"A word after a word after a word is power" - Margaret Atwood


A blog for readers and writers

A blog about the stories we tell each other and how we tell them...

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The EVERLASTING creative writing exercise

Most courses have now broken up for the summer...so here is a perpetual creative writing exercise for those who can't ignore the itch to write...
You can repeat the exercise again and again, each time going off in a new direction. How much time you spend on it is up to you - it can be 10 minutes or two years. (But only if the exercise has developed into a novel – there is such a thing as too much polishing.)
 The Rules
You can break them, twist them and even ignore them entirely. Remember, this is Creative Writing. It is not A level English, or Leaving Cert or High School Diploma. These are rules you can chuck as soon as they stop being useful.

1) Take two fiction books – any two: love them or hate them, it doesn’t matter. But if you choose novels from different genres the challenge is greater.
2) Go to page 101 in the first book
3) Select the first full sentence that doesn’t contain someone’s name or a reference to a specific time or place (unless you want to: see above). That means you are free to reject Sherwood Forest but really should accept one that mentions a forest.
4) Go to page 201 in the second book. Again select the first full sentence that doesn’t nail you down too rigidly. (Best to avoid something like: With a sigh, Claude hailed a hansom cab knowing that tomorrow he would be leaving dear old London and be sailing for South America and his uncle’s diamond mine...)
5) The first book will give you the opening sentence of this passage of writing. Don’t call it a story yet. It is just about to be born and you have to wait to see what it will grow into. I like the word passage because it’s not intimidating. It doesn’t commit you to anything except writing and it gives you the freedom to stop after a page.
6) The second book gives the second sentence. Use it somewhere, somehow, on the first page; or in the first 250 words; or within four paragraphs of the opening….you get the idea, you have to work your way towards it pretty quickly.
7) Change pronouns (she, he, I, they) and past and present tense to be consistent.  And that's it....

Here's the two sentences I've come up with...see where they take you.
The first sentence is from The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (winner of the Booker in 2008)
They had seen things like this happening before
The second sentence is taken from page 201 of The Visible World by Mark Slouka (A story revolving around the resistance fighters in WWII Czechoslovakia.)
The air moved, bringing a breath of coolness.
Don’t like it? Maybe it gives you too much freedom and you’d rather like to be pinned down. Ok, let’s switch the books around

Page 101 from The Visible World
Walking down a long, sloping dirt road through the fields, I found myself behind an old woman dressed in black, making her slow way toward the forest.
Page 202 from The White Tiger
Crouching and jabbering like monkeys.
(I know it’s not actually a sentence but let’s not get picky and if it's all right for Adiga...)

Just think what other treasures wait to be discovered on your book shelf. I should warn you that this is an exercise that can become seriously addictive.

Monday, 28 June 2010

London non fiction workshop -- pitching

I want to tell you about a July workshop being run by a colleague, Susan Grossman. She is a BBC broadcaster, magazine editor, travel writer and author, and is currently lecturer on the MA course in journalism at Westminster University.
Pitching to Editors is for writers of non-fiction, PRs, former editors, staff writers, photographers or freelancers looking to impress editors with their pitches.
The workshop is small so that everyone gets
feedback on pitches they want to bring in.  The aim of the workshop is to help people expand their outlets, identify target audiences, re-work existing material and explore the lucrative market of customer magazines (from airline and store magazines to those for banks or businessmen). I gather that the success rate is good and the day is not only motivational but a great networking opportunity.
Next workshop is on Monday 12th July at RIBA, W1.
10 am to 5 pm.
Cost: £105.
Book by email: susangrossman@tiscali.co.uk  

You can also check out Susan's website by clicking on the title of this post.

You don't need to show your birth certificate...

A few days ago I wrote about 21 year old Ivan Brett getting a three book deal. The Great Lie is Myrrha Stanford-Smith's first novel.  Set in 16th century London, it follows the adventures of Nick, an aristocratic teenage runaway, who joins a troupe of travelling players and gets mixed up in the rivalry between Shakespeare and Marlow.
Myrrha was born in Brighton and is now living in Holyhead, North Wales where she is a director in a repertory company. 

Myrrha has a three book deal.
Myrrha is 82.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The ULTIMATE vocational subject

Just joined in the discussion at The Guardian's cultural blog about the benefit of writers visiting schools.
Here is what I had to say...
As the ultimate vocational subject, creative writing has an important place in the classroom and the university lecture hall. Using the written word effectively is always an asset, especially when faced with the most daunting of blank pages - the one that appears on job application forms.
As a member of New Writing South's Creative Learning team (www.newwritingsouth.com ) I have been a writer in school and can testify that it is a rewarding experience. No, it's more than that, it is an exciting experience...And it's not just for the gifted and talented.

I worked for 10 weeks with a group of year 8 students and their parents all of whom lacked confidence in their literacy skills. We linked writing exercises to the history of the school and in one session parent and child imagined themselves on a railway platform at the start of WWII as the first evacuees were leaving. Everyone - even the shyest - chose to read out what they had written.

No one spoke, no one moved, as parent after parent, child after child, used a story to say the things that are rarely said aloud.

One immediate outcome of the project was that the parents as a group elected to carry on studying together to improve their literacy skills and be a more effective support to their children.

Margaret Atwood said a word after a word is power...our children need that power and having a writer in school is one way of giving them a space to play with language, have fun with it and claim it as their own.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

BITING BACK when you hate the review

Terry Eagleton is highly critical of the poet Craig Raine's first novel, Heartbreak in this week's London Review of Books. Eagleton - the Professor of Cultural theory at the National University of Ireland - wrote: 
the publishers have represented it as a novel, rather as Jedward are represented as singers...The description is true but misleading...
Raine is most famous for his 1970s poem A Martian Sends A Postcard Home (which I use regularly in my creative writing classes and seems very popular in American High Schools judging from the number of youtube films on the subject). His response to the damning review?
I really enjoyed not reading Terry Eagleton's review almost as much as he enjoyed not reading my novel

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Looking for an American Agent?

Poets and Writers magazine have developed The Literary Agents database. It includes agents who represent poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, plus details about the kind of books they're interested in representing, their clients, and the best way to contact them. Click on the title of this post to go straight there.
Meanwhile here's an example of the kind of information they provide.

Peter Steinberg 
The Steinberg Agency

47 East 19th Street
Third Floor

New York, New York 10003

(212) 213-9120
Accepts E-mail Queries?
Interested in Representing:
Autobiography/Memoir, Commercial Fiction, Historical, Humor, Narrative Nonfiction, and Pop Culture
Clients Include:
Alicia Erian, Keith Donohue, John Matteson
Also included is detailed advice about how to submit -- often by email.

Heart Sick or Heartened?

News that the "the funniest new voice in fiction" is 21 year old debut author Ivan Brett whose children's book Casper Candlewacks in Death by Pigeon was the subject of 
fierce competition in a hotly contested auction
(don't you just love that phrase, don't those words just sing when they are put together in the same sentence?) may make your confidence wobble if you have been slaving over the first three chapters for the last three years. So young and a four book deal! But it's a reminder that there are no age limits in writing, no minimum, no maximum, no pensioning off, no under age keep out signs...in the end there is just the writing. Only the writing. So now is the time to get on with the fourth chapter, and the fifth, and the sixth...
If you're interested the deal was done with HarperCollins Children's books by Harriet and Eve White at the Eve White Literary Agency.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Richard and Judy Book Club back but not as you know it...

WHSmith will re-launch The Richard and Judy Book Club this autumn with the promotion of six titles. More will follow next spring and summer.
 This time round it won't be part of a TV programme (although there may be television adverts) so it's more like a very nice endorsement without the chat. But without the chat there's no club.... 

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Guest Blog JANE MURISON On how to write tight

I've know Jane for about three years and I am delighted she is my very first guest blogger. She is an insightful, imaginative writer who follows her own rules...
When we write, there are a lot of exercises for getting the juices flowing.  I thought it would be useful to talk about how to approach editing: how do you make something shorter, tighter and better?
I was recently preparing a story for a competition and had to take 600 words out of it to fit the 2000 word limit.  Tough!
There’s an easy start by applying some rules to your work.  You should make your own, but lots of authors have come up with lists of these.  The Guardian did a terrific collection of them a few months ago.
My favourites are:
-       Don’t use speech words other than ‘said’ (‘proclaimed’, ‘yelled’, ‘whispered’),
-       Don’t use adverbs (‘he said, brutally’)
-       Avoid opinionated 3rd person narrator (‘Mary was a daft old trollop’)
-       Don’t say the same thing in different ways (‘The leather bag was cracked and dusty.  It was old and broken.”)

All well and good, but there’s an indefinable ‘something’ you want to get into your writing.  It’s that horrible question you keep asking, ‘but is it any good?’
If you’re into design, you’ll have come across Dieter Rams 10 rules for good design. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dieter_Rams
There is a way of adapting these for writing. But they can serve as a way to allow you to step away from the thing you spun from air and let you look at it as if you are impartial.


* Good writing is innovative
* Good writing tells you something
* Good writing is aesthetic
* Good writing is understandable/accessible
* Good writing is unobtrusive
* Good writing is honest
* Good writing is long-lasting
* Good writing is thorough down to the last detail
* Good writing has a soul
* Good writing is as little writing as possible


Perhaps you don’t agree with all of them, or you want to define them your own way.
Thank you Jane and thank you for expressing something I've felt for a long time. Good writing isn't cynical. Good writing has integrity. Good writing is straight from the heart to the page.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Letters NOT to send to an agent

From SLUSHPILE HELL the blog of an American literary agent
I would like to submit both my screenplay, short screenplay, animation/children’s screenplay, teleplay, travel series, novel, and memoir for your consideration.
Okay, you talked me into it. Send them all to me. In a big box.
I understand you’re interested in historical fiction submissions, filled with both action and intrigue.
Both action AND intrigue? No.
My novel is a sumptuous feast of meticulously researched historical fact and superbly crafted fiction.
No one can put this manuscript down and not finish reading it. 
Just did. 

You can get to Slushpile Hell by clicking on the title of this post

Gritty, urban, contemporary. A free to enter competition for writers who know their city...

Manchester based Creative Tourist and Rainy City Stories are looking for short stories about cities, any city.  
Stories that encapsulate some of the romance or the horror, the daily drudgery or the surreal moments, the beauty or the decay of modern urban life. Stories should be contemporary or set within the last ten years, and should provide a detailed snapshot of city life. Rather than just being the place the action happens, the city must be fully present in the story, almost having the same stature as another character. We want to walk the streets with your characters, see what they see, hear what they hear – be transported there.
They will be selecting one Manchester winner and one winner from elsewhere. The winning stories will be published on Creative Tourist and Rainy City Stories, and the winners will receive a cash prize of £100 and tickets to  Manchester Literature Festival. 
Length 3000 words max
Deadline 6pm July 2 2010
Judging process  Later in July, Creative Tourist will publish the first 500 words of a shortlist of six and open the shortlist up to a public vote (the vote will count as 40% towards the selection of the final winner). The final winners will be announced on 2 August.
Click on the title of this post to find out all the rules and how to enter

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Looking for love (stories)

Made From Scratch Theatre Company based in London are looking for submissions for the latest in their Scratch Nights. They want "all sorts of love stories" written as 15 min short plays. 
Those chosen will be performed this summer at "an exciting London venue".
Submit to mfsneedsyou@gmail.com. Put Scratch Night: Love Stories in the subject line,
Deadline July 1st 2010
Made From Scratch Theatre Company say that they "really want to help promote new writers in London. If that's you, regardless of experience we want to know..."  They also have a fan page on Facebook - check it out if you're thinking of submitting.
Suggestions for all sorts of love stories
  • Forbidden love (please see novel on right.  please buy novel on right. please go to a library and borrow novel on right. please...you get the idea...)
  • Love with the other - Beauty and the Beast....Lady into Fox by David Garnett (I recently set a two hour class around this book....and I fell in love with the work that came out of it)
  • Tragic love - the lovers die: Romeo & Juliet, The English Patient.....
  • Tragic love - one lover dies: Titanic, Love Story, PS I Love You...Goodbye Mr Chips...there must be heaps more...
  • Happy love stories....Breakfast at Tiffany's (fillm not the book which has a very different ending) Goodbye Mr Chips...completely dried up....
Suggestions for an exciting London venue
  • London Dungeon --- it's a potent mix: horror + love
  • Holborn tube station Piccadilly line platform (just because I can often be found standing there) Love among the tube mice...
  • Tower of London --- Beefeater and vegetarian
  • House of Correction in Clerkenwell --- captive love.....
Any others?

Happy Bloomsday

A present for June 16th Bloomsday - a quote from THE book 
Think you're escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.
And a wonderful textorised picture of James Joyce using an extract from Ulysses by someone called Max. it is licensed under creative commons and if you click on the title of this post you can go to his flcker account. Enjoy.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Wanted: plays with human rights at the heart

Everyone Has the Right is a rolling script submission scheme (that means there is no deadline) for plays with human rights at their heart. It's a joint initiative between theatre company ICE AND FIRE and Amnesty International 
Writers are everyone who submits a script (full length theatre scripts only) will get written feedback on
  •  theatricality
  • dialogue 
  • characterisation 
  • whether it successfully explores a human rights story
The best plays will receive professional rehearsed readings in London. 
Those writers that ICE AND FIRE feel would benefit from longer term development will be paired with a dramaturg for more in-depth work on their script.
It sounds like a win win situation to me. Click on the title of this post for more information.International submissions welcome - as long as it's in English

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Orange/Harper's bazaar Short Story Competition 2010

300 writers entered this year's competition. They had to submit a short story on 'The Face'. I am thrilled that Jane Murison who attends my Saturday morning class at City Lit was one of the three finalists. Carole Welch, Chair of Judges, said:
...all three writers had great potential. We look forward to hearing more from them...
Jane won £500, a creative writing class led by author and teacher, Greg Mosse, and dinner at the Orange Prize awards ceremony last night in London. Way to go, Jane!
Now in its ninth year, the Orange/Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Competition aims to support unpublished writers at the beginning of their careers.
Previous winners have gone on to achieve literary success including Clare Allan, who won the first ever Orange/Harpers Bazaar Short Story Competition in 2001.  Her debut novel, Poppy Shakespeare, was dramatised for Channel 4. Way to go, Jane, way to go!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Modest writers step forward

This month a new Irish literary review are accepting submissions for the inaugural issue of A Modest Review, a journal of short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.
Short fiction: minimum 1,000 words
Poetry: no restrictions
Creative nonfiction: minimum 1,000 words
Deadline: July 1st 2010
The website doesn't say, but I presume they are paying the usual reward for writers: honour and glory. However, I rather like their mission statement...
At Modesty Press we believe in three things above all else: happiness, good health, and fantastic literature. Our mission is to publish challenging new writing in beautifully designed books at a reasonable price.

We hope to publish in a variety of print formats - novels, novellas, fiction and nonfiction anthologies, as well as a literary review. For the more digitally inclined we plan to offer streamed audio recordings of all publications and podcasts available for free download.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Young, gifted and...writing for Take A Break

Take a Break magazine are running a writing competition for young writers which will be judged in three age categories: 8-11 year-olds, 12-14 year-olds and 15-18 year olds.  It is open to anyone in the UK and Republic of Ireland.
Stories must be between 500 and 1,000 words long and can't have been published anywhere -- and that includes websites. If a story is published, the promoters reserve the right to edit it for length and style.This competition is open to residents of the UK, or the Republic of Ireland, who are aged between 8 and 18 years of age. 
Prizes: The winner of each age group will receive: a 13” Macbook from Apple and a trip to London with one family member, including rail travel, overnight stay in a London hotel and lunch reception. They will meet author Anthony Horowitz and receive a signed copy of his latest Alex Rider novel: Crocodile Tears.
Their story will be published in full in the December issue of Take a Break's Fiction Feast. 

The school or college of each winner will receive £1,000 worth of books courtesy of Walker Books. (So, the winner will be pretty popular...) 
Closing date  July 23 2010

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Arvon Grants - this year's round launched

If you have always wanted to go on an Arvon creative writing course (and they are the flag ship of the creative writing industry in the UK) but couldn't afford it, apply now for for a grant that will cover the full cost (excluding travel).
Hurry - you only have two weeks to apply. They receive so many applications that they can only open the door of good fortune (easier to access than that tricky window of opportunity) until June 25.  Click on the title of this post to go to the appropriate part of the website (it can't be reached through more conventional routes - another device to reduce the total number of applications.

Application Criteria
1. Arvon 42 grants are only available to writers living permanently in England or Wales.
2. Applicants must provide supporting information and documentation to demonstrate that
they do not have the financial means to make any payment towards the cost of an Arvon
course. The information required is specified on the grant application form. For security
reasons, applicants are advised to blank out information such as account numbers and
sort codes on supporting documentation.
3. Arvon 42 grants will not be awarded to applicants who have previously been awarded an
Arvon grant and failed to attend a course without notice or good reason.
4. Recipients of Arvon 41 grants may not apply for an Arvon 42 grant. However, applicants
who were not selected for the Arvon 41 scheme are welcome to reapply.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Irish Book of the Noughties....and the winner is....

The Irish Book of the Decade had a short list of 50 chosen by reviewers, libraries and booksellers. I've just picked a few out...

That they May Face the Rising Sun - John McGahern (Faber, 2002) I am sitting only feet away from my own treasured copy, each sentence a gentle joy. Read it. Read it.
Keane - Roy Keane and Eamon Dunphy (Penguin, 2002) The book of the decade??? Not of five minutes. I admit I'm biased: I still haven't forgiven Keane for having a row with the Irish team coach during the 2002 world cup and being sent home. And Dunphy is just so mean to people...
The Story of Lucy Gault  - William Trevor (Penguin, 2002)

A master storyteller. Every book is a lesson in how to write..
Star of the Sea - Joseph O'Connor (Vintage, 2002)

I know people loved this story of a ship sailing to America during the famine but I didn't. In fact, for my Masters I wrote an essay criticising its heavy handed use of historical research which won me my highest mark. Although it was accurate in every detail, I didn't believe Star of the Sea - people who have been through a trauma like the famine don't find it easy to revisit it in their thoughts or in conversation. All the facts were right and it still felt wrong.
In the Forest - Edna O'Brien (Phoenix, 2002)

A novelist who uses language like a poet and she seems to get better with age. My personal favourite is Down by the River. It contains a half page of description about a father abusing his daughter that is so painful I couldn't read it in one sitting. But it's written in simple, everyday language and is neither graphic nor prurient. It is simply so well crafted that it achieves what every writer is aiming for - that sense of being there.
PS I Love You - Cecelia Ahern (HarperCollins, 2004)  I've used it in classes because I think it shows that there is nothing more important than the story. It lacks feeling and depth. It is not well written and is a pretty immature take on grief and death (well, she was only 22 when she wrote it), but she had an idea and ran with it and the publishers and film companies and the readers followed...
Memoir - John McGahern (Faber, 2005)  ditto what I wrote above. Double ditto.
The Sea - John Banville    (Picador, 2005) Winner of the Booker  On my must read list (and I have no excuse because I actually have a copy somewhere)
Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne    (David Fickling, 2006) If you can buy into the idea that he could be there and not know...then this is a heartbreak. A fairytale kind of heartbreak and I'm thinking of the Brothers Grimm and not Walt Disney...
Lots of other famous names among the rest of the 50 --

Sheila O'Flanagan, Anne Enright (another Booker winner), Jennifer Johnston, Alice Taylor, Sebastian Barry, Deirdre Madden, Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Patricia Scanlan and Colm Toibin.
The winner was announced today and it is (...extended drum roll...)
DEREK LANDY(never heard of him) for Skulduggery Pleasant (not even in the same continent as my must read list).
He is a comic fantasy author writing for children (which is 25% of the publishing market in Ireland apparently and probably similar elsewhere) and even the people who had heard of him and knew that his books are an international success didn't expect him to win.
"Astonishingly enough, I am not taking this opportunity to gloat, because apparently that isn't very classy," Landy said with a big grin on his face.
More power to him...and the thousands of young readers who voted for him...and the thousands more who are reading because of him...