting cards.

She was born in Mile End, London in 1879 and she rose to popularity during the 1930s and 40s. She married the artist Harold Earnshaw in 1908. They met at the St Martin's School of Art and both contributed to the ILN Group of magazines, such as Britannia & Eve. She moved to Cornwall to live with her son, Peter in 1945 and died there on 5 November 1964.

I remember these annuals well, if only for the large black typography on the lovely thick pages that I used to tear into pieces, screw up into balls and chew as a toddler, just to annoy The Sister, who thought I was mad.

The characters in them had names like Bertie Bunnie, Babs and Bunty (she seems to have favoured the 'B's). Bunty goes for a visit to London Town with her imaginary elves, the Boo Boos, smartening them up first with baths and new suits. Bunty has an argument at the station as the clerk doesn't know how many Boo Boos go to one ticket. Nothing changed there then...It contains lots of twee poems about going to jolly parties or gathering flowers gay and various activity pages for cutting out, like Billum B Boo who couldn't make up his mind whether to be a bobbie or a sailor. Readers are urged to help 'this queer Billy B Boo' by painting him a suit in blue. It all seems so innocent compared to what kids get up to these days.

But I doubt if the story, Betty's Black Brother would pass muster these days and rightly so. Betty, aged five receives a letter from Africa. Her parents live there apparently and they're on their way home with a baby brother for her. Betty loves her little black doll, Yao Yao best, so she's looking forward to a brother who looks just like him. When her parents arrive with the new bundle, Betty is very upset to find he is white. Mother gives her a paint box to calm her down. Seems she didn't want a little white brother...'He did look rather a pet although he was white...', but she thinks he would be 'prettier' if he were black. So she takes her paintbox and sets to work on him with the black paint. Mum, after the initial shock, understands how she feels but explains genteelly that when baby grows up, 'he would just hate to be different to other English boys.' She illustrates this by a bed of roses of various hues and compares them to children, saying they are all beautiful but every tree 'has its own special shade...' and that each country has 'its own special colour too,' white for England, black for Africa and brown for India. She explains that it wouldn't be right to 'rob another country's colour for our Baby...' My goodness, words fail me. I wasn't expecting to find such blinkered thinking among the pixies and elves. I'll stick to Pop and Mop, the twin Weemen who live on the borders of Goosey Glen. Heaven knows what they're going to get up to...

There's a Mabel Lucie Attwell club anyone can join on http://www.mabellucieattwellclub.com/

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Working with schools when your child has ADHD

Writer Camilla Chafer edits a great little education and parenting website at http://www.theschoolrun.com/ which is full of good advice, free worksheets, resources and competitions. Camilla and I are both authors of books published by Need2Know Books so when she asked to interview me for an article she was writing, to include in an ADHD pack, I readily agreed. The article highlights how parents and schools could work together to ensure ADHD children get the best from their education. The article is reproduced below by kind permission of The School Run and packs are available from their website by pressing the 'Subscribers' tab at the top.

ADHD: The Essential Guide
by Diane Paul (pub. Need2Know Books, 2008)

Working with schools when your child has ADHD

Many schools struggle to understand the complexities of ADHD which leaves parents feeling unsupported.

TheSchoolRun spoke to expert Diane Paul, author of ADHD – The Essential Guide for her advice on how to help parents work with their school to help their child.

Diane explained that ADHD is complex and where strategies might work for one child, they won’t for another. “ADHD isn’t the sort of thing that will go away, although symptoms can improve as they grow older. These children can cause huge disruption in a classroom and disturb teachers and other children; that is why, in extreme cases, drugs are used to calm them down.

These are all available strategies but there is no guarantee that they work for everyone, as there are so many variations of ADHD which can be combined with other issues. Teachers aren’t always sympathetic so there is no guarantee a parent can work with them or that the strategies mentioned will work. Some parents find moving to other areas to find sympathetic schools, or where LEAs who don’t have financial restraints for special needs, can help

For parents, who need support too, the best suggestion is to join a local support group. There they will find other parents of ADHD children, can network, compare notes, join in activities and learn how to cope.”

How should parents approach their school about concerns that their child has ADHD?

Most young children go through a stage of being boisterous and energetic and with classes of up to 30, teachers may not be aware that some of them may be showing signs of ADHD. Other children may stare out of the window and daydream a lot and, although it can be a symptom of ADD, there’s no reason for teachers to suppose they are any different from any other child. So parents need to impress upon teachers that, if they suspect or know their child has ADHD, it is because this negative behaviour is ongoing, consistent and repetitive, whereas the other children will mature and grow out of it.

About half of ADHD children may also have specific learning difficulties, like dyslexia, dyspraxia coupled with other conditions like Asperger’s Syndrome, anxiety or depression and these need to be addressed separately. It’s important to talk to the teacher, head teacher or SENCO about it, so that teachers can keep an eye on the child and work out a strategy for helping them. ADHD children are likely to display the same types of behaviour at home, at school and in social settings.

Parents need to work with the school, wherever possible but neither parents nor teachers are qualified to diagnose ADHD. That needs to be done by a team of medical professionals.

What can parents do to ensure schools support their ADHD child?

Some schools, teachers and doctors don’t always recognise ADHD and put the behaviours down to the ‘terrible twos’ or poor parenting. ADHD is a universally recognised condition and diagnostic guidelines are available from the World Health Organisation.

Parents need to be assertive with authority figures like teachers and doctors and to find out as much as they can about ADHD so they can discuss it knowledgeably. Some internet sites contain useful information, like NHS Direct or ADHD support groups, whose information packs would be useful for schools and parents.

Any meetings or phone conversations with the school need to be minuted as it’s important to keep records of what is said and copies of all correspondence and keep a diary to record incidents, meetings and action taken. Schools have to recognise the situation and the SENCO can make a referral for a statutory assessment. They will visit parents and submit forms to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) and the teacher will form part of the diagnostic team.

What can schools do to support ADHD children?

Medical and behavioural treatments work alongside support at school and home. Drugs work in the short-term but are only prescribed in extreme cases. This may mean taking them at school as they help to calm down the child; so teachers need to be aware that they have to take them, though many are on slow release tablets these days.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommend behavioural interventions at school among other strategies and it’s useful for schools to be familiar with their guidelines.

Educational psychologists should deal with any behavioural issues or educational difficulties like reading, writing, spelling, language disorders and specific learning difficulties. Behavioural therapists can show teachers how to plan activities and give praise when the child succeeds. Teachers should be aware of the many strategies to help control poor behaviour.

What sort of help is accessible by schools to support ADHD children?

Schools are legally obliged to identify pupils with educational or behavioural difficulties and can make a referral to CAMHS for special needs assessment. They will give their opinions, answer questionnaires and comment on your child’s behaviour.

If the school disagrees that there should be a referral for assessment to obtain a Statement of SEN for special support, you can apply for one yourself by contacting your local LEA’s SEN section. Authorities vary and many teachers lack training to deal with ADHD and don’t employ appropriate strategies, or financial constraints could hold them back.

The school’s SENCO should help if your child isn’t progressing or developing skills, if they display poor behaviour, find it hard to communicate with friends and teachers or have speech or language issues.

Are there strategies parents can use to ensure their child keeps on top of homework?

  • Teachers could give them homework task charts to ensure that they’re organised and they know what they need to do.
  • Ask your child to say out loud what they need to do, then let them repeat it silently to themselves.
  • Being organised is important, so they need clear rules.
  • If punishments are used, they need to be given right away.
  • When tackling big tasks, do them a bit at a time so they won’t be too daunting.
How far does criticism affect ADHD children and their education?

It’s hard to say. Every ADHD child is different and has different degrees of the condition with a variety of co-morbid symptoms.

They can have poor self esteem generally and need building up, not putting down but this is true for everyone.

Do teachers need to consider the language they use when talking to an ADHD child and whether it is positive or negative?

Positive feedback for ADHD children, who tend to suffer from low self-esteem, is essential. Punishment is less effective. Teachers could make them monitors or give them special tasks so that other pupils will view them positively too.

They could be encouraged to approach the board and write words on it.

How can teachers and parents help their child get organised and not become distracted in class?

  • ADD children who gaze out of the window should be placed away from them and nearer to the teacher at the front of the class.
  • Ensure classroom rules are clear and easy to understand.
  • Directions should be specific.
  • A checklist for each subject is useful.
  • Vary activities so that the child doesn’t get bored doing the same thing for too long; alternate sitting down and physical activities.
  • They will respond better to specific tasks with goals and rewards.
  • Try to use books with large fonts but illustrations need to be tied up to the content on the page so they relate to them.
  • Pages shouldn’t contain too many activities.
What are your top tips for ensuring ADHD children get a good experience from school?

  • Be lavish with praise and ensure others can hear when you mention their achievements.
  • Keep calm so you don’t reflect any negative reactions to the child.
  • Make eye contact when addressing them.
  • Give instructions in one sentence.
  • Structure projects so they use lists and charts.
A useful book for parents is 1-2-3 Magic to help control poor behaviour, encouraging good behaviour and strengthening relationships. There is a teachers’ version called 1-2-3 Magic for Teachers. The latter explains effective classroom disciplines and means of productive communication with parents.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Judges for Man Booker 2011 - win signed 2010 shortlisted books

Judges for the 2011 Man Booker Prize have just been announced: Matthew d'Ancona, writer and journalist; Susan Hill, author; Chris Mullin, author and politican and Gaby Wood, Head of Books at the Daily Telegraph. Former Director-General of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington takes the Chair.

Literary Director of the Prizes, Ion Trewin said: 'Every year we look for a different mix of judges and I'm particularly delighted by the breadth and range of interests of the 2011 team.'

Dame Stella Rimington commented how much she looked forward to chairing the distinguished panel. 'I am sure we will have many stimulating debates and will come up with a worthy winner of next year's prize.'

Howard Jacobson won the 2010 Prize with The Finkler Question (published by Bloomsbury) and the 2011 longlist will be announced in July. The longlist, or 'Booker Dozen' as it's known, comprises 12 or 13 titles out of which the shortlist of six books will be announced in September. The winner will be announced on the BBC from London's Guildhall at the awards ceremony on 18 October 2011.

Win a set of signed copies on the 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlist

And now's your chance to win a full signed set of the Man Booker Prize 2010 shortlist:

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)

Emma Donoghue, Room (Picador - Pan Macmillan)

Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room (Atlantic Books - Grove Atlantic)

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

Andrea Levy, The Long Song (Headline Review - Headline Publishing Group)

Tom McCarthy, C (Jonathan Cape - Random House)

All you have to do is log on to www.themanbookerprize.com/news/vote and enter. Good luck!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Writing for the love of writing, says Case Histories author, Kate Atkinson

Author Kate Atkinson

The New York Times wrote of author Kate Atkinson that she begins her story, grabs the reader and doesn't let go. I loved her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 and also enjoyed Human Croquet but didn't get round to reading any more of her work until I laid my hands on Case Histories and When Will There Be Good News? Both books feature private eye Jackson Brodie in detective stories. The New York Times is exactly right for I did find them beautifully written and impossible to put down, even though the bulging cast lists had me so confused that I resorted to writing down names and brief notes about the characters to avoid having to flip back and forth to remind myself who they were and who was married to whom. But hey, that's what age does to you when you reach, er...

The plots of both stories are intricately worked out and it was probably their complexity that hooked me and compelled me to read on. Atkinson weaves her stories around chunks of exposition so that the plots unfold as you plunge into each character's back story as they appear; it's something I advise my students not to do, probably because they can't pull it off as effectively as she can and once the plot has frozen, I tend to forget what was going on before that. Sometimes I find it irritating when the narrator throws out anecdotes and memories about someone's relative or friend or some minor scene that has no bearing on the story. It's rather like a flash of lightning with jagged points firing out in all directions in rapid succession so you can't stop looking. But the stories come out of the characters and fully-rounded three-dimensional people they are.

It's all about love and loss. In Case Histories the four sisters were beautifully drawn and to say anything about them would be to give away too much; Sylvia, the leader is the ugly duckling who hears the voice of God and Joan of Arc and has fainting fits; attention-seeking Julia, the outrageous flirt seems to have bagged Brodie and discarded him for another by the next book, Amelia, more bookish has a crush on him and poor Olivia, their mother's favourite, at the age of three, is murdered.

Theo is morbidly obese and dotes on Laura, one of his two daughters who agrees to work in his law practice before university. She is brutally murdered in his offices by a knife-wielding maniac and Theo spends the rest of his life trying to find the murderer before turning the job over to Jackson.

Michelle, a housewife lives in a country cottage with her baby and husband and is secretly studying. In a moment of madness when interrupted, she murders him with an axe.

Jackson, meanwhile, has been hired to follow Nicola, whose husband thinks she's cheating on him and here and there we follow Jackson's own turbulent private life so we don't regard him as an automaton and are aware that he's a real person with emotional problems of his own.

So you can see how complex his task is going to be with a dramatis personae that long and yours too if you haven't already read it. I'm still halfway through the second book but am finding it even more difficult to follow than this one and haven't made a note of anything, having developed right arm rotator cuff impairment from hunkering over the keyboard for too long without a break, hence my absence from the blog for a while.

At The Guardian Hay Festival in 2009, Atkinson said that she would prefer to have enough money just to write books and not have to write for publication. A lot of my past students say they want to write so they can go into bookshops and see the spines of their books lined up on the shelves showing their names, or because they have boring jobs in IT and think the life of a writer would be more exciting, or they want to be the next JK Rowling, or they want to be rich and famous.  How refreshing to hear an author actually saying that they write for the love of writing, which is the reason most of us do this; anything else is a bonus.

Case Histories will be televised as a six-part BBC1 series adapted from the book itself, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? Case Histories won the Saltire Book of the Year Award and the Prix Westminster. Atkinson's latest Jackson Brodie novel, Started Early - Took My Dog is now on sale. I've a feeling I need to catch up. Her website, http://www.kateatkinson.co.uk/ has lots of resources and help for reading groups. 

Sunday, 14 November 2010

York Festival of Writing open for bookings

Just back from an exhausting day at the Open College of the Arts headquarters in Barnsley (Yorkshire) observing the stalwart tutors who assess students' assignments for their grades. Up at 5am to catch an early train to Sheffield and a helpful tip to change trains instead at Meadowhall, as the connection left from the same platform. It didn't, of course but we won't go into that and suffice it to say that I missed the same connection on the way back. Consequently, the blog has been neglected for a few days while I've caught up with other things, like sleeping or detaching Black Bertha, the spare cat from Harry the Cat's nose at regular intervals when he catches her with his stash of tuna.

So this seemed like a good time to invite my first guest blogger to contribute to BforB. Harry Bingham writes about the Festival of Writing at York which he initiated a couple of years ago and describes how it all began and where it's going. Next year's event will soon be upon us, from 25-27 March 2011 at York University and bookings are now being taken. Phone 0845 459 9560 or email info@writersworkshop.co.uk You can also book via the website at http://www.festivalofwriting.com/

Harry Bingham is a best-selling author of novels and non-fiction and author of Getting Published. His co-organiser is Kate Allan, author, agent and books industry publicist.

Guest Blogger Harry Bingham

We writers are crazy. About two years ago, a friend of mine asked if I’d be interested in setting up a festival of writing. Like a literary festival, only this one would be exclusively for writers … and instead of filling the event with media-celebrities, we’d bring along agents and publishers and top-selling authors to pass on their knowledge and know-how.

Like an idiot, I said yes.

So we started to research venues, and realised that we needed a place which could offer overnight accommodation for several hundred people. And a restaurant to feed them. And lecture halls which could hold anywhere from 30 to 800 people. And all on a campus which was pretty, but modern, and compact, and disability-friendly, and well-run. There just aren’t all that many places in the UK which could fit that brief, but the University of York ticked all the right boxes. But did we realise that our booking would involve a large deposit? And that we’d be on the hook for all the rest of the (even larger) amount of money, whether or not we sold the first ticket? And did we want to go ahead and make the booking?

Like an idiot, I said yes.

And I’m so pleased I did. There were quite a few nerve-wracking moments during the planning phase (would anyone come? would anyone come?) but the event was an absolute smash hit. We had some brilliant, brilliant speakers (my personal favourites: Katie Fforde for her warmth and general loveliness. Roger Ellory for the inspiration. Simon Trewin for telling it straight.)

We also had some wonderful agents and book doctors, who gave tough, realistic but constructive feedback to all and sundry.

Better still, the delegates who came were just wonderful. So warm, so enthusiastic, so keen to learn. I don’t think I’ve ever spent a weekend with so many people and so much buzz. It was exhausting, but inspiring.

And this year, it’s the same again, only bigger and better … and without the vague terror that no one is going to turn up. We’re pretty sure that the 2011 event will be a sell-out, so we’re encouraging everyone who’s interested to book as soon as they can.

Patrick Jansen-Smith
 This year again, we’ve got some fab people coming. The event I’m looking forward to most of all is Patrick Janson-Smith’s talk. (He’s the chap who made bestsellers out of Andy McNab, Joanna Trollope, Bill Bryson, Sophie Kinsella, and many many more). Also Philippa Pride, who is Stephen King’s British editor. Also, if I could, I’d want to go to the Emma Darwin and Debi Alper double-act on Friday afternoon: they’re doing a mini-course on voice. But alas I’m running my own mini-course on Getting Published, so that’s out.

Plus of course, the usual host of agents and publishers and book doctors, all there to help first-time writers get better.

Last year, our star pupil was Shelley Harris who ended the Festival with six agents trying to sign her up … and who got a very juicy two book deal from a major publisher not long afterwards. This year, who knows what’ll happen? I’m sure of only two things: the first is that the weekend will be wonderful. The second is that by Monday morning, I’ll be so tired I won’t get out of bed until teatime.

I hope to see you all there …

Saturday, 6 November 2010

How to write a book in a month

Stuck in The Garret this week trying to develop an idea for a new book with a musical flavour that is supposed to be funny but isn't (yet). Humour is the hardest genre to work in and is so subjective. Kate has a piano lesson and when she's finished struggling through a Rag that has terrified the life out of her ('I'll never play that!) she turns to me and waits...and waits. 'Well?' she says, wanting approbation. When I don't reply she says 'Great, I can go to work tomorrow and tell everyone I sent my piano tutor into a coma.'

During this hiatus, I am engrossed in trying to work out a plot to insert into the theme of the interior world of piano teaching and the interractions between students and tutors. I have loads of material. By Monday afternoon, I have received six piano cancellations for a variety of reasons and I'm certain some grandpas have died twice. Paul has taken a month off as he's taken on too many things (I could have told him that); Elizabeth is going off to South America and will return in January; Isabella takes two weeks off just before her first exam and I give up a free afternoon to take her mock exam and scrape off the rust.

Write a book a month (BAM)

Someone sends me a slim book by Cyn Mobley called BAM or Book a Month. I wish! I'm already struggling with requests from two publishers for non-fiction ideas and I'm not in the mood for writing about blood pressure knowing the research will push mine up higher than it already is. I like following instructions so I look at BAM and it's basically a breakdown of the sort of preparation I would do anyway and how I learnt to develop a script at uni (although in truth this only fell into place when I read an out of print American book on their reading list called Film Scriptwriting - A Practical Manual by Dwight V Swain, which explained everything I needed to know that wasn't happening in lectures). Most of those were taken up by the tutor moaning about his lack of writing commissions.

BAM splits up the development into deadlines, a bit like having a life coach dividing up your tasks to success.
  • Finding the story and creating the logline (precis)
  • Looking for conflict
  • Developing the three act structure
  • Fly-to points (plot points or turning points)
  • Chapters divided up into acts and scenes and
  • Rewrites

Why development first is a good idea

Some writers prefer to begin with a blank screen and invent a character out of whose development a plot emerges; it then takes them over, as do the characters and they allow themselves to be transported into another world, usually to get lost halfway through; or they have three endings and don't know which to choose. Some well-known authors write that way. If I were going on a journey, I would want to know my destination before I set out or I would probably find three possible turnings and not know which to go down. A lot of writers have unfinished manuscripts in their desk drawers from losing control to their characters and not knowing where they are heading but as Cyn Mobley has over 40 books in print, I'm with her. However, as far as the deadlines for each action go, with the best intentions I have far too much going on in my life to reach them. I've never missed a publisher's deadline yet and the fastest I wrote a book was in three months but setting a deadline for myself is another thing. I've never taken much notice of myself.

The Snowflake Process

A few years ago, I remember reading something called The 'Snowflake' Process for Designing Novels by software architect Randy Ingermanson. He believes that good fiction is designed before it's written. He also follows the Three Act Structure technique. One idea sparks off another and since then, I've noticed a plethora of 'writing by number books' coming onto the market, so choose with care. I can recommend these two, which I think were the forerunners.

Randy's article can be downloaded free from his writing site at  http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/ and BAM can be obtained through http://www.amazon.com/ or direct from Cyn Mobley http://www.cynmobley.com/ (don't be put off by the greyhounds; they're her passion).

And about humour, when I did my MA in scriptwriting, a fellow student was asked why she had left three blank spaces on every page of her script. 'Those are for the laughs,' she said. 'I'm going to fill them in later.' We had been told that for comedy, we needed to have three laughs to a page.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman

Mr Rosenblum's List (Sceptre) is a first novel for Natasha Solomons. She promised her grandfather, Paul Shields OBE (nee Schwartzshield) on his 90th birthday that she would dedicate her first novel to him and the story takes its inspiration from her grandparents, who arrived in England from Berlin in 1936 virtually penniless. They were given a pamphlet entitled Useful Advice and Friendly Guidance for All Refugees. By 1970, he had received an OBE for services to British industry, having become a successful textile manufacturer. He had also become a successful Englishman. And this is the theme of Natasha's amusing and insightful book, for it contains a great deal of truth about acceptance, bigotry, snobbery and being an outsider.

Natasha lives in Dorset, where her grandparents enjoyed cottage life and, writing about what she knew provided her with the perfect backdrop for Jack Rosenblum's efforts to be accepted as a German Jewish immigrant into levels of middle English society that were firmly closed to him. 'He wanted to be a gentleman not a gent' and 'He could finish The Times crossword in under two hours'. Jack buys a Jaguar XK120. Meanwhile, wife Sadie refuses to obey Rule 108 on his list: to learn bridge and tennis, to have 'nice nails' and a purple rinse on her hair. Sadie would prefer to be in Israel and doesn't support his wild plans until she reaches a rather extreme epiphany.

Jack's successful East End carpet factory, tailored suits and welcome at smart restaurants mean nothing when he fails to achieve his final Rule: No 150. He is refused acceptance at every middle class golf club in the country (except when he applies under the guise of Professor Percy Jones, when he is welcomed with open arms; he approaches the same club secretary as himself and suddenly the club's list is full). 'Twas ever thus. Jack begins neglecting his prosperous business to follow his obsession of building the greatest golf course in the country in a Dorset village.

At this point, we suspend disbelief to follow Jack and Sadie to their country cottage where she enters a world of her own, baking traditional Jewish cakes for the villagers, who love the baking. But she continues to feel like an outsider and what lunatic builds their own golf course?...puh, puh, puh. Daughter Elizabeth keeps a safe distance at university, having changed her surname to Rose.

As we are pulled further down the rabbit hole, we find Jack surrounded by the sort of cast we might expect to find in a Vicar of Dibley episode or Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream's  Rude Mechanicals; or then again, perhaps Jack has peopled himself with characters from the Thomas Hardy novels he's been studying as part of his entry into English culture. A woolly pig, a dastardly knight of the realm and a brew of special cider lead us further into Wonderland and we laugh and cry with each turn of Jack's misfortunes.  It's best to read the rest for yourself for Jack and Sadie encounter a host of obstacles set in their way at every turn. It's full of intrigue and invention; irony and improbability but dig below the surface and under the molehills is lodged a bucketload of truth.

You can visit Natasha's website at http://www.natashasolomons.com/ She's been shortlisted for The Galaxy Book Awards New Writer of the Year Award and the novel is to be made into a film, so mazeltov Natasha. She's currently writing her second book, The Novel in the Viola.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Too many creative awards? The Orwell Prize opens for entries

I love writing and being able to indulge what some people think of as a hobby. Getting paid for what I do is the cherry on the top of the tree, the apple in the toffee, the chocolate in the brownie or a night out with George Clooney, whatever crumbles your biscuit. That should be enough, it helps to pay the mortgage and keep the vet from the door but out there, beyond the garret lies a fortune in prize money to be had for producing 'the best' the writing world has to offer. They're a great ego booster for the winners and an even greater PR coup for any commercial organisation that chooses to sponsor them.

Unashamedly, I stood up and received two framed certificates from the British Medical Association (not at the same time) thinking my time had come and how proud my late parents would have been. I didn't sell any more books than I'd sold before and still nobody has ever heard of me, according to a family member who once met a journalist who said he didn't know me. I didn't know him either but he still managed to impress her mightily. The sister asked how much I'd won and when I said, 'a framed certificate' she mumbled something like, 'what's the point of that then?' and changed the subject. The fact that I'd won it alongside journalists Bryan Appleyard and the late John Diamond made no odds. She'd never heard of them anyway.

So why do we have to give prizes to writers, actors, singers and artists who a panel of judges decide have produced something far greater than their peers, rather like a beauty pageant where the beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, as Plato would have it, while the rest of us sit and giggle on the couch in front of the tele? (No prizes for that paragraph!) Do we have awards for the World's Greatest Plumber or Electrician of the Year? No we don't, so why do we have them for writers, actors, singers and artists? Answers on a framed certificate please. And here's the latest...

The 2011 Orwell Prize

The theme for the 2011 Orwell Prize is 'poverty', marking the 75th anniversary of Orwell's journey to Wigan Pier and there's £3,000 each for the best political journalist, author and blogger. 

The Orwell Prize is Britain's most prestigious prize for political writing, Orwell's ambition being 'to make political writing into an art'. The prize came into being in 1994 thanks to the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick, so that well written political writing would be aimed at general readers, rather than academics.

Earlier this year Andrea Gillies won the 2010 Book Prize for Keeper, about living with Alzheimer's when she cared for her mother-in-law; Peter Hitchens won the Journalism Prize for his foreign reporting while working for The Mail on Sunday and soi-disant 'social worker' Winston Smith won the Blog Prize for Working with the Underclass.  A special Lifetime Achievement Award went to documentary-maker Norma Percy. Log onto http://theorwellprize.co.uk/ for more details and how to enter. Good luck!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

First Steps Out of Depression

Scientists have been trying to discover why a large percentage of writers suffer from depression. It's just possible that spending too much time alone, not getting enough fresh air, exercise or sunlight and spending their days in a fantasy world are contributory factors. Among the well-known writers said to have suffered from depression:
  • Hans Christian Anderson - James M Barrie - Samuel Beckett - Robert Burns - Truman Capote -Patricia Cornwell - Charles Dickens - Theodore Dostoevski - TS Eliot - William Faulkner - F Scott Fitzgerald - Ernest Hemingway - Victor Hugo - Franz Kafka - John Keats - Edgar Allen Poe - Dylan Thomas - Leon Tolstoy - Tennessee Williams - Virginia Woolf and many more
Sue Atkinson has written several books including Building Self-Esteem and Climbing out of Depression. She is a mathematics education specialist and the wife of a CoE archdeacon with four grown up children. Her latest book, First Steps out of Depression (pub. Lion Hudson) draws on her own experience of dealing with and recovering from depression. In it, she offers advice and writes about her own depression to let readers know that they are not isolated.

It is estimated that 1 in 10 people suffer from depression, more women than men. 1 in 10 men are sufferers, compared to 1 in 4 women and 4 per cent of 5-16-year-olds in the UK. But that is the tip of the iceberg for not everyone consults their doctor. Most of us feel fed up and a bit down sometimes but that is not depression and it can only be imagined if it is experienced. Telling a depressed person to pull themselves together and snap out of it is a complete waste of time for that is just what they are unable to do. It isn't a simple matter of 'cheering up'.

Sue says 'depression can affect anyone - including those we would imagine must be happy and contented, such as doctors, celebrities, rich people. Some people can be more prone to depression than others. It is an illness that requires help to lift sufferers out of the darkness.' Depression is a result of a change in body chemistry, which is often helped by medication. It isn't something we volunteer to suffer from. 'There seems to be no single cause of depression but it can be a mixture of many different things from what has happened to us in the past to what we think about ourselves in the present.'

In her book, Sue explains the physical signs and the thoughts and feelings that can form part of being depressed. She advises what to do immediately if you are feeling suicidal and how to take the first step towards getting help from your doctor. The book contains 'Myth Busters' that help to dispel fears and misunderstandings about depression and chapters include:

  • information on staying in bed vs grabbing the moment;
  • hiding behind 'I'm' fine' vs acknowledging the truth;
  • drowning in worries vs developing strategies to reduce stress;
  • doing what others want vs making our own decisions;
  • blaming others vs taking responsibility for ourselves;
  • hanging onto resentment vs deciding to let go;
  • choosing despair vs choosing hope;
  • information for families of depression sufferers
  • a list of useful resources

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Creative writing pupil resisted everything but temptation

People often ask me why I gave up workshopping in schools. The switch from live workshopping to distance learning from the safety of a home office was like leaving a war zone and finding myself in Switzerland. The final indignity took place in an inner city secondary school. You know how when things begin badly, they get worse...sometimes God throws the book at us so that we can learn lessons, the main one from this being never to run a writing workshop in a school again.

I was given the wrong directions to begin with and arrived late. The teacher who had sent them gave me a lecture on always taking my A-Z with me to places I'd never been before (even when the directions could have landed me in Berlin presumably). I was taken to the staff room, where the head was addressing the teachers. Some of the inmates had smeared excrement over the walls in the boys' loo and the cleaner had been sick.

The first writing workshop took place in an atrium with the perfect humidity for cucumbers. Some off-stage machinery noises meant I had to shout. Shouting in the round isn't a useful thing to do as the kids behind me couldn't hear above the machinery and the babble of their own voices as they chatted among themselves and hurled paper darts at one another, generally making the little chaps from South Park look like The Waltons. Empty paper littered the floor and the teacher agreed that the absence of desks hadn't helped and that the location was totally inappropriate.

For the second session, we moved to a classroom. The children began running around and screaming. One jumped out of the window and ran off. A couple of teenage girls sat on the window ledge and chatted. When I said not to write the title yet, they wrote the title. It was impossible to raise any enthusiasm to the sea of blank faces whose concept of 'the next sentence' probably meant three months for TWOCing a car.

Most appeared to be semi literate. Workbooks contained uncorrected spelling mistakes, some of them made by the teachers. 'Loose' instead of 'lose' was common, as was 'its' in place of 'it's'. 'We don't correct them all as we don't want them to lose confidence,' I was told. Shouldn't that have been loose confidence?

But joy of joys when some of the girls completed their short stories. The beautiful heroine, sweetness and light to the end, reached for a sword and hacked off the head of the baddy, releasing a stream of blood across the room. As most of the writers had used the same gory plot, I asked what was going on. 'It's taken from the video games we play.' A poster in the corridor advertising National Reading Week showed the school's chosen theme: Horror.

But it wasn't all gloom and doom. In one class I found some promising work probably because the Head was the teacher in charge and they were all terrified of her. A little boy, who hated writing, worked with me one-to-one and produced a wonderful story about the thing he cared for most - football. We were all staggered and I would have hugged him had I not risked arrest.

I lasted until the end of the third session of the six I'd agreed to run, when it culminated in a mass exodus through the window and the disappearance of my wallet from my bag. It was obvious who'd done it - a special needs pupil who shouldn't have been in my class and wasn't doing any creative writing - but they couldn't find anywhere else to put him. It had taken them months to coerce him back into school after a long absence. They weren't going to jeopardise their chances of rehabilitating him just because my credit cards had got in the way of temptation. Suddenly it was my fault.

The teacher went to find the child and as I left the classroom, a small 12-year-old girl skipped up to me, all smiles. 'Would you like to buy some drugs miss? Cocaine, heroin, whatever you want?'

'Excuse me?'

A little boy intervened. 'She's only joking,' he said, looking alarmed and pulled her away from me. I would like to believe he was telling the truth.

I found the teacher in the staff room chatting to a colleague. Had she found the child, I interrupted? Not yet, she would go and look for him in a minute. When I mentioned the word 'police', she shot out of the room like a human cannonball. I was persuaded not to contact them and my wallet was returned intact with no explanation or apology. I was ushered out of the school rather more quickly than I'd gone in.

A supply teacher said the children were lazy and idle and lacked motivation but the teacher who had given me the dodgy directions said, 'they are wonderful when they get used to you. They always play up with strangers.' Well, that's all right then,' I thought, went home and had a nice cup of tea.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Mysterious past of the Sarajevo Haggadah

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a medieval Jewish prayer book and in her novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks's brilliant history of its origins and survival through the upheavals of Jewish persecution through the ages is not all mythology, for there is such a Haggadah and some of her story is based on fact. Like all authors who possess a creative imagination, she weaves her own story from what she learned about the book during her research. In effect, this novel covers several genres - history, religion, mystery and detective work - and having read books before that attempt mixed genres, she succeeds where others fail. Having a background as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal may have helped with her knowledge of the various countries where the action takes place but it certainly helped with her ability to research; no detail is left uncovered and we receive lessons in the minutiae of book conservation, the art of painting miniatures, wine analysis and much more. Most of it was fascinating and illuminating but I have to say that by the end of the book, the words 'too much  information' came to mind and I wondered why the author felt the need to air quite so much erudition. It happens sometimes. Apart from that, I devoured the book's 368 pages as though I'd just come off a fast.

Some people have compared this book to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and I wasn't surprised to hear that. The thought had already flashed across my mind while the protagonist was flitting from one continent to another without stopping for a loo break or a hamburger and chips and I wondered who was paying her airline bills; this was what I disliked most about Brown's book and what smacked it in the credibility face. That apart, I found People of the Book beyond comparison in that it had far more literary style and a more realistic and original plot and it's written by a seasoned journalist and Pulitzer Prizewinner. The main characters were well developed and had their own lives stranded around the plot until its resolution but there was a cutoff point at which I felt it was time to end and it didn't.

The Haggadah* in question is rescued from the ruins of war-torn Sarajevo - ironically by a muslim (not for the first time) - having originally come to light there in 1894. Ozren Karaman, head of the National Museum library saves it under intense shelling and stores it in a bank vault. In 1996 rare book restorer Hanna Heath is asked to work on the ancient book, which belongs to the Museum. The book, with its lavishly painted miniatures, has survived for 600 years on its journey through wars and persecutions and times of peace where people of all faiths have lived together in harmony. Hannah becomes fascinated by its history - I would even say obsessed - and the clues she picks up from objects she finds trapped within its pages - salt crystals, a hair, wine stains, a butterfly wing - provide the basis of its story as we backtrack in time through its adventures to its origins. It's a fascinating jigsaw of people through the ages, linked by the theme of persecution and how people survive or perish in times of terror.

*What is a Haggadah? It's a prayer book and instruction book for young people used during the home service of Passover and it tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jews fled from bondage. It includes songs and psalms recited to celebrate the Festival. It was introduced nearly 2,500 years ago to comply with words from the Old Testament Exodus, first published as a book in the 13th century and there have been many alterations made over the years with each new version.

People of the Book is published by Harper Perennial, 2008. Geraldine's website is at http://www.geraldinebrooks.com/ and on it she gives the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Howard Jacobson wins the Man Booker Prize 2010

Author Howard Jacobson has waited a long time to win the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and last night he pulled it off with his novel, The Finkler Question, published by Bloomsbury. Long-listed twice - in 2006 for Kalooki Nights and 2002 for Who's Sorry Now - this was the first time he'd been shortlisted and he won on a three to two vote.

Jacobson also takes home a £50,000 prize, quite apart from the prestige, which will result in a boost of sales and a lot of media interest. The novel's themes include love, loss, male friendship and what it means to be Jewish today.

Former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, who chaired the judging panel said: 'The Finkler Question is a marvellous book, very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be. A completely worthy winner of this great prize.'

The judging panel included Rosie Blau, Literary Editor of the Financial Times; Deborah Bull, a former dancer and now Creative Director of the Royal Opera House and a writer and broadcaster; Tom Sutcliffe, journalist, broadcaster and author and Frances Wilson, biographer and critic.

2010 Man Booker Winner Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson (58) was born in Manchester, studied at Cambridge University and taught literature at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. He has written 15 novels and had always wanted to win the Prize. The novel is sad, occasioned by the deaths of close friends and he describes it as 'a dark novel', though it also contains humour. Sir Andrew Motion has described it as 'funny but so nearly adjacent to tragedy...it's highly articulate, everything works in it very well.'

Author Hilary Mantell's novel, Wolf Hall was last year's Man Booker winner. Since then she has sold over half a million copies in the UK and rights in 37 countries.

Your favourite short story survey

The organisers of National Short Story Week want us to tell them about our favourite short stories. So if you log on to http://tinyurl.com/32zg3o7 it will only take you a minute to fill in their survey. What do they want to know?

  • Your favourite short story writer
  • Favourite short story
  • Where you usually read short stories
Not sure about the last one. Does that imply people read short stories in places where they don't read novels or newspapers? (Does anyone still read newspapers?) Would I read novels in bed and short stories in the loo for instance? Or does it mean do I read short stories in magazines or short stories in books? Or am I being obtuse? Or a bit thick?*

Moving on swiftly, you can pass the link to friends and family and find out the results of the survey nearer to National Short Story Week, which takes place on 22-28 November. 

Michael Arditti recommends James Joyce's The Dead, Joanne Harris, Ray Bradbury's Pedestrian and Alexander McCall Smith, Somerset Maugham's The Outstation. My own choices appear in the previous blog where details of the Week are given.

*Having just done the survey myself, they did explain away the ambiguity of the third question but I still don't get its significance. Log on to http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk/ for more about the Week and read the blog below entitled What's Your Favourite Short Story?

Monday, 11 October 2010

Manchester Lit Fest and Blog Awards

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney

One award I won't be winning is this year's Manchester Blog Awards. If only I'd known...I could have nominated myself in the absence of anyone else wanting to do it. It's all part of the current Manchester Literature Festival, which kicked off on Thursday and continues at venues across the city until Monday 25 October. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Children's Laureate Michael Rosen will be appearing while Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney will bring things to a close on the 25th.

Some of the interesting highlights include:
  • Jeanette Winterson at Manchester Cathedral on 21 October delivering the Manchester Sermon
  • Historical novelists and historians Sarah Dunant and Alison Weir
  • Bernard Cornwell talking about his latest novel, The Fort
  • Short story collection Mud: Stories of Sex and Love from Michele Roberts on 20 October at Waterstone's bookshop on Deansgate and Amanda Craig with Hearts and Minds;
  • Crime writers Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah discuss gender roles in fiction and other women's issues in crime fiction at The Whitworth Art Gallery on 22 October.

    Crime writer, Val McDermid
Sixty events on the programme gives participants loads to choose from. A great innovation for Gaskell lovers offers a literary coach tour to the newly restored home of Cranford author Elizabeth Gaskell in the Manchester suburbs and on to The Gaskell Memorial Tower in nearby Knutsford.

Award-winning TV writer and producer, Paul Abbot, a Patron of the Festival, (now in its fifth year and originally a poetry festival), said: 'I am delighted to be a patron of such a ground-breaking festival that brings writers of international repute to the city. Since the festival began, it has not only nurtured emerging local talent, but has also provided these new writers with a valuable showcase for their work, which is so important in today's competitive market.'

Full information can be found at http://www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk/ or phone 0870428 0785.

Manchester Blog Awards logo

As for those blog awards, the shortlist has been decided and this year's event takes place at The Deaf Institute on Grosvenor Street on Wednesday, 20 October. You can read more about it at http://www.manchesterblogawards.com/

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Open College of the Arts pilots mentored writing course

OCA course leader Jane Rogers
I'm a little late mentioning that the Ilkley Literature Festival began last Friday but there's still plenty going on there until 17 October so it's not too late to download a programme from their website - http://www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk/ - or to ring the box office on 01943 816714 - it's easier to get through in the afternoons. A lot of events are sold out, as you can imagine, including the workshop on Character and Voice in the Short Story, on 9 October led by writer Jane Rogers but it isn't my tardiness that robbed you of a great experience, as it sold out immediately it went on the Festival website. Jane Rogers heads up the creative writing courses at the Open College of the Arts (OCA), based in Barnsley but you can drop into the Manor House for free at 1.30pm the same day to hear Jane talk and meet OCA director Gareth Dent and writer Livi Michael, who has recently written a children's course for the College. (Livi's workshop, Write An Historical Children's Story is also a sellout event.)

The Open College of the Arts is an educational charity set up in 1987 'to widen participation in arts education.' Courses include photography, fine art, writing and music and students can gain credits towards a degree, accredited by partner university, Bucks New University - http://www.bucks.ac.uk/ The creative writing courses include poetry, basic writing skills, lifewriting, fiction, and writing for children. The College was founded by Michael Young - Lord Young of Dartington - with the aim of offering distance learning high quality arts courses to the general public under the guidance of professional artists.

The courses are at three levels and students receive professional feedback on their assignments and access to student forums so they can discuss their work with other students and staff. Students enrol from all walks of life, the oldest to date being 92. Around 2,000 people enrol each year and OCA have enrolled over 50,000 worldwide since it began, mostly from the UK. Not all of them want a degree and many study to boost qualifications or just for leisure.

A recent OCA innovation is being piloted for people who don't want to follow a structured writing course but who do feel the need for a mentor to help them develop a work of their own. Forty three-year-old Akiel Chinelo is the first student to enroll on this scheme so that he can develop a book idea. Akiel is a performing storyteller and poet but when it comes to tackling a book, he feels the need for ongoing guidance and support. This is where I come into the picture for I'm the tutor piloting the project. I will be giving Akiel constructive criticism and feedback on various sections of his novel as he submits them and I'll be keeping a careful eye on its structure and development. This is a level three course and if it's successful, it will be open to anyone with a project they would like to develop under the watchful eye of a professional writer and tutor. You can see and hear Akiel talking about his work in the OCA video below.

Akiel Chinelo from Open College of the Arts on Vimeo.

To find out more about OCA courses, visit  http://www.oca-uk.com/ or email enquiries@oca-uk.com or phone: 0800 731 2116 (0044(0)1226 730 495 from outside the UK).

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

What's your favourite short story? National Short Story Week

The first National Short Story Week is nearly upon us. The idea is to focus attention on short story writers, publishers and events and promote literary events and publications nationally and locally. It's up to you what you do about it, so you can organise your own events. The brainchild of audio producer Ian Skillicorn, the aims of the Week have the support of an independent steering group composed of experts in writing, editing, publishing, teaching, producing, broadcasting and performing. Ian, the Week's director was the founder of Short Story Radio and he produces and broadcasts short stories and supports short story writers.

The short story has been a much-neglected form for a long time and I'm glad to see it's becoming popular again. Although there have always been multitudes of writers and would-be writers beavering away and sending their stories out to magazines, there are more writers than outlets for their stories, many of which wing their way back fairly quickly. Publishers of short story anthologies are thin on the ground too, so it's all very well encouraging people to get to work on them if there aren't enough outlets for them.

I expect the Week is as much about reading as writing, so what's your favourite short story? Let's have a vote on it. Mine was ever Oscar Wilde's The Story of Dorian Gray followed closely by Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Writer Katie Fforde, short story week patron
National Short Story Week takes place from Monday, 22 November until Sunday, 28 November and you can learn more about it and how you can get involved on http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk/ They have a list of magazines that publish short stories, which you can search for online.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master

If you think my relationship with Harry the Cat is a little bizarre, it's boringly normal compared to Kat Tansey's Choosing To Be, where she explains how she discovered her cat was actually a Buddhist Zen Master. Through hearing and intuition, Kat communicates with her pet, a beautiful Maine Coon cat called Poohbear Degoonacoon. And in this day of new discoveries and spiritual awakenings, who's to say that she doesn't. Harry the Cat and I have jokey conversations but he always responds to my comments with grunty noises and I think if he had a voicebox he'd be able to express himself properly. He almost always does what I ask of him as though he understands everything I say and when I ask where the birds are his head goes back and he looks straight up into the sky; he makes my piano students laugh when he barges through his door shouting 'hello' at the top of his voice.

So maybe it's not as mad as it sounds. Eckhart Tolle, author of the best-selling Power of Now says, 'I have lived with several Zen masters - all of them cats.' Kat, an American writer, was felled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1993 and found herself in the depths of a suicidal depression. She'd spent the previous 20 years following a high-pressure career in change management when she suffered burn out. How she regained her physical, emotional and spiritual health is described in her book and we follow her journey based on Poohbear's advice according to Buddhist teachings. He tells her to get a kitten and little Catzenbear joins the family. Observing cats in action or even sleeping is a lesson in itself. I learnt the art of perseverance from mine. Never give up, no matter how loud the 'no' becomes. Don't take the shouts personally. They always give in in the end and give you what you want just to get rid of you. But I digress.

Kat Tansey
Poohbear advises meditation and Kat learns how to practise Insight Meditation at a Buddhist meditation centre, which 'helps develop concentrated awareness and gain insight into the changing nature of the mind'. She learns to let her thoughts come and go and to observe them and reflect back on them after they've passed; how to focus on the still points on the body to become more grounded and get rid of the mind chatter. She begins to move forwards with her experiences, each step monitored by Poohbear, until she allows herself to unblock her frozen feelings and respond, first to joy, then to other emotions. 'My dog doesn't worry about the meaning of life. She may worry if she doesn't get breakfast but she doesn't sit around worrying about whether she will get fulfilled or liberated or enlightened,' says Charlotte Beck in Everyday Zen. Animals just are; they do what they do without analysing every movement. They live in the moment; they don't wallow in past hurts or disasters, nor do they worry about the 'whaf if?' of the future, like humans do. These are chains and living in the Now gives us freedom to appreciate our lives and the world around us. Kat Tansey learned to let go of her thoughts and gradually began to live a more peaceful, happy life. With each setback in her meditation, she became ready to take the next step and to see it as an opportunity. She freed herself from what the Buddhists term 'ordinary mind'  - 'a mind hindered by clinging, anger, sleepiness, restlessness and doubt' - the Five Hindrances she conquers with the help of her feline Zen Master.

Julie Lines from Voice of the Animals

Jean Davies from Whiskers Pet Care
For anyone who would like to enjoy a better relationship with their pets, Jean Davies, who runs Whiskers Pet Care in Manchester, http://www.whiskers-petcare.co.uk/ is running 'playshops' in animal communication. She spends most of her time with animals as she looks after people's pets for them when they're away from home. '...I spend a great deal of my time communicating with animals,' she says. 'There are lots of ways that we do this, including verbally, through body language and intuitively. We all have the ability to communicate intuitively, albeit rather dormant in many people, but this is so easy to re-learn.' She co-facilitates the 'playshop' with Julie Lines of Voice of the Animals, http://voiceoftheanimals.org.uk/  on 27/28 November in Manchester. 
Contact Jean Davies for more information at jean@whiskerspetcare.co.uk

Choosing To Be - Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master by Kat Tansey is published by Findhorn Press. Kat is an award-winning author of creative non-fiction books on topics that arrive in her life demanding her attention. She lives on the west coast of America. http://www.choosingtobe.com/

Catzenbear, Poohbear's muse

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Check out your writing style

Cory Doctorow
If I had £1 for every new writing student who tells me they want to be the next JK Rowling, I'd have finished the house renovations long ago and be basking under a Seychelles sun. The basis of creativity is originality and who would want to be the second anything? Then I fell on http://www.iwl.me/ and curiosity took over. I Write Like... tells you whose writing yours resembles and I just couldn't resist it could I? (Please God it's not JK Rowling, I thought.) I pasted in a few paragraphs of prose, pressed Analyse and hey presto, my writing most resembles the style of David Foster Wallace. Well...that isn't so bad; David Ullin, book editor of The Los Angeles Times dubbed him 'one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years' and his great 1996 novel, Infinite Jest was included in Time magazine's All-Time List of 100 Greatest Novels (1923-2006). (Info from Wikipedia, what would I do without it?) Sadly, the author came to a tragic end two years later so I had another go with a different couple of paragraphs and hey presto for the second time, my writing emerged in the style of Cory Doctorow. OK, I buy that, publishers please note.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Special Days and Writing

We have special days for all sorts of things now, including Talk Like A Pirate Day (19 September), World Frog Day (20 March), Towel Day (25 May) and the one I heartily approve of - International Chocolate Day (13 September) so it's good to know that schools are devoting a special day to celebrate writing. Everybody Writes Day takes place this year on Thursday, 21 October when primary and secondary schools leave off the curriculum to indulge in writing activities of one sort or another. Everyone has to participate, not just the pupils and staff but site manager, catering staff and parent volunteers too. This is a Booktrust project (Booktrust, for those who don't know, is an independent national charity based in London for the promotion of reading for pleasure) in partnership with The National Literacy Trust (also a London-based indy charity that changes lives through literacy). http://www.booktrust.org.uk/ and http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/

Planning your own Everybody Writes Day

You can begin planning your own day by logging onto the site at http://www.everybodywrites.org.uk/ and downloading some PDFs of guides for both primary and secondary schools or ask for hard copies. You can also download the logo and find some advice on publicising your Day. If you want to know what schools have done in the past, watch a video clip of Macaulay Primary School's Everybody Writes Day (I tried to download it but you can't be good at everything) or check on activities in other schools suggested on the site. Your project could involve staging an alien spaceship crash landing in the playground to trigger a school newspaper project, a series of after-school workshops for parents and children to write a family history, or even working with a graphic designer and your local authority to make some leaflets promoting recycling to teenagers. Imagination is everything in the writing world and without that writers would have nothing to write about.

The University of Sheffield evaluated Everything Writes in 2009 to see what effect it had on pupils' attitudes to writing and on their standard of work. The report can be downloaded from www.everybodywrites.org.uk/download.php?file=/downloads/EW_final_evaluation_2009.pdf  Their research found that the project had a positive impact on:
  • pupils, teachers and schools;
  • boys' attitudes to writing;
  • children who are reluctant writers and those at risk of underachieving.
Other literary days worth noting in the diary:
  • World Literary Day (8 January)
  • World Book Day (14 March)
  • International Children's Book Day (2 April)
  • International Special Librarian's Day (13 April)
  • International Creativity and Innovation Day (21 April)
  • World Copyright Day (23 April)
  • World Press Freedom Day (3 May) and
  • International Literacy Day (8 September)
Maybe someone will think about launching an International Blogging (or Stop Blogging) Day soon...or even a Month - ever heard of Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month? I'll stop now before it becomes obsessive.