Sunday, 30 May 2010

Birmingham Book Festival's 'Spring Thing'

What a brilliant idea to stage a mini-festival in a day. Birmingham Book Festival's main event takes place in October, but yesterday two friends and I attended their 'Spring Thing' at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

This venue is a short walk from what we know as the 'Floozie in the Jacuzzi' (left). The fountain has been dry for some months, but happily the floozie has now had her water turned back on. Yesterday I noticed how nice it is to hear the water racing down those steps in the city centre. But enough about floozies, and onto subjects more literary.

When we arrived at the Conservatoire we were so disappointed to see a poster about last minute changes to the programme. One of my favourite writers, Helen Dunmore, was sadly unable to appear. Also off the menu was Jenn Ashworth. Best wishes to Helen and Jenn, and I hope I may be able to see them in person at some other writing event.

But a big 'well done' to the organisers, who found fantastic writers to fill the vacant slots. Two of these were Judith Allnatt and Clare Clark, who opened the day with a discussion about their most recent novels.

Judith Allnatt spoke about her book 'The Poet's Wife', and also read a short extract. Judith explained how she found inspiration for this novel from reading letters written by nineteenth century poet John Clare during the years he spent in an asylum. As a consequence of his mental ill health, John Clare suffered a delusion that in addition to being married to his wife he was also married to his childhood sweetheart. Judith used this as the foundation for her novel, telling the story from the viewpoint of the poet's actual wife, Patty. This sounded fascinating, and I immediately wanted to read the book for myself.

Next, Clare Clark talked about her latest novel, 'Savage Lands', and again read an extract. This book is set in eighteenth century Louisiana, and was another intriguing subject. Clare had read how French women were shipped out to Louisiana (then a French colony) to marry men they had never before met. Young French cabin boys were also left behind there to act as spies. Clare told us how these two viewpoints captured her interest and became the basis for her novel.

In discussion, both writers talked about the process of research. Judith said research could throw up some real gems of information, but it could also present problems for the novelist. For example, in preparing to write 'The Poet's Wife' she realized she would have three historical characters significant to the story who shared the name John. She got round this by referring to one by his surname, and another by the nickname of Jack. Clare said she tended to research in a fairly unstructured way, until the story crystallized around her reading. This struck a chord with me, as I like the thought of trusting the story to lead you rather than starting out with too fixed an idea of where it will go.

The second session featured a panel discussion with writers Samantha Harvey, Aifric Campbell, and Amanda Smyth.

Aifric Campbell read from her recent novel 'The Loss Adjustor', and described how this was originally inspired by a sense of loss in a house where she had lived.

Samantha Harvey read from 'The Wilderness', a novel which centres on a man suffering Alzheimer's disease. She told us how she wanted to explore how our memories hold us together, and what happens to us when we begin to lose these.

Amanda Smyth read the opening passage from her first novel 'Black Rock'. I found it particularly interesting to hear her talk about her inspiration for this as I had read the book myself in the last few weeks and it was still fresh in my mind. Amanda has a mixed family background of Irish and Trinidadian. She spoke about a family mystery concerning the murder of her great-grandfather back in Trinidad, which she intended to base this book upon. However as she began to write she found herself also influenced by stories told to her by her relatives in Trinidad and the book took another direction from the one she had intended. (I must also say that Amanda had very nice shoes.)

The three discussed the theme of loss, which is present in different ways in their novels.

Aifric made a very good point about how loss is part of life and can also be part of our growth. She touched on how we live in a therapeutic culture which often views loss as a problem to be treated, rather than as a natural event in human experience.

An excellent question from a member of the audience was whether these three writers had to give themselves permission to write. I'm sure many of us who do write have had mixed reactions from other people, and perhaps found our friends and families see our writing as just a hobby until we are lucky enough to be published. I also see a lot of debate on blogs and message boards about what constitutes a proper writer.

I liked Samantha's reply, that writing is an activity and inspiration comes from doing it rather than from waiting around to be inspired. Aifric's response was refreshingly simple. She said you are a writer when you are holding a pen.

After a lunch break the next guest on stage was writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie. Stuart was a very funny and entertaining speaker, and woke us all up for the afternoon. He spoke about what makes a 'Northerner', and how he tried to discover the answer to this by writing his second book, 'Pies and Prejudice'. More recently he has moved on to trying to define so-called middle England in 'Adventures on the High Teas'. Questions from the audience focused on these issues of identity, and Stuart answered them with humour as well as insight.

At the end of Stuart's session we had a brief introduction by Jo Bell and David Calcutt to a very exciting writing project called Bugged. Do go to the website for more information (after you finish reading this). It's a project we can all take part in, and I am already looking forward to it.

Jo Bell stayed on stage to read some of her wonderful poems. I admit I knew nothing about her as I do not tend to follow poetry as much as fiction. I was so impressed by her work that I now really want to read more.

Interspersed with Jo's poems were readings by Nick Walker from a short story which appeared in an anthology published by Birmingham's Tindal Street Press called 'Roads Ahead'. Nick is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist, and had stepped in to fill the gap in the programme left by Jenn Ashworth. He was fearless and engaging in his delivery of his story, about events in the life of an escapologist working in a booth on a railway platform. Again we were laughing until the seats shook.

For the final session of the day, a silence fell across the room as Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy appeared. She read some poems from her book 'The World's Wife', and told us how she still feels close to this particular collection even though it is now ten years old. She went on to read some more recent poems, including ones about the death of her mother. One of her comments I found interesting was that as a poet you look at something which seems incoherent and through the process of writing you find a clarity. I think that can apply to fiction too.

By the time we left the 'Spring Thing' and walked back out into the rain, I felt we'd had a thoroughly enjoyable and fulfilling day. I had discovered new writers and seen some I already knew about.

My motivation levels for my own writing had certainly been topped up. I can't wait to see the programme for the Birmingham Book Festival's main event in the autumn. I'm sure we'll be booking up for something.

The Festival also runs a short story competition, deadline July 10th (my wedding anniversary!). It is on the theme of loss. Details will be posted on their website in the next week.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Seize the day!

My Loved One has just informed me there is a Test Match starting today. Oh joy! (For those of you who don't know me, I am being ironic here.) I know I can hardly complain about cricket, when I've been watching T.V. coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show the whole week.

A few days ago a lady was telling about all the places she dreamed of visiting when she was young. The Taj Mahal. The Grand Canyon. The Great Wall of China. In her eighties now, she knows she will never see any of them. "Don't put things off," she said. "Whatever you want to do, get on and do it!" Sound advice. And as a result I have decided to go to Chelsea in person next year, instead of sitting on my sofa, wishing I was there.

Whatever you are up to, seize the day.

Friday, 21 May 2010

What colour was your week?

A friend I clothes shop with often tells me she needs something in a certain colour. Not 'needs' in the sense of co-ordinating with the rest of her wardrobe. More 'needs' in that she just has to have that colour around her, as though it reflects how she is feeling or how she wants to feel. I know what she means. If I'm going into a situation where I want to be more confident I will wear red. Black is practical for work, but it drags me down. I am not buying anything new in black. For some reason lately I fancy something lilac, though it will clash with almost everything else I own. It's a shame yellow makes me look ill, because this week has definitely had a yellow theme.

This laburnum tree in my garden always has a good year followed by a bad one. Right now its long waterfalls of yellow flowers promise that this year will be spectacular.

My writing goes through good years and bad years too. 2009 was patchy, but 2010 has been pretty successful so far. Last week I was shortlisted in The Yellow Room magazine's spring competition, which was jolly nice. Not quite as nice as winning, but congratulations to those awarded prizes.

Around the garden two other plants have also caught my eye. Or should I say weeds? These splashy yellow poppies (left) come up everywhere.

And I probably shouldn't mention it with the Chelsea Flower Show starting next week, but I also have a healthy crop of dandelions. I do love their delicate seedheads, and can't bring myself to banish them completely from the garden. Beautiful, aren't they?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Blossom blooming beautifully!

Not much to report this week. Oh yes, there was some voting going on. However at the time of writing, it is still unclear which merry band of pixies, elves, goblins and changelings will end up on the Top Toadstool.

Last night I finished 'A Spell of Winter' by the fabulous Helen Dunmore, whose every sentence is pure magic. I am looking forward to seeing her at the Birmingham Book Festival's 'Spring Thing' later this month.

And hasn't the blossom been wonderful?

Monday, 3 May 2010

Six things I learnt from Sophie King

Last Tuesday two writing friends and I tootled off to Stratford-upon-Avon's annual Literary Festival. Back in the dark days of February we'd booked our tickets for one of the Festival's events: "Writing workshop with Sophie King. How to use your memories to write fiction and non-fiction." At last the date had come around and I was so glad of the opportunity to see what I could learn from such a well published writer.

Sophie King is the author of five novels including The Supper Club and The Wedding Party, plus many short stories. Under her real name of Jane Bidder she has also had a very successful career in journalism and published several non-fiction books.

There were nine of us in the workshop and during the day we covered lots of ground with writing exercises and discussions. Now I've had time to reflect on it and sort out my pages of scrawled notes, here are six things I found particularly relevant to my own writing.

Treasure your memory. Without realizing it, we store away a huge fund of experiences, sensations and details. Tapping into our memories can enrich our writing and help us convey emotion. Asked to recall my first memory, I spoke about having a butterfly land on my foot when I was about three years old. I was so afraid of that butterfly that I screamed and screamed, as if it was the scariest thing to have happened in my young life. Perhaps it was the scariest thing. It certainly made a big impression. But now, as an adult, when I am writing about fear this is the kind of memory I can draw on to help me describe how fear actually feels. I could also use the butterfly incident to make a small scene in a novel, for instance if I wanted to change the mood of a happy, family afternoon into something darker.

Use the senses. We experience life through all five of our senses, but it's easy to concentrate on the visual and neglect the others. Our memories can provide details which bring a scene alive. To use my butterfly incident as an example again, I remember that my shoes were red, the butterfly was white, it was a warm summer's day in our garden at home. If I was using that memory in a piece of fiction I could really build up what it was like to be in that familiar, safe environment with the sounds and scents of the garden around me. Then when danger strikes (an innocent butterfly!) it would be even more of a shock by contrast.

Find the right trigger. Remembering our life's events is often a chain reaction. One memory sparks off another, and during the workshop I found myself thinking about incidents that I hadn't given a thought to in thirty years. Some triggers we discussed included Christmas, old films and music, the first time we did something new, or where we were when a big news story broke. Re-examining some of these memories may inspire a terrific idea, just waiting to be used. Photographs, letters and postcards can be great triggers for our memories too. Now I feel better about the bottom half of my filing cabinet being stuffed with memorabilia. I should put it into some sort of order, though. There are probably dozens of story ideas in there.

Write everything down. You can't always bring the right sort of memory to mind when you need it. And during the workshop, when I was asked to recall a funny event, I had something of a Hamlet moment. It's not as though my life's been empty of funny stories, but when put on the spot I just couldn't think of one. Of course when I got home I could have kicked myself. Why didn't I talk about such and such, and how could I forget about XYZ. It was like one of those occasions when you think of the perfect witty reply to someone's sarcastic comment, hours after it's too late to say it. We touched on how people can write their life stories, maybe organising events chronologically or in a 'Desert Island Discs' type format. But what I've thought since then is that I will try writing down my memories under themes, such as funny, sad, frightening, romantic. I think it would be a useful reference tool for my future writing.

There's more than one way to skin a sausage. Whenever I have an idea, I tend to ask myself how I can make it into a short story. But the workshop really showed me how the same memory can be used in several ways. Develop it one way and it may be a scene from a novel. Developed in another way, it could provide the theme for an article or even a non-fiction book. So how could my butterfly incident be non-fiction? Well, it would probably have taken me a week with an A4 pad of paper to see it, but Sophie King quickly spotted that it could be used to illustrate where phobias come from. One of the big advantages of having such an experienced writer leading the workshop was that she could give us many examples from her own fiction and non-fiction as to how to make best use of ideas. I think I could be much better at seeing alternative uses for my own ideas, particularly in non-fiction which I have not pursued much until now. We can all get into a comfort zone with our writing, as in any other area of life, but I do think it's good for us to try different things.

Write every day. I know we are told this all the time, but I also know how hard it can be. I often take a break from my writing when I am in between projects. But since I've been working on the novel again, I find it difficult to keep track of the threads of the story if I let a couple of days go by without looking at it. Even a quarter of an hour a day would help. It's not so much about what I can add to the word count in that time, but more to do with keeping the story simmering away in my mind. The workshop definitely reinforced that I must use bits of spare time constructively, rather than telling myself it's not worth starting if I only have fifteen minutes.

So, as you can see, I had a very thought provoking day in Stratford. I enjoyed it a lot, and everyone in the group was so generous in sharing their memories and ideas. It really fired up my motivation and I came away keen to put everything I'd learnt from the day into practice.

For more information about Sophie King and her work, please see her website.