What Is Social Work Fiction?

Social Work Fiction

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how my past social work experiences have had an influence on my story writing and I’ve begun to use the term ‘social work fiction’. I quite like it, enough to even include it at the top of my website.

It’s hardly an established genre, obviously nothing like crime fiction, science fiction or literary fiction, but a quick scout around the internet does reveal that the phrase is being used. Well, it’s being used a tiny bit. At any rate, it’s working for me. I think it has a nice easy flow to it. Social work fiction. It almost sounds like an established genre.

So what kind of writing might one expect when referring to something as social work fiction? What fictional ideas or images does the term summon up for potential readers?

A few rather overused social worker images spring to mind. Such as the well-meaning ‘do-gooder’ (I hate that expression, by the way, how did there come to be a derogatory term for people who do good?). She is a woman, probably blonde, young and attractive, and she works at a downtown (read New York) charity of some kind, and she ultimately needs rescuing by a worldly-wise, gritty man. I seem to recall a few 70s films with romantic subplots like this. Probably all starring Clint Eastwood.

And then there’s the other kind of social worker image found in fiction, probably even more common. An older, middle-class woman in a dowdy outfit (perhaps a twin-set outfit, pearls and glasses). She’s a ‘busy body’ – well-meaning (again) but misguided. And she raps on the door of a troubled family’s home only to worsen their plight by attempting to remove the children and place them into the black hole of government foster care.

And I can think of a third kind. A woman again (well, it is a female dominated profession) and she sits silently in a windowless room, watching while two policemen interview a wayward child or teenager.

Cobra Bubbles: not the regular-looking social worker. (C) Walt Disney

Lilo with Cobra Bubbles (right). I think you’ll agree, he’s not the regular-looking social worker.

Beyond the cliches, there are also some quite oddball representations. Lilo and Stitch is one film that immediately jumps to mind. The social worker is a man for starters (hooray for me), he’s ex-CIA and he goes under the name Cobra Bubbles. But of course, he still wants to place Lilo into foster care. At least he’s a little different to look at.

A social work fiction story with a marvelous difference is the horror flick from 1971, The Baby. This film is bizarre. A social worker investigates the ‘Wadsworth family’ – a mother, two daughters, and an adult son who behaves like a baby. Literally like a baby. ‘Trapped by three women with no way out,’ goes the pitch. The trailer is well worth checking out. It’s on IMDB here.

A social work home visit to the Wadsworths.

A social worker ‘homevisits’ the Wadsworths.

Happily, recently I’ve witnessed more respectful and inventive portrayals of social worker characters in fiction: competent care workers conducting supportive interventions to create positive change and secure social justice for their clients. But then of course, as drama demands, there’s an upheaval of some kind – a gruesome murder, perhaps – which upturns things and gets the story rolling.

While mostly documentaries, the blog site A Small Good Thing provides an interesting list of 23 powerful films ‘that shed light on social work, social workers, and the important themes and issues that social workers devote themselves to every day’.

Putting all of this to one side, for me, use of the term social work fiction is a personal thing. It’s a way for me to describe what I am writing and something I can fit alongside the more recognisable genre I might be writing in. For example, young adult fantasy. Social work fiction, for me, is a mindset. It’s a part of my writing voice.

So ultimately, that’s what I mean by social work fiction. It’s the lens through which I’m looking at the world I’m creating. For me, social work fiction stories are not just stories that happen to include a social worker in some way.

My play-around image for Christopher Reuben and the Curious World beneath His Garden

Some play around imagery for Christopher Reuben and the Curious World beneath His Garden.

For example, my latest completed draft novel, Christopher Reuben and the Curious World beneath His Garden, is about a 14-year-old boy with a strange new illness who escapes into an extraordinary world beneath his garden – a world that is under attack by a deadly weed, just as his own body is under attack by a deadly virus. Besides fantasy stories such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (Gaiman’s take on Kipling’s The Jungle Book), Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz, to write the story I drew on the humbling experiences working as a social worker in HIV/AIDS and now cancer.

My traditionally-published book.

My traditionally-published sci-fi about a dangerous and highly addictive virtual video game.

In my first, traditionally published book, EleMental, I explore addiction. Set in 2050, a group of kids play a virtual game deliberately designed to be highly addictive (it’s meant for asteroid miners, to prevent them from wanting to go on leave back to Earth). As they play the deadly game, their perceptions of when they are in a game and when they are in the real world because hopelessly blurred until they find themselves trapped in the game world. While writing the story, I draw on my time working with those recovering from alcohol and drug addictions. It’s quite a complex book for a young adult novel.

The latest project I’m still busily working on does happen to feature a social worker. He is the main character, and it’s a novel for adults for a change. Set in the eighties, it’s about a group of social workers (and one in particular) struggling to be effective within the turmoil of a busy infectious diseases hospital that’s caught in the grip of the AIDS epidemic.

My social work identity makes up an important part of my writing voice, no matter what kind of story I end up writing. Sci-fi, fantasy, reality… It’s not deliberate, it’s just a part of me, as your experiences are an important part of you.

***

In recent times I have come to enjoy finishing my posts with some recent photos.

A palm tree that once lived near me…

A palm tree down the street is moving out. Off to a cafe on the other side of town.

A palm tree off to a new residence – outside a cafe on the other side of town.

An orchid in my back garden is still going strong. It was a gift to my wife 15 years or more ago…

A cool orchid in my back garden. 15 years old?

I water it when I think to. It does the rest.

Lastly, two pics of Robert De Niro’s T-shirt from the fabulous New York, New York film.

Robert De Niro's shirt.

Robert De Niro’s T-shirt. (From a Martin Scorsese exhibition I went to recently.)

Here it is, in the film…

Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. Such a great shot.

Robert De Niro’s T-shirt in context. (With Liza Minnelli.)

So long for now. 🙂

Writing in hotel rooms in other cities

Dreary Sydney2

I’d like to tell you about two visits I had last month to a city that is not my own. The visits were to do with my ‘paid job’, but forget about that. I want to focus on my writing in hotel rooms while I was there. Here are some quick and dirty images to kick my post off with. These first ones are a bit bleak…

Sitting in a faceless, outer suburban office tower looking out over a shopping centre car park and stretches of suburbia. Winter. The day is weary from managerial speak loaded with impenetrable agendas.

From the window, I watch cars meandering down white-painted lanes on a concrete shopping centre roof. I can see their near misses as some turn too quickly. From my place above and behind a pane of glass, I have no way of shouting a warning.

High rises sit in the distance, unable to shrug off rain clouds. Later, I travel through a darkness that has fallen too early to a room like any other. I am worn out from earning a living, and I have nothing to talk to but a television. It occurs to me, in some other place, my real life is going on without me.

I jotted those images down upon returning to my hotel room on the night of my first visit. Do they sound gloomy? They probably reflect the mood I was in. The picture at the start of this post is through the office window I was referring to (now via a special effects app I had fun with). Looking at the picture again, yet more gloomy images come to me: the blacks and whites are stark; the clouds are dense.

The evening view from my hotel window. 

The night view from my CBD hotel window.

The city I visited was Sydney and, to do it justice, it’s a city that could easily be described differently from those images above. Some images that could go with the night view from my hotel window could be: The clouds left, revealing grades of black and streaks of moving light, a living city.

There’s something in the statement, If you’re a writer, no matter where you are, you’re never alone. You’re always exploring your thoughts and ideas, and looking for ways to describe them. In fact, a hotel room by yourself can be a good thing. You’re free from the many distractions of home. It’s an excellent chance to write. Doubly so if you can’t figure out how to work the TV remote and the music player only has an iPod connector. (Are Apple sponsoring hotels? Not everyone has an iphone.)

And do you know what? I was more productive in those two evenings spent alone in hotel rooms than I’ve been in a long time. I let myself go wherever the pen (keyboard, really) took me. Amongst other things, I found myself exploring characters from my past years working as a hospital social worker and I have begun a new novel based on some of those times – something I hope to tell you about in more detail next time.

Here’s the above window view again, now in the morning…

The morning view from the same hotel window.

The morning view from the same hotel window.

Some possible written images that strike me for the above: The sun reaches to me through the city, transforming the buildings and long, grey streets with its touch…

Here are some final photos from the second of my two visits. Unlike the first evening, when I stayed in the CBD, this time I was ‘hoteled’ at a place quaintly named called ‘Coogee Bay’. As the rest of my pictures clearly reveal, my visits weren’t all doom and gloom. The light in Coogee Bay glowed. Perhaps it’s always glowing in Coogee Bay…

Coogee Bay at night.

Coogee Bay at night.

There was something about this house (opposite the hotel) that I liked. Perhaps it was the clothes hanging over the balconies, they were like tears rolling from old eyes…Coogee Bay houseI love the colours in this below picture (of what, I have no idea). The shallow, lapping green, the ocean, deep and quiet, and the night sky with its still clouds…

Recent storm damage at Coogee Bay.

I’ve no idea what this is, but it’s located at the far end of Coogee bay.

In honour of the cut-up method that I have come to enjoy toying with, I present a short cut-up piece sourced mostly from the text at the top of this post (focussing on those images from the suburban office). I pasted the words into the cut-up machine found here, and selected new images and word strings that appealed to me. It’s rather bleak, as was the source material to begin with.

I, suburbia
Clouds shrugging over
stretches of impenetrable darkness
and faceless windows.
Pale light meandering over parked cars,
lines of houses,
people’s homes.
White-painted illuminated television lives.
We are all – all of us – unable to move.

One final, more cheerful, Coogee Bay pic to leave you with …

Down on Coogee Beach.

Me, in matching shirt and beach.

 

 

Cut up about Bowie

Bowie 73

To honour Bowie and the many years of wonderful music he gave us, I’m presenting this post on a songwriting technique he made great use of – the cut-up technique. It’s a method that has intrigued me since I was a teenager and I’ve made use of at different times myself, especially to jumpstart ideas or take an idea further if I can.

Bowie random words

The cut-up technique has been around a long time now and was famously used by 60s writers such as William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch – not something I’ve read, I have to admit), and apparently even earlier by the likes of TS Elliott (Wasteland). I think it was Burroughs who described it as a ‘method for altering reality’.

The method is relatively straightforward and there are lots of opportunities for you to apply your own creative impulses as you go. You simply select some lines of text and cut them up (from as little as one word, for example, to word-strings of about five words), mix them up as much as you like, and then rearrange them into new text, cutting out any bits you feel don’t fit as you go.

Here’s Bowie explaining the process in Cracked Actor, a wonderful 70s BBC doco about him that you might want to check out in full, if you haven’t seen it…

(Just by the by, it was after Nicholas Roeg saw Bowie in this documentary that he decided to approach him for the lead role in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie was exactly the look he was after for his alien.)

Not long after this documentary was aired on TV, I recall reading — in an NME, perhaps — about Bowie assiduously applying the cut up technique during the creation of the incredible Bowie-Eno trilogy of albums Low, Heroes and Lodger. If you check out any one of these albums, you can easily see that the cut-up method was probably used to kickstart many of his song’s lyrics, with their diverse images, including ‘Blackout’, as shown below, from Heroes.

Cut up lyrics for 'Blackout'.

Cut up lyrics for ‘Blackout’. (These were on display at the ‘Bowie Is’ exhibition.)

Bowie went on to co-develop the Verbasizer, an early Mac app which he used to randomly cut up to as many as 20 sentences in one go, to then reassemble as song lyrics. Late last year, I was lucky enough to get along to the extraordinary ‘Bowie Is’ exhibition when it arrived here in Melbourne. Amongst the many costumes and interesting paraphernalia on display, there was also the Verbasizer on an old Mac.

Here he is again, demonstrating it…

‘A technological dream’ — I like that.

Bowie is meant to have written Hallo Spaceboy (from 1995’s Outside, an album produced by Eno, as it happens) with the aid of his Verbasizer. And now, courtesy of the internet, we can all access a version of the Verbasizer to aid us in writing song lyrics, if we so wish. It’s called the Cut Up Machine and it’s right here (but come back, won’t you?).

As a test, I cut and pasted the lyrics to Blackstar (the title and first song on Bowie’s last album) in the Cut Up Machine’s text box field, clicked the cut-it-up button a bunch of times (to really jumble up those words), and then pieced together the following from the block of words the little app spat out. ‘Died Spirit’, below, is what I came up with. (The last line, by the way, came fully intact — very fitting.)

Died Spirit
I’m why you’re the execution.
Died Spirit at the centre.
I’m open-hearted.
But I’m not a smile.

At times I’m of daydreams.
On the day of talking,
I was upside-down and at the centre.
I kneel and take a solitary star.
An execution star.

A passport to a diamond place.
I’m bravely solitary.
But I’m all yours when I bravely flash.

I’m an angel of want, an angel of all.
A sacred else star.
I kneel at your side.
I died and rose a blackstar.

I quite like it. It’s a cut up about Bowie dying created through his own words and through a creative process he often employed.

I also tried the cut-up method in the more traditional, manual style, jumbling the text up on a page in front of me. For the original text source, I took the last line of every last song from Bowie’s studio albums (because, what the hell, I just thought that would be an interesting thing to do). The end result feels less random and less original in its imagery than ‘Died Spirit’ above. It’s as if, though I tried to be random, because I was more involved in the cut-up process, more of Bowie’s original images survived. It feels less successful than when I utilised the Verbasiser-like app, but it’s OK. Anyway, here it is…

Knows what the noise can do
In this rain
dies softly a supergod.
A failing star.

It’s up to you and me,
to get our feet back.
To shake it up.
To move it up.

We’re no strangers
and it’s no game.
The last of the dreamers.
Alive or dead.

The last, wild, kiss-me-goodbye
knows-what-the-noise-can-do
king.

I don’t want knowledge.
I want certainty.
I want the bloody obscene.

Gimme your hands.
Gimme your hands.
Cause you’re wonderful.

And so, at last, a final few words from Bowie on songwriting…

‘…it’s the realization, to me at least, that I’m most comfortable with a sense of fragmentation … The idea of tidy endings or beginnings seems too absolute. It’s not at all like real life.’
–David Bowie

And some final pictures…

David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974.

David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974.

 

Aladdin Sane era, 1973.

Aladdin Sane period, 1973.

 

A shot from the 'Bowie Is' exhibition.

A shot from the ‘Bowie Is’ exhibition.

 

Bowie, 1966. This has been a favourite shot of mine for a long time.

Bowie, 1966. This has been a favourite shot of mine for a long time.

Novels as fireworks – Structuring my story

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It’s always nice to spruce up a blog post with some pictures. Unlike novels, where you have plenty of space for ‘showing’ through words. So above is a shot I took on New Year’s Eve in Melbourne, Australia. A picture of fireworks may not have a lot to do with the topic of story structuring, but read on — I do have a go, as you’ll see — five pics, no less, interpreted as novel structures. And, what-hey, it’s the new year. Fireworks time! Happy New Year.

I’ve been busy structuring a plot outline. That’s a new approach to writing a novel for me. For my first three — EleMental, MonuMental and Beneath the Surface — I began with an idea, some notions around that idea, and then wrote away, seeing where the idea would take me. Roughly 90,000 words later, I’d stop, revise, edit and restructure until I felt I had a completed story in novel form.

This time around, I’m attempting beforehand to lay out as much of the plot as I can, scene by scene, from the novel’s start to its climactic finish and resolution. There’s a risk in this, I know. This kind of intense pre-planning could lead to a predictability. Something I most certainly want to avoid.

When writing ‘organically’ (or to put it more technically, making it up as I go), I’ve less idea where the story is heading. While I may have to cut a fair few things later, it’s a great way to keep the plot twisting and turning in the most unexpected ways.

On the upside, laying the plot out in detail before I begin to write should give me strong, clean lines in the plot. There’s likely to be less risk of confusing the reader. Also, I feel I’ll be able to concentrate on character development. That’s my big hope. In the past, I have striven for balance of plot and character. This time, I want to lay the plot’s tracks down, and then really push the character development as I write. Here’s hoping it works out that way.

I’m keen to get the first draft completed by the end of February. That’s two months of writing. The plot structuring took me a lot longer than I expected — a few weeks instead of a few days. So, given that, heaven knows if I can meet this new goal.

I kicked off this post with a pic of some fireworks, and, for a bit of fun, I’ll close with a few more. (All pics taken with my humble phone camera on New Year’s Eve, 2015.)

So here we go, meeting my promise: five novel plot structures as fireworks (‘novels as fireworks’, I like that notion)…
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Above: a highly colourful, scattergun approach to laying down a story, with some pretty unexpected stuff happening towards the end…

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Above: a single point of view, character-driven story, underpinned with an emphasis on an interesting setting.

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Above: a collection of connected short stories woven into one overall plot through a theme of reaching out for unknown things: other worlds, other times, other people. (Phew.)

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Above: an explosive romance with multiple points of view —  two powerful characters inevitably drawn together, but to what end?

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Above: now this is the kind of story I strive for. A strong theme at its heart, a veritable shower of exciting situations, and some extra-big challenges towards the end (in this case, four) — will they survive!

Holiday snaps for book covers?

thumb_P1110061_1024Wracking your brains out for a good picture to transform into a book cover? Well, very likely you won’t find it here, but you’re welcome to read on anyway!

Since returning from my UK writing expedition, I’ve been busy ‘re-engaging’ with a normal life — and all of the everyday responsibilities that come with that. Like getting on top of the garden, which I’m certain went into a weed frenzy to spite me for being away for so long. And like trying to get the rainwater water tank under the house working again. And like getting up early and heading out into the cold, rainy mornings to earn a living again.

And, with the normal life, come oh-so-few exciting photo opportunities to show you in a blog post.

But then, out of the blue a writing buddy put in a personal request for some pictures of castles or old homes from my recent UK shots. He was on the hunt for a good pic he could turn into the cover for a book he has completed. I think he was hoping for something semi-creepy. After a mad search through my photos, the below (and the one above) is the best I could do, I’m afraid. Still, I had a lot of fun raking through my collection and finding the pics. And now I can present my choices to you in a blog post. Ta da!

I took many holiday snaps while I was away. I have just under 11,000, would you believe. And that’s after cutting them back. It’s so terribly easy to take photos in this digital age. You merely need to hold one finger on the button as the train shoots along, sip your coffee, and gaze back out of the window … all the while, snap, snap, snap.

See what you think of the following pics I offered my writing mate. The above one, by the way, is Inverness in Scotland. Here’s another from Scotland. Can you imagine it as a book cover? Maybe.

Scotland again? Most likely, judging by the clouds.

Scotland.  The clouds give it away.

I really like this next one. I took it in Wales. Isn’t it great?

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I’m not too sure where this below building is from. Manchester? It’s not a castle, more like something out of a Garth Nix novel. Keys to the Kingdom.

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This next one is definitely from Manchester. Isn’t it fabulously creepy?

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Here’s London… Perhaps a little too many cranes and people (when you look closer). This is near the Tower of London.

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A much better one (below) from London. Don’t you just love those couches set out in front of the castle wall? Why the hell are they there? But one might be able to crop and use some of it…

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This last one is from my childhood hometown, Luton…

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I suspect none of these will meet the needs of my writing buddy. Still, the exercise made me think about my attitude towards my ‘normal life’. Who says there are no photo opportunities for one’s day-to-day world? Perhaps I need to cultivate more of the eye of a tourist, even at home. My ‘normal world’ is not your normal world.

My writers’ retreat in the Scottish Highlands

IMG_9515I am coming towards the end of my three-and-a-half-month writing odyssey through the UK and I’m keen to tell you about the writers’ retreat at Moniack Mohr, 14 miles beyond Inverness in Scotland. This was the second of my UK writers’ retreats and, while very different to the retreat in deepest, darkest Shropshire, was just as wonderful.

Marilyn Bowering and Stephen May

Marilyn Bowering and Stephen May

This time around the two established author mentors were Marilyn Bowering (flying in from Vancouver, Canada) and, Stephen May (from Bedford, UK).

A tiny bit of back story: Stephen May, who was a co-leader at the Shropshire retreat, invited me to come along to this second retreat in Scotland, and nobly made a special effort to include new writerly experiences at this second retreat purely on my behalf. Thank you!

The view from my window.

The view from my window.

There were nine of us emerging writers at the retreat, and all were from Scotland bar me. There was something special about that. And I found, to my surprise, there is far more than the one Scottish accent. The writing projects were just as varied, spanning autobiography through to anime-influenced fantasy, literary fiction, short story and hyper social-realism akin to Train Spotting (you know what I mean). And all of it highly accomplished.

As this was some months on from the first retreat, and I’d also visited a number of writers’ group in between, this time around I found myself highly focussed on the rewriting of my Beneath the Surface manuscript. While I was keen to mix with the other writers and forge what I hope will be some lasting connections, I also spent a lot of time closeted in my bedroom, reworking written passages. There was one particular section of the manuscript, spanning six chapters or so, that I was uncertain about. I’d forwarded these to Stephen May before the retreat for his consideration. Sure enough, my uncertainties were confirmed. He liked the writing, but felt many of the ideas could go from the story. They simply did not support the spine of the story. (If you’ve read my manuscript on Wattpad, I’m especially talking about the ‘market of pictures‘ scenes. Perhaps one day the material might re-surface in short story form? I’ve done that before with my first book.)

My room was the third window from the right

My room was the third window from the right.

Apart from the Scottish setting — so different to the setting in Shropshire — and Stephen May’s excellent efforts to include new things in his presentations, Marilyn Bowering’s mentoring style was also different enough to the previous mentors to justify this second retreat experience of mine. Her emphasis, while affirming, was continually on pushing each of us to explore more deeply the narrative purpose of our written works, questioning every step. What’s more, I have many written notes from her on the writing I submitted (a different section of my manuscript to what I submitted to Stephen May), as well as further suggested reading that relates to my story’s imagery. I’m keen to pore over this stuff when I return home.

P1110171It has been an immense experience, and once more, like the Shropshire writers’ retreat at John Osborne’s house, I have come away feeling even stronger as a writer.

And so, as has become my thing, I leave you now with some final photos (quite a few actually).

Looking out, beyond the main house.

Looking out, beyond the main house.

The cottage, where the writer mentors stayed.

The cottage, where the writer mentors stayed.

'The Hobbit House'.

‘The Hobbit House’.

Stephen May in The Hobbit House.

Stephen May in The Hobbit House.

Some of us having a break from our writing.

Some of us having a break from our writing.

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On the final night, I was invited to ‘Address the Haggis’ – a Scottish tradition that involved reciting a Robbie Burns poem and stabbing the haggis…

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And one final thing to share. I was in charge of baking the chocolate brownies. They were delicious. So here’s the recipe, if you’re interested …

Oh yum...

Oh yum…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting ready for a Scottish Highlands writer’s retreat

Pitlochry

Pitlochry

I’m now in a wee place called Pitlochry. It’s known as a gateway to the Scottish Highlands. And I’m preparing for a writers’ retreat beyond Inverness, even further into the Scottish Highlands and close to Loch Ness. You might remember I was at a writer’s retreat several months back in beautiful Shropshire. Whilst there, I was invited by the author Stephen May to come along to another retreat towards the end of this pilgrimage of mine to find myself (or something like that). It’s at a place called Moniack Mhor. You can check it out here if you’re interested.

Same deal as the last time, I need to be a part of a cooking team for one night. Oh dear, I loved everything about the previous retreat except that. Cooking is not me. (Pray to God it’s not multiple versions of lasagne for 20 people again. Thank God I had able team mates last time.)

While I have been dabbling with my manuscript as I’ve been travelling, I’m looking forward to getting back into it seriously again. I have certain doubts about the second half of the first act of Beneath the Surface (about a third of the way in), and I’ve sent this section ahead of me so I can discuss it throughly with the established authors when I get there. If I do make changes, they’re big — it’s quite a few chapters that will need to be cut. Perhaps as many as six.

I head out to Inverness by train tomorrow, but meanwhile, I will leave you with a few more shots of picturesque Pitlochry, taken today…

Fly fishing - no, not me

Fly fishing (erh no, that’s not me fishing)

Yes, it really was as sunny as this. Sunny Scotland…

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pit 1

pit 3

The town centre

The town centre

The railway station has its own bookshop…

IMG_9211In my next post, I will let you know how I get on at the retreat, and if I’ve gone ahead with that major cut to the first act of Beneath the Surface.

 

How we write

York

York

I’m currently in York (‘Old York’), having just come from Stratford-upon-Avon, and I’m working my way up to the Scottish Highlands where I will participate in one last writing event — a writers’ retreat just outside of Inverness.

Where I met up with the 'London Literary Cafe'.

Where I met up with the ‘London Literary Cafe’.

I’ve been pondering on the differences and similarities in how we all write as I’ve travelled about. Some of us, like me, try to write everyday, lest our rhythm and energy slip. Many, like me again, like to write to music — whether this is to simply cut off distractions from the world or perhaps even draw on the mood of the music as you try to effectively turn ideas into written words.

As I attend groups and retreats (only one of the latter, so far, but another coming), I am struck by how many of us still write from pen to paper, transcribing to computer at a later date. This is something I rarely do. For me, writing from pen to paper just adds hard labour to the task. I avoid it where I can. I much prefer to use all of the devices available to me to aid my writing. For me, this is a part of the fun. I practically surround myself with devices. But at the writers’ retreat in Shropshire I was especially aware that those with a laptop were in a distinct minority. Interestingly, London was different, with many writing with the aid of bot laptops and iPads.

Where I met up with 'Write Together', London.

Where I met up with ‘Write Together’, London.

I often think about rhythm in my writing, which for me is an intuitive thing, the sense of my words and sentences flowing together in a way that supports the images I am trying to convey. I think this is the same for most writers, but one writer I met talked to me about the melody in his writing, and how this was different to the rhythm of his words. Something I’ll need to give some more thought to.

The same goes for the writing spaces we choose. I write wherever I can (I’m writing this sitting up in bed). For others it must be a desk. And perhaps even one specific desk. Many writers also love a good view before them. Of course I like a terrific view as much as anybody, but for writing? I would find it distracting. I would just want to gaze into it. But we’re all different.

Dunstable Downs. Close to where I grew up in the UK.

An incredible view! Dunstable Downs, close to where I grew up in the UK.

I’ll leave you now with a few more travel snaps, and let you know more about the final writers’ retreat soon.

In Shakespeare’s old house, in Stratford-upon-Avon, you can buy the complete set of Shakespearean Star Wars books. Here’s two…

The Phantom of Menace

The Phantom of Menace

There's a complete set of Shakespeare Star Wars books.

The Clone Army Attacketh.

And a Dr Who…

Shakespeare Dr Who.

Dr Who? That is the question.

A literary construction site in Stratford-upon-Avon.

A literary construction site.

And finally, ending a serious note, the house where Shakespeare grew up…

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Crafty Writers in Manchester

Crafty WritersI’m keen to tell you about a fabulous writers’ group known as the Crafty Writers. They’re based in Manchester, and I was lucky enough to be welcomed to one of their sessions.

I can barely keep up with the number of places I’ve been too so far in my writerly roaming about the UK — Bath, Exeter, Plymouth, Manchester, London (three times so far), Penzance… Many places have been on a whim, guided at times by writing and music opportunities, and other times perhaps by childhood memories. For example, in Penzance I went to a place called Land’s End and peered out over the steep cliffs. It was like standing on the United Kingdom’s big toe and peering outwards. I’d last visited Land’s End when I was eleven.

But back to Manchester’s Crafty Writers’ Group — one of my special writing opportunities.  It was my mother, would you believe (she is also a writer), who put me on to the group. She’d read one of the group member’s (Jayne Fallows) short stories in the UK writers’ mag Writers’ Forum. It was a terrific short story called The Worst Party Ever. Beneath the story, Writer’s Forum mentioned Jayne’s involvement in the Crafty Writers. Happily they have a website (see link below) and I was easily able to contact them. 

Home of the Craft Writers.

Home of the Crafty Writers.

I made it to the group the same day I exited from the writers’ retreat in Shropshire — going to the group straight from the train and pulling my wheelie luggage behind me. It did feel a bit of a whirlwind.

The group is making a shift from workshopping about the craft of writing to critiquing each other’s work. On the Saturday afternoon I was there, everybody was trying their hand at something different. And all the writing was very accomplished. I listened to everything from historical fiction to poetic prose to the structuring of a book on writing craft (this latter is the project of the groups’ convenor, Lorrie Porter).

Some crafty writers in action.

Some crafty writers in action.


I had the fortune to test-run the changes to the opening paragraphs of my own manuscript and received immediate feedback from everyone — which has allowed me to refine the opening words to Beneath the Surface (perhaps the most important words of any book). 
On the day, I also pulled out my camera and was rapt at their preparedness for a few photos, as you can see.

You can find out more about the Manchester Crafty Writers Group on their website here.

And here are a few more photos of marvellous Manchester (or ‘awesome Manchester’, as one nephew calls it)…

Chetham's Library - the oldest public library in UK.

Chetham’s Library, the oldest public library in UK.

The library dates from 1653. Here’s a corridor you see as you first enter, where the monks lived (the librarians, I guess). I needed to be escorted in, but was then free to roam.

Lib 1

An aisle of the library.

An aisle of the library.

All change. A different kind of library — inside a Manchester record store. Manchester, of course, has given the world many great bands.

RecordsThe BBC’s headquarters are now located in Manchester…

BBC

And here’s one I had to share with you, a famous Smiths location…

Salford

Finally, I leave you with a quote I saw in Manchester’s football museum that I believe equally applies to writing as football…

Soccer qte

At a writers’ retreat in Shropshire

long shot of Hurst

My post about the writers’ retreat in Shropshire has had to wait until I finally got over a nasty chest infection (well, almost over) — a hearty thanks to the UK’s National Health Service for their support in this.

So what, in a single sentence, did I get out of my near-week long retreat in a remote part of Shropshire? Easy. Two answers. I spent a week rebooting the writer in me (something I’ve come to realise I needed). And I made a whole host of brand new writer friends.

Pat

Sharing our work

There were sixteen of us — emerging writers — staying in the Georgian Manor pictured above. Plus, the two established authors, Mavis Cheek and Stephen May, who looked after our writerly interests for the week. Then of course there was also the onsite staff, including a poet laureate who helped with lunch meals in the day. Some like me brought their works in progress, others were there to kickstart new projects. There was so much diverse and energetic writing talent in one place, it was wonderful to be a part of it — hearing first hand about each other’s projects, and listening in as they shared their work. 

A typical day for me began with getting in some quick writing (with the aid of a plunger of coffee) before grabbing a small breakfast and gathering in the main tutorial room. In these morning sessions, all of us fresh and ready for the day, we would look closely at any number of aspects of writing, from enriching dialogue, to the eight-point structure, creating good place and setting, and research. While I was already familiar with many of these topics — as were others too — they came very candidly from the personal perspectives of the two established authors and so felt new and engaging.

garden group

Spending some time in the afternoon sun.

The afternoons were given over to our own writing time, informal chats about writing, walks about the grounds and on-on-one sessions.

In the evenings we had the cooking groups. This was my only stress of the week. Recipes were there to help us, and staff were on hand where possible. Yet it was still an ordeal given the number of us and the variety of dietary preferences. In the end, I was proud of the chocolate pudding I somehow created (I kept the recipe but I’m not sure I could ever manage it a second time), but I felt for my fellow writers Pat and Anne who took on most of the lasagne cooking tasks. Imagine making vegetarian lasagne for that many people — plus two smaller ones for other dietary requirements. I helped them where I could.

The evenings after dinner were devoted to presenting written works. We heard from the author tutors, a guest writer  Selma Dabbagh (who was very generous with sharing her personal writing experiences) and, of course, ourselves. 

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later)

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later, as did much jolly abandon)

Happily, much of the feedback for my draft of Beneath the Surface was of a fine tuning nature — or ‘grace notes’, as Mavis Cheek liked to call them. Significantly, however, I was compelled to revisit my opening lines. The opening lines of a novel are critical. No matter how exciting the rest of your story may be, if you have not engaged the reader’s interest from the start, they will not stick around to marvel at those gems waiting later in your book. It was good feedback which I have gladly taken.

So, enough chat, onto some more pictures….

First up, a shelfie. This is a shelf from one of the bookcases I noticed when I first wrote about this retreat some months ago (back in Australia). It now has a new home next to the author tutors’ rooms (and mine – clearly I’d been the first to book in).

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Here’s John Osborne’s (playwright and former owner of the estate) favourite view. I’m standing just beyond the back of the house…

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I had the room directly above me in this photo…

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A walkabout, one afternoon, as I was reflecting on exciting writing ideas, perhaps…

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Finally, I leave you with a short piece I wrote during one of the morning sessions. It’s about my visit back to the old house where I grew up. I’ve not reworked it since the session, besides fixing a typo.

The wide avenue of my memory

Last week I visited my childhood home for the first time in over 40 years. The road up was bendy and thin. Not the wide avenue of my memory.

The first thing I noticed was the red sold sign attached to the hedging. So the people here don’t want to be here anymore? I thought. What a silly thought. What did it matter?

The house, two-storey, semi-detached, leaned to one side and seemed the worst kept in the street. Its sad eyes looked out and passed me.

It was as if I was visiting something I’d once read about in a book.

I peered up at the upper bedroom window, knowing that was where I and my two brothers once slept.

How did a family of seven live in this place for so many years?

I wasn’t going to, but I tried the door knocker. A dog barked. No one was home. But I remembered the sound of the door knocker well. Deep, warm and woody. Want a funny, unexpected thing to remember.

When I walked on to top of the hill, the way I used to go to school as a child, I turned around and looked down. I saw a view I did not recall. I did not know was there. I saw the town stretch away across the valley. I saw where it ended, and there were open fields rising into hills. I saw jets in the distance, landing and taking off.