Tuesday, 24 December 2013

JaNoWriMo anyone?

November was not a great month for me – almost everything that could have happened, happened, and so my attempt at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) was scuppered before it even began.
Unsurprisingly, December has been super busy, not just with Christmassy goings on but with a LOT of family birthdays and several other things which I won't go into. And yet, while everything seems to have been working against me writing-wise, I've been making slow, steady progress on a new story. It's a MG fantasy adventure (just for a change!) and will hopefully be as much fun to read as I'm finding it to write. However, I'd dearly like to ramp my writing up a gear – and so, I'd like to invite anyone who's willing to join me in a January version of NaNoWriMo, which I have unimaginatively named JaNoWriMo! Basically it'll run throughout the month of January, in the same format as NaNo but without the official NaNo badge of honour.
During January I'll put as many updates on my blog/twitter/FB page as I can and encourage anyone wanting to join in to add to my posts/tweets. So, with eight days to go, I hope you will join me, or if not, egg me on to complete a whopping 50,000 words by the end of January! But first, may I wish you all a Merry Christmas and happy new year :)

Friday, 22 November 2013

Ten Ways to Boost your Writing Practise

Every sporting and musical activity has some kind of warm up, so why should creative writing be any different? It's important to get those creative muscles working every day, even if it's only for a few minutes. Even the most seasoned writers have days when they get stuck on a piece they're writing or feel completely uninspired to write anything at all. We've all been there - those days when you think "Why do I bother?" and "Will I ever be inspired again?" and "Shall I just pack it all in now?" But remember these feelings won't last and there are lots of fun ways to get going again - here are some of my favourites:

1. Pick a writing prompt to kick start a writing session, such as those found at http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts

2. Attend a writing workshop / course / retreat

3. Join a writers' group - sharing your work and listening to others' work can be inspiring

4. Go for a long walk in the countryside or any green space you can find - ideally somewhere with trees or water

5. Use another art form for inspiration - visit an art gallery / museum, go to the theatre, watch a great film

6. Dance madly (indoors with the blinds shut - not in the street!) to your favourite music or go to a dance class (I love zumba!)

7. Sing your head off to your favourite songs (in the house or the car - I don't recommend serenading everyone in the high street unless you're already a licensed busker!)

8. Practise yoga, tai chi or some other kind of mindful exercise

9. Gardening - from planting to weeding - looking after plants and trees brings me back to nature and helps me focus

10. Last but not least, keep reading! (novels, poetry, comics - whatever you like!)

Of course, everyone has their own sources of inspiration, so if these don't work for you please don't despair - just keep trying new activities until you find what works for you!

Monday, 18 November 2013

From Missing Cherries to Better Writing

My last blog post gave you ten things it takes to be a writer but it didn't cover everything. Also essential is:
- An obsession for detail – from spotting spelling and grammatical mistakes to working out what might be missing from your story. This is an obvious one which I won't go on about and some may argue that you can always get someone else to proof your work and offer suggestions on plot/character.
- Trusting your subconscious – realising that no matter how hard you try to make things happen at the 'right' moment – i.e. while you're at your writing desk – that the really important stuff only comes into your head when you're not even thinking about it, usually when you're not even writing. Unfortunately this means that inspiration hits you at the most inopportune moments – in the car, in the shower, 5 in the morning etc.
I was set off on this train of thought by some missing cherries (yes really!) As well as being a writer I'm also a busy mum and one of the (very) few luxuries I treat myself to is having the weekly food shop delivered. And sometimes things are missing. The last time but one the shopping delivery was missing some cat food, an obvious error which I spotted straight away. The supermarket in question kindly recompensed me with a voucher to cover the cat food and the delivery charge. So this time I decided to treat the family to some cherries – they were on offer but still expensive in my opinion! Anyway, the shopping was delivered on Saturday and as I've had a lot on my mind lately I didn't notice anything was missing at first. However at 5am this morning (Tuesday) I found myself wide awake. One of my first thoughts was “Where are the cherries?!” After trying and failing to get back to sleep I finally got up and went to check the shopping receipt and the cupboards. I was right – two packs of cherries were on the bill but there were none in the cupboards. Of course I know this will be put right and that will be the end of it. But the point I'm making is:
- how important it is to check the details; and,
- how the subconscious mind always finds a way of always telling you what you need to know.

What Makes a Good Creative Writer?

It takes a great many qualities to become a good creative writer; here are 10 of them:

1. A love of reading – this comes first and is as important as a love of writing

2. A love of writing – pretty obvious, unless you've never tried writing before

3. A love of words – meaning you are dedicated to finding / using the right words / phrases for whatever it is you are writing

4. A good imagination – crucial!

5. Good powers of observation – being a people watcher and an eavesdropper!

6. A love of telling stories – always telling stories to anyone who will listen

7. Being disciplined – establishing and sticking to some kind of writing routine

8. Being thick skinned – being able to take criticism / rejection

9. Being patient – and I MEAN patient – especially when waiting for agents or the publishing process

10. A lifelong dedication to improving your writing skills – attending workshops and courses, reading books about writing, attending author talks, joining a writers' group, joining an online critique group and anything else that improves your writing skills.

I think I've covered the main qualities, but feel free to add any others you think are missing!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Festival Beginnings

How ILF all began: a Q&A with First Festival Director Michael Dawson

There are many stories surrounding the early years of the Ilkley Literature Festival. The only ones who know the truth are those who were there. During a frank Q&A session, the first Festival Director Michael Dawson revealed some memorable moments and dispelled at least one myth.

It's long been thought the festival was devised during the 1971 postal strike. In fact, Michael (then Director of the Yorkshire Arts Association) and Peter Harland (then editor of the Telegraph & Argus and Chair of the Yorkshire Arts Literature Panel) had dreamt up the festival some time before the strike, although Michael admitted it had given them “a little more time to plan”. He said the myth started because of a press release he and Peter issued which used the postal strike as their hook.

During his Q&A, Michael recalled many (actual) events – here's a selection:

In 1977, French writer Marguerite Duras, upon seeing the Kings Hall before her performance, disliked the venue so much that she used some choice words and almost left before her show. One hour and a few malt whiskies later she was persuaded to stay and gave her talk (in French). Michael recalled how, a week after her Ilkley appearance, she performed at the Carnegie Hall, although this time her performance was in English.

Germaine Greer refused her invitation when she was invited to join the festival’s first ‘Women and Literature Symposium’. The reason? Jilly Cooper was also due to attend. Michael recalled: “I got an extraordinary letter from Germaine Greer saying she'd never appear on stage alongside Jilly Cooper.”

The performance of Ted Hughes' Cave Birds in 1975 was both dramatic and eventful. Michael described the event as 'excellent' and said the drama was heightened by a blood-curdling scream from an audience member. At the time it was assumed the scream was part of the show, which continued uninterrupted. It was only later people realised the woman had been distressed by the slide show and had vomited in the foyer.

Yorkshire Arts insisted Michael had to organise everything in his spare time. This meant he could only dedicate half a day a week to the festival. He relied heavily on volunteers, including his whole family. His wife Megan organised parades, street theatre and shop displays, while his children got involved in the technical side of things, helping Michael to record some memorable performances.

There were many last-minute challenges, including a blown bulb on a projector hours before a performance. Michael found himself waiting at a petrol station halfway between Ilkley and York waiting for a replacement bulb to arrive so the show could go ahead (the supplier wouldn't come any further!). He got back to Ilkley to discover the replacement bulb damaged the slides. Michael laughingly recalled fetching a screen from home which was “far too small for anyone to see the pictures properly.”

When asked if he had had a grand vision of the festival's future, Michael replied: “No, I just hoped it wouldn't fold.” As he said at the time: “I think we can do it better than Cheltenham”, but he wasn't expecting anyone as famous as W.H. Auden to appear until Eric Walter White said they should 'aim for the top' and get Auden involved. When asked what Auden's performance was like, Michael said: “He wasn't bad at reading his own poetry – it wasn't dramatic but it was good.”

Towards the end, audience members recalled their favourite festival moments, including the controversy over the Minotaur sculpture (it became a national story) and Conor Cruise O'Brien's visit (he was number one on the IRA's hit list prompting his host to answer the phone as bogus characters just in case).

To close, Michael recalled and thanked the many committee members and volunteers from the early days, without whom he said “it would have been impossible.” He said he had “many happy and chaotic memories of the festival”.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things

If you were asked to describe Jane Austen (the woman) what would you say? An ambitious, independent, cosmopolitan, satirical, politically-aware woman? Perhaps not the description you would associate with 'dear aunt Jane' (as she was known to her ever-growing family).
As I observed the full house and waited for the event to begin, the buzz of excitement was so great, it was as if Austen herself was about to appear. This year marks the bicentenary of the first publication of Pride & Prejudice, so what is it about this ordinary clergyman's daughter that continues to inspire so many readers today? Who is the real Jane Austen?

From Womb to Tomb – and Beyond!

From the moment she started speaking, Paula Byrne's enthusiasm captivated the audience. She explained 'The Real Jane Austen' was her third biography and that her first biography, 'Perdita: the Life of Mary Robinson', was very conventional (from 'womb to tomb' as she put it). She said while writing it she became so fed up she just wanted to get it finished, which she thankfully did. It got short listed by the Richard and Judy Book Club and became a top ten best seller. After that, she was given free reign to try something new. Instead of an ordinary 'womb to tomb' biography, she did a year in the life of Evelyn Waugh as seen through the eyes of an upper class family (the same family that inspired him to write 'Brideshead Revisited').

Paula's unique approach was a success, however, when she told her publisher she wanted to do Jane Austen they were sceptical, saying there was nothing new to say. But Paula was determined and set about 'gathering' all the objects that Jane Austen owned to write 'The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things'. When she couldn't find enough of Jane's possessions to do this, she decided to use objects not only owned by Jane, but by members of her family and other objects associated with that period.

Objets D'Art
Paula showed us a series of slides featuring objects which had inspired her. The exception was the first slide which featured an extract from Mansfield Park where Fanny Price, escaping from her bullying uncle, is staring at a set of objects including a set of family profiles and a sketch of a ship. The ship sketch reminded Paula of Jane's two brothers in the navy and the naval characters and references in Mansfield Park and Persuasion.
The next slide featured a family profile, which was a 'cheap' version of a miniature. The profile on the slide depicted the Knights and Edward, the Austen's eldest son. The Knights were a wealthy childless couple who adopted Edward (this was not unusual) and, after his first wife died (giving birth to their eleventh child), Edward provided his mother and sisters with a much-needed home.

Cosmopolitan Connections
Next we were shown a cashmere shawl. Jane owned more than one thanks to her aunt Philadelphia who, escaping her awful milliner's job in Covent Garden, sailed to Madras with a group of women nicknamed the 'fishing fleet' (they were fishing for husbands). Jane's aunt not only survived the six month boat trip, but she met and married Dr Hancock. The couple remained childless for eight years until they moved to Calcutta and met Warren Hastings. Shortly after, Philadelphia had a daughter (Eliza) who looked very like Hastings, causing much speculation.
The next object was one of Jane's vellum notebooks. Only three of these survive and it was from them that her earliest writings (aka 'Juvenilia') were discovered. In these stories she talks about things like curry, an Indian muslin, mangoes and pipes of Madeira. Paula told us the 'Juvenilia' are rude, funny and outrageous – Jane satirises the great writers of her day and does it well. As for the notebooks themselves, they are full of chapter headings and dedications and Jane refers to herself as the 'humble author', all clues that she intended to be a professional writer. They also contain fun portraits of her family as 'royals' and possibly a portrait of the young Jane herself.

Lifelong Friends

Next up was a lovely miniature of Jane's cousin Eliza as a child. Paula said that, besides her sister Cassandra, Eliza was a big influence on Jane. It's even possible that she was the inspiration for Mary Crawford. The flamboyant Eliza was different from anyone else Jane knew: born in Calcutta, married to a French aristocrat who was later guillotined, then married to Jane's brother Henry. Paula said knowing Eliza meant Jane would also have known a lot about the French Revolution.
Another, perhaps even greater, friendship was formed between Jane and Anne Lefroy, a keen reader and poet who became Jane's literary mentor. Like Eliza, Anne was much older than Jane. An inspirational figure, Anne opened a school for the poor children of the surrounding area and vaccinated them against smallpox.
Both Jane's friends died prematurely: Anne on Jane's 29th birthday following a freak riding accident and Eliza of breast cancer when Jane was 37 (Jane nursed her during her final days).
The next slide was a regency-period painting of two sisters with one holding a letter. To Paula, this painting, although not of Jane and Cassandra, was symbolic of the lifelong friendship and correspondence between the two sisters. It's thought the sisters exchanged up to 6,000 letters and that Cassandra kept all of them until two months before her own death, when she burned all but 160. Cassandra even edited some of those that remained, making Paula wonder how naughty they must have been, considering the wicked humour in the surviving letters.
Paula is convinced Jane never married for two reasons: firstly because she was determined to become a published author and secondly because Cassandra, distraught at losing her fiancé, decided she would never marry.

Ticket to Ride

For Paula, the image of a yellow barouche represents many things, including how much Jane travelled – attending three different boarding schools, visiting Southampton, Bath, Kent, London etc. It also conjures up memorable scenes such as Mr Elton propositioning Emma in the carriage, Willoughby showing off in his curricle or Catherine being forced to travel 70 miles alone, on public transport (not something done by respectable young ladies!). In 1813, Jane also writes a wonderful description of herself driving around London in a barouche while visiting her London publisher.

Soldiering On
Another slide showed a military hat. The militia feature very heavily in Pride and Prejudice and Jane's brother Henry was part of the militia during the bread riots of 1795 when two of the Oxford militia were shot and several flogged. In Pride and Prejudice the militia decamp to Brighton – war was a constant threat and Jane was definitely aware of it.
Paula disputes the claim that Jane didn't write for 10 years – she thinks that getting published was a struggle, but Jane persisted even though it took years. And when it finally did happen it was by Edgerton's Military Library (most definitely Henry's influence).

Close Calls
Paula showed us a card of lace and explained one of Jane's aunts was a kleptomaniac and had once been caught stealing a card of lace. She was put on trial but got off, although Jane's family would have been affected by the scandal.

We were shown a portrait of Harris Bigg-Wither who once proposed to Jane. Although Paula thinks it likely Jane would have had more than one marriage proposal, this was the only one she accepted. However, she soon changed her mind.
Next was a picture of Jane's writing box, or 'laptop' as Paula called it, showing us how it was possible for Jane to write on the hoof. In fact, once she even left it on a stagecoach, meaning Pride and Prejudice almost ended up in the West Indies!

Question Time
Paula had to cut the slide show short to fit in questions from the audience:
Q: How did Jane get published in the first place?
A: It was difficult to get published at that time but one of the ways was to pay the outlay for the printing, advertising, etc. (a form of vanity publishing) which is what Jane did. She had to borrow £50 which Paula thinks she got from Mrs. Knight.
Q: What's Paula's favourite Austen novel?
A: Mansfield Park as it's dark, edgy, troubled and deals with a newly-built estate funded by the slave trade. At one point Sir Thomas has to go to Antigua because the slaves were revolting. She also loves the characters Henry and Mary Crawford. And Fanny Price is an unlikely heroine – the total opposite of Elizabeth Bennett.
Q: What does Paula think of modern sequels to Jane's novels?
A: Paula thinks anyone who writes them is very brave but she almost doesn't want to read them. She's been asked to review Joanna Trollope's reworking of Sense and Sensibility but isn't looking forward to it. She said she didn't like 'Death at Pemberley' (a thought echoed by the lady sitting next to me!)

My only real criticism of this event was that it seemed too short – Paula was an excellent speaker, clearly passionate about her subject and I would have loved for it to go on much longer. I suppose the only way to find out more is to buy her book!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Two Poets: Jo Shapcott and Stevie Ronnie (A Steward's View)

Today was my first day as a festival steward at Ilkley Literature Festival. In fact it was my first day as a festival steward full stop and so I was thankful to have company. Although working at different events, my friend L was also a first-time steward and, as we drove over to Ilkley, we shared our excitement and apprehension. Once parked and lunched, we wandered about to get our bearings. L's shift started much earlier than mine so, once she'd gone, I killed some time in the library and a café before making my way to St. Margaret's Hall.
As I arrived at the venue I bumped into a friendly steward who was on her way out. She told me this was the first time she had stewarded, but had really enjoyed the experience. Feeling encouraged, I climbed the stairs to find the organisers in the process of constructing the stage, deciding upon the seating arrangements etc. As instructed, I helped myself to a drink and met the crew. Everyone was friendly, helpful and keen to get things done to a high standard. I hope they'll forgive me for not remembering their names!
From the moment she arrived, Rosy, the Front of House, was helpful, informative and put me at my ease. Once I had my sash I was asked to help lay out chairs, making sure we met health and safety regulations. Then I familiarised myself with the fire exits, fire assembly point and how the lift worked, should anyone need it. I also checked where the first aid kit was and which of us was a first aider (because I wasn't!)
As the audience arrived I tore off ticket stubs, pointed out the tea bar and tried to encourage people to sit at the far side of the venue, so any latecomers could sit down quickly without disturbing the audience. I also chatted to my fellow steward who had come all the way from Enfield, North London. Like me, it was her first time as a festival steward and, like me, she had taken 'time out' from the day job and being a mum. And, like me, she was a writer, although unlike me her specialism was writing poetry and plays. I hope she'll forgive me for not remembering her name, although I never forget a face and hope to bump into her again.

The event began and I sat down to enjoy 'Two Poets: Jo Shapcott and Stevie Ronnie'. First up was this year's Poet in Residence Stevie Ronnie. He told us what a warm welcome he'd had since arriving in Ilkley two days ago and how, when he'd caught the bus into town from Ben Rhydding, the driver hadn't even charged him! Stevie, who's being mentored by Jo Shapcott, went on to share poems from his collection entitled Manifestations. I enjoyed his reading style and his accent, especially as my mum is from Newcastle and I have a lot of family from there. Much of his inspiration appeared to be drawn from nature, memories from his childhood and his young family. I found the poems highly evocative with some beautifully vivid descriptions of trees. An open door (accidentally?) enhanced the experience, allowing us to hear the sound of trees blowing in the wind.
We were then treated to readings from the multi-award winning poet Jo Shapcott, who shared extracts from her latest collection (being a steward I had no pen and paper to note down the title but I remember it was inspired by bee keeping) and from her collection Of Mutability. The bee-inspired poems began with a woman whose partner had deserted her, leaving her with a hive of bees. Full of emotional resonance, the poems really captured the essence of the woman's situation whilst allowing for some clever word play. The poems from Of Mutability explored the human condition, including pain and mortality, giving a sense of wonder to the smallest things.
At the end the poets signed copies of their books (both poets' collections were on sale at the venue) and I returned to the door to hand out feedback questionnaires and lists of events with tickets still available. The event over, I checked with the organisers that it was fine to leave, returned my sash and dashed out to join L who was waiting outside, ready to zoom us to the next event.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The People's Festival: from Last Chance Saloon to Soar-away Success

This year I was determined not to miss out (again) on the mighty Ilkley Literature Festival (ILF) and so I decided to do two things: a) volunteer as a steward; and b) contribute posts to the official festival blog www.pickledegg.info

This is the first of several posts about ILF which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. On this occasion I was attending as a guest/blogger...

Speaking to a full house, Festival Director Rachel Feldberg entertained us with stories from past festivals and thanked festival contributors for their efforts at the 'Making Waves' exhibition launch on Saturday 28th September. And yet, amongst the celebrations, I was surprised to learn the festival had suffered from several financial crises.

Sounds of the 70s
Finding it hard to believe such a successful festival could have experienced such hardship, I decided to investigate. Gazing wistfully at the wine on offer (why do I always drive?), I climbed the stairs of the 14th century Manor House Museum to the exhibition itself.
At the top I was greeted by the sound of the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK (another surprise!). Humming along to the 70s soundtrack (including Abba's Dancing Queen, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody and Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry) I was fascinated by displays featuring everything from the very first festival programme to the tools used to carve the Stanza Stones. Other treats included letters from authors, photos, scrapbooks and specially commissioned artwork.
As I read the story boards for each decade there it was: the North's largest literature festival had teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. And not just once. Although not the theme of the exhibition, it made me wonder not only how the festival had survived but also how it had achieved its current success.

Tough Times
According to the story boards, the problems started in 1979 when 'money was tight and the rain was like curtain rods'. By 1981 the country was in recession and the 1981 festival lost £4,000, equivalent to £13,000 today.
Trying to recover its losses, the 1982 festival was reduced to six days, while the Telegraph & Argus (T&A) cried: “Can Festival Survive the Looming Crisis?” Again the festival lost money and in 1984 the T&A ran a story entitled “Last Chance Saloon”. That same year Michael Dawson, the original Festival Director, returned as Chair and some big names appeared on the bill, including Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Alan Bennett. The festival was not only a success, but it made a £5,000 surplus.
All was well until the 1990s. In 1992, to spread the risk and improve cash flow, the festival was split into three smaller events, run in March, June and October/November. By 1996 the festival was solvent again and in 1998 the festival was awarded its first National Lottery grant. The rest, as they say, is history.

The People's Festival
I found both Rachel's presentation and the exhibition expressed the passion and dedication of the organisers and the people of Ilkley. As Rachel explained, the festival was “started and nurtured in Ilkley” and it is still “something very much owned by this town....the people embody what the festival is about.” She believes that “its roots, ideas, principles are the same as those in 1973.” And so it would seem that a combination of innovation, community spirit and sheer Yorkshire grit have made the festival the top international literary event that it is today.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Tracy Chevalier at Wakefield Lit Fest

On Saturday night I drove over to Wakefield to see one of my favourite historical fiction writers: Tracy Chevalier. The evening was so warm that it felt like the middle of summer, making it a shame to be inside, but it was worth it.
There was a definite buzz about the Unitarian Chapel as we waited for the lady herself to appear. And we were not disappointed – after a short intro by the Festival Director Tracy took the stage and gave an entertaining talk including three readings from her new book The Last Runaway. Before, during and after the readings she gave us plenty of background to her book and explained what had inspired her to write it.
Set in Ohio in the 1850s, the story centres around Honor Bright, a single Quaker woman from Dorset who has travelled to North America to join her sister and start a new life. Dealing with themes of loss and slavery, The Last Runaway is Tracy's seventh published novel. Interestingly, it's the first historical novel she has written that's not set in Europe.
Tracy told us she's lived in the UK for 30 years now and to write this book she recalled her own experiences of being an 'immigrant' (her words) - for example, the way things smell and taste differently in another country. She said that tea tastes awful in the US as the water tastes so different to the UK. She explained that being in another country makes you notice the little things rather than the big things (such as politics etc). She finds that everyday foods like butter and milk taste different, trees look different etc. Since settling in the UK she finds she misses little things as well, like fireflies.
Tracy treated us to three passages from her book – the first was when the heroine has just arrived and is noticing all the strange things about her new home. The passage included observations such as the birds being very different to those at home. As always Tracy's writing is simple yet highly evocative and I could imagine arriving in this strange new place and noticing all these little details for the first time.

One of the reasons that Tracy made her heroine a Quaker is partly related to some hearing problems she has (she can't hear the full sound spectrum when there's a lot of noise going on) which has drawn her towards seeking more silence in her life. She's drawn to Quakers as she used to go on a Quaker camp when she was a child and they would spend 15 minutes sitting together in silence every day. These days Tracy spends an hour each Sunday doing the same thing – she finds silence helps her to focus and she wanted to make her protagonist a Quaker for that reason.
Tracy said that novels are about lies, or at least about withholding the truth. This presented her with a problem as Quakers aren't supposed to lie. However, she says that her protagonist ends up lying quite a lot in the end! One of the main themes of the book is slavery – it's set prior to the Civil War, when slavery was legal in the southern states but illegal in the northern ones. However, the northern ones still bought produce (e.g. cotton) from the southern states.
At this time there were always runaway slaves - a lot of them tried to reach Canada, where they would be free. The only way to get there was to get help from the 'underground rail road', made up of people willing to help the slaves escape. Runaway slaves often went to Ohio where they would be safe as long as their owner didn't come to claim them. Honour is opposed to slavery but has never been forced to put her principles to the test.
Tracy likes her protagonists to do things with their hands – she decided that Honor would be a quilter, which meant that she, Tracy, had to learn quilting. Tracy held up a quilt she had made which had been entirely hand stitched – it must have taken her an age to do and I was very impressed! She said she likes making quilts because they are both practical and creative.
After Tracy had finished her third reading, which left us in suspense as to what happened next, she opened up to questions from the audience. I was brave and managed to get a question in at the start (often I never ask anything, but this was Tracy Chevalier of all people!) I asked her if she had any tips for aspiring authors and she gave a really in depth answer about what it's like to be a writer. She explained that not every day is easy - there are days when it's hard to get started and she just stares at a blank page and really has to make the effort to 'pull the story out of herself'. She also explained it's important to have a regular writing routine and make sure you stick to it, whether that be writing at the same time every day or at the same time each Sunday. She also said it was important to get others to read your work and to accept criticism, and to edit A LOT. She explained the first draft is almost the 'easy bit' - the real work is the rewriting/editing.

In response to other questions, Tracy revealed that she doesn't have a detailed plan when she writes, just an idea of how she'd like it to start and finish. As she's writing she tries different ideas as she goes along. She thinks that the best part of writing is not knowing what will happen on the way.
It was noted that all her novels are historical, which she acknowledged but couldn't really say why as she had never studied history. However, in her thirties she started to take an interest in her own family history. She had started to feel settled and wondered where she had come from, which she thinks might link in with historical fiction. She confessed she just can't 'do' contemporary stories and that the only way to get away from herself was to delve into a story in another time and place. She thinks that to be a 'three dimensional' person you need to be aware of the past and where you have come from.
Tracy said she spends a lot of time doing research – she researches until she feels comfortable writing about the time and place in which her story is going to be set. At the moment she is looking into how trees can be transported from A to B and so she needs to find out about tree grafting, something which she will be (physically) doing in the Spring.
She said that very often she thinks she's finished her research but it never really stops – she still has books on Vermeer that she's not yet read! Fortunately she loves learning about new subjects.
When asked if her books contained any kind of message, Tracy said no but she would like her books to inspire people to look back on the past and be aware of where they came from.

As for what she uses to write, Tracy said she uses a particular type of fountain pen to write longhand (!) on plain (NOT lined) paper and in a notebook (again, not lined) which 'feels' like her subject. For example when when writing the Last Runaway she used a notebook with a design and colours that she could imagine her heroine wearing.
And when asked whether she prefers 'real books' or e-readers, she said that although she can see the benefits of e-readers, she preferred real books every time!
With the questions over it was time for the book signing. Yours truly had stupidly left her purse at home, after changing bags earlier. Fortunately I had a copy of Tracy's first book, The Virgin Blue, in my bag and I joined the queue, noting I was the only one without a copy of the new book. When I finally got to the front and handed over my book with an apology, Tracy was very gracious about it, referring to the book as 'an old friend' and kindly signing it for me (phew!)
All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable evening with a highly talented and charismatic lady.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Festival Mania and the Return of the Wandering Muse

It's coming up to that time of year again - literary festival season! Like buses you wait and wait and...you get the idea. I'm just not sure why all the West Yorkshire literary festivals are in September and October, most of them overlapping with each other, the bigger ones often eclipsing the smaller ones. And, unless you have an infinite budget, you have to be a lot more selective than you'd like when it comes to choosing which events/workshops to attend. I try to attend at least one event/workshop at each festival - this year I'll be attending four festivals (maybe even five) - thank goodness some events are free. And for those on a limited budget there's often the option to volunteer, meaning you get to attend some pricey events and workshops for free and hopefully get to chat to authors a bit more than you would otherwise. In fact the Ikley Literature Festival encourages its workshop volunteers to participate. So, I've decided to put myself forward as a volunteer for this year's festival. I've supported plenty of events in the past so am hoping they'll take me on. If they do I'll let you know how it goes and whether I recommend it.
The good news is I've finally located Peskalia (the new name for my Muse). In fact, I've not only found her but she's been popping up day and night with some pretty good ideas. In fact, I like one of them so much I might just go for it! The idea will involve a fair amount of research, but I think it will be worth it if I can pull it off. All I'll say is that it will be an MG story involving time travel with more than one POV, plenty of adventure and lots of drama! I'm quite excited about it at the moment - I just hope I can do it justice.
Anyway, thanks to everyone who came up with suggestions on how to find inspiration - they were much appreciated! I hope you continue to find inspiration and will do my best to help if you ever get stuck - all you have to do is ask!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Finding your Elusive Muse

Finishing a book.

On the one hand it gives you a great feeling of satisfaction but on the other it can make you feel quite lost. After the rewritten MS has been submitted and you're facing a long, agonising wait for feedback from an agent, what should you do? Start the next book is the cry from those 'in the know'. But it's not that simple. You have vague ideas forming in your mind about the sequel, but what if an editor demands big changes to the first book? So, a new story perhaps? Not easy when you've spent years steeped in a particular world with the same set of characters. Ideas keep popping into your head so you scribble them down one after another. You even start writing a few pieces but these get abandoned soon after and filed in under 'work in progress' or 'story ideas'.

Perhaps it's time to take a break? So you read lots and try to occupy yourself with other activities, although in your heart of hearts you know you should be writing. And you beat yourself up about it. So, what should feel like a good place to be is actually quite unsettling. However, this is might be just me – I'm sure there are plenty of writers out there at this stage who don't feel like this at all. They're probably battling on with the next project and/or basking in their achievements so far. But for those with a restless nature the 'in between' bit can be a frustrating time.

Since finishing my book I've had some great ideas but as yet I've not been compelled to go very far with any of them. Perhaps the answer is to take a complete break from writing? Or should I try writing somewhere else for a change? What do you do when your focus is gone? Where is that pesky Muse when you need her? If you have any suggestions please share them, I'd love to know!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

2,000 Page Views and a Finished Book!

I'm having a double celebration this week for the above reason. The page views thing is a pleasant surprise but I've been buzzing since Monday night over finishing the sixth draft of my book. Since the fourth draft I've edited out over 12,200 words (approx 14.5%) and I'm as happy with it as I can be with anything I've written (which is never 100%). So, I've handed it over to my trusty 'proofers' to check for typos and ambiguities. I hope they don't suggest too many changes!
It was only June last year that I finished the first draft. In early January I finished the third. Then I sent it to a couple of agents and a competition. The MS had started in the third person, was converted to first and then changed back to the third again on the advice of one of the agents - hence so many drafts!
Unfortunately I finished the MS too late in the day to call or text anyone so had to be content with email and FB and waking up B instead. He told me to calm down and go to sleep (which was fair as it was late) but I was buzzing so much that I had to do a chill-out yoga session and then read (a lot) until I eventually dropped off. I was still buzzing the next day - even my daughter waking me up at 5.30am did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.
It's been pretty hard getting to this point though as our family have had to face a series of 'challenges' not including the fact I can only work when R is asleep - so that's VERY early in the morning or late in the evening. I've found that mornings work best for me (pre-7am) but it's always a struggle to tear myself from my MS to get ready for work and get R up and out too. And the last couple of days have seemed weird as I've been 'having a break' from writing/editing, something which I rarely do. And now I'm concerned that I better start working on something else soon or I might never start again.

Question: What obstacles have you faced when writing your MS? When do you like to write or, like me, is it dictated to you by circumstance? Do you think writing in short bursts is best or do you prefer to take it at a more leisurely pace? How long did it take you to complete the final draft of your MS?. How much of a break did you have after finishing your MS? Please tell, I'd love to know!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Endless Editing, Hiking in the Heat and the Quest for MG Fantasy Fiction Titles

I've spent most of the last 12 months revising and editing what was my first draft and think I'm almost there! As I'm writing middle grade fiction, one of the biggest challenges has been the wordcount. So far I've cut several thousand words but am concerned it might still be too long! MG fantasy fiction is generally longer than regular MG fiction but I still think I may be pushing it. P and K at my writers' group think I should stop worrying about the wordcount and they are probably right. So, I've promised myself this WILL be the final draft before I resubmit it to that agent who has agreed to read it again. Otherwise I will go mad!
Also it would be nice to work on something else and have something new to share with my writers' group, who I'm sure are bored senseless by me moaning on about the latest draft of the same story!
*Takes short break to eat dinner*
Right I'm back and feeling better for some food. We had a work day out in the Dales today - a 6 mile walk in 31 degrees celsius - far too hot to be doing anything, least of all hiking, but it was good to get out of the office. It was a bit like a school trip except no one got told off and a few people went (temporarily) missing! One of my colleagues has an 11-year-old daughter who likes fantasy/adventure fiction and wanted some recommendations. I suggested the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan, The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver and His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman.
This got me thinking - what ARE the best / most popular middle grade fantasy fiction books right now? Whenever I try to google a list of top MG fantasy fiction I end up with a mixture of genres / ages with loads of YA titles.
I would love to compile a list for reference, reading and recommendation and so, please tell me what you / your children's favourite middle grade fantasy reads are. (Middle grade is generally classed as 8-12 years but I'm particularly focused on 9-11).
Hope you can help!

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Feeling Inspired!

I spent this afternoon at the Saltaire Arts Trail, which the whole family enjoyed. The art displays (inside people's homes!) were of an uber-high standard and it was clear that the artists had put everything they could into their work. Our daughter had a great time trying out several of the (many) activities for children and we had to drag her away at the end!
Moving away from art (although I'd argue writing is an art) I attended a recent author talk at Cleckheaton Library. The author was Mandasue Heller and although her genre and style isn't my usual read I left feeling thoroughly inspired. If ever there was someone who had triumphed over adversity, it was her. And not only has she kept her wicked sense of humour but she was full of encouragement and useful tips for would-be authors such as myself.
And, thanks to my daughter's curiousity and sense of fun, I've been rediscovering my youth through our music collection. Listening to some of these amazing songs has reminded me of my lifelong passion for music which (for reasons I won't go into) I had all but forgotten until recently. She also makes me dance - she won't take no for an answer and now I seem to spend at least 15 minutes of every day singing and dancing with her like a giddy teenager!
These are just three things which have inspired me in recent weeks - things which have helped to spur me on with my final draft which is now (gasp) two-thirds done. I feel as if I'm winning at last and think I should have it finished well before Wimbledon (my self-imposed deadline).
If you've had an inspirational experience (or three) recently, especially one which has helped you with your writing, I'd love to hear about it!

Nicola Taylor - Music for Those Who Listen

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Final Draft

On Thursday last week I finished what I thought would be the final draft of my book. Except that it wasn't. I thought I was all done and the story would just need proofing for typos, grammar etc but when I totted up the word count I found it had increased by at least 20%. All feelings of satisfaction ebbed away as it dawned on me that I would have to cut, cut and cut some more to get the wordcount down again. I'm now trying to decide which scenes will stay and which will go, trying to comfort myself with the thought I could use some of the cut scenes in a future book instead. But even with my most trusted readers trying to help me it's still so hard to decide! I'm currently itching to print it out so I can do a proper edit but there's no paper and not much ink left. I've just placed an order on the site that sounds like a very long river and I'm waiting for their delivery. My plan is to print out the whole darn thing and lay it out scene by scene. Maybe then I'll see what needs to go and what should stay? Maybe...

Friday, 29 March 2013

It's All Downhill From Here

I'm about 50% of the way through my final draft and, if I keep this up, I might (although I shouldn't tempt fate) finish well ahead of my self-imposed deadline. It's taken a long time and a lot of hard work to get to this point. The characters and their world become more real to me every day and I often talk to B about them as if they are real people. Fortunately B is very good at humouring me. I sometimes wonder if it's the writing process itself that makes many writers become eccentric, although I suspect that some (like me) were half way there already! It's hardly surprising when you're constantly imagining conversations between fictional characters, especially when they're having arguments with each other!
So, I hope to finish this final draft by late May / early June. Once I've done this and given it one final polish, I'm going to resend it to the nice agent who offered to reread it. The thought makes me excited and a more than a bit scared. I will have done my best but what if she doesn't like it? What if no one else likes it? It's a sobering thought and one I choose not to think about most of the time. It's hard when you've spent years creating something that you hope others will like, especially children. It's a tough old world and everyone's a critic in this digital age. Let's just hope that enough people like it to give it decent reviews.
But better to try and all that. Here's to everyone who ever dared to follow their dreams, regardless of the consequences!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Anyone for Tennis?

I'm still making steady progress with my book but, as ever, the real battle is the internal one.
My greatest enemy has always been self doubt, a common affliction especially for writers and would-be writers when it comes to believing in their work. For me it's a battle I think I'm winning. At the moment every negative voice is being slammed down by a positive one. But I think there are many fantastic writers out there who we've never heard of simply because they don't believe in themselves enough. And yet they are as good as and sometimes superior to many writers who are already published! I wish I could make them believe how good they are and convince them they can succeed. And if I ever do get published and get to teach creative writing I reckon it would be worth spending half the class working on people's confidence. It's a bit like the top tennis players - they all have the same skill set / level - in the end those that win are the ones with the psychological edge.
Regarding my work, I've promised myself that the book will get finished and resubmitted before the summer's out. Maybe it'll even be finished in time for Wimbledon?

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Slow Progress

I'm still working on what I hope to be the 'final draft' (until someone tells me otherwise!) However it's been slow progress this last week as R has been extremely poorly and I've been snowed under at work. So it's been a week of sleepless nights and overtime. I've always been a bit of a night owl but lately I've been in bed by 8pm every night. This has, unsurprisingly, somewhat diminished my 'writing time'. I've still managed to write every day (bar Thursday) but the going's been painfully slow. And, as I abandoned the fourth draft and went back to the start again, I'm only about 20% of the way through the latest draft. I think it's unlikely that I will get the whole book finished by Easter but I'm pleased with what I've done so far (a rarity for me!) Here's hoping I can get the rest completed to the same standard and that someone loves it enough to one day publish it.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Reviving my Darlings

I'm about 10% of the way through my fourth draft and I think it's working. I've rewritten most of the dialogue and I think it sounds more 'real'. And now that I'm using close third I can use two POVs. This should make the narrative more interesting/varied but it also means I can restore some scenes I really liked but had to cut when it was in the first person. It also means the MS will be longer, but you can't have everything. All being well, I'm hoping to get it finished by Easter.

Monday, 21 January 2013

One Step at a Time

One of the agents I sent my MS to came back straight away, which was great. But she wants some major revisions. So, guess what I've been doing this past week? I've completely rewritten the prologue and revised the first three chapters. Thankfully I haven't been short of inspiration so far. And I think it's a lot better than it was. But, just like the heroine in my story, I still have a long way to go. Oh well, I've always enjoyed a challenge :)

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Scariest Prospect of All

So, my search for a literary agent has begun. I sent out the first 6,000(ish) words, synopsis and covering letter to an agent who is currently looking for the sort of thing I've just written. Now all I have to do is wait. It could take up to 8 weeks for a reply and I've never been good at being patient. I'll just have to keep myself busy in the meantime and hope the time goes quickly. On the other hand, if she doesn't like / want it, will I be able to take the rejection? The pessimistic half of me wants the time to go slowly and the optimistic half of me wants it to go quickly! But if she says no, then there are always other agents. And in two and a bit weeks I'll find out whether I've got anywhere in the Write Now competition. In the meantime I'm waiting for two young critics to get back to me with their opinions on the opening chapters - and for me that is the scariest prospect of all!

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Done and Dusted!

Well I've finished the third draft of my book and am feeling very pleased about it. Did I say pleased? I'm ecstatic! It's taken three years and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get this far but I'm glad I did it. The next step is trying to sell it, which is no doubt going to be even harder than writing the darn thing. But I'm ready for the challenge (I think!) Anyway, here's to 2013 - the Year of Getting Published (or at least well on the way to it).