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Monday, July 18th, 2011

I spent this morning visiting the high school that I ‘attended’ as a teenager. It’s not far away from when I live and I drive past it often but I have always looked the other way. When writing Cold Light I wondered about contacting my old teachers and asking for a tour, just to get my imagination kick-started, and then decided, probably through a mixture of shyness and cowardice, not to bother. Today was the first time I passed through those doors in (gets out fingers and toes) thirteen years.

It has been repainted, rebuilt, gentrified. There is more glass, less grass, more computers, better equipped art and technology spaces. It smells the same, though. And the chairs in the dining room have been replaced, and somehow the room which used to feel like a football stadium has shrunk a little, and there isn’t a library any more (!) but the sound of classroom doors being kicked open and crowds spilling out into corridors hasn’t changed either. The door handles were lower than I remembered them to be, the stools in the science labs nearer to the floor.

I spent the morning in a tucked away, slightly more bedraggled bit of the school meeting the students and teachers who work together on an ‘Extended Curriculum’ – which is school for those who, for whatever reason, can’t, don’t or won’t manage the standard syllabus and structure of secondary education. If such a thing had existed back in the day, I’d have been there. A can’t, don’t and a won’t. It was written on my records that I was a school refuser. I prefer to think of myself as a school decliner. No, but thank you.

It might be that I go back in a little while and do some creative writing with these students. I think something that can help make most people feel happy and more settled in the world, more at ease with their own existence, and more comfy about the existence of other people, is doing something that only they can do. I’ve never taught young people before, and it might be that the thing they discover about themselves is that they are not writers, but artists, or musicians, or listeners, or cooks, or teachers, or cyclists, or something else. Or that they need to hang on a bit longer because what it is that they do hasn’t become apparent yet. If I can get writing to help with that, that will be a good thing, I think.

Rabbit Hole

Monday, June 27th, 2011

I think a summer blog silence is becoming a bit of a habit. Last summer, I had a newborn and was busily finishing the edits and copy edits of Cold Light. The summer before I was writing Cold Light. And the summer before (I think) I was ‘on the road’ with a shed load of events for A Kind of Intimacy that didn’t leave much time or space for updating everyone on what I was up to.

A bit of deja-vu then.That’s all right. Except I’ve been teaching a few blogging workshops recently and keep guiltily overhearing my own voice talking about regularity of posting. As I say and not as I do.

I have finished a first draft of the Book In Progress and took June ‘off’ to do some more research, visit Utah (more about this some other time, I’m sure) and generally have a bit of a rest. The remainder of the summer will be spent on events, rewriting, planning my courses for the autumn teaching, working with my select and beloved set of Writing Smithy clients and waving at my offspring every now and again. Cold Light has been doing just fine without my interference, and is on its second printing already.

As I don’t have a lot of words for you today, here are some from others:

There’s a review of Cold Light from Book Munch by Amy Pointon and another at Jamie Fewey’s blog. A very recent one at The View From Here from the wonderfully named Grace Read (bet you a Polo she’s never heard that one before…). One more by Ben Myers at 3am Magazine and finally some nice words from For Books’ Sake.

And while I was away in Utah, a few appeared  in the print press too, which you can read here.

I also have some events booked. So if you wanted to see me reading from and talking about Cold Light or ask questions about writing, publishing, blogging or any of the other things that I do, then you could turn up at:

Hale Library at 7pm on Wednesday 29th June

or St Anne’s Library at 7pm on Wednesday 13th July

or Lancaster Oxfam Bookshop (Penney Street) at 3pm on Friday 15th July

or  at Bury Library at 7.30pm on the 18th July for the Bury Library Literary Salon

or Bolton Waterstone’s at 5pm on Thursday 28th July

Bye for now. I am booked for a very important engagement with a cup of tea and a piece of shortbread. Can’t be late for that.

Tug O War

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Bad blogger again.

I am very deep into my first draft of the third book. As yet mainly un-named. Just over 50k words in. I want to get it written as fast as possible because I can already guess the sort of editing that it is going to need and I want to give myself plenty of time to do it.

I didn’t think writing to a deadline would suit me but imagining my editor drumming her fingers on her desk waiting for me to type a bit quicker is actually very helpful. Vanishing into the spaces between the words and the noise the keyboard makes is wonderful. I reckon if I could fully explain how happy it makes me I wouldn’t need to do it.

But there are other demands on my time. I am pulled out of my head and into the world and then the book makes me irritable and hauls me back again. I can only imagine how fun this, along with the anxiety about Cold Light’s imminent arrival, is making me to live with.

Tugs in the other direction include two recent interviews – journalists coming inside the house, which was new and strange. Both very nice and polite and complimentary about my domestic offerings (tea, fig rolls, a token amount of pre-visit hoovering up) but Strangers all the same, inside My House and with Tape Recorders.

I was naively unprepared and expected to be asked only about the books, but that wasn’t how it panned out. I’d really like to have a body double Jenn for interviews. Someone bubbly and cheery with thoughts like lasers instead of grumpy, inarticulate woolly me.

Something I have learned this week about being interviewed: the only way to deal with the thoughts about what an idiot you were, and what stupid things you said, is to refuse to think them at all. Type, instead. Drink tea. Get over yourself.

Teaching – busy at this time of year as I have one set hurtling towards the end of their first year, and the handing in of portfolios. I suspect they are still disbelieving when I tell them one of the most useful things they can train themselves to do for their writing is to read it out loud to themselves, look up words they’re not sure of and be consistent about italicising the names of books and computer games. It is true. Little things count. And the other lot, slowly losing themselves in longer short story collections and novels and forgetting that they’re going to get marked on this sort of thing, because merits and passes and distinctions are not that important when it comes to writing good books. It’s a tiring time, working with them, but the best time so far.

On the way home from Manchester there’s a man who has sat next to me twice now who does that legs wide apart thing. He opens a textbook to learn Chinese and then puts his head back against the seat and closes his eyes. I coughed a little and touched his arm (I thought he was sleeping) and I told him he was squashing me a little bit. He said, ‘I know love,’ and I laughed, feeling envious of that amount of confidence, and leg room.

More things tugging me away from the first draft, and the pleasure of becoming invisible:

My first event in a long time as part of my fellowship at Manchester University. I read a bit from Cold Light AND a very early drafted part of something from book three. Which I worry might have been a mistake. It’s like a new love right now. I want to talk about how brilliant it is all the time, but I’m experienced enough to know we’re heading for a fall out sometime soon and those sort of spats are better fought and won behind closed doors. I read it anyway, never heard it out loud before (that’s right, I don’t take my own advice you clever, close reading devil, you!) but I think it worked okay.

I don’t think I would do it again. It felt like taking off my clothes and pointing out my problem areas to a gathering composed of all the people who have ever dumped me. But it only seemed fair – the audience was stuffed with students who have been trusting and brave enough to show me their drafts and speak to me about their ideas. It felt right to return the favour.

I ate frogs legs, that was new. And was very sad to wave goodbye to my fellow fellow, the poet Paul Batchelor who moves onto new things this month, and whose poems have restored me on more than one occasion, especially in the past few weeks when all my typing has left me emptied out and tearful by the end of the day.

This week there is lots of writing to look forward to and on Friday I am helping to make a book trailer for Cold Light.

(the picture is of Florence La Due who was a cowgirl and ‘champion roper’ and, I imagine, able to handle herself very well in a tug o war, thank you very much)

Station Stories 2

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Here I blogged about my difficulty in finding a story for the Station Stories project – the performance date fast approaching. Your own Station Stories choo-chooed in and, eventually, mine arrived too. It was midnight the night before I needed to report back to the group I am collaborating and performing with – but just in time is better than late or not at all.Thanks for the inspiration. You were all Top Bananas.

Here’s a little bit more about how we’re going to perform the stories written for the project – from the Manchester Literature Festival website:

Audiences are linked to the writers’ microphones by headsets using wireless technology, making the event unobtrusive and ensuring the audience hear every single word, whilst still experiencing the live ambience of the location. A musician accompanies the writers and improvises music using sampled live sounds from the station, manipulating these sounds and playing them into the audience’s headsets between and underneath the text. The writers interact with passing members of the public who may be unaware that a performance is taking place.

Station stories will explore the day-to-day life of the station – its platforms, its workers, the journeys people take, the waiting, the encounters, the thrill, the loneliness, the joy. It will express the peculiar, unique qualities of this marginal, in-between world, where anything can happen and often does.



We’ve all chosen the part of the station where our stories are set. We’ve met the sound technician, Rory and the musician, Dave, that will be working with us. We’ve discussed space, movement, sound and themes. We’ve wandered around the station (and I deserve a special medal for my wandering, as I did it while carrying McTiny and sporting a fat lip from where he slapped me in the face with a heavy duty rattle…)

My story is going to contain photographs, shoes and a mad dash to platform ten (I think). I’m not going to say any more, but if you want to see me and the others then book your tickets soon – we’re doing three performances per day between the 19th and the 21st of May.

Choo Choo!

Unaverage week

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Most of the time being a writer involves hunching over a rickety desk, sending the odd invoice, worrying about receipts and lots of reading. Then there’s the teaching, which involves all that, and then some marking and some talking and lots of replying to emails. None of this is very exciting to anyone other than me, I am sure.

This week has been different, obviously. There was the telly thing, which I still haven’t seen yet, but which evidently one or two of you liked. And the telly thing temporarily put A Kind of Intimacy into the Amazon Bestseller Charts, which was unexpected and very nice. And on top of that I have heard that French rights to A Kind of Intimacy have just been sold. Which is also very nice.

Other new things about this week include some changes round here. First – a new page about Cold Light on this website. I get asked a fair bit about my writing process, how I do drafts, whether I type or handwrite and so on. I thought a sneak into my dark box of drafts might be interesting to some of you. The front page has had a bit of a spit and polish too, but isn’t quite finished yet.

I’ve been overwhelmed by all the messages you have been sending me and all the new visitors to my blog. Hello and thank you. I’ve been a bit crap about doing phone and emails but will be catching up soon. Promise.

P.S The picture is the actual cheese and pickled hedgehog that the kind people at the Culture Show made and brought in a cool box to UCLAN all the way from London. I was allowed to take it home and I kept it on my desk until it went all manky.

the Writing Smithy

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

Out to tea with a friend this week, and he said to me, ‘so, do you plan on having a holiday any time soon?’ and I shrugged sheepishly – which is my way of telling you that I’ve gone and started something else with a friend of mine, and this is a plug-post.

the Writing Smithy is me and Sarah Hymas, mentoring and editing and doing appraisals. She does poems, I do novels – and if you’re a short storyist or a flasher or a script-writer still get in touch because we can refer you on to people we know and like, are qualified to do what they do and will not fleece or flatter you.

We ‘soft-launched’ the website a couple of weeks ago – and already the recommendations and referrals are trickling in. I’m so excited about this. Since I stopped working in the library I’ve been trying out loads and loads of different kinds of work and finding a lot of tasks, environments (and yes, people) that I didn’t want to continue with. But since Sarah and I decided to do this, it has been Spot On.

The thing I like best about being in charge of my own working life is that I can make sure everything I do is honest and high-quality, is more about the writing than the selling of the writing*, involves working with people I find interesting and doing something that I like. And what I like, I’ve discovered, is working with other people who are interested in making their writing better, open to experimenting, reading and writing new things, talking and listening, practising and working hard.

Everything else about us and what we do and why we do it, how much it costs and how you can get in touch with us is on our website. We’re based in the North West, but we will work via email, phone or Skype if it is impossible for you to travel to us.

*there’s nothing wrong with selling writing. I like selling writing. But I am a writer and a teacher, not an agent or a publisher or a sales and marketing specialist. So I stick to the writing part. It’s only fair.

NaNoWriMo – The Verdict

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

I didn’t write 50,000 words – so I don’t get the badge. But I wouldn’t have got it anyway, as I never bothered to sign up officially on the site. Even as I began I doubted that I’d complete the big 50k but I’m still a little disappointed.

50,000 words was a big and daft ambition as I’m mothering most of the time right now and I needed to check the proofs of Cold Light during November. But more than this, I couldn’t leave my research alone.

I’ve been reading up on cognitive dissonance. Researching the way people who have an opinion on something will filter out any evidence that seems to contradict that opinion. Even scientists, if there’s room for interpretation of their results and someone with an interest is paying them.

One of the ways we overcome a particular kind cognitive dissonance is called Sour Grapes.

Well, I didn’t want the stupid NaNoWriMo badge anyway…

I have been reading about historical revisionism – the way organisations do this and why, and how they’re able to resolve the dissonance between claiming to be honest and reliable while spinning / editing /  censoring and lying about themselves by claiming (and really believing) that they are enhancing, clarifying, simplifying and improving. And how on the smaller scale individuals in bad marriages do this.

I was reading more about memories. Revising things I already knew. We’re all bad historians of our own lives. We all revise. We all have blind spots about our own self justification (the means by which we sometimes resolve dissonance) but others’ is glaring.

We’re all biased, unreliable hypocrites.

I know these things have always been interesting and important to me. In one way or another all my writing is circling around the problem of telling the truth, and of using words to do it. But I have been realising why it is so important to me. I don’t want to say any more about it right now, other than it has been tiring.

I found it all so interesting that although I was able to plan the rest of my chapters and write a lot more than I thought I was going to, and that I solved a couple of plot and character problems, and found out what I needed to know about Crufts, and decided I needed to know a tiny bit more about postmen and about fixing cars, and I got over the blank-page doldrums, I didn’t get 50,000 words.

Oh well.

Hooray for everyone else who participated!

There’s No Place Like Home

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Half term at Ashworth Towers (and elsewhere, so I’ve heard) which means not so much new writing being done this week – but preparation for the second half of my creative writing course at UCLAN, a bit of manuscript appraisal and the finishing touches for my Blogging for Beginners workshop (I believe there are a couple of places left, still, if you’re interested).

Yesterday, the Rainy City Stories Panel event for the Manchester Literature Festival – Nicholas Royle, Clare Dudman and me chatting to each other about the way we use ‘place’ in our stories. Despite the fact that it’s going to be a little while before Cold Light is available, I read from it and that was exciting.

Clare talked about her travels – the way she prefers to visit places alone to soak up the atmosphere and find out things about a place you’d never pick up from books or the internet. For one of her books, she traveled though Patagonia on her own. I talked (less impressively) about my trips into Fleetwood on the bus with my then-toddler Small Fry for A Kind of Intimacy. Cold Light is set in Preston, where I’ve almost always lived, so the only travel I did was into my memories. I joked that I set all my fiction in places fairly near to me because I’m a lazy researcher, but now I’m starting work on book three (still no title) which is primarily set in Chorley but with one of the characters having spend significant time in the US, I am thinking a trip ABROAD to Utah might be in order.

And of course my interest in the North West is not because I am a lazy researcher. But I’m not a faithful, truth telling one either. One question from the audience made me think – I’d mentioned that for Cold Light, I’d had to do a little bit of re-jigging of what Preston looks like to serve the plot, and that I’m expecting some local readers to gleefully point out these ‘mistakes’ to me at some point in time. I shrug in response to this – it really, really doesn’t bother me because novels aren’t maps and I think we turn to fiction for other kinds of truth than the factual. Although I know that errors in fact are irritating to some readers when they find them, for me, unless we’re talking wilful ignorance, stereotype etc, it really doesn’t upset me as a reader either.

Something that we touched on during the discussion (we were only there an hour, but once we got going felt like we could have gone on much longer thanks to Nick’s excellent chairing) is the difference between evoking and depicting a place. I’m interested in conveying atmosphere and mood. In writing about what it is like to come from somewhere not very trendy, not very well known, and fairly hard to get out of. In writing about how disappointing, inward looking places impact on character and what it is like to grow up bored and disappointed. In paralysis, feeling trapped, not quite realising that in other places, it might be possible to do things a little bit differently. In giving anonymous, and frankly, sometimes fairly ugly Northern towns to readers who haven’t met them before. De-Preston. Not in writing a guide-book or a travelogue.

I think the difference between depicting and evoking is the difference between facts and fiction. I push what I know and what I see into a story and it becomes something odd, something that doesn’t exist anywhere except my book, and yet references Preston and hundreds of other towns. I hope that people who want to find out what Preston feels like find something useful in my book. They certainly won’t be able to use it as a road map.

On the train home, watching Deansgate, Salford, Bolton, Horwich and Chorley slide by the window, I was still chunnering about this question – remembering my bookseller friend who tells me that my book sells much better when they don’t market me as a ‘local writer’ and another very experienced poet who let me in on the secret that ‘local writer’ is (often read as) shorthand for ‘crap writer of interest to no-one other than their friends’. Regional writer? Is it possible to write about where you come from in a way that’s going to be interesting and illuminating to people who are not from that place? I think it is – after all, there are unfashionable, cut-off feeling towns all over the world: I am just writing about the ones I can write about without being a tourist.

I know from my stats that many of the people who read this blog are from Elsewhere and might have first read my writing in one of the overseas editions. So if you haven’t commented so far on the blog, now is the time to weigh in. I am interested in what these places look like to readers who might never have visited them before.

In other news, I’ll be checking the proofs of Cold Light next week AND I’ve seen what the cover is going to look like AND the book has recently sold in the US, and will be published with William Morrow. Which is all very good. And I’m investigating plane tickets for Salt Lake City.

Good

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Final, jiggling with the completed manuscript of Cold Light before it goes to the typesetters. I pity the person who needs to make this scribbled, Tipp-exed, dog-eared lump of well loved paper into a book.

Things I have learned during these edits:

You can’t have someone watching the adverts while The Antique Roadshow is on, because AR was a BBC programme and there weren’t any adverts.

The prescription charge in 1997 did not apply to contraceptives prescribed by a doctor, did apply to the morning after pill unless you got it from a doctor in an A and E department or you were under the age when prescription charges would usually apply.

My handwriting is attrocious, and I drip tea on everything.

Lemsips really do take care of anxiety.

Better

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Well, if you’ve time to moan about it, you can’t be that busy, right?

After four months of getting to grips with a new baby and working on edits, copy edits, cuts etc to Cold Light – all of which has taken place in the tiny, quiet (although fairly clean…) world of my own house, it has been lovely and strange and scary to get out into the world again. I feel like I’ve emerged from a really long sleep in a hot, dark room. Like I did when I got woken up at 11.30pm as a child and brought into the room where the New Year’s Eve party was happening. Rubbing my eyes and working up to joining in. I’ve had the shortest maternity leave known to woman-kind (nine days, I think, and for six of those I was in hospital) but never mind. I can sit about when I’m old.

So yes, I’ve been busy. There’s the regular teaching at UCLAN – the Introduction to Creative Writing module, which is a series of two hour workshops meant to, as it says on the tin, introduce the students to various forms and techniques in writing so they’re prepared to hand in a portfolio shortly before Christmas. It is an introductory level course (as you may have gathered) and there’s the difficulty – how can you do ‘character’ or ‘setting’ in two hours with twenty students? As always with short courses, I can only show the students some of the possibilities, let them practice and give them a place to get mine and each other’s feedback – most of their learning, I hope, is going to take place between workshops.

Then there’s the occasional workshops I do for other organisations – no marking, no pressure on me to make sure the students pass – the workshop isn’t a component of a course. The participants on these courses are often older, more widely read, less confident about reading to each other. The difficulty is establishing trust and a rapport with participants who don’t know me, don’t know each other and who usually have totally different experience levels and ambitions for their work. There’s no continuing relationship, so warming up to each other and getting to know each other gradually. You’re in at the deep end.

At the end of last month I did a three hour session on Creating Character for the Lancashire Writing Hub – I was supposed to teach this before the summer, but had to unexpectedly cancel all my work – it was great to pick up where I’d left off, see some familiar faces and deal with the ever-fascinating task of inventing imaginary people with increasingly tricky games and writing prompts. We got a few brilliant pieces of writing by the end of the night – the beginnings to some interesting stories about undertakers as accomplices to murder, commuting agoraphobics, and a monologue about cleaning a toilet before a hot date. Good stuff!

After that, two workshops for Salford Libraries about writing personal histories for the Pages Ago competition –  library workshops are always so friendly and I love helping people turn real experiences, memories and settings into fiction. I get nervous when I teach, but never in libraries. I still feel at home in them.

Soon, a day long workshop for Litfest about blogging – I’m especially looking forward to this one as I’ve not done any work with bloggers since the Out on A Limb project. I think there may be one or two places left, if you’re commutable to Lancaster, free on the 6th of November and interested in learning about blogging from a writer’s perspective.

And finally, resuming my (small) mentoring practice, working with two mentees at various points along the journey of their first novel.Feeling privileged to be standing by and cheering on from the sidelines as writers wrestle with the difficult problems about tense, structure and point of view – weighing up the options, experimenting, dealing with the anxiety and the writer’s block. Talking about character and watching these imaginary people develop and make journeys of their own. It’s tiring and I should probably charge more than I do but I love it. Mr gets annoyed on my behalf when people ask me to do  / write  / teach things and add that they won’t be offering a fee, because I do if for the love of it, right – ‘only people who hate their jobs can get paid?’ (he says). I know what he means, but mentoring is something I could almost do for free, I like it so much.

Who’s Rocky’s manager? Mickey? I feel like him, hanging about very close to, but outside the ring with my sponge and bucket. *hit the one in the middle!*

I need to watch Rocky more. I’ve got the boxed set. Fine set of films. There’s very little you need to know about life that is not contained in Rocky 1 or Rocky 4. I’ve always seen myself as more of an Adrian than a Mickey, but everyone can change (boom!)

Funny, because some days all this peripheral work about writing, other people’s writing, feels too much – and drains me, and makes me wonder why I bother, and other days it can feel exciting and stimulating and as if I’m involved in a community of people doing just the same sort of things as I do. Just like some days my novel can feel like a wonderful, special, clever thing, and other days the dullest most inane set of words anyone has ever inflicted on the world.

The work doesn’t change that much. Sleep, and unceremoniously deleting a few emails, and getting to the end of a t0-do list and playing with clay can make all the difference.


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