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.

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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.

 

 

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.

Happy Xmas!

Wishing you a big, happy Christmas and an excellent 2013.

sketch4_sml

Okay, okay, this picture is rather mean-looking for Christmas. But I still love it.

His name is Gilbert and he’s a dragonbot. This is from my new book, MonuMental, and is the artist’s first go at a cover. It’s wonderful to see ideas coming to life in other ways!

Best wishes, everyone.

 

Ideas and story making at Fitzroy Community School

The school I visited

Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to be invited to Fitzroy Community School to talk about EleMental: A first-person Shooter. This visit has to rate as my very favorite school presentation so far. I was made feel very welcome from the outset, given a quick tour of the school and then we all settled down to an hour’s chat (with some readings from me) in the school library. Here are some of the things we talked about …

Exploring words and ideas

Writers are often asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’. The best answer is: ‘From everywhere! The important thing is to be open to them.’

But are there some special ways? On the dedication page of her novel Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones describes how she got the idea for writing the book. A boy approached her after a school presentation and asked if she could write a book about a moving castle. That idea was a gift and she was very much open to it. Thankfully, because we now have that fabulous young adult fantasy. (Sadly, she says in the book, she put his name in such a safe place, she couldn’t find it when it came time to publish the book.)

We can’t always rely on wonderful ideas being presented to us so succinctly and directly from our audience. So another way to find interesting ideas, one that I came up with, is to think about words that interest you. Some we talked about on the day at Fitzroy Community School were droplet, sun, music and float. These are just words I quickly came up with while preparing the presentation. When I think about music, all sorts of images present themselves to me that could lead to a good story idea. So too any of those other words.

But there’s another step – and this is a truly magical one. Try putting two or three of these interesting words together. We can get things like: Floating music. Or even: Droplets of floating music. Wow! Lots of interesting images there.

When you have selected some interesting words, it’s always worth turning them into a what if sentence: What if there was a girl who floated every time she heard music? Or: What if man wrote a piece of music that made people float when they heard it? This what if sentence could act as the main idea behind your story, expressed as a question that your story will answer.

And, most importantly, as you you have selected words you’re interested in, remember to pour that interest into the story as you write. That’s the best way to ensure others will find your story interesting too.

Words I found interesting while writing EleMental: A First-person Shooter

We then looked at some of the words I found interesting and wanted to explore in my story: virtual and addiction. (I worked for years as a social worker in the addiction area, the part that most interests me is: when people keep doing something over and over too much and lose the control to stop even though its making them sick). Combining the words, I came up with the what if question: What if someone created a virtual game that was so addictive that when people played it too much they could no longer tell when they were in the real world … and when they were in a game?

I named this blurred state, gameblur. One moment, you could be sitting at your desk, the next you could be battling a creature that’s half-dinosaur, half-tank.

Pretty scary. But thankfully there’s humor in the book too!

Smaller ideas

We then talked about smaller ideas that can be related to your big idea. These smaller ideas are important as they can help you fill up your story with details. However it’s important that they don’t grow so big that your  reader starts to get confused about what is the main idea behind your story. A smaller idea in my story is how virtual games can start up and shut down. I loved finding different ways to describe those moments and they’re peppered throughout my book. I gave some readings to the school group to illustrate this smaller idea.

The photo

It all went so well, I almost forgot to take a photo until the last minute. Check it out, above, it was taken in the school library with a few of the remaining students. I forgot to get everyone’s names – but you know who you all are!

Some thank yous

A very big thank you to all I met at Fitzroy Community School for being such a great group. Thank you to Marlon (who had already read the book – both print book and ebook versions) for his informed comments to everyone (including me!) about my book. Thank you to Bridie (who happens to be my niece) and Freda for the tour of the school. Thank you to Myf, for organising it so beautifully and to Nick (the teacher) for his class help. And to everyone for their great questions during and after my presentation. I felt very welcome and I’d love to come back again sometime, if you’ll have me.

Writing and The Guardian

Steven O'Connor looks at The Guardian on Writing

Not everyone will have cottoned onto the wonderful writing series recently published across about ten days in UK’s The Guardian.

It was a little while ago now, but is still well worth checking out. It kicked off  with Geoff Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi , 2009) on freedom. In it he quotes the controversial words of the playwright David Hare: ‘The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’”. Dyer himself goes on to say literary fiction isn’t a standard to be aspired to – and likens it to a comfy old sofa writers and readers can collapse into.

The rest of the series covers authors on such topics as point of viewdialoguesuspenseplot and that all important thing … redrafting.

 

Reading about writing

It is constantly recommended that, if you want to be on top of your writing you must read. I find it quite extraordinary that this obvious truth needs to be stated at all – let alone so often repeated as essential advice for those of us with writing ambitions – but it’s true! Examine advice from any great writer, and pretty soon you’ll come across this so-important advice. Want to be a writer? Then read, read, read. Only if you happen to be Madonna can you afford not to bother reading. And if you can’t be bothered reading, really, you have no right to write.

And then, on top of it all, remember also to read about writing.

So why not get stuck into these great articles? I recommend starting with Dyer’s article and working your way through by following The Guardian’s links on the right side column.

Here’s the link to Dyer’s article: The Guardian: How to write fiction.

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About Steven O’Connor

I’m currently working hard to get complete my second novel, A  young adult near-future thriller about virtual reality video games.