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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Sunday Writing: On Myths

image from freedigitalphotos.net
by Graur Codrin
Writing is fraught with myths, many romanticised and some downright damaging.  It's taken me a while to spot some of the dangerous ones, and I'm probably still in thrall to some others.  Here are the ones that I can mostly remember are, in fact, false.  Feel free to let me know of others in the comments!

Writing = Fiction
Although I have had some success as an educational writer, I find it all too easy to completely write off my non-fiction writing as somehow not real or not proper.  Let me be clear: this is absolutely a self-defeatist thing.  I have no problem taking other people's non-fiction or educational writing seriously.  I found this view particularly difficult with the standard advice to write every day, as I found myself all-too-easily discounting the teaching-related work as writing.  So, clearly, I needed to add daily fiction work on top - which was soon too much.

Real Writers Have Ideas Constantly
OK, so maybe they do - but I had to learn to sit down and find ideas.  Once I stopped hoping the muse would drop in some time and simply worked at generating ideas, everything changed.  It's easy to believe that if ideas don't find you, you aren't supposed to be a writer, but the truth is rather more prosaic.

Both of these myths have kept me from writing for a while.  They can be powerful traps for the unwary would-be writer.

What other myths can stop our productivity and creativity?

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

How the Coalition Killed the Gruffalo

Ok, so that's a bit of a stretch.  But our forests and woodland are an integral part of our story heritage - and our 'greenest government ever' wants to sell them off.  You can read more about that - and about a campaign against this thoughtless move - here.

Without woodland, European folklore and myth would not be what it is.  And what it is leads in a glorious and psychologically-satisfying line to the Gruffalo.  (Did you think I'd forgotten my sensationalist title?)

From the hiding place of our national rebel hero: Robin Hood, to that other well-known Hood who shouldn't have strayed off the path, the forest lurks in our psyche as a place of darkness, of secrecy and of danger.  And Julia Donaldson's contemporary classic uses these same resonances, set as it is in the "deep dark wood".
Plaque available from http://www.angelsandfairies.co.uk/ 

Where would our national consciousness be without the tales of Sherwood and its outlaws?  Or the impish figure of the Green Man?  Or the fairy tales of the Grimms, Perrault et al?  The forest is a central trope in our literary and mythic heritage, hovering in our unconscious as a symbol of depth, danger and daring.  Losing it would obviously have terrible consequences for our ecosystem and our leisure time, but also for our identity as a nation.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Stories on Saturdays: Firebrand

Title: Firebrand
Author: Gillian Phillips
Publisher: Strident
Published: 2010
Genre: YA Fantasy

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says ...
It is the last decade of the sixteenth century: a time of religious wars in the full-mortal world. But the Sithe are at peace, hidden behind the Veil that protects their world until their queen, Kate NicNiven, determines to destroy it. Seth MacGregor is the half-feral son of a Sithe nobleman. When his father is assassinated, and Seth is exiled with his brother Conal to the full-mortal world, they vow not only to survive, but to return to reclaim their fortress and save the Veil. But even the Veil's power cannot protect the brothers when the brutal witch-hunts begin...

My verdict: Engaging characters and plenty of action (strongly recommended for YA and adult readers - seriously, go and get this book now!)

This story is narrated by Seth, who is one of the most engaging characters I've ever come across (and as a lifelong avid reader and an English teacher, I have read a fair few books!).  His voice is pitch-perfect, revealing his flaws as well as his strengths, and endearing him to us as we follow his journey from the Sidhe world into the Otherworld (our version of the world).

Seth's background is difficult at best - unwanted by his mother and unacknowledged by his father, he is nevertheless capable of love and loyalty, almost despite himself.  This love is largely directed to his half-brother Conal, whom we see him preparing to shoot at the book's opening, to save him from being burnt as a witch.  Following this exciting episode, we are taken back to the long chain of events that leads to this point, to arrive there again about halfway through the narrative.  The brothers' relationship is realistic and touching in its depiction of male affection, including the trading of insults and jibes.

This is a gripping adventure story in a fantasy setting with its fair share of twists and turns, but it is the characters that steal the show.  I'd strongly recommend this to readers of 12 plus - and will certainly be lending it to my 12 year old.  There are references to sex, but they are subtle enough for younger readers to miss, while the novel's grand sweep and the masterful characterisation is more than sufficient to engage adult readers.

This is my second post for the Bookette's fabulous British Book Challenge.  Sign-up is open until the 31st Jan.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Home on Tuesday: Why the Hearthfire?

The hearthfire is the warmth at the heart of the home.  It represents love, security and was once seen as sacred.

Fire also represents the spiritual for me.  In terms of the traditional four elements, I see spiritual conviction or connectedness as being a fire thing (and I know this is a personal take).  It's not emotional, certainly not rational or physical, but is an instinct, a gut feeling.  This is unequivocally fire, for me.  It consumes, but also gives life.

So the hearthfire is the place I want to write from - a safe place of love, faith and honour.  That's not to say that I plan to write cosily.  I simply think that I need to be as rooted in safety as possible in order to be grounded enough to explore the dark, the threatening and the complex.  So it is with fiction, so it is with life - be that physical, emotional or spiritual.

So, this blog is a place to record my thoughts, as I settle by the metaphorical fire to take the time to lay them out and examine them.

image by xedos4 at freedigitalphotos.net

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Sunday Writing: On Juggling

I have found a personally-viable solution to my juggling problem, so I thought I'd share.

I have too many things to do - things I have to do, things I ought to do, and things I want to do.  I realise that I am not alone in this.

I have a job that spills out way beyond what many consider to be the working week (yes, teachers work long hours - don't make the mistake of focusing on the so-called holidays).  I have a husband, 2 daughters and a dog who all deserve my attention (in varying amounts) from time to time.  And I have writing projects.  Yes, projects.  My big problem here is that, although my writing time is severely limited, the writing I want to do is not.  I always have at least one teaching-related WiP, I have ideas for YA and 8-12 fiction, and I'd like to do some article writing and non-fiction outside of the teaching world, not to mention blogging regularly.

There was a time when, following the common (and common-sense) advice that aspiring writers must write everyday, I somehow managed to translate that into doing each kind of writing everyday.  Well, it didn't take long to realise that this approach is Not Workable in tandem with my job.  That led me to prioritise the teaching-related writing, since it was being published.  Naturally, this squeezed everything else out, leading to my current cv of published teaching material and no progress at all on any other front.

Personally, I'm a planner through and through.  This applies in all aspects of my life: I love lists, structure and outlines.  So, I now have a writing schedule where I am writing every day, but the focus is allocated for each day.  Since I like complicated schedules, it works on a fortnightly basis, giving most time to two strands: the YA novel which I decided I wanted to develop beyond a premise and the teacher writing.  Blogging and generating article/non-fiction ideas also have their slots, and I am Much Happier.  No more guilt about working on potentially unpublishable fiction when I could be (read should be) producing teaching stuff that is likely to be marketable.  No more dissatisfaction with not 'being able' to work on the range of writing that makes me happy.  No more frustration that I can't 'make it' as a 'real' writer (i.e. fiction) since I'm not producing any.

I realise of course, that not everyone is a planner or feels the need for the same degree of control that I do, so others' approaches would be good to hear also.  What Not To Do As A Writer.com treated a similar angle this week, with a post entitled: Mistake #30: Be monogamous, in which she implies that she switches between her projects according to her mood or her needs at the time.  The post (and the blog generally) is well worth a read.

Juggling is always an issue for writers, I think, especially those of us who write alongside another career.  I'm currently happy with the way I have my time organised (she says confidently...)  I've now been through the fortnightly cycle twice and have found that:

  • I've been more productive with the teacher writing, even though it's been on my to-do list less often.
  • I'm developing an outline that I'm happy with for the YA novel (yay!), having had just a couple of sentences of summary before.
  • I've been able to stick to the schedule without guilt or undue stress, since I have a clearly defined focus for each day, rather than a vague sense of 17 things I should be doing.
  • My 'Do not disturb: Mummy is working' sign DOES work, if applied to the bedroom door (a corner is my office) for just an hour a day.
So, how do you manage different types of writing, along with other demands on your time?  Or do you focus on a single project at a time?

image by Renjith Krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Stories on Saturdays: Kaspar - Prince of Cats

Title:         Kaspar - Prince of Cats
Author:     Michael Morpurgo
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Published: Sept 2008
Genre:      Children's (historical)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says...
'I've done a picture of the ship we're sailing home on next week.  She's called the Titanic...'

They say cats have nine lives, and that's certainly true of Kaspar.  From the glamorous suites of the Savoy Hotel to the servants' quarters in the attic, and from a crowded lifeboat to the hustle and bustle of New York City, Kaspar proves that no cat is too small for big adventures.

But then this is no ordinary cat.  He's Prince Kaspar Kandinsky - the only cat to survive the sinking of the Titanic...

My verdict: A great read with lots of surprises 
(recommended for 7+ yr olds)

I've been reading this one with my 7 yr old at bedtime, and it went down a storm.  It was her first Morpurgo, and she's keen to read more.

Johnny Trott is a bellboy at the Savoy and it is his engaging voice that tells us Kaspar's (and his own) story.  We soon warmed to Johnny, whose past and feelings are interwoven effectively with his narration of the story's events.  Other characters were equally masterfully drawn, including an enigmatic Russian opera-singing Countess, a vindictive Head Housekeeper and a mischievous but warm-hearted wealthy American girl.

Period detail, especially the contrast between high and low classes of the time, is clearly-drawn and absorbing.  My daughter certainly learned a lot.  The few chapters dealing with the Titanic voyage transported us there with depictions of sounds, smells and sights and we were gripped by the account of the sinking.  The younger among us were particularly excited that the story included Things that Really Happened - although I suppose that could create confusion in some young readers, especially if they're reading alone.

What I especially appreciated about the book is its gentleness.  It deals with some fairly mature themes and concepts, yet it does so in a non-threatening and relatively comfortable way.  I don't know if my daughter would have coped well with reading it on her own, but it was a great read to share and prompted many worthwhile conversations.

So, this rates for me as a classic children's book, taking you out of reality and into someone else's experience.  And, as a bonus (and speaking as a teacher), there is additional educational value in the historical aspect of the book.

This is my first review for the Bookette's British Book Challenge.  It's not too late to sign up to review British Books in 2011 - entry closes 31st Jan.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Home on Tuesday: Dog Days

Over the past week or so, we've all heard each other telling the dog that getting her was the best thing we did in 2010, or some similar phrase.  She's really improved our lives, so I thought I'd spend a family blog post extolling the virtues of canine companionship.

This is her on the first day we got her, on August 1st.  Look how attentive she already was to hubby (he was recognised by her as Pack Leader straight away, so she's not that smart).

She came to us from the Dogs Trust in Kenilworth, all 'done' and chipped and de-infested.  We were happy to get a dog from them as they don't destroy healthy but difficult-to-house dogs, and we wanted a rescue rather than a particular breed.  She seems to be largely (if not completely) Patterdale Terrier, although we've learned that since she moved in.  Which leads me to the number one benefit:

Having a Dog is a Sociable Thing
People talk to you when you're walking a dog, and if you frequent the same places, you see the same people. There's a whole community of dog people out there, and a lot of them are friendly.  For those of a more masculine persuasion, having a dog with you also makes you instantly less threatening to others, especially the elderly, families and women out alone.

The need to walk the dog is also great family time.  We've always enjoyed walking as a family, but the kids had started to be less than enthusiastic about such outings.  Now, though, it's a very different story.  Who could resist frisbee fun?

Having a Dog is Fun
As well as aforementioned frisbee frolics, who can resist:

  • laughing at the dog's ridiculous repertoire of grumbles and assorted strange noises?
  • the joy of running for its own sake, chasing with a crazy dog?
  • cuddling on the sofa with a furry friend to stroke?

What was the best thing you did as a family last year?

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Sunday Writing: The Old Year and the New Year

So, it's the time of year when we naturally look backwards and forwards in our lives.  In examining my writing life over the past twelve months, my initial reaction was "I haven't done any" because I haven't produced any kidlit or YA fiction.  However, this is a fairly typical example of ignoring what I have done, which is:

  • found a new market for English teaching resources, which I've enjoyed doing quite a lot of work for and which I hope to continue working with in 2011
  • finished a time-consuming commission of e-learning material for the new English GCSE for Nelson Thornes
  • produced a teacher's guide to Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs, which is newly on the specification for English Language and Literature A Level, for ZigZag Education.  I'm pretty pleased with the finished product after their helpful editorial suggestions, and it's been receiving really good reviews
  • continued to write for the fantastic emagazine (for A Level English students)
  • come up with some ideas for a YA novel, including a three-act plot plan and some character sketches 
  • started this blog (in December), subscribed to loads of writers' and writing blogs and found lots of cool writing types to follow on Twitter
This last point led me to sign up for Better Writing Habits, which has had great advice so far.  Yesterday in thinking about my bad writing habits, I realised that I tend to discount writing related to teaching as somehow not 'real', hence my belief that I'd achieved nothing in 2010.  I also realised that I've been scared of what I see as 'real' writing (actual stories) because it's riskier - which is plainly daft, since I'm a happier person when I'm doing it.  I had produced a few picture book stories and a kidlit novel, which are lost now (the USB stick with them on has been hidden in my house somewhere, either by evil goblins or by a helpful ghost who did it for my own good), and have a small collection of rejections (including one with a Personal Comment, yippee!), but I need to get started again.

So, my 2011 writing goals (newly made SMART, as per advice on Better Writing Habits) are:

  • to work on my novel for at least 15 mins a day (I believe giving myself permission to do 'just 15 mins' will frequently lead to more time writing); outlining first, and then writing
  • to complete a draft of said novel by the end of April, and to complete revisions by the end of June (the ultimate goal is to have something I can start submitting to agents in the summer)
  • to continue to produce teaching-related work (since that currently sells and I do enjoy doing it once I stop procrastinating) - I will devote 3x 1 hr sessions a week to this work
  • to blog twice weekly
  • to continue to research and generate ideas for new non-fiction/freelance markets, with the ultimate goal of actually placing work in at least 2 new places in 2011

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Mission Statement, or something ...

'Mission Statement' sounds a bit grand really, but I am excited because (drum roll, please) 
I've figured out what this blog is for.  

I've been finding it hard to write for, and clearly this is because its purpose was, well, muddled.  I've further realised that this was because I am, in fact, muddled - and that maybe this is ok.  I'm pretty sure there are other people out there who are also muddled.  It can't be the norm to have just one interest, surely?   Don't we all lead complicated lives these days?

My plan is to rotate blog posts on four main themes:

  • writing
  • parenting and family stuff
  • reading
  • myth, folklore and the supernatural

I can't do four posts a week at the mo, but I'm going to aim for two a week, so I'll visit each topic once a fortnight.

How do you organise your blogging?  Do you think it's best to run discrete blogs on different themes, or mix it all in and see what happens?

Photo by Filomena Scalise.  Find more of her work at freedigitalphotos.net
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