Saturday 21 December 2013

Happy Christmas Dear Friends.

A Heartfelt Happy Christmas Season to all the lovely people -both readers and writers - join me time and again at Life Twice Tasted time and to share with me the oddities that obsessions  that preoccupy my butterfly mind. You are my delight.

Here at LifeTwiceTasted Manor Christmas has arrived 
and at last the tree is up

My good intention for 2014  is

is to shrug off my delight with the idiosyncrasies of grammar. It does tend to split the reading and writing world. Although (as it's still 2013) I am wondering about the subtle magic of prolepsis and litotes ...

Thinking about  2014 I heard this good saying on  - of all things - an American cop-show: 

'If you always do what you've always done you always get what you always did.' 
Makes sense to me. 
So it looks as though 2014 will be a year of change in my life. 


Best wishes for a brilliantly written and well-read year in 2014

Love Wendy

Monday 9 December 2013

Does The Use Of Colons And Semi-Colons Date Your Style?

This half-year has been full of editorial tasks: editing and completing a novel before sending it to my agent; revising some of my published novels using Createspace to re-publish them on Kindle and in paperback. I
have also been reviewing other people’s work and giving editorial judgements.

We all have attitudes to prose – our own and that of other writers. As for me, I love the subtle energy that colons and semicolons add to prose. They are syntactical tools that act to smooth the progress from sentence to sentence.

Some people do seem to have problems with the use of colons and semi-colons. But really it’s not so difficult: we use the colon to provide a pause before introducing related information, while we use the semicolon to create a break in a sentence that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop.

But there are times when we as writers need to stand back a little.

Recently I asked a friend – a good editor – to cast a final eye over a story I'd been polishing making it ready for a prestigious competition.

My friend said many good things about the story, then hesitated. 
‘What is it?’ I say, with writerly anxiety.
‘Well. The colons and the semi-colons…’
‘What about them?’ I am defensive. I love these subtle tools of syntax.
‘Well, somehow, I’m stubbing my toe on them.’
My eyes narrow. ‘They’re all correct.’ I say.
‘Well somehow they look…’ she hesitates. ‘It’s different with essays and factual. In fiction they look…’
Then it dawns on me. ‘…dated, old fashioned?’
She colours, ‘Well, not quite…’

But that’s certainly what she means.

I hate to think that my style might be dated. I like to think I have an open mind: a fresh view of the world in my work. I like to think my writing reflects this for my readers. I hope it does.

I went through my story again, reviewed the colons and semi-colons and removed two of them. I’m not sure whether or not it was an improvement. I have no answer as yet to this dilemma. We’ll see

So, what’s your view of colons and semi-colons? Are they a positive or a negative element in modern writing? 

It would be interesting to know. Wx

Saturday 30 November 2013

Reading Narrative Fiction, Identity and the Humane Society

On our Room To Write Sister Blog I have  posted a report  (Erasing the Chasm Between the Bench and the Dock:  An Experience in Boston, USAon the visit made by Avril and me to Boston to explore the Changing Lives Through Literature project masterminded by Professor Bob Waxler.  

Now, the presiding genius of that project -  Professor Bob Waxler of the University of Massachusetts - brings us his new book which goes even further in helping us in the wider society to understand the significance  of reading in our present day reductive, impersonalised  culture,
Waxler 100w
Robert P Waxler of
 University of Massachuset

Bob's new book The Risk of Reading (Great title!) defends  the idea that deep and close readings of literature can help us  understand ourselves and the world around us. It explores some of the meaning and implications of modern life through the deep reading of significant books.

He  argues that we need "fiction" to give our so-called "real life" meaning and that reading narrative fiction remains crucial to the making of a humane and democratic society.

Beginning by exploring the implications of thinking about the importance of story in terms of "real life", The Risk of Reading focuses on the importance of human language, especially language shaped into narrative, and how that language is central to the human quest for identity.

Bob argues that we are "linguistic beings," and that reading literary narrative is a significant way to enrich and preserve the traditional sense of human identity and knowledge. This is especially true in the midst of a culture which too often celebrates visual images, spectacle, electronic devices, and celebrity.

Reading narrative fiction, in other words, should be considered a counter-cultural activity crucial on the quest to "know thyself." 

Bob Waxler asserts that reading literature is one of the best opportunities we have today to maintain a coherent human identity and remain self-reflective individuals in a world that seems particularly chaotic and confusing. 

This book promises to be a great contribution to the debate on the role of narrative fiction in modern society.

Very highly recommended.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Createspace and Orphans in the Social Media Storm

My recent sceptical post (scroll back two posts) about the use of social media in selling and promoting your fiction has drawn quite a lot of attention. Some people thought I rather had my head in the sand; others applauded my desire to keep the fun in these processes, reflecting my determination that writing has to be a joy in itself and anything that takes away from this joy is a negative for a creative writer.

And then I attended a talk in London by Richard Foreman of the excellent  Endeavour Press.  He is clearly very positive about the function of social media in the selling process for fiction and sees it as important in the present and the future for writers. His rational, pragmatic approach to the whole thing made me think again. He had evidence of successfully selling novels through Endeavour. I would trust Endeavour with my work.

Richard certainly made me think again about the whole thing. An open mind has to be one way to make progress in this approach to selling and promotion.

So, home from London with my mind wide open I clicked into my Amazon account to see what I could do for the five independently published novels on Amazon. These novels trickle out consistently without making any big splash. Suddenly these favourites seem like orphans in the storm who need some care to flourish.

And then, with my independent publisher shades on, I sat down to think of what I can do for these five orphans of mine, and came out with these intention: 

I will take my orphans and dress them in new clothes. My version of this is to revise them again, re-jacket and re-issue them. Make them into sharp children.

Then I will republish them independently as Kindles and Hardback using the excellent Createspace processes. (I had already done this recently with my novel Paulie’s Web – already on Kindle but now launched in paperback.)

I am now working on my novel Cruelty Games. Here is the new cover (much better now designed with the Createspace Cover Creator) and I am halfway through the re-edit and revision of the text. Four more to go...

At the end of this,  with the new versions all in place on my Amazon list I will work on the Kindles publications, following Richard Foreman’s excellent advice:

I will ensure the prices are all very keen. I now understand at last that the level of pricing is important, particularly so  as it now rivals the second hand price of my novels. The fact is that interested readers can buy my full length novels second hand for as little as a penny, plus Amazon postage. (One part of me is still happy that people are evidently still reading my novels.) I see there are some first collectors editions out there for rather more than a penny, of course...

One by one I will go through my Amazon novels and apply the Amazon Special Offer  and Free Day process,

I will keep an eye on the Amazon Rankings, to which I have never before attended, as it seemed an impossible dream to be up there. But now, when I apply these processes to each book this will check out whether my actions have had any impact  on the rankings.

I will try to let people know about my progress using my social media, although I will feel impelled to avoid the in-your-face sell that put me off in the first place - that is before I heard Richard Foreman’s wise words.

Of course all this might come to nothing in terms of getting my orphans out there into the world and giving them a good chance in life. But at least I won’t be sitting there on the sidelines wringing my hands and saying if only I could give my babes a real chance in the world.

After Cruelty Games I will work on A Woman Scorned, then Where Hope Lives  then Lizza, then a fresh one called The Real Life of Studs McGuire. It's not at all like writing. It's a  bit more  like embroidery. It fills in the dark nights of winter and you end up with something beautiful. And your orphans are well clad,

I will report back on this process from time to time here on the blog. I thought it might interest other writers who have their own orphaned novel that they wish to nurture and send out into the world,

Thursday 14 November 2013

Skating, Stanley Spencer and Perceptions of Heaven and Hell

The Christmas tree lights were twinkling and the skaters were already skating at Somerset House when Gillian and I arrived to take a look at the surreal, intricate canvases created by Stanley Spencer for Sandham
Sandham Memorial Chapel
Memorial Chapel to honour the dead.

Inspired by his experience on the Salonica Front and here as a hospital worker caring for the wounded in an asylum used as a hospital, the paintings chart Spencer’s inner and an outer journey mapping the experience of soldiers under fire and in the asylum where the wounded may make their journey of recovery.

I recommend to you the Somerset House Website which gives a good account of this exhibition.  

 As for me I tried to make sense of the profound experience of Spencer’s indosyncratic vision as I sat drinking coffe and  underlining phrases that jumped out at me from the modest clearly written introduction to the exhibition.

Putting these phrases together now I seem to have a ‘found poem’ which more clearly expresses my impression of the exhibition than some immodest critique.

In the exhibition, entitled The Heaven and Hell of War, Spencer’s paintings treat  us to images from the Macedonian Front and a home-front camp and Asylum where the wounded and the mentally ill live  separately but side by side. This seems to me to be a tidy comment on the confusion and pain of war. The underlying meaning of the paintings can apply equally to the soldiers and the insane.

So, with apologies, my ‘found poem’ inspired by Stanley Spencer:
Routine chores.

Tweseldown, the camp near Farnham
The hospital serve a  dual purpose during this war
A bus forces its way through rhododendron bushes and
a newly arrived convoy of soldiers settles in a bleak courtyard
The keys connect the painting to its location

Soldiers struggle to flatten out blankets. They live
repetitive insular lives. This one obsessively scrubs the floor,
sorting through blankets and spotted red handkerchiefs
dreaming of respite from unwelcome chores
painting Iodine onto a wound and
painting different materials and surfaces

The lives of mental patients -
they were all padlocked
Young Stanley. Self Portrait
A small figure - someone filling
urns with tea for one of the asylum wards -
in two different worlds.

A scene on the Macedonian front:

‘Stand to Order!’ The officer is camouflaged
with fern fronds. Piles of barbed wired appear
like black thunder clouds,

The resurrection of the soldiers -
each cross serving as an object of devotion
In a mesh of white crosses,
a soldier emerges from a grave
a cross serving to frame
his bewildered face

Saturday 9 November 2013

The Myth of Social Media Selling Novels for Writers

With other writers I was recently asked by Debbie Taylor  of the excellent Mslexia Magazine to fill in a questionnaire about the role of social media in my professional writing life. This made me think more deeply than usual about this issue. Social media have a kind of role in my professional life. I am occasionally on Twitter and Facebook and I do write this blog.

I do know writers who communicate very successfully and with great bezazz on Twitter and Facebook. They write about cooking, gardening, politics, people and all kinds of fun and frolics. They turn a charming and interesting face to an interested cyber world. One friend has built up a following of 40,000 readers by writing warmly and wittily about just this kind of thing. Through her I have learned that writing well in a hundred and forty characters is an art in itself.

But when we come to professional fiction writers  the whole thing is rather more complicated. Many fluid and witty Twitterers and Facebookers clearly do it for sheer fun and delight. They possess 140 character magic. The witty novelist Marian Keyes has the magic and is a joy to follow  just for the anarchic, creative fun of it all.

But the fun seems to have flown out of the window for some writers who are seduced by the growing myth that social media will sell your books. Some aspiring writers do their duty and enter the field like busy bees saying, in one way or another, read my book! buy my book! At first I thought this point of view was valid and I do sympathise with this strategy in a world where publishers invest less and less in promoting and marketing their not-already-famous writers. And - wonderfully - writers themselves are taking up the torch and going down the independent publishing route. Social media must seem like a gift.

The problem is that while I sympathise with the social-media-sells mantra, I have yet to see audits, evaluations or statistics that prove the success of this process for novelists, poets or short story writers in terms of sales. The already best-selling and wonderfully twitterer Marian Keyes hardly needs any cyber-boost.

Perhaps the Mslexia survey will begin to fill that gap?

It seems to me that a degree of success can be traced in terms of  the selling-success of writers who blog and twitter about their publications, which are based on a business model about how to succeed (‘in ten easy steps!’) by using social media to promote your book, or promote your business.

They use their own success in writing on this theme to assert it can succeed for you, the creative writer. I’ve bought some of their publications myself with the idea that they might provide one  answer for the fading fiction market. In reading them I see they all have the same message -  that if you follow their rules you can uses social media to sell your creative work. It clearly does sell their own book-products  but as far as I can tell only provides yet another arena for anxiety and failure for the harassed unpublished or newly- published original writer.

But I have to say that for me the use of social media works on a peculiarly idiosyncratic level. The way in which is works for me – as you will see from this post – is that it is an avenue for fun and a feeling of satisfaction. 

I post all kinds of stuff on here on Life Twice Tasted:  

  • scraps of work in progress, or not progressing
  •  emerging ideas about the writing and editing process 
  •  stories about my novels and books as they emerge 
  • reflections on novels I have written in my time
  • the vagaries of the publishing world (although I try not to whine - so bo-oring!);
  • the vivid and growing adventure of independent publishing 
  • reflections on books and authors I admire and who inspire me
  • idiosyncratic elements of grammar and syntax
  • episodes from my (rather long) life 
I find now that in doing all this I happen to be creating a kind of archive of my writing, and my writer's life. And this  inspires a vague and tentative hope that here at Life Twice Tasted I am able to share some fragments of my writer-self that a wide range of writers and readers may find interesting.

And although - as you see here -  I have designed Life Twice Tasted to be a kind of showcase for all my novels and it enjoys an average of five thousand page-views a month, I have no idea whatsoever whether or not this blog increases my book sales in any way that is not merely incidental. My book and Kindle sales do go up incrementally but they might have done this anyway. And now many of my books are on the second-hand carousel of Amazon and other on-line sites. How would I know how many of them are re-sold in this way? I am delighting at the thought of these novels having a second reading - a second life -  although there is no profit to me.

I can hear business-model gurus groaning at my un-business-like approach, I disobey other rules as well. We are told to write short snappy posts – kind of bite-size pieces for those of short appetite and attention span. Well, as you see here, my posts are longish and essay-ish and don’t underestimate the intelligence of many of my readers. (If you have read this far you are one of them…) Also my posts - though they frequently focus on the writing process -  cover a wide range of themes. Apparently that’s another taboo.

But, even though I don’t have the 140 character magic (mentioned above) I do go on Twitter and Facebook as well -  posting occasional casual and quirky elements from my daily life, I will also mention it  if I have a book out or a book launch in view. I will also post there the theme of the current post on my blog. If Twitter folk  are interested they might click through to take a look at Life Twice Tasted. If not they will click on to other possibly more enticing things. Fair enough.

So, if it’s not about selling books, what is a writer’s blog about? Whatever happens, the medium must be the message. A writer’s blog should be well written and interesting in itself – seriously interesting, seriously funny and seriously original. If - by the by -it sells a few books, in tens, hundreds or thousands, that for me is just a bi-product.

So for me writing posts for the blog is an end and a pleasure in itself and it must stay that way. Once it becomes a means to the end of spurious fame and fortune then it becomes tatty as an over-used apron. I think the notion that exploiting social media to achieved worldly success for creative writers is at best wishful thinking, at worst a damaging myth.

Definitely a work in progress...

I am not being disingenuous when I say that truly, I love writing on Life Twice Tasted for its very own sake. For me the blog is a living, growing thing, like a forest that becomes more intricate in time. Like the thousands of less-than-famous essayists of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries I write my pieces for for personal satisfaction and very small reward.

For me it is a respectable, if not profitable, occupation … 

in addition to writing the novels, of course.

And here are some very different blogs that demonstrate the qualities I admire 

The writing-wise wise and wonderful Writing Junkie 
The wittily toothsome Licked Spoon /
The lyrical gardener and cat lover Pablo's Friend 
The wise, witty and humane 60 Going on 16 

Thursday 7 November 2013

Sexual and Emotional Freedom in the Blitz

The spurious intimacy
of the underground bomb shelter
Last night I had the pleasure of  watching  the tousle haired James Runcie presenting on The Culture Show discussing the invigorating creative effect of the experience of the London Blitz during World War Two, on upper middle class writers who used the profound experience to inspire great novels.

Alongside Grahame Greene (The End of the Affair), writers Elizabeth Bowen (In the Heat of the Day), Henry Green - Real name Yorke - (Caught), Rose Macaulay (Towers of Trebizond) all used the insights offered by surviving in London under severe bombing while 'doing their bit' as fire wardens and fire fighters. During this time they actually lived and worked shoulder to shoulder with a class of people who had been invisible to them in the pre-war security of their upper class literary lives.

With wives and partners safely in the country,  life in the Blitz offered sexual and emotional freedom,  where there seemed no accountability other than writing, packing in as much life as possible in  today, and surviving until tomorrow

The terror, passion and immediacy of the Blitz, (which Rose Macaulay referred to as 'a sample of total war')  was compared by Henry Yorke (in the mind of one of his characters): 'War, she thought, was sex.'

I was interested to note that the programme leaned heavily on an excellent book by Lara Feigal  called The Love Charm of Bombs I really enjoyed reading   this well-researched 500 page book, (I had read it earlier this year; it had  been given to me as a Christmas present). So I was very pleased to see Feigal on the programme and also in the credits as consultant.

 I found the programme quite compelling. But if you want to empathise with the anarchic feelings and the literary and sexual acuity of those times I would recommend making some time to read the book.

On the back of her book Feigal aptly quotes Grahame Greene: The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakeable engine ("Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?"), the bomb-bursts move nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love charm.'  

And now I have to declare an interest here, on two counts.
First, I have been told that I was conceived during the massive November blitz of the city of Coventry. Secondly I wrote a novel built around my parents' experience of that Blitz. Of course, being of the invisible class (see above), they were not acquainted in their provincial city with  upper-middle-class writers 'doing their bit' for their country while they enjoyed the anarchic freedom of 'total war'.

When you think  about it though,  my mother and father made love in the Blitz and at the same time made a writer for the next generation.

My own novel emerging from all this is
called Land of Your Possession. You can see it here on my sidebar...

Monday 28 October 2013

Listen to Anne Dover read from Paulie's Web.

Have just managed to create an audio-clip of the brilliant Anne Dover reading the chapter  called 'From the Corner of My Eye' at the launch of Paulie's Web. (click to listen) She is so good. Wx

Saturday 26 October 2013

Constructive Peer Appraisal in Independent Publishing

These days I am asked frequently to give an opinion on someone’s else's completed novel. 

Completing a whole novel is very hard work.
Firstly I have to say that to actually complete an 80, 000 word novel with joined up words, chapters, and narrative is a great achievement in itself. It is a long haul, both intellectually and emotionally demanding. So many aspiring writers start off with high hopes and great confidence and don’t quite get to finish. 

So what we are dealing with here is a completed novel anywhere between eighty and a hundred thousand words. A big job.

In these days of more independent and autonomous publishing we need to delay the  enticing rush to publish through such facilitating processes such as Amazon CreateSpace, great as they are. This popular, enabling atmosphere  sidesteps the commissioning and editorial departments of mainstream publishers so there is still an emerging need for a very high level of self editing (see my previous post) and rigorous peer-review.  

I am fortunate in having three very different peer/friend reviewers whose views on my manuscripts have had subtle and enhancing effects. Of course I  return the favour for them.

You will possibly know whom, among your own peers and friends,   you could turn to for this great favour.

Entering one of the many national and international competitions is one way to get your manuscript out there among your unknown peers. You could seek out people who have a level of achievement and ask them politely to review your manuscript. 

You could, of course, use one of the commercial manuscript appraisal services. A warning here that this is a growth industry and the people who will advise you are not necessarily your peers. Check them out.

I have spotted a very good service that has emerged from this situation, being offered by the author and academic Paul Magrs who is currently charging £50 for a 500 word critique offering ‘constructive, practical  feedback  on characterisation, plotting, structure and further suggestions for development and reading.’ He firmly asserts that he is not offering proofreading and copy editing. ‘This is about pointers for developing your work in your next draft.’ A fine offer from this much praised teacher, much admired writer and writing coach.

But what if you are asked to appraise a fellow writer’s completed novel?

My advice is not to agree to do this for unless you are prepared to do a thorough job. You will do them no favours if you skim through and say ‘it’s very nice’ or ‘it doesn’t work for me.’

So, having worked with some talented editors for twenty years and consulted editors in the wider field such as my own Debora, I have developed a set of my own idiosyncratic guidelines which might be useful for writing peers in this newly independent publishing world. Here they are:


vI'm with  Paul Magrs: tell your peer/friend that you are not offering to proof or line edit the manuscript. Insist on having a manuscript that is thoroughly proofed and line edited by someone else.
Hard copy is the best to work with ...

v You need a hard copy manuscript to work on. Editing on-screen copy can be sloppy and superficial – more akin to Open and Other University ‘marking’ which is alien to an in-depth creative read.

v  Know what kind of writer this writer is and what kind of novel they see themselves as writing. Remember it is not your story: it is theirs. You can’t always like what you edit so you will need to know something about what’s in their field.

vAsk for a summary or a blurb  that will give you a take on what kind of novel the writer sees it as.  (Don’t ask for the dreaded, often egregious,  synopsis. They're for busy commercial editors and agents who need to skip a stage. You will read the whole novel so you won’t need a synopsis.)

The Process

v First read the manuscript very quickly without making notes. Get the shape in your head. You need to see the book as a whole. (See my previous post.) How will the reader see the book? 

v Read with a keen, critical eye, keeping the writer’s own vision of the novel in mind.

v Look for originality, consistency and conviction in terms of plot, structure and characters.

Your Response

v If the novel is perfect or near perfect make sure to say just that, with a great hoorah!

v  Make a note of what you think really works in this manuscript: what makes it interesting or original? What will any reader like about it?

v Make a clear and specific note of inconsistencies or implausibility in the plot.

v Make constructive suggestions for further developments in plot, structure and characters. Often good to couch these as questions; this acknowledges that the real authority regarding this manuscript is the writer her or himself.

v Suggest books or sources that may help with any development of the  novel. (Be careful here. It’s not always useful at this point to recommend work by other novelists…)

It would be great to hear of your experiences in helping your peers
 in this brave new world of independent publishing. WX

Sunday 20 October 2013

How To Enjoy Your Book Launch: Paulie's Web

At lasr Paulie's Web was launched on Wednesday. It was all over - as my mother would say - 'like a wedding.'

Avril and I discussing
 finishing touches

Weeks of discussion, preparation, choosing the venue, inviting the special ones, writing the newspaper article, deciding on the programme, making sure there were plenty of books...

Anne Dover reading a chapter from
Paulie's Web, Superb.
The star of the evening.
  I think she enjoyed it
The art gallery in Bishop Auckland Town Hall was beautifully set out by Janet Strong and her staff at the library. There was wine and a typical Bishop Auckland Town Hall welcome. The books were beautifully displayed, making the most of the lovely cover of Paulie's Web

The occasion was chaired by Avril Joy, now a writer herself , and for a long time Head of Learning and Skills in the prison that inspired Paulie's Web, Special guests Mike Kirby ex governor of the same prison, special guest actress Anne Dover who records audio books for Isis and Soundings. Manning the books table was Gillian Wales who keeps us in order at  Room to Write. And me.

Ex governor Mike Kirby putting
the book into its national context.
He made plain his view that a society
may be judged by the way it treats
its prisoners.
He seemed to enjoy it

Avril, Anne and I enjoyed it
In the audience of over eighty people were readers and writers of all description. There were teachers, librarians,  journalists, prison officers and managers. My lovely Debora and Sean came from London.  There was Charlie the dynamic Reader in Residence and HMP Low Newton, and Sheila the present Writer in Residence there. There was my friend Terry from Bishop FM who squeezed in an interview for Bishop FM with our guest of honour Anne Dover. There were old friends from former lives and new friends from present ventures. There were strangers whom I was delighted to see: perhaps some women who had been in that prison those years ago when Paulie was beginning to live in my imagination.

Our whole evening - as is the book (scroll down here) -was dedicated to promoting  some kind of understanding of women who end up in prison and recognising the importance of seeing them as unique human beings rather than reductive stereotypes: as our sister, our cousin, our daughter or our mother..

I think we enjoyed it

I think they enjoyed it.

Reader in Residence, Charlie Darby Villis
and Writer in Residence Sheila Mulhern
talk to Glyn Wales who helped
Gillian with the books. Lots of books sold at this point!

I quite enjoyed it myself...

Monday 14 October 2013

The Writing Woman and Queenie the Bag Lady

Three days to go! Count down to the launch of Paulie'a web (see sidebar) on Wednesday 16th October

I had terrific local response to the article (below) that I wrote for Jenny Needham Features Editor of the Northern Echo, focusing on South Durham references in my the prison expereince that lead to the writing of Paulie's Web.

Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people prisons can seem hidden, secret places but others have more personal experience of them  that might involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.

Some people here the North East will be in this position - having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.

 Inside this prison – as well as women from all parts of the country – I worked with women from County Durham. Teesside and North Yorkshire, serving sentences for every kind of offence. In the main they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.

In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street  when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side  swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton - The Writing Woman.’

When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.

My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that travelled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.

We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down  can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision - never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.

These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with  teacher and Head of Learning and Skills Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.

Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas - even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.

My novel is not a case study. It is a fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives not just behind bars but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. As well as Paulie - rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer - there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.

In Paulie’s Web there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise here is the laughter, comradeship and tears. Here is the bullying and night-time fear. Here is the learning and self–revelation.

The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.

On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read you might recognise, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.

The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.

Thursday 10 October 2013

A Letter to Sylvie: Advice to a Writer Aged Fourteen

 A friend of mine asked me if I would give some advice to his friend's fourteen year old daughter. Let's call her Sylvie: This is what I wrote to her:

Dear Sylvie: 

I had to think hard before I answered your letter. Either I had to pat you on the head and say wonderful! You are amazing! You might be wonderful and amazing in many ways but you would never make any
progress with your writing if I just said that.

So I decided to respond to you as I would to any writer – as an individual. Really as an adult. Here we go - 

I am very impressed that you are thinking of writing seriously as part of your life. I can see from your letter that you are a very fluent writer and can really impress yourself.

I like the way your talk about your writing ‘When I begin writing something I don’t plan a lot, I just have a rough idea in my head and then expand on it as I write ‘ … This is a good way to start off  – working naturally and acknowledging the importance of your subconscious. Feeling this freedom to ‘expand on it as I write’ is an important part of the writing process. Too many ‘creative writing courses’ emphasise the importance of pre-thinking, planning and structure.. This can produce mechanical and derivative work and does not allow unique voices to emerge.

However, once you have a good chunk of writing, then reflection and retrospective structuring can sustain and elaborate your  unique voice. For a good writer, a high level of self-editing is important. This is a skill that will develop in years of writing. Remember to work on your edit after you have a chunk of writing to work on. Don't try to do the two things at once. It's very important to keep these processes separate.

You describe your own editing process, saying,   when I read through it I change only little things or sometimes large chunks. I imagine that by little things you mean points of spelling, grammar and syntax (look that word up…). This is the very first level of editing.

When you mention ‘large chunks’, this is the second level. I imagine by this you mean
  • *      changing the order of paragraphs
  • *      changing the time sequence of events
  • *      changing description to dialogue
  • *      making the use of tense consistent
  • *      re-enforcing the nature of cause and effect in your narrative
  • *      seeing that the forward arc of your story works

When you begin to teach yourself these second level skills you are on your way to being a writer.

In terms of subject matter I see you say   I can write any genre, however I like sticking to horror, drama, some action, and a little romance... And  I have been writing about supernatural beings such as; vampires, werewolves, and ghosts.

It is not unusual for young writers to begin with such themes.
This is a proper stage in beginning to write. I think that it has something to do with the fact that a young person lacks  real life experience – yet! - to draw on. Also it reflects   the power of great fairy tales in children’s conscious and subconscious mind. As I say, a good starting place.

But here is a warning! The problem is that some people get stuck on such subject matter and their writing becomes stale and – even worse – derivative. Instead of drawing on their own unique subconscious such writers imitate somebody else’s subconscious. Be careful not to love somebody’s books so much that you imitate them.

So, how do you become your own writer with your own unique voice?

My Top Tips

*      You should begin to read as a writer, asking yourself how does this or that writer have this or that effect
Read as a writer...
on you. Using this approach, continue to read widely looking at the work word by word, line by line.

For imaginative narrative, read many kinds of fiction from Shakespeare (have you read The Tempest? Wonderful fantasy evocation) to David Almond (Brilliant writer, try My Name is Mina: ‘A celebration of the richness of the everyday life’:  Sunday Times)

For extending your feeling for words and the rhythm of language read poetry -from Keats (combination of perfect word choice, assonance, rhyme and metre) to Carol Ann Duffy (modern syntax and references with a deep feeling for words and their power)

*      Warningdon’t practice amateur lit-crit on your reading! Just try to see  how the writer works; see how they get their effect. This is NOT the same as the amateur lit-crit practiced for exam answers.  

       Avoid Creative Writing Courses unless they are taught by experienced and published writers. And Eng.Lit degree does not equal this.

*      Dip into your pocket money and buy ON BECOMING A WRITER by Dorothea Brande. Read it and do her exercises which encourage you to write for twenty minutes first thing every morning come rain or shine without looking back for twenty one day. In this lump of free writing you will find your unique voice and your own original themes.

Good luck, Sylvie. And happy writing.



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