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I’m not especially tech-savvy, so most of what I’ve written below makes no sense to me whatsoever. I’m hoping it means more to you. Anyway, I’m flattered and delighted that my short story, “Letters Home“, is among a select few to feature in a new international story app, called Gimbal. Launched by Manchester-based publisher, Comma Press, Gimbal includes 28 shorts by writers from around the world, each story set in a different city, from Athens to Zurich, Baghdad to Naples and New York to Zagreb. Among the other British writers are David Constantine (with stories set in Salford and Paris), Sean O’Brien (Newcastle and Berlin) and Zoe Lambert (Sarajevo).
My story, about an asylum-seeker in Leeds, was reissued as an e-book single in 2012 but first appeared in The Book of Leeds, published by Comma Press in 2006 as part of their Reading the City project – a series of anthologies featuring stories set in more than 50 urban locations around the world. Gimbal (named after a device which was used in ancient times to steady a ship’s compass), has taken a selection of these stories and others from Literature Across Frontiers’ Tramlines project and made them available via a new app, developed by Toru Interactive.
According to Comma Press, “Gimbal offers a new way of ‘reading the city’. Choose a city – anywhere in the world – and be transported to it by its fiction. Traverse its precincts. Map your way through its quarters or arrondissements. The Gimbal navigates as it narrates. With it you can travel by train, tram, metro, bus or indeed on foot, experiencing each new landscape through the eyes of a fictional character.
Designed with the commuter in mind, the Gimbal enables you to escape the tedium of your everyday ‘known journey’ and take an alternative route, a more scenic, imaginary one across the face of an unknown city. Choose a story according to the city you wish to visit, or the length of time you have to spare, and the listen function will lead you across an interactive map of that city accompanied by an audio reading.”
Gimbal is optimised for iPhone 5, and is also compatible with iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPod touch (3rd generation), iPod touch (4th generation), iPod touch (5th generation) and iPad. Gimbal requires iOS 6.0 or later. It is not yet available in android.
Click here to visit Comma’s website to find out more.
Apologies to those of you who were following my work-in-progress blog posts on The Fourth Wish. Firstly, sorry for failing to post anything for ages. Secondly, I’m sorry to announce that I’ve decided to abandon these updates. It seemed a good idea at the time, and I enjoyed writing the early ones, but I’m just too busy to keep up regular, or even occasional, posts. I need to focus on writing the novel rather than the blog-of-the-novel. My other, newsy blogging will continue as normal.
I’ve been delighted and flattered to receive fanmail from all over the world since Flip was published, but this week I got my first email from a reader in Lebanon. And a very nice one it is too.
Here it is, in full, reproduced with her permission:
“Hello there! My name is Margaux Essey, I’m 16 years old, and I’m writing to you from Lebanon.
I just wanted to let you know that I have just finished reading Flip today, and I bought it 3 days ago. What an amazing book! Wow! I am a person who loves to read, and I was looking for something new and came across it. How? Well, I saw a girl in my class reading it and the upside down cover caught my eye. I picked it up and, let me tell you, I was seriously intrigued. I begged my mom to take me to the bookstore and I bought it as fast as I could.
I really want to show all my affection for this book. Alex is a very likable character and the story is so believable, I fear it may happen to myself. The real Phillip is some cool dude with an awesome goth
sister and, honestly, the contrast between Alex and Flip just made Alex’s panic even more secular.
I love love LOVE this book! I especially felt bad when he visited his own house and his father kicked him out…
I brought this book with me to school and everyone is stopping by at my desk to see this strange book. Believe it or not, I got 5 other people waiting to borrow it from me or buy it! I can’t wait to see
what they think of the book. As for myself, the ending was very satisfying, although I would’ve liked to know more about what happened to the real Flip.
But that aside, thanks a lot for the great read! Have a nice day!”
A trip to the West Midlands beckons next week with a session at the Literally . . . Coventry Book Festival 2013. I’ll be giving a talk and reading, followed by a Q&A, at Foxford School, on Tuesday June 11th and hope to meet some of the students who voted Flip into one of the runners-up spots in the Read It Or Else! category of the Coventry Inspiration Book Awards earlier this year. Among the other authors appearing at the festival, which runs from June 10-15, are Jenny Downham, Cathy Cassidy, Zizou Corder, Sarah Crossan, Alan Gibbons, Andy Mulligan, Celia Rees and Bali Rai.
Click here to link to the full programme and to book tickets.
I’m looking forward to a trip over to Pudsey on Thursday to take part in the 2013 Breeze International Youth Festival. The festival which opened on May 22nd and runs to June 2nd, is a Leeds City Council initiative programmed by young people for young people aged 13-19. This year there are more than 30 performances and workshops taking place across Leeds, in dance, music, drama, film, visual art and literature. I’ll be running a two-hour creative writing workshop for aspiring writers in Pudsey Library, looking in particular at characterization and the craft of structuring a story.
Click here for more information about my event and to access the BIYF website for details of the full programme.
I know, I know, it’s Day 40 of my novel-in-progress and I’m still harking back to Day 27. But I want to give a special mention to two of the 81 students at Scissett Middle School who acted as “research assistants” by completing my three-wishes questionnaire. In asking for the school’s help, I offered to name one of the characters in The Fourth Wish after the student who produced the best – or most useful – wish. As it happens, about ten of them came up with a similar wish which I’ve decided to use in the novel. But two, in particular, had an interesting an original take on the idea which lent it an added dimension. (I’m being coy about exactly what that wish was because I don’t want to give away a key element of the plot.) Anyway, since my earlier blog post, I’ve received permission from the school and the parents to use their names and so I am now able to publicly thank the two students – Jade Ellis and Tierney Rhodes, who are both in Year 8 at Scissett. In their honour, I have called my heroine Gloria Jade Ellis and her best friend Tierney.
A nice review of Teaching Creative Writing has appeared in the Australian magazine, Text Journal. I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the reference to my contribution to the book!
Yoga on the page: Teaching creative writing
review by Helen Gildfind
This book is a compilation of writing exercises from creative writing teachers all over the world, and is aimed at ‘enabling’ other teachers to ‘review, borrow and adapt ideas’ for their own practice. This text is logically and accessibly organised with each contributor introducing and detailing their exercise over a few pages, with a clear explanation of the exercise’s structure and objective.
Each passage is contextualised by its author’s completion of the first exercise in the book, namely Elaine Walker’s ‘ice-breaker’ exercise; this she uses as a ‘getting to know you’ activity for new classes. Though this is not quite a ‘how to write’ book, and not quite a ‘how to teach writing’ book, it indirectly offers useful insights into both of these practices whilst primarily acting as a ‘go to’ book for new and experienced teachers who need original ideas on how to create and structure writing exercises in imaginative and purposeful ways.
This is not the kind of book you read cover to cover, and one of its most useful aspects is its ‘Thematic Index’ which allows readers to identify exercises that cater for a particular need (‘Confidence Building and Ice Breakers’, ‘Developing Writing Practice’), a particular genre (‘Flash Fiction’, ‘Food Writing’, ‘Song Writing’), a particular skill (‘Editing and Redrafting’, ‘Creating Structure in Short Stories’), or a particular student level (‘New Students’, ‘All Stages’, ‘Confident Writers’). This index also allows readers to quickly identify exercises of a particular time-duration, with activities ranging from less than an hour to several weeks.
As I used this index to locate exercises that I might find useful in my own classes – especially those classes that did not work out as well as I’d hoped – what struck me most was just how much we ask of our students. It is so easy to come up with an activity for someone else to do, but – by positioning teachers on the receiving-end of teaching – this text reminds us just how intense, confronting and difficult writing classes can be for students. It is a definite strength of this book that it emphasises the care and clarity needed for good teaching, with its detailed contributions acting as model lesson-plans. Without stating it, this text reminds teachers to keep out of the classroom until they know what they are doing and, most importantly, why they are doing it.
The exercises in this book vary widely, and most could be easily adapted to suit a range of student needs and backgrounds. Martyn Bedford’s exercise ‘Travel writing – from classroom to Khartoum’ illustrates how ostensibly simple activities such as basic note-taking, memory exercises, discussion, and the strategic use of secondary sources, can help students move in two hours from questioning the value of their own experiences to establishing the foundations of a substantial piece of writing.
Diana Chin-a-Fat helps students ‘get into character’ by asking them to imagine past the public personas of celebrities in order to delve imaginatively into the deeper darker secrets that might lurk in their minds. By producing monologues and sharing them, her students learn about perceptions, assumptions, public personas and the credibility of voice.
Allene Nichols combats student shyness and perfectionism by getting them to ‘write a bad poem’. In the process she teaches them to embrace – as all writers must – writing ‘badly’, whilst also teaching them the ‘vocabulary’ of poetry that will enable them to both write and critique poetry in the future.
Ian Williams focuses on the long-term skills his students will need by helping them to establish a ‘daily writing habit’. He gets his ‘young warriors’ to post a new poem on an interactive online forum everyday for 30 days. Steve May also uses technology to re-envision traditional workshopping methods in the belief that paper print-outs give students a false sense of completion with their work. He finds collaborative editing onscreen assists students to shed preciousness and recognise writing as an ongoing process. He notes how onscreen work can allow classes to write collaboratively or even edit the published works of famous writers.
Other contributors use yoga and meditation to ease students into writing tasks, or conjure ‘creative mayhem’ by getting students to collaborate in the writing of manifestos, or guide students in their struggle to create credible narrative voices for children.
As all these examples suggest, the exercises in this text are applicable for student writers at any level of experience and across a range of genres. Nearly all of the activities have been structured with an acute awareness that student writers need a relaxed and trusting classroom atmosphere in order to gain skill and confidence with their work, and most contributors seem equally aware that the best way to get students writing is to focus them on ‘process’ rather than ‘product’.
Teaching Creative Writing is obviously well suited to teachers of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and plays. It offers a practical resource for teachers who are just starting out and lack the confidence or ideas required to create truly engaging classes. This book might even be useful for experienced teachers who suspect that their own methods have become repetitive and uninspiring, or who sense complacency creeping in to their classrooms through the stultifying effects of their own habits.
Less obviously, this text has value for teachers because it emphasises and models the care required to structure classes in an engaging and purposeful manner. The book may even benefit creative writers themselves, for its huge bank of activities offer a means for writers to recover from writer’s block, by providing defamiliarising writing tasks.
Helen Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has had reviews, essays, short stories and poetry published in Australia and overseas. She is currently completing a collection of short stories with the aid of an Australia Council Arts Grant.
I’d intended to write about something else today but after receiving two starkly contrasting messages on Friday I’ve decided to write about confidence instead.
Having passed the 50-page mark in the first draft of The Fourth Wish, I let a couple of trusted readers cast their critical eye over what I’d written so far. I felt it was going well but I wanted some unbiased feedback to reassure me that I was on the right track with this novel (or to flag up any early problems which I’d failed to spot). Back came the responses – a text and an email – within an hour of one another.
The first praised the opening chapters to the hilt and said this book was shaping up to be my best yet.
The second cited the (very fundamental) things the reader didn’t like about it and suggested I ought to give up on the idea and write something else instead.
I could spend several hundred words describing my response to their responses, but “flummoxed” sums it up pretty well. Not least because, in the past, both readers have not only proven to be insightful and valued critics of my work-in-progress and both have invariably been in tune with it. By that I mean that they’ve always liked the aspects I felt good about and raised concerns about the aspects I myself was unsure about. Unaware of each other’s feedback, they’ve almost always been singing from the same hymn-sheet.
Which has left me in a dilemma. Any writing student will know the problem: how to square the circle of two diametrically opposing critiques? And any writer (any writer of a certain disposition, that is) will also appreciate that, faced with good news and bad news, it’s the bad news that wins out. In an overwhelmingly positive review which contains one quibbling or critical sentence, it’s that one sentence which nags away at you, puts you in a grump, wakes you up in the middle of the night.
Which dents your confidence.
Right now, with only 24 hours to digest yesterday’s messages, my confidence – in this novel, in myself as a writer – is around my ankles and heading floorwards. This time yesterday I was feeling upbeat about The Fourth Wish, I had a metaphorical spring in my step. After spending most of last year grinding through rewrites of Never Ending, I was writing with an enjoyment, a freedom – and, yes, a confidence – I hadn’t experienced since first draft of Flip. I loved this book. I loved writing it.
Now, I glance at the typescript in its folder as if it was a plague-riddled rat squatting on my desk.
My gut instinct tells me I should keep the faith with this novel. My self-doubt tells me it’s a pile of shite. Of course, I’ve been here, or somewhere similar, before. But despite having written seven previous novels and encountered crises of confidence of all shapes and sizes, each new crisis reduces me to the status of a novice fumbling blindly for a way out of it.
from The Book of Ruminations, by Qi Tinh (AD 151 – 203)
Qi Tinh has just one thing to say about the relationship between confidence and creativity. It comes in an epigraph, right at the beginning of the book. Here it is: “The artist who has no confidence in himself should stop here, at the threshold of this book. It has nothing to offer him. The artist who is replete with confidence should keep him company.”
It’s so many years since my first novel, Acts of Revision, was published (1996) that it’s rare for me to come across a new reference to it on the internet these days. (By “come across”, what I’m saying, of course, is that I Google myself from time to time.)
So, I was surprised and mightily pleased to find it included in a list of “all-time favourite stories on the theme of revenge”, submitted by members of the American BookRiot website. That Acts of Revision made it on to the list was flattering enough but, even more so, was to see my name sitting side by side with the likes of Euripides, Alexandre Dumas, Honore de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Emily Bronte, Herman Melville, Ken Kesey, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Ian McEwan and Colleen McCullough. Oh, and Shakespeare.
To link to the full list of revenge-themed works of fiction on the BookRiot blog, click here.
I mentioned a couple of blogs ago that I came up with the title of my novel-in-progress, The Fourth Wish, before it was actually in progress . . . and before I had any idea what my heroine might wish for. To be honest, I’m not at all sure what I would wish for, if I was granted three wishes (let alone a fourth wish). So, as a 53-year-old man, how could I begin to imagine what wishes a 14-year-old girl might make?
Of course, I used to be fourteen years old myself at one time. For about a year, as I recall. But that was way back in 1973. And I was a boy. Even if I could tap into that version of myself and conjure up some credible wishes, would they necessarily ring true as the wishes of a teenage girl in 2013?
Time, then, for some market research. In the two years since Flip was published, I’ve visited schools all over the country to give talks and readings and to run creative writing workshops – including three very enjoyable visits to Scissett Middle School, near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. The students who have attended my sessions at Scissett have been bright and engaged, a pleasure to meet and work with, and the librarians and teaching staff have always made me very welcome.So I emailed one of the English teachers, Maura Ryan, to ask if she would mind getting a group of her students to respond to the question: “If you could have three wishes, what would you wish for?” I added the condition that each wish should be specific to them personally – so no wishing for world peace, or an end to famine, or for Huddersfield Town to win the Champions League.
I was both immensely grateful and, frankly, staggered that 81 students from Years 7 and 8 filled in their responses – making 243 wishes in all. Having sifted through them, I will be using two of these wishes for my central character, Gloria, and several of the others as wishes which she considers but eventually rejects. I won’t reveal which wishes I’m using because I don’t want to give away the plot (and the plot might change, in any case, as the novel progresses . . . my plots usually do).
But I thought it would be interesting to share some of the responses, to give a glimpse of what a cross-section of today’s youngsters would wish for. I’ve divided them by gender, to highlight the similarities and differences between what the boys and the girls wished for.
Most common boys’ wishes
1. travel back in time
2. infinite wishes
3. super powers
4. live forever
5. rule the world
6. be invisible
7. ability to fly
8. know (or choose) the time and place of my death
9. inifinte wealth
10. travel into space
Most common girls’ wishes
1. travel back in time/travel into the future
2. know what are other people are thinking
3. put right the wrongs I’ve done
4. eternal happiness
5. become famous/be a famous singer
6. live forever
7. infinite wealth
8. ability to fly
9. perfect face/body
10. ability to talk to animals
Among the wishes unique to individual students, as opposed to those which cropped up several times, my favourites inlcuded:
- for book characters to be real so I could be friends with Katniss Everdeen
- A TV remote that pauses real people you don’t like
- no more school, ever
- to know if there’s a Heaven and a God
and best, if most disturbing, of all:
- to be a vampire, to know what it’s like to suck the life out of someone you care about.
(The Fourth Wish is not a vampire novel, by the way.)
from The Book of Ruminations, by Qi Tinh (151 – 203 AD)
He makes this clear in the coda to The Book of Ruminations, with perhaps the best-known and most widely quoted of his epigrams:
“I wish that I might travel back in time to meet my adolescent self and show him the true path. But why should that youth heed the counsel of an old man who has taken so many wrong turns?”