Category Archives: General
A commission to contribute an essay on creativity to a leading literature website has allowed me to explore an issue which has been on my mind recently: on the journey from wannabe writer to professional author, do you lose some of the freshness and freedom of expression that characterized your early, unpublished work? Can the act of writing be inhibited by the demands of being a writer?
This is the topic I’ve chosen to write about in “Writing Myself into a Corner”, a 1500-word piece which has been published online in Collected, a weekly series of articles, essays and reflections by writers on the art and craft of the creative process, which is published by the Royal Literary Fund.
Here are the opening paragraphs:
In my twenties, I acquired the habit of rising early each morning to write for an hour before heading into work. Back then, I was unpublished, an aspiring novelist, more focused on writing than on becoming a writer. I already had a full-time job as a newspaper journalist, so my fiction writing had to be fitted into my spare time. I’m a morning person, hence the pre-breakfast regime.
To begin with, I produced fragments: responses to prompts in creative writing books, character sketches, stand-alone scenes, abortive stories and novels. Often, I simply free-associated, scribbling the first thought that entered my head and seeing where it led, resulting in pages of stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry. Unreadable, for the most part. Some mornings, I would just gaze out of my window and describe whatever was going on — which wasn’t usually very much, at 6 a.m., in an East Oxford side-street. The milkman often featured in my embryonic work, recast as an MI5 agent (peeping tom, undercover cop, serial adulterer), his delivery round a front for his nefarious activities… or his existentialist musings, during my homage-to-Sartre phase.
Nothing I wrote in that period made it into print. Rightly so. For the most part, it was amateurish, ill-formed, and immature; or, more generously, ‘developmental’. Publication wasn’t the point, though. These were experiments in creative process: flexing my imagination, putting words down any old how, settling into the rhythms of my mind and the motion of pen across page. The writing gurus I was in thrall to at the time assured me such methods were not an indulgence but indispensable to the true expression of my creative self.
Brenda Ueland, in her classic If You Want to Write, urged me to ‘Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate! Write any old way.’ I should not be anxious, timid, restrained or afraid in my writing, she advised, because these were the enemies of creativity. The tutor of the adult-education evening class I attended advised: ‘Don’t be scared to try things and rip them up if they don’t work.’
From the perspective of thirty years’ hindsight – twenty-two of them as a published novelist – those days of free-writing spontaneity might belong to some other writer’s past…
To read the piece in full, or to check out some of the other articles in the archive, please click on this link to the RLF website. I’m grateful to Collected‘s editor, Christina Koning, for commissioning, editing and publishing the essay.
I thought I’d share a spread of photos from my recent visit to Tuscany to tutor a residential retreat for The Art of Writing. The attendees at the one-week course in Casentino, in the wooded hills above Florence, converged from all over the world – America, Australia, Brazil, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK – to take part in workshops, seminars, tutorials and readings, and to develop their works-in-progress. Plenty of excellent Italian food and wine was enjoyed, too!
The Art of Writing is run by Australian-born author and blogger Lisa Clifford, who has lived in Tuscany for many years. To find out more please click here to visit her website. I’m grateful to the photographer-in-residence, Jilly Bennett, and social media consultant Georgette Jupe for permission to reproduce these photographs.
I’m looking forward to a trip to Manchester this week for a celebration of independent publishing in the north of England. I’ll be one of eight writers sharing a stage at the first Northern Fiction Alliance roadshow, to mark the formation of a new collective of indie presses.
The event, from 6-8pm on Tuesday 26th September, at Waterstones, Deansgate, will showcase a variety of NFA presses and books, with talks and readings from editors and authors. I’ll be reading an extract from “Withen”, my story about the battle of Orgreave, which is published in Protest, the latest anthology from Manchester-based Comma Press.
Here’s the full line-up of writers:
Martyn Bedford (Comma Press)
Heidi James (Bluemoose Books)
Joanna Walsh (And Other Stories)
Paul Hanley (Route)
Jacob Ross (Peepal Tree Press)
Naomi Booth (Dead Ink Books)
Benjamin Myers (Mayfly)
Graeme Macrae Burnet (Saraband)
Tickets cost £3 and include a glass of wine or soft drink on arrival. There will also be a 10% discount on any books purchased on the night published by any of the presses in attendance. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or tweet us @waterstonesmcr.
A fun week was had by all (I hope!) at Lumb Bank last week when fifteen aspiring novelists gathered for a residential writing course, which I co-tutored with the excellent writer and all-round lovely person, Catherine Johnson.
The five-day course at the Arvon Foundation‘s centre in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire (the former home of the poet, Ted Hughes), focused on young-adult fiction and was aimed at more advanced writers who already have work-in-progress. The participants travelled from all parts of the north of England – and from London in several instances – to take part in workshops, individual tutorials, talks and readings . . . and to enjoy plenty of great food (and drink).
The group produced a wide variety of impressive work during the week – either from their own novels or in response to the writing exercises we set – and the Friday-night showcase was a real celebration of their talent and an inspiring way to round off the course.The special guest on the Wednesday evening was Sarah Crossan, winner of the 2016 Carnegie Medal and one of the most feted of the current crop of leading YA authors, who spoke engagingly and with bracing honesty about her career as a writer and her passion for writing fiction in verse. It was a privilege to work with Sarah again (we shared a stage at the Ilkley Literature Festival a few years ago) and to work with Catherine for the first time.
This was my ninth stint as a tutor at Lumb Bank and my 14th Arvon course in total, having taught three at Totleigh Barton, in Devon, and two at The Hurst, in Shropshire. I also tutored at the Scottish equivalent, Moniack Mhor, last year. If you haven’t been on a residential writing course I can highly recommend them – they’re certainly great fun to tutor! Here’s a link to the Arvon website.
I spent an unusual but very enjoyable hour at BBC Radio Leeds this week, when I made my debut as a guest on the “Wednesday Witter” segment of Andrew Edwards‘ afternoon show. Along with my fellow guest – Carol Robertson, a charity fundraiser and cyclist – we discussed three topics which were in the news that day: stereotypes in advertising; taking early retirement (a la Daniel Day Lewis); and the summer solstice.
Here I am (above) pictured in the studio with Andrew and Carol as we were about to go on air. It must have gone okay because the show’s producer has invited me back to do some more wittering in August.
I spent a very enjoyable half-hour in a studio at BBC Radio Leeds yesterday afternoon, chatting to presenter Johnny I’Anson on The Book Club. He invited me on to the show after Twenty Questions for Gloria won the Coventry Inspiration Book Awards, so we discussed that novel and my writing more generally.
If you’re interested in hearing the interview, please click on this link (my segment starts at 1:35:20).
One of my Creative Writing MA students has conducted a Q&A style interview with me about my writing for a blog post on the Leeds Trinity University website.
It’s the latest in a series of blogs by Esther Dreher, a poet and short-story writer in her first year of the MA; her previous posts have covered visits to the programme by guest speakers as part of the Writing as a Profession module, including Ian Duhig (poet), Linda Green (novelist), Rachel Conway (literary agent), and Ra Page (editor, Comma Press).
To whet your appetite, here’s an extract from my Q&A:
Q: Certain novels I have read and loved leave me feeling a little deflated, as I feel I could never write anything as good as that. Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, in its originality and imaginativeness, would be a key example for me. Are there any books that have left you feeling like that, and what is your approach to coming up with original ideas?
A: How curious, because if I were to list books which have made me feel I could never write anything as good, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle would be among the top three. Depending what mood I’m in, novels as brilliant as this can make me think ‘why bother?’ or they can remind me why I loved writing in the first place and send me back to my keyboard inspired (even in the knowledge that I am no Murakami, nor ever will be). As for coming up with original ideas, I don’t have ‘an approach’. Can one approach originality? For me, it comes (from somewhere), or it doesn’t. All I can do is hope that I recognise an original idea when I have one . . . and figure out what to do with it.
To read the interview in full, and to check out Esther’s previous posts on the Leeds Trinity website, please click on this link.
I’ve taught creative writing in a fair few places over the years – from the Scottish Highlands to Melbourne, Australia, and most corners of England – but I’m especially excited to have been invited to tutor a residential course in Tuscany next year.
The week-long course is hosted by The Art of Writing, founded by Lisa Clifford, an Australian ex-pat writer who has lived in Italy for many years. Lisa runs two “retreats” a year at a small hotel in Casentino, in the beautiful upper Arno Valley, less than an hour’s drive from Florence. I’ll be the guest tutor for the autumn retreat in 2017 – from September 10 to 16 – when a group of ten writers from around the English-speaking world will converge on the Tuscan mountains for six days of creative indulgence.
The mornings will be taken up with workshops in the hotel’s garden gazebo – covering a range of topics such as characterization, plot, setting and voice – with writing time and individual tutorials in the afternoons, followed by early evening sessions with literary agents, editors and other publishing professionals. The week will also include a trip to a medieval castle and a chance to make cheese. (I WON’T be leading that class!) There’ll be plenty of wining and dining, too. What’s not to like?
To visit the Art of Writing website and find out more please click here.
And here’s a link to a Q&A I’ve done for their blog.
It was a long but enjoyable trip down to London on Saturday for YA Shot 2016, one of the highlights of the teenage-books festivals calendar. I left home at 8.30am and arrived back at 8.30pm, in the midst of which was a 55-minute panel session on young-adult crime fiction: There Will Be Blood.
I arrived at the Civic Centre, in Uxbridge, to discover that one of the panellists – Tanya Byrne – had suffered an accident en route and wouldn’t be able to make it (nothing too serious, I hope, although I’m still waiting to hear how she is.) It was a real shame because I’d read and enjoyed her three YA novels – Heart-Shaped Bruise, Follow Me Down and For Holly – and was looking forward to meeting and working with her.
Thankfully, the other panel member was there – Simon Mason, a successful author of fiction for adults and younger children who has recently turned his hand to YA, with the first two novels in the Garvie Smith detective series: Running Girl and Kid Got Shot. Simon is also managing director of the excellent independent press, David Fickling Books, publishers of some of the best teen fiction in recent years.
He was great to work with, and a knowledgeable and eloquent speaker, making my job as chair very easy. Between the two of us, we managed to compensate for Tanya’s absence by doing enough talking for three people and an appreciative audience chipped in with some interesting questions at the end. Our event was one of more than 30 sessions during the day – from talks, readings and book signings, to panel discussions, workshops and on-stage interviews.
There were 70 authors taking part, including some leading names from the world of YA: Sara Barnard, Holly Bourne, Keren David, Jenny Downham, Kathryn Evans, Natasha Farrant, Clare Furniss, Lisa Heathfiled, Rhian Ivory, Lauren James, Catherine Johnson, Tanya Landman, Patrice Lawrence, Hayley Long, Zoe Marriott, Andy Robb, S.F. Said and Holly Smale.
YA Shot 2016, brilliantly organised and run by Alexia Casale and her team, was part of Culture Bite, Hillingdon Borough Council’s month-long arts, theatre, music and literature festival , which runs to the end of October. The day culminated in the annual YA Bloggers Awards.
I’m grateful to Nazy at The Enchanted Bookcase for hosting my visit to her excellent website as part of the YA Shot 2016 blog tour.
YA Shot is an annual all-day festival for young-adult and middle-grade readers, bloggers, vloggers and aspiring writers, which is being held this year in Uxbridge, West London, on Saturday October 22nd, with more than 70 authors taking part in panel and in-conversation events, workshops and book signings. For my part, I’ll be chairing a panel discussion – “There Will Be Blood: murder and other crimes in YA” – with fellow YA writers Tanya Byrne (Heart-Shaped Bruise; Follow Me Down; For Holly) and Simon Mason (Running Girl).
The build-up to this year’s festival includes a blog tour by participating authors. My stopping-off point on the tour was The Enchanted Bookcase, a YA book reviews site, which invited me to post a blog on my switch from adult fiction to writing for teenagers. To whet your appetite, here’s the opening of the piece:
I have a former editor to thank for my first novel for teenagers – I wrote it because he advised me not to. After more than 12 years writing fiction for adults I had an idea for a story more suited to a younger audience. When I mentioned it over a pizza one day, the editor shook his head.
“You don’t want to write one of those.”
“Why not?” I asked.
He didn’t really give a reason, just shook his head again. With the teen market so buoyant, perhaps he thought I was jumping on the bandwagon, or that I wouldn’t be able to write well for that readership. Maybe he foresaw a “re-branding” problem. Whatever, I came away from that lunch feeling cross. Like any author, I resented being told what to write – or what not to write (he hadn’t even asked what the story was about!) I decided to go ahead with my YA novel and to hell with him, even if he had just paid for my pizza.
To read the full post, and to visit the rest of The Enchanted Bookcase site, please click on this link.
And follow this link for full details of the YA Shot 2016 programme.← Older posts