Author in the Classroom

I am back in schools next week and planning the sessions for a project I have delivered a few times before in many local primary schools.

It is a project funded by my local council which was originally aimed at educating children about hate crime. It has now turned into a bigger project about cultural awareness and transforms the participants into Junior Ambassadors for their school and community.

The project involves artists from Africa, India and China as well as a session from local refugee support, an illustrator and my sessions as an author.

My job is to follow these other creative practitioners into the school and to deliver a creative writing response to the stimulus from their art forms.

So, for example, I will develop poems with the children following their Bollywood Dance experience, and focus on feelings and the senses. After the African drummer and storyteller, I will deliver a creative writing session which I call the ‘Story Bones’ where we will uncover the nature of story, and write our own African stories. And after Chinese calligraphy, we will explore ‘characters.’ I will use China as the setting and the characters will be based on the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. For the sessions about refugees, we will look at first hand testimony from refugees and write an account, or a letter home following an exploration of their journeys.

I am followed in each school by an artist, who explores images with the children which will illustrate their writing. The local council will then print a booklet of the children’s writing and pictures for the school’s library.

It is a big commitment from the schools, which are complex organisations under constant pressure to measure children and meet targets. And yet I have found that all the schools I have worked in have embraced this programme and managed to incorporate both the method and the message into their teaching schedule, especially admirable in a time of Covid.

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Falling in Love with the Adventures of Mole

I have spent almost every day so far, this year developing A Month of Writing Adventure for children. It has been a mammoth task, working with an artist, and compiling words and images into a book which is a combination of a teaching guide and creative notebook. It is beautifully illustrated by Charlotte Cleveland who has brought my ideas and story to life. I am sure A Month of Writing Adventure will excite even the most reluctant writer.

By combining story structure with creative skills, A Month of Writing Adventure is a roller-coaster ride with The Story Moles. Full of interesting tasks and challenges, with space in the book for children to explore their own stories though words and pictures.

It has been my constant companion for 2021 so far, and I have, this week, sent him off to the printer! 

I must confess, I was reluctant to let him go, which has never happened to me before. Usually, after all the time it takes to plan, write, re-write, edit, proof and prepare a book for publication, I am glad to see the back of it.

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How being a filmmaker influences my novel writing

Many of us watch more drama and ‘stories’ on TV than read books. Even those of us who read a lot, will watch the film of a book we have enjoyed.

The 21st century reader is screen literate.

Whether we read or watch or even listen to our stories, they all start with words on a page.

Much of our idea about story structure comes from screenwriting; The Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat are classic examples.

I spent 2 years at The London International Film School at the back end of ‘80’s and I have often said that I learned to write at film-school, where I was awarded a distinction. I was also a finalist at The Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Science (better known as The Oscars) for the Student Oscar as a Writer / Director of The Letter Writer. 

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Morning Pages and My Creative Process

You cannot use up creativity. The more you use it the more you have. (Maya Angelou)
But how do you access this precious resource?
Does it sit in our head or heart?
How do you keep it refreshed?
And how do you apply it to your creative process?

I find Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, from her book The Artists Way, is a great process for accessing the creative thoughts and ideas which lurk, just out of sight, in that liminal time between sleeping and waking.

First thing, when I get out of bed, I make tea and sit at my desk and write. It is something I have done for a couple of decades. Even before I knew about Morning Pages, I would sit, in the morning and write my thoughts. It is the best writing warm up I have ever used and I have learned to value this as an important part of my process.

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Hold The Fronted Adverbials

Why are people so against children being taught how our language works?’

This was a question I was asked when I shared a meme on Face Book against teaching 10 & 11 year-olds about Fronted Adverbials. 

It is a good question and I really had to think about it, drawing on my experience of developing creative writing programmes in schools in one of the most deprived areas of England.

Even as an author, I had no idea what a fronted adverbial was until my teacher daughter explained it to me. Apparently, fronted adverbials are simply words or phrases which are placed at the start of a sentence, before the verb. So, I use them all the time without being able to name then. Before breakfast, I could use a dozen and not even know it. Once Upon a Time, is a fronted adverbial well used by writers since stories began. (By the way, a fronted adverbial is always followed by a comma.)

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The Truth in Fiction

Memory, Truth and Lies were the themes in my first book, the Art Forger’s Daughter.
Like many first novels, it dealt with my preoccupations at that time. The book began with my love of Art and History and my belief that art has the power to change the world. 

The concept is that a young woman has to untangle her parents past in order to save her mother and she comes to realise just how much the past ripples through the generations with unintended consequences. 

This was something I was thinking about a lot at the time.

So, I asked myself the question: ‘where is the truth and which are the lies in the fragments of her mother’s memories which survived the trauma of war?’

Memory, truth and lies has become an important theme again in my work, since I developed my workshop programme – Write Your Life.

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Writing Firsts for 2021

It is not uncommon for me to have multiple projects going on at the same time. I am often writing one novel whilst planning or editing a second. Or writing a non-fiction book alongside the novel to accompany my workshop programme.

But 2021 seems to be about breaking new ground.  

I am currently writing the second book in a series about a well-loved character – Ruby Sixpence. Last time around, she Whistled up a Storm; this time she is Stitching Time. This is the first time I have written a series character and I am finding it challenging to make this a standalone story so that readers don’t have to have read Book 1 before they read this one.

I am also writing a creative writing workbook for a school’s project which combines online prompts, real life workshops and the book. It is the first time I have written a book for children, and also the first time I have worked with an Illustrator. I am delighted be working with illustrator, Charlotte Cleveland. It is a great experience to have such a creative partnership even though we haven’t been able to meet up in real life. Through zoom calls and email, we have a clear idea of where the story is going, and what our character, The Story Mole looks like. 

The biggest challenge I am finding in writing for children is getting the voice and the tone right. I work with this age group a lot, so I am familiar with their interests, their reading level and their ideas. Whilst I want to stretch them, I also want to make the book accessible to a class of mixed ability children; differentiating the work in a class of 30 individuals is a skill teachers have, and use every day.

I want my character to be appealing but not too cute, to appeal to boys and girls equally and to engage the children to make the Story Mole their own. Most importantly, however, I want the whole process to be fun.

The aim is to transform writing from a chore to a joy, develop stamina for writing and develop a daily writing habit in children before they progress to secondary school. I want the programme to be exciting and to reignite a love of stories which all children have. Their workbooks will not be marked by teachers, and as well as responding to the prompts, they can use their book to record their thoughts, ideas doodles – whatever they want to do – just as adult authors do.

Managing multiple projects as well as planning the next book and implementing a marketing strategy requires a degree of organisation and planning. 

Which is where my own Notebook Habit comes in. I used to have one notebook on the go at a time, and all my thoughts, ideas and projects went into it. The problem was that I remembered I had written a note somewhere, but I could never find it.

So to manage multiple projects, I now use multiple notebooks. It makes sense! 

On my desk, I currently have notebooks for: 

  • My current novel
  • My Story Mole children’s workbook
  • Future Novels; notes for books at the ideas or planning stage
  • A Project book: for non- fiction projects. It has five separate sections, including self publishing, write your life, workshop ideas, and other non-fiction books for the future
  • Marketing notebook for blog post ideas, tweets, and other marketing plans 
  • Organised Chaos is my current hardback diary for appointments, deadlines, word counts, reminders and important things (like birthdays and tax returns)
  • Morning Pages for working through the emotional baggage which can cloud my mind when writing (although I now mostly do this online.)

I have drawers full of notebooks dating back several decades. When I am seeking inspiration, or if there is nothing to watch on telly, I will occasionally browse these notebooks and find nuggets of inspiration. 

My notebook habit is strong and evolved. I hope that through The Story Mole project, I can encourage the children to develop their own notebook habit, which will inspire them to write freely and for pleasure, for many years to come. 

Between Times

As we reach the bridge between 2020 and 2021 we can look both ways, like Janus. We look back over the distance we have travelled and we can see just how much the landscape has changed around us. And we can look forward into 2021, into the mist of uncertainty. We have learned the hard way this year, that our plans and resolutions could turn to dust in an instant. 

In 2020, the world changed around us and some recovery time is essential if we are to stay well and continue to be creative. Some of us have lost our livelihoods; others lost their lives in this time of extremes and we are desperate to return to normal

Except that no one is clear what ‘normal’ is anymore. In many ways, everything has changed; we have been forced to embrace new technology which allows us to do things we didn’t know we wanted to do. Some have learned how to work from home, whilst others are having to retrain and look for other ways to earn a living. 

There has been a seismic shift in perceptions as well. What really matters to us has changed; how we live our lives, who and what we value. And we have witnessed the true spirit of humanity in random acts of kindness. 

My plan for 2021 is quite simple: I want to write more, read more and deliver my planned workshop programme.

My Big Project, funded by Arts Council England’s National Lottery Programme is A Month of Writing Adventure. I will be working with The Grand Theatre of Lemmings, Author Gerald Hornsby and Illustrator, Charlotte Cleveland. Between us, we will deliver a series of creativity workshops, and a beautifully designed and illustrated workbook. There will also be daily videos with writing prompts to excite and inspire the children to develop a daily writing habit. It is a big programme and will take much of the year to deliver, and I hope to share the first illustrations with you in the new year.

I also plan to:

My Project Plan is 5 feet long
  • Finish the second book in the Ruby Sixpence series – Ruby Sixpence and The Mother of The Bride – for publication in the summer of 2021
  • Plan and write the third book in the series for release in February 2022
  • Write a non-fiction book to accompany a workshop we are delivering at Swanwick Writer’s Summer School – How to be a Writer in the Gig Economy
  • Develop Writer Support School by adding more courses and recruiting more students. I will also attempt to add my schools’ workshops to this platform
  • Continue to deliver the Cultural Awareness Junior Ambassadors Programme in schools across Tendring District

Most importantly, I will need to be flexible, resilient and maintain my sense of humour, because it may all go to plan or it may go to pieces. So, I will take my own advice and write daily, read daily and stick at it.

In 2021, I think we will all need to embrace a new normal, and I believe that we have learned to cherish the people and things that matter to us more than ever.

Happy New Year to you all. Thank you for being with me this year. I hope to share more of my Adventures in Writing and the Stories behind the Stories in 2021.

My 2020 Writing Life

Some may say that 2020 has been rubbish and in some ways it has. ​But because I am a self-employed author and creative writing tutor, my work is a portfolio of creative activity, some of which I have been able to continue, whilst exploring new skills and new audiences for my work.

Because my workshop programme was cancelled during lockdown, I took the time to learn how to develop workshops online. It has been a steep learning curve, but well worth the effort. You can see the beginnings of my work here at my online school where more programmes will be following in 2021.

And … drum roll please …. For the first time ever, I am participating in a Vodcast with the amazing Gerald Hornsby in which we talk about writerly things. Afternoon Tea from Bookends is published weekly and we would love to hear from you if there are topics you would like us to talk about.

During lockdown, we have also been supporting other authors to publish their books and are delighted to announce that are now able to make a new offer, through 
​Hard Pressed Books to Publish your books.

Meanwhile, the stalled programme of work in schools began again in the Autumn term. Working with Tending District Council on the Junior Ambassadors Programme, I was able to deliver 21 creative writing workshops across seven schools in Tendring before Christmas. More are planned for 2021.

And the judging of the Pen to Print Short Story competition eventually happened in November 2020, delayed by Covid. It is always great to read stories from so many talented writers and the three judges all agreed that this year, the standard was higher than ever. Congratulations to the winner and runners up and to all who entered the competition.

And I haven’t forgotten to be a writer!
On the 29th February 2020, I published 
Ruby Sixpence Whistles up a Storm​

What older woman would not like to feel empowered, to feel as though she can make things happen and influence events? To be the Fairy Godmother her younger self would have loved?

Meet Ruby Sixpence, born on a leap day; a spare day in which magic happens. Born in that enchanted crack in time where opportunities, and people like her, slip through. Over the centuries she has nurtured the uncommon art of bringing lovers together, a gift which comes in the same package as ageing one year in four. But these gifts come with a price …

Ruby Sixpence Whistles up a Storm​

And in the summer, I published my homage to the years I spent working in theatre, and a tribute to my current theatre friends:
Divas, Dogs and Dreamers

When Sophie Wilde is knocked off her bicycle by Producer Alex Brooke, she becomes entangled in his world of Royal Gala’s, Divas and dogs. She doesn’t mean to fall in love with him; her life is complicated enough with her alcoholic boomerang ex, her chaotic family and busy life in the wardrobe departments of London’s West End Theatre. But Sophie is a serial daydreamer and makes lists to put off doing what needs to be done. When the singing Diva from hell, Callandra Jewell, throws a mega tantrum on tour, all the lists in the world cannot control the powerful mesh of emotions generated in the ensuing confusion.

Divas, Dogs and Dreamers

Towards the end of 2020, I was awarded a grant from Arts Council England’s National Lottery programme, working with illustrator Charlotte Cleveland… and so my big 2021 project begins …

Develop a Writing Habit

It is a truth universally acknowledged ….
that 100% of books which don’t get written, don’t get published

The Writer procrastinates. It is normal. We all do it. Even walking the dog in the rain seems more appealing than facing a blank page.

I’ll just have another cup of tea. Ooh, that laundry needs sorting, the bins need to go out, the dishwasher emptying.’ Your phone pings a message; ‘I’ll just do a quick reply. Oh look, a cute doggie on Facebook. Hang on, I’ll just grab a quick picture of my cute doggie asleep on the sofa. What? Breaking News? I’d better take a quick look at that …’

We all do it. Beginners or full time authors alike.

Developing a writing habit by making space and time in your life to write is the best gift you can give to yourself. When we start out writing, most of us have to juggle the expectations of ourselves and others. This can include going out to work, domestic chores, caring roles for family members and children, and we also have relationships to maintain. Guard your writing time. Don’t let life nibble away at it until there is little left but crumbs. 

Don’t let domestic chores become an excuse for not writing

Continue reading “Develop a Writing Habit”
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