What can writers learn from art?

I’ve recently begun a course in ceramic at the Art House in Sheffield. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time and I’m really enjoying it. I loved art at school and it’s great to finally let that part of myself stretch its wings again. It’s had a knock on effect on my writing – a good one.

It has freed me up, made me take more risks. Before, I had become blinkered, entrenched in the form and expected manner of my writing. Novels are supposed to be written in a certain way, short stories usually take form x. y and z etc. However, by exposing myself to the risk of something new, to create in a looser way with clay, I have found that I’m more willing to take risks with my writing, to dig deeper and be a little looser.

This has led me to consider further, what can we as writers learn from art and artists. Yes, I know that the art world can be cut-throat, nepotistic and snobbish. But that’s just the same with the so-called upper echelons of the literature world. I believe that if we look more broadly at art, there’s a lot we can learn.

One of the main things we can emulate is the playfulness of some artists. Creativity is essentially play. This makes me think of a quote by Ray Bradbury, the Science Fiction writer and author of ‘Fahrenheit 451’

‘I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them.’

Writing should be playful. Yes, I know it sometimes feels like a hard slog and the words just don’t come and redrafting and editing can be a chore, but the actual act of creating a story or poem out of nowhere is magical and fun and playful. There really is nothing quite like it. Perhaps, if it’s not playful and enjoyable, then we aren’t truly speaking with our proper creative voice, we’re just putting words on a page that we think other people expect to see.

But just because art and writing should be, and can be playful, it doesn’t mean it isn’t important. I think Grayson Perry says it so so well in ‘Playing to the Gallery’:

‘Art is not some fun add-on to life. Go back to the Ice Age and the artists were still making art even when living constantly under threat..The need to express oneself runs very very deep. The problem is often accessing this need..without the self-consciousness that so curses teenagers and the world alike.’

Being playful, breaking free of the constraints of expectation of form, medium or technicality can set us free from that self-consciousness and lead us to be better writers.

 

 

 

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Winner of Sheffield Off The Shelf Short Story Competition 2016!

I am thrilled to have come first place in this years Off The Shelf Short Story Competition. The competition, run by Sheffield Authors held an evening to hear some of the stories and present the awards at the Mugen Tea House on 17th October.

I attended, pleased to have made the final twelve with my story ‘After The Fire’ but was not expecting to make the top six, let alone be first prize!

It was a lovely event and I met some really lovely creative people, including Berlie Doherty, author of Street Child and Dear Nobody. Berlie, a double Carnegie medal winner was one of the judges. I also got chatting to Steven Kay, another writer of historical fiction and author of The Evergreen in Red and White and Beverley Ward who won a Northern Writers Award in 2012 for her yong adult novel Straight on Till Morning. It was a lovely event and everybody was so supportive and friendly.

The story is set in Birley Spa woods in the nineteenth century is centered around the burial of Lucretia, the Queen of Gypsies at Beighton. It will be published in the next issue of Now Then magazine.

It was fantastic finding out that I had won and it has really spurred me on in my writing and creative endeavors.

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Prejudices, old and new

Here is a link to the first few chapters of a new novel I’m working on. It’s called ‘The Witch Bottle’ and it’s a novel for young adults.

The Witch Bottle

It’s set in Derbyshire, in the Peak District, and it follows a teenager, Jane and her friend Lilith, the daughter of Polish immigrants, as they get caught up in a centuries old feud sparked by the murder of a suspected witch in the village in 1760.

It’s very much about prejudice and bigotry as well as identity, and how fear and hatred can get passed down the generations.

I’m struggling a bit with the tone as this is a move from writing for women, as well as trying to work out the best way to convey some of the historical content and how the prejudices affect families down the generations without confusing the audience. I think it’ll be a case of trial and error. Luckily I have my daughter aged 11 to test it on.

If you have the time to read it, I’d be really happy to have any thoughts you have about it.

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This Garden

So we’ve passed the longest day now and it feels like everything’s preparing for fruit bearing and harvest time. In the woods, the bees are busy collecting pollen from the blackberry flowers. I’ve only started to notice how many different types of bees there are recently.

Today I spotted a Tree Bumblebee queen and a Buff-Tailed queen on the blackberries and gorse in the woods. I used the website of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to identify them. Apparently there are over 250 species so I was thankful for the help!

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The Tree Bumblebee only arrived here in 2001 from mainland Europe and it’s a great pollinator, moving with incredible speed from flower to flower. I had a bit of trouble photographing it, it was moving so fast and it was enormous!

 

 

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By comparison, the Buff-Tailed Bumblebee was quite easy to capture on film. You can see her pollen baskets which she uses to collect pollen and take it back to her young.

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The Oak trees are starting to produce acorns, as is the Horse Chestnut that me and Ollie pass every day. Indeed, there are hundreds of tiny conkers, still in their protective shells all over the pavement.

 

 

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A few blackberries are starting to show, as are the elderberries – although still green – just like the strawberries in my garden. Just a little more sun needed to ripen them.

 

 

 

 

Lastly, bizzarely, there was an abandoned shopping basket in the woods. Must be a mystery shopper gone wild.

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A Wood in England

Thought I’d add a new short story to the site. It’s one I did on a Saturday afternoon for an online writing community called Scribblers. They’re a friendly bunch and they do a piece of flash fiction each week. It’s fun and it keeps you on your writerly toes.

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It’s a story that owes a lot to Amy Jump / Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. Set in the civil war it’s about a deserter meeting a strange old man in the woods.

When I’ve got time I’ll build on it – want to make more of the folk/fairy tale themes of blood, death, the soldier/poor man trying to make good and the trickster.

Earth by Sarah Peacock.

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Out and About

Well, I didn’t quite manage to do the whole nature writing thing every two weeks as I thought I would, but I do have a good excuse. I’ve been squirreling away on the novel and am now near the end. About 84,000 words done and twenty chapters or so.

I have been walking in the woods most days as we go to school and back that way. We’ve also been walking along the Cleveland Way on the North Coast, as well as visiting more local wilds in Derbyshire. We’ve even been engaging in a little wild swimming!

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The changes in the woods now are quite amazing. Even though some parts of my little scrub-wood are simply that; scrubby and if I’m honest, full of litter and vandalism (that is until you get further into the woods, where most people can’t be bothered to venture) – they have flourished with the warmer days we’ve had.

 

 

 

 

The bluebells are wilting now but we’ve got cow parsley in abundance as well as forget-me-nots and cranesbill.

The field maples have pushed forth their buds, the new leaves striking out and the hawthorn is heavily in flower, complete with it’s own heady fragrance.

 

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Out on our walk along the coastal path of the Cleveland Way we encountered hundreds of frogs in a makeshift pond right next to the North Sea and also came across a magnificent and rather large toad dominating the steps along the path.

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I’ve seen a few frogs in the garden as I’ve been gardening and hopefully I’ll be able to give them a home soon as my plan is to dig a wildlife pond once draft one of the novel is complete.

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Lost in a Forest

It’s a cold March. The sky is set to TV interference grey and there’s snow falling, enough to lightly cover the newly emerged bulbs of crocus and daffodil. As I slip and slide down the path towards Birley Spa Woods I can hardly feel my fingers, clutching the camera in case I lose it in the quagmire.

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These woods lie at the south-eastern tip of Sheffield. They would have been part of Derbyshire in the 1960s before the boundaries were redefined. They remind me of the forests of fairy tales, the way the brambles and branches, as well as the strange urban geography has kept them hidden from most people, lost and a little forgotten. I think that’s why I love them so much. They are neglected and abused (children and teens regularly set fire to rubbish here or ride off road bikes and butcher the trees) and there’s something a little melancholic about them. They don’t have the attention lavished on them as say, Ecclesall Woods, but they have a charm all of their own.

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Behind the primary school is the disused Victorian Spa. It’s fenced off and chained, sitting in beautifully haunting grounds. I used to think there was something menacing about the place but I think that I just misunderstood the place. It’s sad, neglected, and the ghosts of the Victorian and Pre-War day trippers are almost tangible around the old boating lake and spring. Nearby is the strange fossilised tree where they used to leave tokens and the ruins of the children’s paddling pool, graced by the splash of feet over eighty years ago.

The story of the Spa, a Grade II listed building is a fascinating one. Purportedly there was a stone, part of the lake wall, now gone, that had the date 1701 inscribed on it meaning that the spa and grounds might date back to the beginning of the 1700s but the first documentation of the site is in 1734 in a book about the mineral waters of England where it is called ‘Burleigh Spa’. There are records showing that people came from Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century to bathe and drink the waters for therapeutic purposes.

The current building on the site dates from 1842. There were two bridges over the stream in the grounds along with walks through the wooded valley and seven grottoes. The building contained two pools; one marble and one stone. Only the stone one remains. The bath house and hotel was eventually sold along with the cottages known as Rose Cottages and turned into pleasure grounds.

A boating lake, sandpits, rocking boats, see-saws and swimming in the ‘Roman’ bath were all advertised as part of ‘The Children’s Paradise – Birley Spa’. The pleasure grounds were closed to the public at the outbreak of war in 1939 and when the council housing was built in Hackenthorpe in the late 1940s and 1950s and the Sheffield Corporation became the owners.

(Shire Brook – The Forgotten Valley 2007)

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As I move around the wrought iron fence of the Spa, I disturb the huge guard dogs that reside behind the security fencing of a modern house, now built upon the site of the old Rose cottage. For a moment, I am a little scared but then I marvel what it must be like for a modern family, surrounded by flat screen TVs and shiny granite worktops with all the mod cons, to be isolated and submerged in the woods like this. It reminds me of George Huxley’s house set in Ryhope Wood in Robert Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’.

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Just a few days later, I am back in the woods with friends and it’s discernibly warmer. We stand and watch a frog emerging from hibernation in the shallow waters of the old boating lake. There are stickleback darting and nibbling at a crumb of bread. Above us, in the trees we hear the sounds of woodpeckers at work. Spring is definitely arriving.

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A Book Is a Loaded Gun In The House Next Door

‘A book is a loaded gun in the house next door’ (Ray Bradbury – Farenheit 451)

Three Authors that Rocked My Writing World

Books and reading have been at the centre of my life, for over thirty-five years. There are photos of me as a child and awkward early teen, book clutched in hand, not even aware of the camera as I’m so absorbed in a book. I can identify parts of my life by what I was reading at the time. I can think of a book I read and the feelings and emotions of the time come flooding back, much the way smell evokes memory.

There are many books and many authors which I have been moved by, inspired by, changed in some way by but there are only three that I would say really inspired me to pick up a pen and write.

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The first is Ray Bradbury. I read some of his many collections of short stories as a young teen and was hooked by his creative use of language. Ray Bradbury was more than a wordsmith. He took ideas, crazy, big, weird ideas, and brought them to life with beautiful but honest language. One of my favourite stories of his is ‘And the Sailor Home from Sea’ in ‘Machineries of Joy’. I love his description of the prairie, like the rolling sea and the wooden house, creaking like a ship. He turned the midwest of America into something weird and wonderful, created a whole new mythology of landscape for it.

‘Trembling in his bed, he whispered, No, no, it can’t be – I’m mad! But…listen!

He opened the farmhouse door to look upon the land. He stepped out on the porch, spelled by this thing he had done without knowing it. He held to the porch rail and blinked, wet-eyed, out beyond his house.

There, in the moonlight, hill after slow-rising hill of wheat blew in tidal winds with the motion of waves. An immense pacific of grain shimmered off beyond seeing, with his house, his now recognized ship, be-calmed in its midst.’

I also love what Bradbury had to say about writing. His quotes still move and inspire me now.

‘I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them.’

And about reading and the change in culture, the move away from it as a lifetime habit;

‘The problem… isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.’

‘Farenheit 451’ is one of my favourite novels of all time. I would argue that it is in fact the most important science fiction novel of all time. Sheer genius. If you haven’t read it – shame on you! – go and get a copy now.

The second author who inspired me and continues to inspire me (He still writes – his last novel published in 2012 ‘Boneland’) is Alan Garner. It was a friend of my sister’s, visiting from University who introduced me to Garner when I was aged about twelve. The first book I read was ‘Elidor’ – I hesitate to say it is a children’s book because Garner doesn’t like that distinction and I think I have to agree with him there. A good book is a good book. If you have to dumb down your writing for younger audiences then it is not a good book.

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‘Elidor’ was my first taste of fantasy. I had an old copy of the first edition that I bought second hand from the library. It’s about four children in Manchester who enter a fantasy world, fulfill a quest and return to find the enemy has followed them back. Written in 1965, it might even be the first British urban fantasy novel.

I believe it is based on the English Folktale ‘Childe Rowlande’ and quotes Shakespeare in the epigraph:

‘Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came – ” KING LEAR, act iii, sc. 4’

This is one of my favourite passages in the book. I love the description of foreboding and imagery of static electricity, the way Garner drip feeds the feeling that something is  not quite right as Roland returns to his house.

‘After the first pulse of horror Roland did not move.

He saw every detail of plaster on the wall: he heard every sound in the house and in the road outside. He did not breathe: his mind raced so that every second was ten.

The shadows were not anybody in the room. It was too small and bare for anybody to be in it unseen. And they would have to be between the torch and the wall to make shadows.

This was my bedroom. There’s nothing to be frightened of here. They’re marks on the wall. Damp patches because the house is empty.

He went closer. They remained the same size. Flat shadows on the wall: motionless, sharp and black.’

I also loved ‘The Owl Service’. The idea of the eternal love triangle of Blodeuwedd, Lleu and Gronw that comes from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion is something that influences my writing to this day. Garner is a folklorist and that is clear in his writing. His interweave of landscape, folklore and myth is something I relate to on a personal level as it is the place where all my writing springs from too. It is what moves me to write.

To give you an idea where Garner’s inspiration comes from and how meticulous he is with research;

‘I had to read extensively textbooks on physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks, megalithic archaeology; study the writings of Jung; brush up my Plato; visit Avebury, Silbury and Coventry Cathedral; spend a lot of time with demolition gangs on slum clearance sites; and listen to the whole of Britten’s War Requiem nearly every day.’

(Times Literary Supplement 1968)

If you are a writer, be sure to read ‘The Voice That Thunders’; his essays on writing amongst other diverse subjects such as folklore, archaeology, mental health and language. A truly brilliant writer.

The third is Robert Holdstock. Continuing with the theme of mythology, the British landscape and folklore, The ‘Mythago Wood Cycle’ of books includes; ‘Lavondyss’, ‘The Bone Forest’, ‘The Hollowing’, ‘Merlin’s Wood’, ‘Avilion’ and ‘Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn’

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Set in the Herefordshire ancient woodland known as ‘Ryhope Wood’. It tells the story of Stephen Huxley, his brother Christian and their father George. Stephen returns home from World War Two to find his brother Christian has become obsessed with the woods that surround their home Oak Lodge. He tells Stephen of his encounters with the ‘Mythagos’, creatures (humans, monsters and animals) created from ancient memory, myth and subconscious of nearby human minds. Seen as some as a metaphor of the journey into the heartwood of the psyche, the wood can only be accessed by four tracks. Anyone who doesn’t use these tracks has great difficulty accessing the heart of the wood.

Re-reading it now, I am still deeply moved by it. Holdstock captured something truly amazing, primal and mythologically resonating. It still, on a subconscious level, along with Garner influences my own storytelling today. When I read it as a teen, I wanted to go into Ryhope Wood, to see it’s secrets for myself and I still have that urge today.

Read it, if you can, even if you’re not a fan of fantasy. It’s about so much more.

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Writing this post has made me go back and re-read the books of my favourite authors. They stand the test of time and still feed my imagination. They reminded me of where my origins and influences are, between which pages to look for inspiration.

One thing that has occurred to me is ‘Where are the woman authors?’ It just so happened that my favourites were men. They didn’t have to be. I just haven’t discovered the women writers yet who weave together landscape, mythology and story in the same way. If you have any suggestions – please leave a comment – I would love to read them!

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Improving Your Writing Through Feedback

As I’ve probably mentioned before, I’m writing a novel called ‘White Water’. I’m about a third of the way in and seek every opportunity for feedback I can get. Even the bad stuff. Especially the bad stuff.

When I first started as a writer I used to attend the odd course in the community and these were great but as I moved on with my writing I found that often they could end up as ego massage sessions rather than a useful forum for learning and developing a a writer.

That’s why I’m so pleased I found the brilliant Sheffield Novelist Group. We meet once a month, usually the last Monday and we critique each others submissions from our novels (sometimes short stories). We manage to tread the fine line between useful critique and positive comments pretty well and it’s a really friendly unpretentious group run by the writer Anne Grange (Author of Inside Outside).

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I also find the Kindle Write On site really useful. You basically post your novel a bit at a time and hopefully people follow you and provide feedback on your writing. I’m also a member of a brilliant critique group on there, all writers of women’s fiction, some published. For this, we review one book every three months.

This is really useful in preparing your work for submission to an agent or going down the indie publishing route such as publishing it as an ebook for the Kindle.

Of course, both of these involve the commitment and hard work of taking the time to read other people’s work and commenting on it in return. This though, is an overlooked aspect of becoming a better writer. By critiquing other people’s work, you learn what does and doesn’t work and carry it forward to your own writing.

If you’re writing and want to take it further, I’d seriously recommend you join a group or one of the sites for this. Some of these sites are listed below:

Sheffield Novelists

Write On by Kindle

Scribblers Writers Forum

Do you know another site for great feedback or do you dread feedback? Maybe you’ve had a bad experience you want to share? Leave a comment below and let me know!

 

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