On Awareness

First tip for giving books on World Book Night…do it when you have a voice!

The conversations I had yesterday whilst fulfilling my book giving duties (see yesterday’s post if you haven’t already) where somewhat limited due to my voice petering out within seconds but I loved the challenge of speaking to complete strangers about reading and it’s importance.

From the women in Harvest Moon with the amazing jumpers who were engaged and wanted to know more (thank you for allowing me to slope of when my voice stopped!), to the man who was fundraising whilst showing off his tractors (only in Hitchin) whose non-reading confession came from his friends rather than himself.

 

Thank you to the owners of Chilli B and Groundworks who let me talk to their customers and leave books on tables.

And now it’s a case of waiting. I’ve explained a bit more about my relationship with with Reasons to Stay Alive, the book I gave yesterday, on my previous post. Without a voice, and with some nerves, I decided that explaining that personally to each recipient may be a bit much so I wrote a letter and popped it inside each book to explain why I was a book giver, and why this book. You can read it by clicking the image. I’ve invited those who found or were given the book to get in contact to let me know where it ended up…here’s hoping for some news soon!

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As I explained yesterday, my giving of this book was well timed with Depression Awareness Week. This book has helped so many people, and although there are a lot of resources out there, I’ve collected together some of the articles I’ve read during DAW this year:

If you have any articles, blogs, quotes, and of course books, you think I should add, please let me know. I’d also really recommend checking out the #WhatYouDontSee campaign on Twitter.

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I was scared of the title

WBN_logo_in_headline.jpgWorld Book Night is here again! I’m so pleased and proud to be a volunteer book giver for the third year in a row. Two years ago I started bold; talking to strangers on a quiet night at my local pub about reading and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Last year I went even closer to home, reaching out to non readers at my 9-5 with Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit. This year is personal in a different way.

This year, I’m giving Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. The team at World Book Night explain it as

Full of warmth, humour and life-affirming wisdom, this is an incredible little book that offers a lifeline to anyone who has ever suffered, recovered from or encountered depression. Matt Haig recounts his own experiences with delicate precision and tells a compelling story about how reading and writing helped him out of his darkest period.

I did not want to have depression. No-one has ever wanted depression, it is a ridiculous statement to make, but yet this is how simply I thought about it. I was scared of the label. Of the indelible ink tattooed on my face, on my actions, on my very being, once those words were said. I was scared of what it would make me without even realising I was neck deep in being/feeling all the things I didn’t want to face. I was scared of what it had done to people I love. I fought for too long, for too many people I couldn’t help. Including myself.

I was scared of the title. I had heard lots about Reasons to Stay Alive, about how it helped so many people understand or explain an illness that is often inexplicable. The title, the book, doesn’t allow you to run and hide. It confronts the very fears by presenting itself as the ‘pro’ list when the ‘cons’ are reasons not to stay alive. No one wants to hear those words, see those words, and yet by just opening that door to that conversation lives can be saved.

Confession: I hadn’t read the book when I applied to be a book giver and selected it as my choice. However I brought myself a copy earlier this year. I wish I had read it sooner. I wish someone had handed it to me. So far it has opened up conversations with loved ones who have dealt with their own anxiety or depression, and/or support me. I’m sure this blog post and the giving of these books today will open up even more. Timely as it is almost the end of Depression Awareness Week.

Today I’ll be facing strangers and handing them this book. Or I’ll be leaving it in places for people to find in the hope that they will let me know where it ends up. I will try to focus on those who may not read, but I think with this book I can be a little more open and aim to speak to those who could be helped by this book in some way.

IMG_20160423_100708To end this on a lighter note, I’d like you to imagine me out there with these books. I have been ill with a cold/flu bug this week which has left me with no voice. I can only whisper. Imagine me walking around a nearby town, wrapped up in a ridiculous number of layers, speaking to strangers in a whisper about depression and reading. I’d laugh already but that might start a coughing fit.

I promise photos, stories, and more World Book Night celebrations on here later…

On being ready to tell

20160312_182813I first went to the opera eleven years ago. I vividly remember the train journey into London, the panic on my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s face as we arrived late to find the doors closed, the view from our first seats and the move to our actual seats during the interval, the little bar in Covent Garden where we drank champagne and de-constructed ourselves on our first valentine’s. I do not remember anything about the opera itself.
On revisiting the Coliseum for Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last weekend, I explained that I couldn’t remember the finer details of the opera, or even the building, from the last time. I feel I wasn’t emotionally or mentally ready for the experience, that it was too big for me to connect with. After the second opera experience I was left with the memories of how the music made me feel, the way the symbolism on stage fulfilled the story in my mind, my relation to the height of the seats and the grasp of a hand in mine as we waited for the next act.

So why am I telling you this on a writing blog?

I have found myself drawing parallels with this experience and my current writing processes. Stories need to be given time to be told but the story teller has to be ready to to tell the tale.

I have never been a “one draft wonder” and I don’t really believe there is such a writer. Developing your characters, understanding the story’s theme, time, place, all takes redrafting. Some stories take much longer, the ones where you think you’re finished and then you get a hint of something misplaced or missing. If you find that happening, this is my advice.*

Look inwards. Try not to get lost in there, just look. What does this story mean to you? Who is this protagonist to you? What do they mean to you?

This is where that creative writing “rule” comes in – write what you know. I don’t think that it’s true for everything and finding out about new things or writing from a perspective utterly different to your own is part of the creative process but understanding what you know about yourself, your characters, those emotional and mental connections, is vital.

You don’t have to literally put this in the final draft – you just need to know. When you’re redrafting with this knowledge you will connect with the story you’re telling – that’s where the readiness lies.

What did the * mean above? This is advice for myself too, I tend to forget. I have been writing a story that I already thought was flying. Turns out it came back, and sat pecking at my feet until I really began to understand what the story meant to me. Stella Duffy gave me this advice last year at her masterclass for Word Factory – Stay at your desk until it’s all out. It won’t be comfortable, you may find yourself crying it out, but it will be worth it. Sometimes it takes time for advice to sink in. It will always be worth it.

News. Of the big variety.

My debut short story collection will be published.

There. No messing about. No, what should I say. No, it’ll be small – nothing to worry anyone about. No, looking at my feet. Because essentially that has what I have been doing for the last couple of months.

The details, which will be fleshed out over the next year or so, are that it will be published by Liquorice Fish (whom I have spoken of in previous posts) who continue to provide a wonderful home for my short stories.

And now I am getting very excited about it. Not least because I just told Ali Smith. And she grinned and gifted me the title of my collection.

In truth she wrote down the words I gave her, when I floundered over what I had been considering as possible titles in the small hours between sleep. And you know what, this is perfect.

Yet to be determined (for those who can read Ali's handwriting)

This is happening. To the people who I have should have told by now, offline, please forgive me.

What I’m really linking… 25th August 2014

The reading one(S)

beautiful1I am one story away from the end of Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference. I’m late to pick up on how challenging, honest and brutal Hall’s stories can be but I am savouring every one. Difficult to do as a short story fiend but this is a collection worth time.

stonemattresshowtobebothAdding to my reading excitement, two of my most favourite authors have new books out this week. Ali Smith with her Booker short-listed How to to be both, and Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. You know where to find me on Thursday when these hit the bookshelves.

The Philosophical one

weareverbsWhilst considering my next moves for my first novel and the second one which is becoming louder, I’ve been delving into philosophical discussion on how we develop as writers and as humans. We are Verbs is my favourite so far.

The writing one

wt-circleThis week I’ve been taking part in The Write Track‘s trial of audio writing exercises. Led by novelist and top creative writing tutor Julia Bell to work out if writers find audio exercises useful, the idea is to take exercises out of the classroom and into people’s lives as they live them, kind of like a pocket writing coach. Soon their the goal-setting community for writers will be launched online – if this trial is anything to go by, this will be an exciting community to be involved with.

I would love for find out what is inspiring you at the moment – please use the comments box for links and feedback.

To Inspire Generations

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t tell stories. Whether I was writing poetry at school, or creating stories for my brothers, or those first fledgling ones that I imagined whilst being read to. One of my first memories is correcting my mother when she added different words as she read. Yes, I was an editor from a very young age. I loved stories that much.

I love going to readings and events, to be read to again as we once were and to be inspired by writers – whether they be all time greats or début. One of my favourite bookshops, Toppings of Ely, has put on some great events this summer – including the Neil Gaiman event for The Ocean at the End of the Lane last Tuesday.

In relative terms, I’m a newbie to the following of writers who are inspired by Neil Gaiman’s work. When dating my wife, she presented me with a copy of Neverwhere because she knew I loved stories and she knew seeing London in this completely new way would spark my imagination. Now, no matter our distinctly different reading tastes, we always have a shared love of his work. His short story collection Smoke and Mirrors inspired me during my B.A. with writing that pushed boundaries and broke the rules in a very mastered way.

So it was no surprise when we saw that there would be reading relatively close to us, we jumped at the chance. The two of us and a friend, who has as much love for Gaiman’s work, met at 6pm in Ely thinking arriving early would ensure us a good place. We were in a good place. 382-384 in a queue of around 1000!

As expected, the reading was wonderful. Gaiman has a brilliant reading voice, which he confessed is a mixture of learnt and natural – a description that sums him up completely. I have continued reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane with the Hempstock’s Surrey accent firmly set in my mind, which I love.

Everyone who waited for their signing did so with pleasure, and we were all thankful that Neil would stay until everyone had their book signed. I’m not sure what time it finished, but given our position in the queue and that we spoke to him at around 11pm I can’t imagine that it ended any earlier than 1am. We watched the bats flying overhead through Ely Cathedral, talked about all his other works, and had conversations with complete strangers about cult films (there aren’t many places you can have a serious conversation about The Princess Bride. Believe me. I’ve tried).

Neil Gaiman signedI was always going to be pleased about getting my copy signed – we spoke about the bats, and then he drew one for me.

 

 

 

 

 

But nothing compared to getting a copy of Chu’s Day signed. We hope to have a child in the future, and we would always encourage them to read Gaiman’s work but how cool will it be to read them their first signed edition! And with such an important inscription.

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This weekend, we’ll be back in Ely and I’ve got another picture book for signing. This baby is going to be well read – Margaret Atwood’s Up in the Tree is next!

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.

Baring all to conquer writing fears

photo (2)I’m a procrastinator. To extraordinary lengths. Creating this blog was an exercise in procrastination at the point where my first novel was being difficult. And then of course my writing freed up and my writing almost became the procrastination against having to work out what I wanted this blog to be. But this month I have hit a conundrum. I’m stuck with my writing, and I’m stuck with the blog… I should probably explain some more.

 

My fear for my current writing project is managing to give the characters and ideas justice in words. That my words will be enough. I’m at the beginning of my second novel, and worries about it are causing me to worry more about that than write. But when I’m honest with myself I know these worries are just excuses. I know I’m scared of the ideas/topic/themes I’m crossing into, because they are BIG. They involve dealing with human pain in a way I haven’t conquered in my writing before, and possibly that I haven’t dealt with in myself yet. Yes, I could choose an easier subject; but the thing is I actually can’t. The characters are there, mumbling but very much present and they need to be written.

But when I came to writing the blog, I found my fears lurking here as well and they are similar to the novel. I want to be able to provide a service whilst be professional, but also to be me and be honest. And that’s the fear – can I be both? Can I write a blog about fear and yet be professional about my own fears that are so personal? Well, I’ve done it now, and I can only hope it works.

I dealt with my fears about writing this and continuing the novel by doing what I do best – procrastinating. By researching fear and writing with it as a procrastination to doing the actual writing, I’ve found that I am not alone. I knew this before but now I really understand it. I may debate for many moons on whether all of that was worth sharing, but the research I definitely think it has it’s place for most writers.

You are not alone. This is something we all forget and yet it can take the simplest and hardest thing of reaching out to others to find this out. The hive mind of Twitter was the answer for me. I asked my followers (most of whom are writers or connected to writing/publishing): what do you fear about your career/writing? I fully expected to hear nothing, I wondered if I’d be brave or honest enough to answer the question myself. With time (once the Murray match was over) and a couple of tweets, some brave writers stepped forward with their fears and presented them to me. There were a wide range of fears; finding out that someone else had got their first, wasting people’s time, of the balance between writing and work, of the loss of the career. The most common single fear and overriding “theme” was failure, throughout the whole process of being a writer: of being able to write, of having their book in a bookshop, to get readers. Even failure to cope with failure.

These were the fears of excellent writers and I am grateful they took the time to explain how they deal with their fears. Their fears drive them to keep writing, to work harder on what they produce. When the fear gets too much they know to take time to step away and gain perspective, even if that means leaving a project until the fear has moved away or onto something else. They learn their lessons and hope they remember them for the next time. To just keep going.

If you’re scared of reaching out, there is always a video. In my research, I found that, like most topics, if you can’t broach the subject with another person then someone else will have filled in the blanks via google. I certainly don’t think it is the same as connecting with another human, far from it, but it can certainly add to the not alone feeling. I’d recommend the following sources if you do want to get some more thoughts on dealing with fear and writing with it:

I hope this helps you on facing your own writing fear. Sometimes it will be an uphill battle but it’s always worth the fight. Personally, I’m using Neil Gaiman’s words in my plight.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”

― Neil Gaiman

Plans are unfolding…

…I am unfolding.

A confession for myself more than for you – I am not the neat little package I thought I should be. I am not the carefully laid plan I thought I would have. Knowing these things has helped me realise that there is not set way of getting from A to B. And that the safe prescribed shortest or quickest routes are generally not the most interesting. As a child my dad would let us choose which way to go the A to B journey we took almost every weekend for at least ten years of my life. Although I may know those road names and numbers now, I still think of them as the individual “scenic” routes; the one with the hill that made our stomachs flip, the one with the bridge where the trolls might live, the one that would cover the car in water from annual flooding (possibly the most exciting one).

Recently I had forgotten this, these journeys, these choices. I had begun to worry that I hasn’t been doing “it” the way I should have been. And by doing “it” I mean my life, my career choices, my plans for the A to B. I thought I should be on this set plan that everyone else seemed to be on, where 1+2+3+4 = the magical 10. But what about getting to that goal of ten with smaller numbers or starting with twenty and dividing it down to your goal. I had forgotten the story of which has become a legendary tale (within my family) of my stubbornness or fearlessness; I was born seven weeks early which now isn’t so much of an issue and health-workers know that it doesn’t restrict the possibilities for a premature child. But in the 1980’s at a check-up I was asked to kick a ball, to check coordination or motor skills one would presume. And instead of doing as I was instructed I told the health-worker “no”. That I could communicate my feelings towards the instruction assured them more than kicking the ball could have done. As children we take risks and we push boundaries until we know where there is safety. And then we often don’t leave that safe ground.

Challenging ourselves is even more important that challenging others; that is an easier task, but one that feeds my desire to work with other writers. I have an overwhelming passion for learning, particularly when it comes to literature and human expression through language. Recently I was told by a dear friend that I fascinated them when I spoke about the literature I read and write, and the plans for developing that for others, because my passions were suddenly on show and I was making them accessible for those I was speaking with. It was enlightening to be presented with this view of myself, even though I knew where my passions lie. Fear obviously is contained for many in the unknown, the not knowing. Mine is the fear of being found out to be unknowing. But we are all constantly learning and there is nothing wrong with not knowing as it will be part of the discovery. We are all unfolding, the plan changes as we develop and there is unadulterated excitement and pleasure in that self-discovery.

My decision for this open honesty has been inspired by recently connecting with a series of courageous women; my wonderful friend Charlotte Reeve who is following her journey (check out her fantastically funny blog), Sarah Butler who has just had her debut novel published Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love who, whilst speaking at States of Independence yesterday, was refreshingly honest and open on the process of “being” a writer rather than just the author part, and lastly Amanda Palmer who has been inspiring me with her music for some time but her TED talk on The Art of Asking has taken this to a new level. So this is my gift back.