Saturday, 28 May 2016

Writing the 4 Simplicities

This week, I'm guest blogging again for, the blog for all artists and writers concerned with learning with the Open College of the Arts. I'm a writer, tutor and assessor for the OCA, and love its deep commitment to engaging with people of all ages and backgrounds, who want to improve and connect with artistic endeavour, including painting and drawing, photography, music and creative writing, as well as things like art history.

Ironically, writers do not necessarily find simplicity easy to attain. First drafts often result in spontaneous explosions of writing which feel very good to get down on paper, but perhaps disappoint when you read them through. You have probably repeated yourself unnecessarily or written in an overblown way; you may even find the dreaded ‘purple passages’ – darlings that need to be murdered. 

This week on the blog, I'm looking at the four basics for good, strong writing as laid down in the very first of the creative writing courses most students do:
economy (or brevity)
But I've discovered that there is a fifth fellow, who belongs in 
this list and it's that one I want to talk about... Click Here to read the entire blogpost on the OCA BLOG,

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - The Finest English Novel

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me …

Dressed in an oriental robe and a white skin-suit scribbled all over with the predictions of a medieval English magician, I cried out those lines in a fit of madness. 

I was playing Vinculus, a character in the amazing, intriguing and compelling book called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. A group of 10 of us, all lovers of this 1000 page (if you include the copious footnotes) work of magical fiction, had gathered together to enact, discuss and explore this amazing achievement. Acting out a huge piece of fantasy is not as daunting as it may seem; the same group of people have acted out Tolkien’s work and all of Homer’s, using a three day period to do so. In that time, we eat, dress and sleep the book in question. 

 Susanna Clarke writes about her invented world with such ease; it’s easy to believe England could really be like this – filled with magic and romance. It has been described as  'Harry Potter for grownups’ but that really does not do this eloquent and momentous work justice, although adults who adored Harry Potter will be impressed with the rich characterization and the great finale to the story.

Clarke has a flair for language, utilising the right words at all the right moments. She chose for her style an emulation of Jane Austin, (including archaic spellings). Some passages made me laugh aloud – Austin was funny, and here is another layer spread upon that ironic wit. 

I’m not alone in loving the book; Neil Gaiman said,  Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years. It's funny, moving, scary, otherworldly, practical and magical...

This was Clarke's first book, although she’d prepared the ground by writing some short stories set in her parallel universe – a world that has the same history as our own, except for the fact that England was once filled with magic and magicians, and the North of England was ruled separately, by the Raven King – John Uskglass – a man who had been spirited away to fairyland as a child and returned full of fairy magic.

Ready to dance till dawn
 at the Fairy Ball in the kingdom of Lost Hope
But all that was centuries ago. When the book starts in1806, England is struggling with the Napoleonic war, and practical magic has faded into the nation's past – now magic is only studied ‘theoretically’.  But two of these students discover that Mr Norrell can really do magic. He’s studied the books all his life, and his displays of magic lead him, and his mysterious servant, John Childermass, from the north of the country to the bustling city of London. After he successfully brings a beautiful woman back from the dead and  terrifies the French army with a fleet of ghostly ships, he is taken to the bosom of the rich and fashionable. Gilbert Norrell is dedicated to book-learning and he's trying desperately to ignore and forget that in raising Lady Pole from the dead, he has awaken an amoral fairy king, who is now strutting around our world, enchanting people. When Jonathan Strange, the 2nd magician in the prophecy emerges, a dangerous battle of wills begins. Strange is young, dashing and daring, and not at all interested in only learning magic from books. While Norell,  a reclusive and cautious man,  is trying to get rid of any taint of dangerous fairy magic, Strange is actively bringing it back. He has no idea what a menace the fairy king posses, especially to his own lovely wife.

I was soon hooked on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell the first time I read it, even though you need to get through at least the first 200 pages to even begin to see where the plot is going. Reading it again for the weekend event made me love it even more. All its depth and humour and the true cleverness of the carefully crafted plot became even more clear. One thing I really loved was the vast history of magic Clarke invents for England. Long after I finished it, I was still thinking about the menacing settings,  the wonderful characters, the brilliant narrative development and the history she creates.

Of course, I also watched the TV series, now available both in the UK and the US to watch again.  Bertie Carvel who plays Jonathan Strange so well, said; I read it years ago and loved it … They've preserved the scale and majesty of the story … So you have credible, fully imagined characters recognisably of the same world we inhabit.  Paul Kaye, who played my chosen character in the film said, I read the book and loved it. It sort of obsessed me for a while and I felt an affinity with what turned out to be my character, Vinculus. I found the footnotes addictive! If there wasn't one on the next page I would be disappointed

You can watch the TV adaptation at:


Monday, 9 May 2016

How NOT to Write the Novel of a Lifetime


I once had a young student in a local workshop, who told me (eyes shining)…I want my first book to contain everything that’s important in the world…

I knew how he felt. Once you realise you are destined to be a writer, the next step is to want to write about things that will influence society. You want your work to last a lifetime – longer – to become a literary classic. You want to be seen to take on the big questions, the crucial arguments of your time. You’ll want to say new, controversial and exciting things and get reviews that promise great things for you. 

But please don’t be in too much of a hurry to get on with this ‘idea of a lifetime’ – don’t start trying to get everything that’s important in the world into your first book – for at least for the reasons below:
Only known color photograph
 of the author, 
Leo Tolstoy,
in 1908 by
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
  • Tolstoy has already written War and Peace. Proust has already written Remembrance of Things Past. 
  • It took Proust 14 years to write the 7 volumes of his novel.
  • War and Peace is filled with seriously big-league subjects and has hundreds of characters, but Tolstoy didn’t consider it to be a novel, so much as a work of philosophy. 
  • People are drawn to the small things in life. This is where fiction often gains supremacy over non-fiction. By keeping things local, personal, focused and tight you gain the reader’s attention, their empathy and identity. By concentrating on the particular, you can, by symbol, example and theme, subtly examine the larger issues. After all, Remembrance of Things Past focuses on a biscuit dipped in tea.
  • Maybe you are destined to write this ‘idea of your lifetime’. But if you actively seek it out and attempt to write it at the first stage of your writing life, it will not be the achievement it might become if you begin by honing your skills as a published writer. 
  • First writings are the ones that are most likely not to be published…or even publishable. Most new writers have pushed many ideas, half-written and unfinished, into a bottom drawer before they see their name on a contract.
  • Proust himself said… The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes…It is quite likely that your ‘idea of a lifetime’ may actually be discovered when you are writing the inconsequential, the everyday, the ordinary. The trick is to see these things with ‘new eyes’.
As a writer, I suggest that using big, political or social themes as the building bricks of your novel is the wrong way round. Focusing on characters, their lives and how they are affected by internal and external events, will allow those significant themes to be drawn out of the writing, rather than stuffed in.

When I began writing about my central character in The Shaman Mysteries, I knew I wanted to create a character that people would love, and feel strongly about, so that when she got into deep hot water – which she always does, of course! – they would want her to to use her wits and courage to end up safe and well. On Goodreads, a reviewer says of In the Moors

That’s exactly what I want to hear, because while writing the book, I concentrated on Sabbie’s story, using my experience of shamanism, because it was something I felt strongly about, to enrich that story. The big themes emerged in a natural, organic way – I was writing about metaphysics, abuse, trust, madness, and how we cope with childhood trauma. Recently John A contacted me on Facebook to say; 

I am right now in the middle of your first novel! I like the main character and her inner fights (about relationship,money charging,…), even if she is a woman!  No, its very insightful and I am learning with every page something new: Great!! 

It's perfectly fine to write about the mundane actions of life. Sabbie loves her vegetable garden and her hens, and readers find
that absorbing and enjoyable. But it often leads me to the point where I can engage in larger issues. Here’s a little excerpt from my latest book Beneath the Tor. Sabbie has just arrived back from the funeral of a friend;

I went out into the garden with the hens’ breakfast. I stood in the rain, letting it trickle over my face. I wanted something to soothe me, cool me. Alys’ death was a heartache. I touched my neck, half expecting to feel an open sore, my throat felt so raw.
The cock, Kaiser, didn’t come near me as I checked the nesting boxes. He sat on his favourite post, watching his flock get under my feet. There were three eggs, still warm. Suddenly, my appetite was back. Scrambled eggs, maybe with one of my greenhouse-ripened tomatoes. I just loved this time of year in my vegetable plot – there was food sprouting in every direction. Even if the therapy business I ran from my front room went a bit slow, I knew I’d eat dinner.
Only three eggs from six layers. The two old Warrens, Ginger and Melissa, didn’t lay so often, but Jessie, Emili, Rihanna and Florence were still young and–
I stopped. Florence was not under my feet. She was not anywhere at all.
“Florence,” I called, even though she had no idea that was her name, “Flo, where are you? Chuck-chuck?”
Panic welled up. I didn’t understand this; none of the other hens were missing. They didn’t even seem perturbed, which they would have been, if a fox had come near them. I’d already experienced a fox in the night. It had wreaked havoc. Blood and feathers everywhere. I thought of other, more stealthy predators. A polecat, even a sparrowhawk, might have snatched her away if she’d escaped from the run.
I worked around the perimeter of the garden, chuck-chucking. 
Florence was my secret favourite. She was a curious hen, bright eyed and comical. I’d had her and her siblings for over a year; a farmer had given me a recently-hatched clutch of Sussex hens and they’d been productive and so beautiful to look at.  
 I went into the lane at the back of my garden. My house was on the edge of a sixty-year old estate. Behind the lane was a patch of scrubland. I half slid down the slope to the stream that was almost a drain, filled with rubbish and old bikes. I clambered back up, still calling, over and over. “Florence? Flo? Chuck-chuck-chuck?” Florence wouldn’t go missing by choice. As soon as dusk fell, my hens took themselves off to bed.
“Damn. Damn!” I kicked at the water-butt, making it slosh and spill. It seemed a shitty thing to happen, as if the spirit world was reminding me that the loss of a hen was not to be compared with the loss of a partner. Brice must feel a hundred times worse; a million times more heartsick.
There in my garden, I sobbed for the deaths of Florence and Alys.

The real voyage of discovery…having new eyes…
Start with something about as mundane as you can get; The Kitchen Drawer.
  • Go to your kitchen drawer. If you have many, chose the one most in need of a tidy! If you can’t use a kitchen drawer, chose something that is filled with a jumble of haphazard, random items…office desk, old vase, glove compartment.
  • Take out every item. Look through them, and chose one that draws your attention. 
  • Make a list of the practical uses this item might be used for. 
  • Make a list of things this item could be no practical use for whatsoever. 
  • Put your first list to one side and concentrate on the second. Chose one impractical use from your list.  For instance, from a desk drawer, a paperclip cannot be used as a boat.
  • Think about a way this item could actually be employed in any of the items on the second list. 
  • Let freewriting take your imagination take you on a spree as you put this item to an ingenious use – let you over. For instance, you could straighten the paper clip, stick a square of paper through it and push it into a piece of cork. This could be used a child’s toy boat.
Finish one draft of this exercise, and, before you start the next part of it:

  • Okay, you’ve got the implausible and impossible out of the way. And you’ve had some fun
  • Now return to the first list. 
  • Remembering how you had to stretch your mind to ‘see’ that second list and write about it, choose an item on the first list
  • Try to follow Proust’s advice and… have new eyes…as you work on this idea

(At this point, you might like to give the empty drawer a good clean – repetitive work of this kind can empty your mind and get your juices flowing. It gets the drawer clean too.)

Back at the workshop, I hope I managed to convince my erstwhile student that she could, one day ‘write a book that contained everything important in the world’, but to do so, she should turn round by 180 degrees and look, not at the big, big issues, but the people they effect. Find your characters. Fall in love with them. Even if they are plain, ordinary members of society, with dull jobs and a perfect family, once you start to write about them, I am sure that they will come face-to-face with the challenges and obstacles that built the tension in a story, and as they do so, you will discover your themes, and be able to explore those significant issues you are longing to write about. 

The Shaman Mysteries are availabe from Amazon or from Midnight Ink Books

Monday, 2 May 2016

TV or Radio? The Great Debate


The great debate. 

The crew of Journey into Space
In 1953, an adventure series called Journey into Space became the last evening radio programme to command a bigger audience than an evening TV programme. ‘A watershed in national life,’ is how that moment has been described, and it begs the question people have been asking ever since: ‘how does radio survive - indeed, prosper - in the age of television?’

Although no single radio programme can out-perform the best loved TV programmes for viewing/listening figures, radio still has a massive overall Share of the Ear. This little phrase is built from statistics covering all man-made sound devises which reach the nation’s ears...CDs, downloads, various radio sources and TV included. In fact, radio’s Share of the Ear is an impressive massive 83% overall (60% for under 35’s). 
I read these statistics with interest because, for a high proportion of my adult life (about 83% of it, probably!) I’ve been a non-TV owner. In other words, my household generally had no television anywhere within it. Or, to quote my daughter’s friend when she came home from primary school for tea with Becki; ‘what, no telly? How am going to watch my cartoons?’
We knew we were in the minority - less than 10% of the population watch no TV within each week of their lives (and well done to those who own a telly and choose not to watch it every single day). I know that, as the kids were growing, they missed being part of the TV playground culture. The answer my children came up with was to make sure they knew enough about each programme that was a hot topic with their have watched it once at least in someone’s house, so that they didn’t look ‘uncool’. But with no TV and only very early computers, I think they had great childhoods, doing the sorts of things that kids today are being encouraged to return to. 
Having no TV in the house is a freedom and a joy. It allows you to plan your day without interference from a head full of soap characters. It means you look for a variety of evening entertainments that, in our house, include playing games, studying, writing, reading, taking walks, chatting on the phone and making music as well as listening to it. 
We opted for no TV the day we moved into our first house. We both agreed that watching telly was a banal occupation and waste of our time. We were already hooked on Radio Four, which we thought then (and it’s still true today, in my opinion) had the best current affairs and general interest programmes, and that the drama and book readings were superior to all the TV dramas, because you see the pictures in your head. In any case, Radio Four has the very best of all soaps...The Archers

Helen and her Archer's husband,
 the scary Rob Titchener
Radio keeps your spirits up in difficult times. The Shipping Forcast has always been not only the saviour of the fishing industry, but the insomniac, too. While in Britain, Aung San Suu Kyi met up with Dave Lee Travis, specifically to tell him how she listened to his BBC World Service programme, A Jolly Good Show. During her long incarceration under house arrest, his banter and music had lifted her spirits, and, apparently, allowed her a link with real people that the news items could not. It’s not just that radio has the best pictures...TV is never as interactive as radio can be, with its phone-ins and request shows. 
The trouble with TV - a trouble radio listening does not share - is that it is addictive. It’s easier than winking to flick the remote and switch it on. And once on, something holds the mind in a sort of thick, warm, sweet soup, as if ones’ thinking facility has gone into melt-down. Despite the fact that there are really good TV programmes, especially on BBC 2 & 4, the difficulty with actually owning a TV is stopping the watching when there’s really nothing on the box. On the otherhand, I can download my favourite radio programmes, such as Open Book and Poetry Please, and Woman's Hour, of course, and listen as a passenger when on the move or just whenever I want.
We knew that radio was the best listening ear 30 years ago, when we were bringing up our kids sans television. I know it for sure now, because we can compare. At last, we do own a TV. We made the decision during the process of moving. Among the big discussion points that arise when you’re on the move; what will we do with all our extra furniture? When will the solicitor pull out their fingers? How can we get the vendor to bring down their price? Where is that certificate from the council they’re asking for...a Most Important Question arose...will we have a telly in the new house? Our old house wasn’t wired for TV reception, although we had taken to watching DVDs, to save cinema costs. Then Becki left us her HD TV when she went off to France. We took it with us in the move and set it up in our new lounge...and switched it on. 
Instant entertainment.  And, to Jim’s delight, instant 24hour news.  So now I know absolutely just how addictive the TV is. We tried to have TV one evening a week, for instance...but we’re breaking them; by 8pm we are so brain-dead that a little TV viewing feels like the only thing we’re capable’s just too tempting to sink into the warm, sweet soup. I guess I have learnt new things from some of the TV I’ve watched over the last year. But certainly no more than I learnt in any year listening to the radio. 

Radio remains one of the best ways for new scriptwriters in the UK to find an audience, for two reasons. Radio Four comminsions and produces more new drama then almost any TV channel. There are 15 minute, 30 minute, 45 minute, 60 minute and 90  drama slots for new writers in every genre, especially comedy, and an entire website dedicated to helping new writers get on the radio; bbc radio 4 writers room
In the meantime, I continue to love the radio, and  Radio Four, Three, Two, Radio Wales and Classic FM fill my days and most of my evenings. And I'm not alone. Read about Josh Spero's love affair with Radio 4 here.