Monday, 23 December 2013

Some of my favourite writing blogs

So this is Christmas, another year nearly over. And what do we do around about this time of year? We tend to reflect on the previous one, what we've achieved, what we've won, new friends made, and what we've enjoyed. So just for a change, I'm keeping this short. Here are a very small selection of writing blogs and websites I've enjoyed. There are hundreds more but I've lately been reminded, no more than 250 words for a blog entry.

The Creative Penn
Joanna Penn offers some fantastic resources for writers.

Emily Benet
She is the blogging queen of London. As well as working full time on her own writing, she runs blogging workshops, is a published author and writes short stories. She is also very funny.

Dove Grey Reader
Bookaholic, sock-knitting quilter who was once a community nurse. She writes about, you've guessed it - books. Lots of interesting reads and some bargains worth picking up.

Lisa Cherry
Describes herself as Author, Speaker, Trainer, Coach, Chocolate lover and Coffee snob! She is wonderfully positive, writes mainly non-fiction, art journals and is an independent campaigner.

The Reluctant Perfectionist
This is fairly new blog and is already attracting a lot of interest. A writer with OCD who writes about OCD, very interesting plus I like the symmetry!

Morgen Bailey
As well as author interviews, writing exercises and all sorts of other writing stuff, I've included Morgen for her sheer energy and writing resilience.

So, we have free resources, humour, books, positivity, perfectionism, writing exercises - all the things we need to write!

All that's left for me to do is wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a wonderfully creative new year.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Writer? Activist? Writer? Activist?

For some time now I have been feeling a wee bit schizophrenic, having to put on various outfits depending on what is happening out there in the fictional and real world. I feel I am losing my grip on who or what I am, or should be, or what I ‘ought’ to be writing on this blog. I see that other writers find a niche and they stick to it, whether it is chic lit, fiction writing in general or some other aspect of writing like publishing or blogging. I write fiction and non-fiction and I am also an activist and that is the problem.

I was very involved with Friern Barnet Library, and started a petition to re-open it. As well as campaigning for libraries, green spaces, and many other injustices, such as the way single mothers were ostracised in the 50s, 60s and 70s. I also co-run Greenacre Writers which involves various groups for people writing novels and short stories, workshops and the fantastic (recently renamed) Finchley Literary Festival. And on top of this, I keep my eye on issues that affect children in care and care leavers. I spent all of my childhood in care. I lived in a residential nursery, I lived with foster people, various family members and in children’s homes. So I have interests in many camps. In the last week or so I had been thinking about the new year and how this year I would be sticking to only writing about writing, I would not be tempted or sidetracked by political issues/stupidity. No, not me, from 2014, I would only write about writing and fiction. And then this happened:  Children to stay with foster families until they are 21 To which there has been celebratory response and I also join that celebration.

While it’s really fantastic that foster kids can stay with their families until they are 21 instead of 18, I question the legality of a decision that chooses one group of children in care over another. What happens to the children in residential homes when they get to 18? At the moment they have to leave. The current ruling excludes them. Approximately 9% of all children in care (68,000) will still have to leave care at 18. Is this just and fair? Natasha Finlayson, CEO of the Who Cares Trust, said via Twitter that it… 'Will be harder to extend support for kids in children's homes I think, but there is a rock solid equality case to be made.' I do not understand how a government press release that begins: ‘All children in care…’ can by the end of the first sentence conveniently omit nearly 7,000 children from the new legal duty on councils to provide support up until 21 years of age. These are the 7,000 children in residential care, children's homes, a minority not included in this new legislation. I dread to think how the children in those homes will be feeling after this news but having been in care myself, I can imagine.

This poster was done by a child in a children's home.
Ben Ashcroft is author of 51 Moves a story that chronicles the harrowing experiences of the social care and welfare system and his journey - the 51 times he moved premises between 9 and 18 years of age and its impact. He told me that many young people in children’s homes had contacted him to let him know of their distress and despondency at the news. Ben said, ‘There are a lot of us fighting the corner of young people in homes. They deserve so much better than to be treated like this. The stories of anger I have heard since yesterday from young people. They are feeling it! People need to stand up and be counted as all these young people deserve to be treated equally until 21. Nice to see so many people who do care!!’ 

Ben also shared a message from a 15 year old in a children’s home: ‘Just because foster children are settled in a family environment does not mean that young people in residential [homes] are not. I would love to live here until I am 21.' Ben added: ‘If you are in support of young people in children's homes getting the same support as Foster kids until 21+ please join our campaign. [Twitter @AshcroftBen and see details of the petition below.] It is only fair all looked after children get support until 21+ no matter where they live.’

It was while I was Tweeting my support to Ben that I saw another Tweet from Ian Dickson who is one of the organisers of The Christmas Dinner.* Some people don’t like Crowd Funding, but this is one that will add to the enjoyment of your Christmas dinner by helping young homeless care leavers who could possibly be searching rubbish bins for their Christmas food. Ian asked in Tweet speak: ‘…what happens if an 'older' foster placement breaks down? Res care or the street? Needs discussion.’ 

I realised the enormity of this was mind boggling, one day an 18 year old foster person is in care looking forward to three more years of having a home, the placement breaks down, as they often do, and the next day the young person is in a residential children’s home. Does he/she suddenly have to get out of the children’s home having lost the 3 years he/she would have gained in a foster home? I don’t know the answer to this question but whether it happens over days or weeks, there is NO government financial support for kids in children’s homes over 18 years of age.

And what effect will this legislation have on children in care who have already been separated or rejected by family - sometimes via the courts and ‘parent’ state that is supposed to protect them. Suddenly the 7,000 have become second-class citizens again, without a voice by the very institution that has very recently said in the Care Leavers Charter: ‘We will make sure you do not have to fight for support you are entitled to and we will fight for you if other agencies let you down…’ So what will the government do now - fight themselves? 

And what can we do?

We can begin to help make the change needed for those in residential care by signing this petition

So, there you are, another campaign underway. It's not as if there aren't campaigners that are also writers, George Orwell for instance, who wrote 1984; and Alice Walker who wrote The Colour Purple and many other social change books. She even describes herself as having been "an activist all of her adult life" and she writes fiction. So it looks as though I’ll have to put up with my split-writing personality for now, I didn’t even get to make a new year’s writing resolution before the activist in me took over and made me write this blog!
*The Christmas Dinner is a pop up organisation founded by the poet Lemn Sissay MBE. Ian is part of a group of 12 professionals. Their aim is to provide a Christmas Day Dinner for care leavers aged between 18 and 25 on Christmas Day in Manchester. Many care leavers are sat in flats, B&B’s, hostels, away from family or are sofa surfing and indeed living on the streets on their own at Christmas. Christmas is a reminder of everything they never had. It's often a dreaded day. Not now. They will put on a scrumptious Christmas meal and create a magical day to remember at a secret location in Manchester where they will provide dinner for forty 18-25 year olds. 

*Another worthy Christmas cause is the Topѐ Project,  a volunteer run, youth led project, aiming to combat loneliness for care-experienced young people. The Topѐ Project is named after a 23-year-old care leaver who took his own life in 2010. His death had a profound impact on the young people who knew him, and after this tragic event the group came together to look out for and support one another. Each year since, the group has come together during the holidays for a Christmas celebration. Many care leavers dread Christmas and find it an isolating time. They are often not in touch with previous foster families or children’s home and spend the day alone in independent accommodation.

All that's left for me to do now is to wish everybody a very Merry Christmas. 

Friday, 18 October 2013

A Reader

Being a reader for short story competitions means I have to read a helluva lot of stories. There are many ways to start a short story - scene setting; conflict; mystery; and a narrator who speaks to you are just a few. I can usually tell from the first paragraph whether or not the story is going to work. I am also a reading detective and am often disappointed if from that first paragraph, I have worked out the plot of the whole. If I am reading for pleasure and am not hooked by that first paragraph, I can decide not to read any further, if I'm reading as a judge then I have to read on.

I am also a trained 'reader'. I underwent The Reader Organisation's, 'Read to Lead Training', some time ago. The Reader Organisation brings people and literature together, not just any old literature but 'great' literature. They use an innovative 'shared reading' model that brings people together for weekly read aloud reading groups. Stories and poems are listened to, thoughts and experiences are shared, personal and social connections are made. I recently ran a 'Make Friends with a Book', session in the restaurant of the hospital where I work. It was lunchtime and packed with nurses, doctors, other NHS staff and members of the public. I chose to share, 'Tea with the Birds', by Joanne Harris. A powerful story about loneliness, isolation and mental illness. It also happened to be Mental Health Awareness Week so it was the perfect story in the perfect setting.

I suspect that as Canadian author Alice Munro has just won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, there will now be a revival of the short story form. Sarah Hall, winner of the BBC National Short Story award says: 'My feeling is that the short story is, if not gloriously ascendant in Britain, then airborne and at reasonable altitude'. And I agree, it has been a struggle but in all honesty the short story form has been slowly clawing its way back from banishment for some time. It was the 10th anniversary of the short story festival, 'Small Wonder' that is held every year in September, at one of my favourite places, Charleston - the former home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Having just completed another batch of short stories for the Greenacre Writers competition, I've been questioning: What makes a good story? I may change my mind in a few days but this week I am saying it is the subject. There will be those among you who say, any subject can work as long as it is written well, and yes this is probably true. For me though, it is what is at the heart of the story that is important. I have to be interested in what I am reading about as well as how the story has been written. And that of course comes down to the telling, the voice, the emotion, and often a funny little title. So it is not the first line that must grab your reader, it is the title. Put everything into that title - intrigue, emotion, strange voice, and if possible even humour.

'Tea with the birds' - what does this title conjure up for you?

Sarah Hall's winning story 'Mrs Fox', is about a woman who turns into a fox much to her husband's bewilderment. Here's an extract from the story: Mrs Fox

Do you have a favourite short story?

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Fallen Women

Amherst Lodge, Ealing - now a luxury block of flats
It is still difficult for me to write that I spent the first sixteen years of my life in care. Sometimes I am still shrouded in the shame that my birth caused. I was born in 1958 and my mother was not married. This means zilch nowadays but back then my grandparents, like many other Irish Catholics, refused to have me in the house. At six weeks old I was taken from my mother who had been staying in a mother and baby home in Ealing and put into a residential nursery in Barratts Green Road, Harlesden. This was to be the beginning of a journey that took me to various foster homes, children’s homes, spells with family and too many schools for one small child to cope with. The only reason I was in care was because society had decided that if a woman became preganant and was unmarried, she was deemed unfit to be a parent. If the immediate family refused to help, which was mostly the case, the baby would be put up for adoption. And even though help was available, financial help, as well as housing, this was very rarely offered, due to the adoption market that was predominant back then.

When I was taken into care, ‘bad blood’, was bandied about because my mother suffered from depression, possibly bipolar, although in those days the psychiatrists weren’t as knowledgeable as they are now. If the parent of a child had any history of mental illness, a 
baby would not be put up for adoption. 

A couple of years ago I made contact with Phil Frampton, whose story was very similar to mine. His mother was also unmarried and Phil was placed in a children’s home. But the reason he wasn’t adopted was not because his mother had a mental illness but because he was mixed-race. I found Phil through a website that listed children in care who had made a success of their lives. It has always been important to me to succeed in life, and not to end up as a prostitute, in prison, homeless, a drug addict or an alcoholic – I am too familiar with the negative stereotypes that children in care have to grow up with. I think possibly I was close to being an alcoholic at one time in my life as the friends who used to carry me home would probably tell you.

At around the same time as meeting Phil, I met Josie O Pearse at an event hosted by Lemn Sissay, another successful child of the state. Josie had been in care as a very young child and was then adopted. When I was much younger, I would occasionally meet someone and immediately feel some sort of bond – this was the case with Josie. Whatever her experiences, we clicked and became friends. Phil, Josie and I started the We are campaigners, activists, supporters of direct action. Back then the mother group, the Movement for an Adoption Apology did not seem to include children who had been in care and we felt that our voices weren’t being heard, so we set up our own organisation. We met in Parliament and sat in a room with other mothers and children who had been affected by the social policies of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. 
Our aim was to get the government to apologise to the women and children who suffered and who continue to suffer from the impact of the forced child adoption practices in the UK during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Phil and John Leech MP for Manchester Withington, created an early day motion EDM92 Forced Child Adoption. Early day motions (EDMs) are formal motions submitted for debate in the House of Commons. However, very few EDMs are actually debated. What EDMs can do is create publicity around the motion so that more MPs will sign and become involved.

There has been a lot of publicity about the apology made by the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to people affected by Australia's forced adoption policy between the 1950s and 1970s. Tens of thousands of babies of unmarried mothers, were thought to have been taken by the state and given to childless married couples. Speaking in front of hundreds of the victims, Ms Gillard said the "shameful" policy had created "a legacy of pain".

An UMAA supporter got Lord Greaves to "ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have made to the government of Australia regarding its apology for the past practices of forced adoptions of children of unmarried mothers; and whether they plan to issue a similar apology on behalf of past United Kingdom governments."

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Nash): “The United Kingdom Government have not made any formal response to the apology issued by the Australian Government. The Government have no plans to issue a similar apology.”

As mentioned, the EDM has created publicity, apart from the many newspaper stories of mothers and children being reunited, and shows like ‘Long Lost Family’, there are now two films that are being shown in the UK this month. The first is 'Philomena'. After falling pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena Lee was sent to the convent of Roscrea to be looked after as a “fallen woman”. When her baby was only a toddler, he was whisked away by the nuns to America for adoption. Philomena spent the next fifty years searching for him in vain. The film stars Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. The premiere is Wednesday 16th October. 

MAA issued this statement: 

"MAA has tried indirect action over the past three and a half years to no avail, now is the time for DIRECT ACTION. PROTEST DEMONSTRATION FOR AN ADOPTION APOLOGY AT 'PHILOMENA' PREMIERE. We intend to stand outside the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square on the 16th of October at the premiere of the film 'Philomena’ with placards demanding justice for the birth parents of the past (many of us are still alive but getting older all the time). Thousands of women of our generation, were pressured by the authorities into giving up our babies, just because we were not married…What good would an apology do? It would be an acknowledgement, a recognition, of what so many women suffered. Many of us never had any more children and many suffered serious mental health problems for years afterwards." 

Many people say things like, that was then or what's the point of an apology. My mother died when I was 13, and I believe that the way she was treated by those in authority as well as her own family contributed to her depression and subsequent death. So I am campaigning for my mother, for all the women that were forced to hang their heads in shame and were cruelly treated and had their babies stolen. Babies whom they would have loved with a deep passion and who, children and mothers, were never, ever the same after the separation. And I'm also fighting for myself, Phil, Josie, and many other children whose lives were damaged, lives that were interrupted, lives that were stolen. I hope that like the Australian mothers and children, we will one day gather in a large hall somewhere and listen as our government takes responsibility and gives us an apology.

Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away and director of the film 'A Girl Like Her' - both about mothers in the US who lost children to adoption in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s - is coming to London to screen her film A GIRL LIKE HER. It's a special one night screening at THE FOUNDLING MUSEUM (what a perfect setting) in London on Thursday October, 24th. Ann will be doing a Q&A afterwards, so please spread the word. She wants to meet fellow adoptees as well as moms from the UK and Scotland at the screening (Marion McMillan who started Origins Scotland will be there). 

I will be attending both the premiere, where I’ll be standing with my head held high, outside the cinema in Leicester Square, in the appropriate colours like a true Sufferagette! And a week later I’ll be at the screening of ‘A Girl Like Her’, at the Foundling Museum

I have written a story called ‘Fallen Women’, that has autobiographical moments and that is published in the Greenacre Writers anthology. To see an extract click on the Stories link at the top of the page.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Writers Retreat

I remember the last writing workshop I attended was at the Jane Austen's House Museum and run by Rebecca Smith, Author of Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas, A Bit of Earth, Happy Birthday & All That and The Bluebird Cafe. Rebecca teaches at Southampton University.

It was a freezing day and had been snowing. Walking through the snow-covered park in the early morning I did wonder if I was wise to be travelling at all. But travel I did all the way to Alton in Hampshire. Rebecca was an excellent facilitator - calm, interesting and interested. The workshop, ‘But intricate characters are the most amusing…’ was of course linked to Jane Austen's writing. Elizabeth Bennet was a studier of character, and so, of course, was Jane. Rebecca spoke about all sorts of relationships – romantic, friendly and difficult. With examples from Jane Austen’s work and contemporary fiction, we looked at creating and capturing the sort of convincing characters and relationships that are at the heart of all good fiction.
Jane Austen's House Museum
What did I enjoy most about this workshop? Not having to do the preparation myself! And I even wrote the beginnings of my autobiographical novel, Homesick about a 16-year old girl who is leaving care and setting out into the world. So, it was a fantastic experience for me. What may you ask (quite rightly) has this to do with a writer's retreat?

Well I organised the recent Greenacre Writers writing retreat at St Katharine's, Parmoor, Oxfordshire. And although there was some organisation involved, researching places to stay, as well as negotiating with St Katharine's and the writers, I pre-warned the writers that I would not be doing any workshops, or tutoring. All I did when people first arrived was a sort of reflective exercise, that asked a few simple questions along the lines of what the writers were hoping to get out of the weekend. And in fact none of the writers except me bothered to do the exercise so I won't waste my time with that in the future. We were all there to write and write and write is what we did.

St Katharine's, Parmoor
The first thing that happened was an amazing piece of luck. We were told that we would be inside the house rather than in the annexe St Joseph's which is a little cheaper, and that it would be at no extra cost. My room was lovely - old rickety furniture, comfy bed, my own shower and the most amazing peace. No cars anywhere near the beautiful old house.

The estate, in the Chiltern hills above the lovely valley of Hambleden, was in possession of the Knights Templar originally (says Langley), was probably surrounded by wild open moorland country, and must have been an isolated place in those days. The magnificent cedar tree in the grounds was reputedly grown from a seed collected from the Lebanon during the Crusades.

The amazing Cedar tree where I sat and enjoyed the amazing peace of St Katharine's

In 1995 the Sue Ryder Prayer Fellowship took over Parmoor, now a Grade 2 Listed Building. The Fellowship was conceived by Lady Ryder to be a "spiritual powerhouse" for the needs of others. In the grounds, the walled garden is being brought back into productive use and supplies vegetables and fruit for the kitchen. The outline of a formal garden has been uncovered and is being made into a sensory garden by Lane End Elim Centre Oasis Project while a large sunken garden awaits restoration.

Lady Ryder cherished frugality, compassion, respect for the contribution of volunteers, and the spiritual dimension of charitable work. Her loss is keenly felt but her memory lives on in Parmoor.

It was this frugality that I most admired about St Katharine's as well as the amazing sense of peace I felt the whole weekend. However, there was nothing frugal about the food, home grown and home cooked, it was delicious. The writers were an interesting bunch and I learnt many things during the course of the weekend. Including all about Fracking from Irving, which apparently causes mini earthquakes - so not good for the environment and well done the protesters in Sussex. Find out more here. 

A few of the writers: me, Mark, Irving and Lianne

The view outside my bedroom window

Irving was convinced he was sleeping in King Zog's room!
I managed to get lots of writing done, as well as a quick trip into Marlow with Lianne and Mark where we treated ourselves to some new clothes! And returned with chocolate and wine for the evening spent chatting in the spooky old library. The food was excellent and my fellow writers told me over and over again what good value the weekend had been. We will definitely be booking another retreat!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Occupied and Opened - the story of Friern Barnet Library

Book Launch TBC

Exactly a year since the occupation and liberation of Friern Barnet Library, there was a celebration and preview of a new book on the 5th September 2013 in the library at 7pm. Occupied and Opened - the story of Friern Barnet Library

‘A library is a shrine to the written word, a place of reverence and knowledge. Living and working there gave me peace and clarity from the moment I awoke and emerged from between the shelves until when I slept between them once more.’
                                                                                                       Donnie Vortex, Occupier

The book features the community voices and community spirit that went into saving the Friern Barnet Library and will be published later in the year.

If it was not Philip Pullman saving libraries in Oxfordshire, it was Alan Bennett saving his library in Kensal Green. Our library and the community campaign stood for something greater, it started to symbolise something beyond what many of us could imagine. It had somehow, demonstrated that power and passion people had for libraries, for reading but also for benefiting from the opportunities afforded a public space, a library, a community home.                            Martin Russo Chair, Save Friern Barnet Library Group

Includes: Introduction by Richard Stein, Leigh Day – top human rights lawyer. An article from Boyd Tonkin, Literary editor at the Independent. There are stories from the Occupiers - Phoenix, Daniel, and Donnie, and local campaigners - Rosie Canning and Mr Greenacres. Barnet Bloggers Roger Tichborne, and Mrs Angry, tell tales about the Council and court case. Save Friern Barnet Library Group members Maureen Ivens, Martin Russo, Frances Briers, Joanna Fryer, and Tamar Andrusier, explain the hard work and heartache behind their campaign. Maryla Persak-Enefer and Helene Alderman describe the passion that went into getting the library building listed. Dorrell Dressekie talks about the history of the building. Mackenzie friend, Reema Patel, talks about her part in organising the campaign and helping the defendants in court. Cllr. Barry Rawlings describes his role as a local councillor. Fiona Brickwood talks honestly about the personal journey she underwent whilst saving the library. Donald Lyven describes his visit to Squatney Wick to see the film, A Polite Revolution and Lucy Nowell gives a picture of life behind the camera. And finally a reflection on community and protest by Sarah Sackman. 

Pre-order the book here
Published by Greenacre Project. ISBN: 978-0-9569914-3-0 
Editor Rosie CanningTel: 020 8346 9449/07907 796417

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Orphans, Bastards and Unwanted Children

Over the past few months I have been researching stories about orphans, unwanted children, and bastards, possibly for a PhD proposal. There are loads of children's books out there that have orphans as protagonists. Presumably because it is easier for them and unwanted children to have adventures. I totally believed in the worlds created by the authors. At 8 years old, after reading Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg (1967), where Elizabeth has to eat raw eggs, raw onions and other concoctions to become a witch, I too began drinking raw egg in milk. A slimy concoction that felt like I was swallowing a toad, and I believed I could fly. I spent many happy hours flying round and round in the garden on my magic broomstick. I loved all the Famous Five, Secret Seven, and Mallory Towers books by Enid Blyton, all abandoned children left alone to have adventures. As a child I remember becoming totally lost in children’s books especially those about orphans and spent most of my spare time reading. Books were my medicine and they saved my sanity. 

Having suggested to Emily Benet, Andrew Bradford, Wendy Shillam and Lindsay Bamfield that we write about our favourite books, I decided to put my research to good use and list my top ten books about Orphans, Bastards and Unwanted Children. I've included a mixture of children's books, fiction and non-fiction. Andrew and Wendy called their lists, 'summer reading' but some of these books should be read in winter, when it is dark, stormy and cold outside - oh hang on, it is! So here is my wintery summer collection:

1. Island by Jane Rogers – Mainstream Publishing 2000 

This is one of my all time favourite books. Nikki Black (her third name) is a bastard who has been shunted about to and from various foster and children’s homes. And now she has decided to murder her mother. At this point Nikki is stereotypical of an adult with a care background (often portrayed as bad, mad, or sad in crime dramas). Rogers takes this stereotype and turns it on its head. This book has everything I love; magic, fairy stories, myths, legends, bad - rude characters, love, detecting and a sort of happy ending.

2. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – Geoffrey Bles 1950

A childhood favourite of mine. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy were sent away from home. And so they are included in my list because they were temporarily unwanted. They were sent to live with a mad, old professor in a wonderful house with a magical wardrobe through which the children enter into a wintery world. I have an old Puffin edition of this book with the illustration of the two girls putting flowers around Aslan, Lord of the Wood. A truly magical story that took me from dreary old London into a world of magical beasts and scary witches.

3. The Secret Garden by F Hodgson Burnett – William Heinemann 1911 

No orphan list would be complete without The Secret Garden. I knew this story was for me from the very first sentence, ‘When Mary lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.’ I was an ugly child, disagreeable, and like Mary cross, very, very cross with the world and everybody in it and especially social workers. Having a character I could identify with was very important, I inhabited the fictional world for a while and escaped the madness all around me.

4. White Oleander by Janet Fitch – Virago Press 1999 

Astrid, another bastard, brought up in children’s homes, foster homes and remand centres, who had a mad poet for a mother. The language reflects this and is beautifully written. Astrid’s mother murders her lover. When she is imprisoned for life, Astrid’s life turns to shit. The novel has a dreamlike quality so that the reader seems to float above the narrative only falling with the protagonist when the bad stuff happens.

5. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce - Oxford University Press 1958 

Another childhood favourite. Tom is not an orphan but he is sent away at the beginning of the summer holidays because his brother has measles. He goes to stay with his aunt and uncle who don’t have a garden. This book was possibly inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) as in the hallway, there is an old clock that strikes thirteen. Tom like Mary in the Secret Garden, is bad tempered and rude. And of course for me it had all my favourite ingredients, nasty children who were really rather lovely inside, magical places, best friends and even time travel.

6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - Smith, Elder and Co 1847

This is a classic orphan story, a Cinderella tale set against the backdrop of the wild yorkshire moors. For some reason I always thought that children born at the turn of the century behaved themselves. So when I read of Jane being dragged away kicking and screaming to be locked in the haunted red room, I was transfixed. Here was not a docile child, but one who spoke her mind and when at last cannot stand to be bullied one more time, fought with her fists. Jane is an orphan, living with her cruel aunt who tells her she is less than a servant because she does nothing for her keep. After her temper tantrum, she is sent to a boarding school, she gains an education which allows her to become a governess to the ‘dark and sardonic’ Mr Rochester and falls in love with him. Love, passion, disappointment, (not in that order) Jane Eyre is one of the best-loved British novels of all time.

7. Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum - George M Hill Company 1900

Although this was orignally a book, most of us know this story because we saw the film and so I am going to include it as this story had such a profound effect on me and still has to this day. Apparently, The Wizard of Oz, is one of the most popular films of all time. So it only stands to reason that there must bits in it that appeal to us all. I remember being taken to see this film when I was 5 years old. It was to be many years before I could work out why the film had such an effect, why it felt like part of me, why I learnt all the words to all the songs and would sing them over and over again, driving everybody up the wall. In his introduction to the story, L.Frank Baum said he was writing to please children, ‘a fairy tale in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.’ He has done that and will continue to do so for as long as children read the book or watch the film.

8. The Looked After Kid by Paolo Hewitt – Mainstream Publishing 2003

This book is not a novel but reads like a story and because it is so well written it found a place on my ‘favourites’ shelf. I’ve done a lot of research over the years about children in care and I’ve read a lot of misery lit, memoirs about awful lives. But this book is different, there is not one iota of Hewitt feeling sorry for himself. His mother whilst married gave birth to another man’s child – Paolo, in a Mental Hospital, and that is only the start of his story. As soon as you start reading this book you feel safe, in the hands of a seasoned writer who knows how to use language and create an authentic atmosphere.

9. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – Pandora Press 1985

This autobiographical novel is filled with God and doing things we’re not (according to some parents) supposed to do. As a child I had to attend Sunday school and church and after lunch, we were forced to read the bible all afternoon. I spent the first part of Sunday mornings with nuns who passed their belief of hell, purgatory and sin onto me before running up Muswell Hill to our Lady of Muswell church and communion. Communion was always hell in its own way if I hadn’t been to confession to confess all the sins I’d committed that week. I hate so and so. I stole this or that. I was rude, I was bad, I swore and so on. Then the added of sin of communion without confession would be a bad start to any week. Winterson was adopted by an evangelical mother and father, her dead-pan Northern humour brings the book to hilarious life and yet at the same time there is a sadness from a child who loves her mother and just wants to be loved in return. It is a book filled with knowledge and wisdom of how it feels to be different.

10. The Seven Sisters By Alex Wheatle – Fourth Estate 2002

My final top ten book is a book I read recently. It’s set in the 1970s, in a children’s home where four boys, best mates, decide to run away together. A sort of Lord of the Flies story but with the horrifying reality of what some children in care have had to face while being looked after by their supposed carers. It is a time when children roamed the streets and played outside all day. This story has you biting finger and toenails, a truly emotive narrative that has you crying one moment and laughing out loud the next. Wheatle has capured the era and it is the little details as well as the strong friendship between the boys that brings this book to life.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Writing in the Digital Age or just Old Age?

As a co-ordinator, founder, tutor of Greenacre Writers, I find my writing time is severely limited because when I'm not at my day job (working in a medical library) I am always doing some sort of admin work and this eats into creative time. Last Sunday I attended the Literary Platform, 'Writing in the Digital age'. And what a pleasure it was not to have to organise the event. All I had to do was find a way to get from Finchley to Stoke Newington and this let me tell you, was not an easy task. It’s just under 8 miles from my house to the Babble Jar in Stoke Newington High Street where the event was being held. I checked with TFL and it seemed I would need to take 5 trains and 10 buses to get there. I spent ages trying to decipher the quickest route. In the end I decided to stay out of central London and skirt round the edges, I got a bus to Arnos Grove, met a friend and let her tell me which way to go.

Goodness knows how you cope if you are a tourist in this country and google TFL. You get all sorts of junk appearing first which a tourist wouldn’t necessarily know was junk advertising. Plus TFL never give you the quickest and most direct route, they always seem to take you round the houses. There must be loads of tourists who spend their holidays riding round and round in circles on public transport feeling confused.

I often feel confused these days and wonder if I’m spending too much time on the Internet or I’m just getting old. Trends change so quickly, I could spend 24/7 online and still not feel any the wiser. This is because there is so much online, one of the subjects spoken about on Sunday by Niven Govinden, noise rather than quality, and a lack of quality control. I tend to look at writerly things, like authors websites, Twitter, Facebook, writing competitions, writing courses and each thing can take up a lot of time. It’s like a thousand trillion mazes, I start at the entrance of one and before I know it, I’m lost.

Emily Benet
But as writers, surely, we have to be online, have to have a digital presence otherwise nobody will know who we are. As Emily Benet, who was on the literary platform, said, it is all about the pitch, and building up your readership. Which was how she became published with Salt Publishing, a small but now much larger small press since The Lighthouse by one of their authors, Alison Moore, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The publishing world has changed beyond all recognition, Chris Meade, also on the literary platform told us, 85% of Americans want to write a book. What this also means is that unlike newspapers or writing magazines that used to review or critique a relatively small amount of books, there is an awful lot of writing bilge online that one has to swim through before finding something worth reading. A lot of hit and miss tweets that might sound enticing but once you get to the website can be utter crap.
Chris Meade on the left, Niven Govinden on the right

Chris also spoke about collaborative projects, such as three people who hired a cottage and sat in separate rooms all writing a story together. It's all wonderful and very creative and I want to be part of it. However, on the one hand my creative conscience says, isn’t it fabulous that so many people are being creative, and the devil within says, no, I wish they’d all just stop so we could have some control and order back in our lives instead of all this online chaos.

And of course, the 85% can now self-publish. I have said before and I’ll say again, I do not want to publish my book on Kindle. I don’t own a Kindle, I don’t want one, and I will never use one. I like, no love, the feel, smell and look of a real book.

But, says the clever-dick within, you use your phone as a Kindle, and sometimes you read stuff online, ner-ner.
The internal money-grabber pipes up, with the million-dollar-question, what if a publisher offered you a deal, a kindle deal, what would you do then? Say No, I don’t think so.
Okay, so supposing one day, when I’m ready to publish, I consider using a self publishing tool. What then?

I found these 7 tips listed by Mark Edwards at The Creative Pen which I thought were very useful: 
1. Design a cover that tells the reader exactly what kind of book this is and that looks professional.
2. Write a book description that makes the reader desperate to read it.
3. Write a marketing plan and carry it out – adapting it as you go along to do more of the stuff that’s worthwhile and none of the stuff that isn’t.
4. Instead of sending out endless links to your own followers on Twitter, try to get retweets – reach your audience’s audience.
5. Contact, in a friendly and professional way, every single person and website you can think of who might want to give you exposure – and give them a good reason for doing so.
6. Associate with successful writers – learn from them and get in front of their fans.
7. Be prepared to work damn hard!

I really like the idea of designing my own cover, (actually I already have) and a marketing plan. But, I would also add to the list: 

8. Get yourself a damn good editor!

There is nothing worse than reading a self-published book that is full of spelling and grammar mistakes. I know of one self-published author who had to take back all the books sold because there were so many mistakes in the novel and people had been complaining and demanding their money back.

And of course when the 300,000,000, three hundred million (the mind quite literally boggles and explodes), people are writing their novels in the US, Chris Meade reminded us and all us other writers, to question:

What do you think matters?
Who do you want to be read by?
Discover your point of difference.
And lastly, Do what you’re passionate about.

Chris after writing the The Nearly Writers Guide all about being a nearlywriter, also has a webpage of Nearlyology where you can list your nearly moments. Mine was the nearlyvideo in the 80s with David Bowie, my nearlyfamous moment.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Greenacre Writers Literary Festival - Six Men And A Piano

Saturday May 18th began with a mad dash to the festival hall not the one on the South Bank but the one at Trinity Church Centre, Finchley. All was well until Joe, the caretaker, suddenly announced the baby grand piano would have to be moved between 1-2pm.

What? Lindsay and I both gasped.

Well, it will take six strong men to move it and that's when they're arriving.

But, I squeaked, Our festival starts at 1.30pm.

Joe shrugged, said he'd try and get them there earlier and walked off.

I made a pleading phone call to one of our muscley, male writers, Mark, who said he was happy to help.

We then walked the streets to find a few more fit men, alas, they were all over 85 with bad backs. Lindsay grunted a bit but on the whole stayed surprising calm.

People were beginning to arrive for Josie Pearse's excellent workshop 'Life Writing and the Writing Life', so we showed them into the room that would double as our Green Room and Book Room. Once they were safely settled, we began organising the chairs in the main festival hall (leaving a huge gap for the piano), as well as flowers, tables, and posters on the walls. 
Our Mic man arrived and not only did he safely set up an excellent microphone and speaker, he also rearranged the curtains so we had less light in the wrong places and also organised the removal of the piano. And what fun that was, six men and a piano, it's certainly was the stuff of fiction. Legs and bottoms were removed and the poor baby grand was tipped on its side whilst being manoevred outside into the lobby where it was tipped back and rolled into the main church hall. Phew! 

CJ Flood
By this time the workshop had finished, Robert and Elisabeth Newton had arrived to help, Greenacre Writers, Liz and Linda were sorting authors' books, and our guest speakers CJ Flood, Leigh Russell, Gina Blaxill, Alex Wheatle, and Sarah Harrison had arrived. Luckily, Lindsay and I had changed from rags into our ball gowns - unlike last year when some of our guests were greeted by a one-sock-tucked-into-trouser-legged me. As a cyclist, I often forget to untuck said sock.
This year we decided to have a theme for the festival, Truth and Fiction. Our guest speakers linked their own writing to the theme, talking about how they had been inspired by real life characters, events and incidents, such as a body in the park (not truth).

CJ talked very honestly about her real life family and how they had inspired some of the characters in her young adult fiction Infinite Sky. It was fascinating hearing how she had made certain decisions, setting the landscape in a real-life farm and using parental moral boundaries for one of her characters.
Leigh Russell

Leigh Russell, frightened us out of our wits with her superbly acted, 'something really did happen to me, something I haven't talked about before', and how a real walk and a real creepy man in a park, had inspired her first crime thriller Cut Short.

We then had readings from some of our Greenacre Writers. Lindsay, made the audience laugh with her reading and acting from the work-in-progress, a comedy novel, Do Not Exced Fifty, and Linda Louisa Dell read from her recent novel, Earthscape: A Long Way from Home. 

During the introduction I had introduced the theme of the festival by 
Linda Louisa Dell
explaining that whenever I started any new research I always began with individual words, in this case Truth and Fiction - Truth being, the state or quality of being true or factual; and fiction: literature, e.g. novels or short stories, describing imaginary people and events. Albert Camus said, 'Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth'. Stephen King said, 'Fiction is the truth inside the lie. James Frey on the other hand, wrote lies and called it Truth. Frey said he never considered whether A Million Little Pieces was fiction or nonfiction- and anyway, before the memoir craze of the nineties, it would have been published as a novel.

I had intended to talk about the Truth and Fiction in my novel but was worried about time. I had
started writing the fictional, Ways of Remembering, on the MA in Writing at Middlesex University. But only because I had been told I could not write autobiography. Go somewhere else if you want to do that, said the tutor. And because I have an unusual background, I stupidly thought I would be recognised in a fictional autobiography and unlike one other writer, who took absolutely no notice of the published tutor and continued writing her autobiographical short stories. I, as was mentioned at the festival, did as I was told for the first and only time in my life and began writing fiction. At first I was really annoyed but then the characters began to grow, I had images in my head and bits of dialogue. I began writing, notes at first and then drafts of the first chapter, then the second and so on. And what I discovered was the amazing freedom that writing lies, untruths, fiction, brings with it. That is not to say that bits of truth, bits of my life, did not make an appearance, they did. Real people that I had loved and lost suddenly appeared wanting a relationship with me, not one we had had in real life but an imagined one, with obstacles even in fiction that prevented our unreal lives going forward. 
Mark Kitchenham

One of the aims of Greenacre Writers is to support new writers, Mark Kitchenham, made his first appearance at this festival, closing the first session with one of his short stories.

Gina Blaxill
After the break and book signings, Gina Blaxill, a local writer who grew up in Finchley, and also making her first appearance at a festival, spoke about her writing. Not that she hasn't had lots of experience speaking about her YA novels, Pretty Twisted and Forget Me Never, at schools and so on. She gave an excellent and interesting performance, explaining how books she had read as a child like The Secret Seven, always had kids being detectives but if that was going to be believable in 2013, she would have to create a world and a young detective, that her young readers could believe in.

Sarah Harrison
Sarah Harrison, author of over 25 novels talked about the real-life research behind her novel Flowers of the Field which was published in 1980 but has just been re-issued.


Three more readings from Greenacre Writers followed. Liz Goes read from the third of her fictionalized memoirs The Not Quite English Teacher, Mumpuni Murniati read her short story rooted in her native Indonesia and
Wendy Shillam
Wendy Shillam completed the section with a reading from her most recent novel, just completed the day before, The Vining Plant.

Liz Goes

Members of the audience
Alex Wheatle MBE, and Dr Josie Pearse joined us for the afternoon to take part in the panel, Truth and Fiction, with Allen Ashley facilitating. Leigh Russell and Sarah Harrison also took part. 

Truth and fiction panel discussion.
They discussed such questions as how much truth should there be in fiction? What things must we stay true to as writers? What does fiction teach us about truth? And questions were taken from the audience. What all the writers seemed to agree, was that regardless of the fiction or truths of novel writing, the important thing was the emotional truth at the heart of their writing. 

We were also very pleased to announce that Alex Wheatle will be our judge for this year's short story competition. You can find out how to enter here: Greenacre Writers 2013 Short Story Competition

Emily Benet, a speaker last year
Andrew Bradford in the book room

Emily Benet and Andrew Bradford speakers from last year, were in the audience, as was Morgen Bailey who did an in-depth write-up of the afternoon. 

It really was a fantastic two days, only made possible by the generosity of our Greenacre Writers who worked hard behind the scenes, Robert and Elisabeth Newton (bouncer :) and bow-maker), Mark and Elaine Kitchenham who persuaded Waitrose to donate some delicious food, our lovely Chris who provided a delicious supper at the now famous Friern Barnet Library Open Mic and who somehow baked hundreds of cakes, Linda and Liz who managed the book tables, the kindness of our speakers without whom we would not have had a festival, Murni who made the most delicious spring rolls, our audience and finally Lindsay, who despite being unwell managed to co-host in her usual professional manner.

Next year we are hoping to launch the first Finchley Literary Festival, so if you're local to Finchley and the surrounding area, published, and would like to get involved, let us know. (David Nicholls?) But first, I have to Start That Novel all over again - the six week course that ran earlier this year will be running again in September, as will the first Greenacre Writers Retreat, oh and I have two Finish That Novel's, and a short story, goodness me, and something else - September 5th, the launch of The Library That Wouldn't Close: the story of Friern Barnet Library. Where? In the famous library of course! 7pm - see you there.

To read more about the festival see: Greenacre Writers
For a really detailed account, read Morgen Bailey