Shhh. Top secret plans afoot.

Okay, so it might seem like I’ve been ignoring you all for some time, or more to the point ignoring this blog, but there are lots of secret squirrel plans coming together whilst I piece together my short story collection.
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Most secret (not so secret anymore) is the news that I’m becoming part of Team WHQ. I’ve spoken highly of Writers’ HQ in the past (used to be called Brighton Writers, until they decided to take on the world). From July I’ll be running monthly retreats in Cambridge – so get signed up here for when all the details are confirmed when you’ll get official type invites with discount codes and everything!

It’s also worth knowing that I’m running short story workshops at the Evesham Festival of Words on Friday 30th June, and at the Jersey Festival of Words at the end of September – so I hope to see you at one of these events too.

Six steps to writing freedom…

…could have been an alternative title for the writing workshop with the award-winning writer Simon Van Booy that took place at The Society Club last Sunday afternoon.

As a writer and workshop leader I have taken and led many workshops to hone my own and help others hone their craft.

This intimate and intensive half day workshop allowed four writers five hours of insight into the practice of writing and how to push that towards the business of writing; a goal few writers (statistically) reach.

Simon began by exploring our personal goals. We were writers from different backgrounds and experience levels, but with the common goal of moving ourselves and our writing further along.

Simon led us through the six steps below, which he assured us would ensure freedom from ‘writer’s block’.

  1. A place to work
  2. Medium and conditions of writing
  3. Stimulating reading
  4. Inspiration boards
  5. Setting time
  6. Sketching

Sounds simple, deceptively so. These are the kind of steps you learn at the beginning of a BA in Creative Writing however it was refreshing to take the time on a Sunday afternoon, with Simon’s guidance and the supportive discussion with the group, to re-evaluate.

I realised how easily I developed habits that had been, and could still hinder my writing. Moving house meant that my writing space had stopped being exclusively mine which soon became an unconscious excuse. Challenging books had permanent fixtures on my shelves that stood unread, and procrastination or laziness often led to ignored opportunities for writing time.

We then moved to the topic of continuing to be inspired. Simon throughout the afternoon recalled his own experiences with his mentor and other writers; quoting writers, philosophers and more to illustrate the points being made.

The one line that truly stuck with me, was his own;

“not being inspired is often referred to as writer’s block”.

We discussed the different ways one can be inspired and how to use the little ways to reenergise our writing. Patience and mindfulness with the everyday is a critical part in this process but can be easily forgotten.

Which led us nicely into exploring sketching. Carrying a notebook everywhere is something many writers swear by (or swear when they don’t have it and are without the means to record thoughts that float away the instant they sit down to write). It allows us to pick up and record all the details that hit us on an emotional level, those sparks that hopefully will burn into story form. By taking the time to daydream and observe, and by giving up the idea of how we should feel, sketching can provide your own way into the unknown.

Next we discussed how to write your way into your own voice. Simon provided invaluable hints and tips before he spoke more about exploring form (short stories vs novels) and how our writing develops over time (a constant learning process).

Together we all dug into the trenches of writing – the detail in technique and style, why tenses and perspectives work for some characters but not others and the understanding that editors are the ones that can assist you in the removal of the scaffolding around your writing.

The conversations opened up to include Carrie Kania, Simon’s agent at Conville & Walsh, in the discussion on the business of writing providing us with the chance to ask questions and learn about the publishing industry first-hand. Coupled with Simon’s generous guidance, Carrie’s honest advice on working with small publishing houses, when to contact agents, and how to deal with contracts, were what made this course.

Although at the beginning of the workshop I had considered what I might learn, I was happily surprised at how taking this time to reassess has given me a new outlook in my writing practices and how I can continue to develop. Sometimes it can be as simple as retaking those first six steps.

More information:

Simon Van Booy was born in Great Britain and now lives in Brooklyn.  He is the author of The Secret Lives of People in Love, Love Begins in Winter (winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award) and the novel, Everything Beautiful Began After.  His latest novel is The Illusion of Separateness.  His essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, and ELLE Men, (China), where he has a monthly column. He has also written for the stage, National Public Radio, and the BBC.  Simon teaches at SVA in Manhattan, and is involved in the Rutgers Early College Humanities Program for young adults living in under-served communities.  In 2013, he founded Writers for Children, an organization which helps young people build confidence in their talent, through annual writing awards. He was a finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, and his work has been translated into more than fifteen languages.

The workshop took place at The Society Club; ‘an independent bookshop, gallery and members club for the literary inclined. Set in the heart of Soho, The Society Club is a unique bookshop, gallery and cocktail bar. It’s elegant and welcoming like a Bohemian sitting room.’ To find out more about their events and when to visit, take a look at their fantastic new website.

Carrie Kania is an agent at Conville & Walsh and co-owns the bookstore The Society Club. Formerly of New York, where she was the Publisher of Harper Perennial and It Books, she now resides in London with her puppy Foxy Beckett. She is also a Consultant Editor for the Word Factory and is involved with the judging process of The Word Factory Apprenticeship.

Word from the Factory floor

Today I was high fived by Deborah Levy.

That is enough to describe how I am feeling, even at almost midnight. I want to tell you why and how this came to be. Word Factory. Two exceptional words when placed together and carried by the wonderful founder, Cathy Galvin.

Word Factory is so many things and will become so many more, but at the core it is a literary salon that concentrates on short form fiction which takes place once a month in The Society Club in Soho, London. Around that, the team at Word Factory (and I am honoured to say that I am part of that team as an associate editor) strive to bring news of the short story to writers and readers in the form of video, articles, networking…the list goes on. Condensed, we love the short story. We also love writers and we are writers. If you want to get to the heart of the reasons behind the Word Factory and what it will become then please read this fantastic article by Cathy herself.

I stumbled upon Word Factory. I will call it fate because things have happened in ways I cannot begin the fathom but I am just grateful for them. I found myself surrounded by a high percentage of my past and present writing colleagues who seemed to have gathered in yet another twist of fate. More obviously, they just know how good Word Factory is at presenting the very best writing and bringing together wonderful people. 

I was hooked and came along to the next few Word Factory events before jumping on the chance to become one of the team. Since then I have been involved with supporting events both in London and now Leicester, maintaining and helping to shape the future of the website and this weekend I got the chance to be part of the latest Word Factory Masterclass.

Everyone who signed up for the Masterclass weekend knew it was going to be good, great even. With the line up of Adam Marek, Julia Bell, David Vann, Alison Moore, Carrie Kania, and Deborah Levy it was destined to be amazing. We arrived at Birbeck’s Keynes Library following a Friday night spent at The Hauntings, a Word Factory salon run from Earlsfield Cemetery – betwitching readings that continue their spell on us provided by Adam Marek, Alex Preston, Tania Hersham and Stella Duffy.

The masterclass started with Adam leading us through dream confessions, exercising ill-paired combinations and then circuit training through word cricket, blackout techniques well as musical and pictorial exercises. After a much needed lunch break, our refreshed brains were then expanded by Julia’s exploration of time management in fiction. Closing off the day, David taught us how style is a choice and that generosity in characterisation is worth the challenge it presents.

Sunday began with Alison showing us how are word choices can provide deeper context to the truth at the core of our stories. The readings in this session were outstanding, the group providing support and inspiration to one another. After lunch in the winter sun, Carrie navigated us through the truths and myths of publishing and working with an agent, with dry wit and much appreciated honesty. Finally our weekend was concluded by a session commanded by Deborah who assisted us in finding our voices and to express our strengths and weaknesses in writing. This allowed us to take control, reclaim our work and ensure that our strengths and weaknesses are no longer a secret to ourselves.

And so, where I began we can conclude. Perhaps what was not expected was how we surprised ourselves. By the end of the weekend, I certainly now know more about myself as a writer and about how I am going to continue my writing journey with even more skills and experience.

Word factoryDeborah and Alison will be reading at Word Factory on 30th November at The Society Club, alongside Michele Roberts and Dave Lordan. With hope, there will be further master classes in 2014, and if you wish to find out more and get tickets to the salon on the 30th then sign up to the newsletters on the homepage to get the latest news from Word Factory. Come on in and join us on the factory floor.

Room for a little one? Always at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School

There is always room for a little (or non-specific sized) one in this family; it is a family, a professional networking family of writers that I have been involved with since 2006.

Swanwick

The school has just celebrated its 65th year and it is still going strong despite rising economic problems. Delegates catch the bug known as “Swanwick magic” which may sound cheesey but is unavoidable. This magic is made by group meals where you discuss the day’s experiences, a wide range of courses and workshops that ensure any fledgling or experienced writer has the opportunity to develop their skill set, and inspirational speakers covering topics from the journey to screen (Deborah Moggoch & James Moran this year) to creating young adult fantasy fiction (Curtis Jobling did this perfectly after he stopped wowing us with his drawings and animations).

But the real magic is in the people. There are very few boundaries between writers – be that in experience, age or background. For a week you are simply a writer and that is the most freeing opportunity of all. I spend a lot of time with other writers at literary events etc and although there is a level of honesty about our work and lives, this does need to be built up over time if and when we see those friendly faces. Swanwick on the other hand is an intense week of relationship building. Swanwick is full of authenticity. Networking is done casually but with your annual return there are those that you want to see again and again. When there are 200-300 delegates you are bound to find someone or many on your wave length.

As a course leader and 1:1 mentor, there is a certain level of professionalism that I hope I adhere to. However, that did not stop me from letting my hair down at the last night disco or staying up until 2am talking with agents and writers alike. In fact I think this year, an early night was considered to be around 1am, and yes, I was up and at breakfast by 8.30am. Perhaps adrenaline is another part of the Swanwick magic! It’s also worth mentioning that even with all the teaching/mentoring I was involved with, I also started my next novel (2999 words on the procrastination free day) and worked out that I also want to screenwrite (more on that soon).

You will leave Swanwick with a notebook full of ideas, and iPad (or any other device…!) that won’t stop pinging with follows and friend requests, and friends that you cannot imagine your writing, or otherwise, life without. If you’d like to find out more about Swanwick, take a look at the website, follow them on Twitter, or like them on Facebook. The next Swanwick Writers’ Summer School will run between the 9th and 15th August 2014.

It is always the quiet ones

When someone (or rather a blog) goes quiet on you, it could mean that the author has

  1. fallen off the face of the earth (highly unlikely)
  2. forgotten that they have a website (again, unlikely, but then again, possible)
  3. been concocting mad plans elsewhere (when it comes to literary folk, it’s almost always this)

So, I’m finally back with exciting news about new projects that are forming for 2012!

I’ve been working with Adam and the team at Dog Horn for a little while now, focusing on the more literary works that come our way. Together, we’ve been spending the winter putting together proposals and applications and, well, generally being under the weight of paperwork. However, the best made plans are starting to bear fruit, of the bruised variety!

Fruit Bruise Press will be launched this year (in a more official manner shortly) as an imprint housed by Dog Horn Publishing. Fruit Bruise is a writer development and literature promotion programme dedicated to championing the transgressive, the excluded and the emergent. The focus for 2012 is to run workshops across the country to begin working with new, exciting and hidden voices that are out there hoping to be discovered, with the project culminating in the publication and launch of an anthology.

We’re kicking off the project, with a fantastic slot booked at Alt.Fiction on Saturday 14th April. The workshop “Jumping boundaries and breaking rules: Literary beginnings” will be running from 4-5pm as a taster for what is to come! Based in Leceister over two days for this year, Alt.Fiction is now in it’s sixth year of brilliant events for readers and writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Although Fruit Bruise does not focus on genre specific fiction, we welcome one and all to our workshop to help you find new ways into your writing whatever your background! The workshop is included in the cost of the weekend ticket, which if you purchase before the 1st February, it is available for a brilliant early bird offer of £30! There are so many inspiring guests, workshops, panels, and readings on at Alt.Fiction this year, so please check out what else you could be involved with!

There is so much still going on behind the scenes currently, so this is a sneak peek. If you’d like to know more about the Alt.Fiction workshop, or about the projects coming up for Fruit Bruise, please feel free to comment below or contact me at lexi@doghornpublishing.com. There are testimonials available here too if you wish to find out more about the courses and workshops I have previously run.

Digital Stories: an experiment into the unknown

The title is mostly true. It was an experiment and some of it was unknown. However, the concept was something that as a story teller, I should know very well; taking elements of the world around me, imagined or real, and constructing a story from them.

The course, created by Spread the Word and Kate Pullinger, was described as:

Kate Pullinger, award winning writer for both print and digital platforms, will be running our Digital Stories workshop on Saturday 5 November exploring how digital media can help develop your creativity. Kate has written and spoken about the excitement and challenge of writing on projects that are “born digital”. She has used digital platforms to work collaboratively with other writers, has worked with game developers and even used facial recognition software for one of her projects. In this experimental one-day workshop the focus will be on thinking about new ways to tell stories. It promises to be an opportunity to stretch your imagination, harness your creative skills and explore ways to build future collaborations and open your mind.

© Spread the Word

The promises that Spread the Word gave were not idle and this course did match their description. In a room full of a mixture of creative people, there was a place for all; traditional fiction writers and poets looking for a new device or form for their work, journalists and travel writers looking for an alternative route for their crossover into creative work, even a teacher looking for a new way of getting their students to connect with creative processes to overcome learning disabilities. After discussing ourselves including our current work and aims for this course, Kate introduced us to a range of projects she has worked on, which have been helpfully collated within the Resources section of her site.

Using the techniques she used with five Suffolk schools on the Ebb and Flow project, we looked at ways in which stories can be created by a manipulation of Google Maps. This was also used in Kidmapped where Tim Wight tracked the journey made throughout Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, adding video diary readings of the novel and opening the experience of the novel to new readers who were welcome to join Tim as he continued his journey.

We were invited to take our cameras and notebooks for a wander through the surrounding areas to find the stories of Clerkenwell. This was a daunting if liberating exercise where we wandered until we stumbled into the elements which appealed to us. For some it came quickly, a detail in a building, a face, and even overheard conversations. I overwhelmed myself with choice as I would do when creating stories in a more traditional form, however this time I hoped I would be able to incorporate the inspiration into the story by not only creating fiction from them but allowing the photos and video to become part of the story. The rules were all there, we were just going to be bending the end result and maybe doing some rule-breaking along the way. Which is no bad thing and as many of you may know, it is one of my favourite things to do. By overwhelming my senses with images and video grabbed within the hour we had to find our stories and eat lunch, I quickly constructed a story. Others created their stories which inspired by a single photo, these beautiful and often profound moments that will eventually be shared with a blue pin mark on a map, where anyone can discover it.

I will post up the link to our Google Maps story trail around the area surrounding Free Word where we were based for the day, because there are so many brilliant stories based on moments captured on film; showing all of us that when pushed creatively you can produce anything, even with limited technological skills. The reason for the delay in this link is because we have been given the week to continue the tweaks and uploading of photos. The day was not without its technical difficulties due to Apple vs Windows vs Google which is an argument that we’re all familiar with. Kate was able to provide us with the knowledge we needed on the most part, and where she couldn’t, we worked as a group to solve them.

And that was a major point of this course. With collaboration comes great experimentation but also a share of the load. We less technical creatives love to be creative, but often can get bogged down in unfamiliar ground when it comes to technical issues. Kate gently explained, we do not need to do it all. By working with someone who knows more about delivering beautiful digital stories from a technical point of view, it allows the writer more freedom to create more and bounce ideas off another person without losing your project aims. An example of this would be the Inanimate Alice series which has been created by Kate and Chris Joseph. Providing a novel as a “reading-from-the-screen experience for the “always on” generation”, this has now taken on a life of its own by the readers who have enjoyed it so much that they have created the following episodes to continue the story in weird and wonderful ways and is being used by teachers to provide additional literacy development for their pupils.

Inspired by these more technical projects, and by Kate’s mention of stories via PowerPoint, I wanted to see what I could create with the software which I’m so familiar with using but, as I’ve now learnt, I wasn’t getting enough from. So instead of posting the photos and a short story to go with them, I wanted to start to make them work together. I began by using PowerPoint to create a slideshow to produce the story, however I found this was limited in the ability to upload and embed within my own site let alone Flickr which we were using to produce the html coding or links for the pictures and stories. So, continuing the experiments at home, I tried out Microsoft Photostory 3 which would work perfectly if it would include video files rather than just photo files. Then remembering that Windows Live Essentials had some neat tricks up its sleeve, I tried out Movie Maker for the first time. I quickly recreated the slides I had on Powerpoint and I was able to overlay the story text via the caption facility, and I was able to add in the video clip I had taken to include within the final story.

This is the “final” result, so please, tell me what you think!

In the 5 short hours we spent with Kate, we all learnt how we could start pushing our creative projects into the rapidly evolving digital formats, without having the “traditional paper under glass” effect. Kate said to us all towards the end of the day “collaboration is a lot of fun” which is certainly was proved to be, allowing us to escape the necessary solitude which can be found within traditional novel or poetry creation. In this course, Kate equips writers with a new form to not only explore and experiment within but also with the skills to make real inroads into a new form that is developing at an incredible rate.

If you would like more information, Kate has also kindly provided more resources for digital storytelling on her site, so please explore them now!

The Art of Storytelling

I’m beginning to realise that this blog is some sort of curious insight into the twisted and jumpy thoughts that connect up my interests in language; a little like Daves’ curious links on the Chris Moyles show, so please bear with me…I have a point, I’m certain.
[edit: I think my knackered mind last night meant stream of conciousness…now more awake!]

This week, my thoughts have mostly been on the stories we are told throughout out lives, and how humans have depended on storytelling since, well I’m imagining since language was first formed and developed. Our lives are constantly surrounded by tales, of so many different kinds yet they help to shape our understanding of new and known thoughts, ideas and people.

Obviously the written word is a huge part of storytelling. I’m particularly drawn to literary fiction because of the exploration of language, form and style that literary prose, poetry and everything in between can take. However, I believe that the tradition of storytelling has it’s feet firmly planted in the performance of the stories told.

From tomorrow, the first London Storytelling Festival will be kicking off; started by a storytelling workshop with Martin Dockery and ending with the Gala Night on Monday 10th October. A quote from their website sums up the reasoning behind this new venture perfectly

If you’ve ever been swept up in the moment in the darkness by a campfire or had your mind blown at a candlelit dinner table – you know what we’re talking about.

The beauty within a crowd, or even a friend or child, when they are involved with a story so much that they are being delicately wrapped within the silk that any well told story can spin is one to behold. If you can, get yourself to this festival as the events are selling out fast…talking of which, I must book myself in too!

Other forms of performed storytelling have begun to interest me too. Folk music is not something I ever thought I would add to my eclectic musical loves, I’m a 70’s rock girl at heart – blame my father, yet it has wheedled it’s way into my heart by modern folk singer/songwriters like Seth Lakeman and Kate Rusby. The way they explore both old myth, legend and truths as well as modern occurrences, allows the listener to be enraptured by the tales they tell. For me, this particular happens with the songs which are written from the first person; someone, real or imagined, within the events.

Another singer/songwriter has crashed his way into my CD collection, even into the list of music that inspires me. Ed Sheeran launched his debut last month, and since then it’s been on repeat for me. Small Bump has most definitely caught my attention. It reads like a sonnet, well almost. Like a sung, slightly repetitive, sonnet which doesn’t follow any of the other sonnet “rules” apart from, resolution in the last two lines. I may have studies literature, but I’m far too practised at following the rules which is why this has jumped out at me! The song begins like a present, a hope for an unborn child from a new parent. Knowing Sheeran’s age only makes your further appreciate the nativity and genuine nativity that this song holds, be it from own experience or imagined; I’m not one to believe that writers shouldn’t stretch beyond what they know – that’s the whole point of imagination and, at times, research. The song then develops a whole new meaning within the last two lines, beautifully simple yet strikes exactly where the mark is – you didn’t see it coming:

‘Cos you were just a small bump unborn for four months, then torn from life

Maybe you were needed up there but we’re still unaware as why.

Please go and listen to it, be it on youtube or his own site. Believe me, worth the wait for the twist in the tale.

The line within it which has truly inspired me though is

And I’ll hold you tightly and tell you nothing but truth
If you’re not inside me, I’ll put my future in you

Although I realise it is not about storytelling, although it is reminiscent of the way in which parents “storytell” the early parts of a forming life to a child later in their years, these lines made me connect to something which was written in the Guardian last weekend.

And yet through it all we struggle on, and every now and again our lives are illuminated by shafts of brilliance and beauty.

This is the stuff of novels. Everyone deserves to be the hero of a novel. What matters is not the class or location of the characters, but the degree of insight into the human condition. What matters is truth.

The way in which we as writers have a need, or perhaps a calling to provide truths which reach out to ourselves, or our audiences, by presenting the hard facts from within the heart of story – be them imagined or real life. The past, present and future of literature is in our, as readers/listeners/audiences/writers, need for understanding through language.

How language is developed has always been a big interest for me but before I leave greater detail on that for another day, I must briefly make you aware of a great new documentary series, Fry’s Planet Word on BBC 2 which has the ridiculously talented Stephen Fry searching the globe to uncover the origins of language; interesting, engaging and not to miss! I will follow up soon, with more on language….promises.

F.O.M.O. – The Curse of Being Double Booked

There is always, without fail, at least one other event on when you should-be-doing or want-to-do X, Y, or Z. You know that you want to be at such and such, but then you realise that you’ve already got something in the calendar which you should be/want to be doing.

And then F.O.M.O. creeps in.

F.O.M.O is the Fear Of Missing Out.* It’s what led Geraldine in The Vicar of Dibley to eat too many Christmas dinners. Well, that and the fact that she finds herself unable to disappoint anyone who invites her. Not a very literary example but an example nonetheless.

This month is rife with F.O.M.O particularly with literary events for me personally, so get your diaries out and see if you can squeeze in any events will ensure the fear doesn’t get to you too:

15th September – Supporting the Next Generation: Young Writers Outside Formal Education – London
Not so much a literary event in the more traditional sense, but definitely important for the future of literature. If you don’t follow the work that NALD do, then take a look now!

19th September – Cheryl B is Beautiful – London
A commemoration of Cheryl B, the New York writer and performance poet, who unfortunately died earlier this year; readings by Salena Godden and more.

20th September – Book Slam – London
If you haven’t been along to a Book Slam event before, do it this month. With the inspirational Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among others on the line-up, I’m certain it’ll be a good introduction to the wonderful world of Book Slam.

22nd – 25th September – Small Wonder: THE Short Story Festival – Lewes, East Sussex
This is the one I really wish I could go to. Not only am I an admirer, writer, reader and editor of the short story form, I would love to be there as the weekend-long festival gives the opportunity to story-tell under the stars, listen to my favorite writers (including Naomi Alderman, Sarah Waters, Joe Dunthorne and Ali Smith among many more) and there’s even Harvey’s beer stocked in the bar! With all of that and more, the festival is opened by the Litmus event which involves Alison MacLeod, who I was very lucky to have as one of my tutors during my university years. 

24th September – 8th October – To The Lighthouse – Cambridge
One I nearly missed off this list, but not to be missed! Some fantastic readings are planned along with cinema, theatre, art, talks, exhibitions and workshops which draw from Woolf’s novel on this trip To The Lighthouse.

30th September – 16th October – Ilkley Literature Festival – Ilkley, West Yorkshire
I’m still hopeful I can get back ooop North for some of this – particularly for the event with fellow Chi Uni graduate and inspirational author, Isabel Ashdown.

Around this time of year I begin to yearn. I long for more learning, for new and interesting projects; I yearn for my university years. I’m pretty certain that’s because I had long periods of time to read, write and generally create without the guilt of responsibility, chores or bills, however, literary events give me the opportunity to revel in the escapism and inspiration which they can provide and I miss from the early days. Have you got any particular events that you know of or are involved with that should be shared so we don’t all suffer from F.O.M.O?

*With thanks to Heather for introducing me to the theory of F.O.M.O!