Sutton Coldfield BookFest

Sutton Coldfield BookFest took place yesterday, billed as, ‘a new festival for children who love stories’. I was involved as a volunteer and found it a great learning experience.

Winnie the Witch

Korky Paul’s Prize Winning Golden Raffle Tickets

My role was to check people’s tickets as they entered one of the library areas set aside for the performances of the authors and illustrators. This meant, once everyone was inside, I was able to stand at the back and watch fantastic sessions by author/illustrator Steve Smallman, Winnie the Witch illustrator Korky Paul and animal storyteller BB Taylor. They were all a great hit with the children and I took away the following points:

  • It’s harder to face an audience of children than an audience of adults. Even when bored, adults will sit still and quiet and look at you. Children have a habit of interrupting with questions, walking around, touching things and fidgeting.
  • In front of an audience of children a speaker has to exude energy, drama and enthusiasm. Speaking half-heartedly or without animation loses audience attention.
  • Visual aids and fancy dress are a must in front of youngsters. Between them the three performers had a viking helmet with chicken accessories, a wizard’s hat and a purple wig. BB Taylor brought along live animals: an armadillo, tortoise, millipede and a parrot.
  • Audience participation should be encouraged. Ask questions of the audience, get children up to the front and have prizes – children like to take things home!

So how does this help those of us who write for adults? It made me think about what I like to see in a speaker and it’s the unusual which ignites my immediate interest. And it’s the energy and enthusiasm of a performance that maintains that interest beyond the initial few minutes. So, thanks to three great children’s entertainers, those are the points I’ll be working on in my own author talk. Thanks guys and gal!

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When you win the Booker …

When you win the Booker, and the champagne has been drunk, the interviews given and the books signed, how will you spend the £50,000 prize money?

There was an interesting piece in last week’s Sunday Times about how some previous winners have spent the money. In 1986 Kingsley Amis said he was looking forward to spending the money on, “booze, of course, and curtains.” Four years later AS Byatt spent her prize on building a swimming pool at her home. The 2018 winner, Anna Burns, is using her winnings on something far less frivolous but, hopefully, life changing. Her prize money will fund back surgery to stop the chronic pain which stops her writing.

If I was in receipt of that £50,000 cheque, I’d use it to ‘buy’ more writing time. This might mean a combination of reducing my hours at the day job and/or paying for help around the house. However, more time doesn’t always equal more writing productivity. It would be up to me and my self-discipline to use that extra time wisely rather than in procrastination or in madly tidying up the house before the cleaner arrived!

What about you? Would the £50,000 buy something pleasurable or sensible or both?

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The Museum of Brands

A few days ago I visited The Museum of Brands in London. The museum takes the visitor on a colourful stroll through the branding, advertising and consumerism of the last two hundred or so years. It’s a wonderful microcosm of British social history. Museum of Brands and Packaging

The visit left me with two thoughts. Firstly, it made me feel ancient. A large part of my childhood and the years beyond were in those glass cases. Surely I’m not old enough for my lifetime to become museum worthy! Who else out there remembers Spangles sweets, Jackie magazine, Philadelphia cheese wrapped in silver paper rather than in a plastic tub, Caramac bars (just discovered you can still buy those) and renting instead of buying a TV?

Secondly, it brought home to me how the long-lived brands had evolved over time in order to survive. Much of this evolution was done in baby steps – a change of font for the logo, moving from a metal to plastic packaging or updating the slogan. Companies like Sony have constantly innovated to ensure their products always offer the consumer something new and attractive. Unfortunately Kodak didn’t and was lost in the great tsunami of digital photography.

What has this got to with writing?

It’s a reminder that we should always be looking where we are going with our writing careers. For example the market for womag stories is rapidly shrinking meaning those of us who used to target women’s magazines with our short stories need to find new outlets or try a different form of writing. Attracting an agent for a novel is as difficult as ever – is it time to set a limit on the number of rejections and then start investigating other routes such as the growing number of new independent digital publishers like Hera who accept unagented submissions? Or maybe it’s time to try non-fiction or a different genre?

The important thing is to stay current with what’s going on in the writing world and be proactive to avoid being left behind. Be a Sony not a Kodak! Simon Whaley has been talking about a similar topic on his blog this week.

Incidentally, whilst going through my kitchen cupboards to take the photo accompanying this post, I discovered that most of my tins and packets were supermarket own brands. I wonder what that says for branding in the future?

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Running a Creative Writing Workshop

A few years ago I did the PTLLS qualification (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) and this week I finally got around to putting it into practice by running my first creative writing workshop. It was organised by FOLIO Sutton Coldfield, held at my local library and free to participants. Planning a creative writing workshop

On the agenda was creating haiku and writing letters to magazines. I chose these two topics to give a mix of writing for pleasure and for profit plus the pieces were short enough to complete in the two and a half hours allocated to the class. And I already had a basic lesson plan for the haiku section from the ‘micro teach’ I did as part of PTLLS.

The participants were a lovely group of people. The workshop had been billed as ‘An Introduction to Creative Writing’ and most had done either none or very little writing before but they were all enthusiastic. Because we only had a couple of hours together, I chose to do a very quick, basic ice-breaker to start the session. I produced my large, bright orange (imaginary) energy ball and we each said our name as we pretended to pass it around the room and take a burst of energy from from it.

During the workshop I deliberately set most of the writing exercises to be done in pairs so that no one felt put on the spot or awkward if they were struggling to get going. We worked up to writing a haiku by looking at examples, having a pictorial prompt and jotting down ad hoc words and phrases before trying to craft them into the syllable count of a haiku. Similarly, we looked at how to analyse a magazine letters’ page including things like word count, subject matter and tone of the letters printed, before trying to craft a letter ourselves.

There were a few learning points that I took away from the workshop:

  1. Running a creative writing workshop is like an iceberg – i.e. 9/10 of the work is the invisible preparation done beforehand in creating the exercises, handouts etc.
  2. It’s very hard to construct a lesson plan with accurate timings about how long each part will take. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a cue from the class – are they still busy writing or are they staring bored into space? During the coffee break the class started asking questions about how I tackle my own writing, this meant the break ran over slightly but I decided that was OK because we were talking about the different ways authors tackle novel writing, which had some benefit to the class participants.
  3. It’s worth asking participants to complete a feedback form at the end of the session in order to find out how it went (phew! all positive comments!) and what subjects might be popular in future workshops.

After running only one workshop, I don’t profess to be an expert on teaching creative writing – however, I know someone who is! If you’re looking for further information or advice on running creative writing classes, I suggest you take a look at Start a Creative Writing Class: How to Set Up, Run and Teach a Successful Class by my writing buddy Helen Yendall.

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Some Life (and Death) Advice

I was talking to a friend about the death of her partner’s mother and how the deceased lady’s husband was coping with the loss. How to bleed a radiatorThis reminded me of some advice that a widow in my book group gave me.

She said that when meeting with a group of her friends, who’d also lost their partners, they all wished they could have their men back for just half an hour. They would spend those precious minutes asking questions like:

  • How do you bleed a radiator?
  • Where did you keep the spanner and screwdriver?
  • Where are the passwords for all the online bank accounts?
  • Where are the house insurance documents?

My book group friend was planning to watch YouTube videos to learn how to change the washer in her dripping tap because, “you can’t call a man in for every little job that needs doing”.  She advised me to watch my husband when he was doing things like bleeding radiators and to film him with my phone so that, should the worst happen, I’d have instructions to follow.

In any partnership, there is bound to be a division of labour depending on the strengths and weaknesses of each partner. But make sure that you are each aware of the basics of what the other is doing, so that the survivor is not left helpless, should one of you die.

Now, the first thing I have to learn is how to use the video facility on my phone …

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Twixmas Thoughts

We’ve just entered Twixmas – that funny sort of no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year. The big event, for which we’ve planned, prepared and worked, is over. The slightly lesser event is still a few days away. Many of us are still off work, surrounded by leftovers, chocolates and the Christmas TV Guide. It’s a good time to relax, ponder and mentally prepare for the year ahead.

Here are a few things to ponder, as you sit with your feet up and enjoy another mince pie:

Morgen Bailey’s Email Critique Group

Morgen writes the regular competitions feature in Writers’ Forum magazine. She is now organising a free email critique group for pieces of fiction of up to 3,000 words. It works on a mutual, writers helping writers, basis. For every submission you critique, you will get one piece of your own work critiqued. This sounds like a great way of getting feedback on your work and honing your own critique skills (which will help you edit your own work in the future).

Should E-Books be VAT Free?

Books and other printed matter have always been free of VAT because it is thought taxing these items is akin to taxing knowledge. However, digital publications are subject to VAT. This hits many disabled people, who find digital reading far easier than handling a paper book.
On 4th December 2018, an EU directive was passed allowing member states to bring VAT on digital publications in line with VAT on books i.e. 0% in the UK. Whether or not to follow this directive is down to the individual countries and, of course, after Brexit, the UK will be able to decide for itself. A campaign has been started to persuade the UK government to abolish VAT on digital publications. If you would like to get involved, sign the petition or read more about it, nip over to Axe the Reading Tax.

Regional Writer Development Agencies

Most regions have a body dedicated to promoting writing in their area. This is likely to be done predominantly through workshops, events and conferences. Many of these agencies also have mentoring schemes. Living in the Midlands, I’ve attended events organised by Writing West Midlands and Writing East Midlands. Both run mentoring schemes. A list of similar organisations is provided by the National Centre for Writing and Jamie Edgley Rhodes. Take a look and get some writing outings into your 2019 calendar!

Finally, if you’ve got a Christmas gift card from a certain online retailer burning a hole in your pocket, The Promise is currently only £5.75 in paperback.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and successful 2019! Hope it’s filled with lots of reading and writing.

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New York City Midnight Short Story Challenge 2019

Are you looking for something to kick-start your writing in 2019? Are you resolving to enter more competitions and get feedback? Do you like the excitement of a tight deadline?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these, the New York City Midnight Short Story Challenge might be just the thing to get you energised for 2019.

There are three rounds to the competition. In the first round you have eight days to write a 2,500 word story, to a given genre and prompt (time to get out of your comfort zone!).

If you make it to round two, there are three days to write 2,000 words using different prompts.

In the final round there are twenty-four hours to write 1,500 words.

Every story submission receives feedback from the judges, plus you can choose to post it on a special review forum to get feedback from other competitors.

There are cash prizes for the top ten winners, ranging from $5,000 to $125.

As you might expect, given the size of the prizes, this is not a cheap competition. If you register before 13th December (be quick!) it’s $45 and after that it’s $55 but there is a $5 discount if you post on Facebook or Twitter to help advertise the competition.

This is a competition with no time for procrastination. Why not ask Santa for the entry fee?

With thanks to Alison Jean Lester for recommending this competition during her Improv for Writers course . She took part in the competition last year with some success at progressing through the rounds.

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