Monday, 28 October 2013

Listen to Anne Dover read from Paulie's Web.

Have just managed to create an audio-clip of the brilliant Anne Dover reading the chapter  called 'From the Corner of My Eye' at the launch of Paulie's Web. (click to listen) She is so good. Wx

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Constructive Peer Appraisal in Independent Publishing

These days I am asked frequently to give an opinion on someone’s else's completed novel. 

Completing a whole novel is very hard work.
Firstly I have to say that to actually complete an 80, 000 word novel with joined up words, chapters, and narrative is a great achievement in itself. It is a long haul, both intellectually and emotionally demanding. So many aspiring writers start off with high hopes and great confidence and don’t quite get to finish. 

So what we are dealing with here is a completed novel anywhere between eighty and a hundred thousand words. A big job.

In these days of more independent and autonomous publishing we need to delay the  enticing rush to publish through such facilitating processes such as Amazon CreateSpace, great as they are. This popular, enabling atmosphere  sidesteps the commissioning and editorial departments of mainstream publishers so there is still an emerging need for a very high level of self editing (see my previous post) and rigorous peer-review.  

I am fortunate in having three very different peer/friend reviewers whose views on my manuscripts have had subtle and enhancing effects. Of course I  return the favour for them.

You will possibly know whom, among your own peers and friends,   you could turn to for this great favour.

Entering one of the many national and international competitions is one way to get your manuscript out there among your unknown peers. You could seek out people who have a level of achievement and ask them politely to review your manuscript. 

You could, of course, use one of the commercial manuscript appraisal services. A warning here that this is a growth industry and the people who will advise you are not necessarily your peers. Check them out.

I have spotted a very good service that has emerged from this situation, being offered by the author and academic Paul Magrs who is currently charging £50 for a 500 word critique offering ‘constructive, practical  feedback  on characterisation, plotting, structure and further suggestions for development and reading.’ He firmly asserts that he is not offering proofreading and copy editing. ‘This is about pointers for developing your work in your next draft.’ A fine offer from this much praised teacher, much admired writer and writing coach.

But what if you are asked to appraise a fellow writer’s completed novel?

My advice is not to agree to do this for unless you are prepared to do a thorough job. You will do them no favours if you skim through and say ‘it’s very nice’ or ‘it doesn’t work for me.’

So, having worked with some talented editors for twenty years and consulted editors in the wider field such as my own Debora, I have developed a set of my own idiosyncratic guidelines which might be useful for writing peers in this newly independent publishing world. Here they are:


vI'm with  Paul Magrs: tell your peer/friend that you are not offering to proof or line edit the manuscript. Insist on having a manuscript that is thoroughly proofed and line edited by someone else.
Hard copy is the best to work with ...

v You need a hard copy manuscript to work on. Editing on-screen copy can be sloppy and superficial – more akin to Open and Other University ‘marking’ which is alien to an in-depth creative read.

v  Know what kind of writer this writer is and what kind of novel they see themselves as writing. Remember it is not your story: it is theirs. You can’t always like what you edit so you will need to know something about what’s in their field.

vAsk for a summary or a blurb  that will give you a take on what kind of novel the writer sees it as.  (Don’t ask for the dreaded, often egregious,  synopsis. They're for busy commercial editors and agents who need to skip a stage. You will read the whole novel so you won’t need a synopsis.)

The Process

v First read the manuscript very quickly without making notes. Get the shape in your head. You need to see the book as a whole. (See my previous post.) How will the reader see the book? 

v Read with a keen, critical eye, keeping the writer’s own vision of the novel in mind.

v Look for originality, consistency and conviction in terms of plot, structure and characters.

Your Response

v If the novel is perfect or near perfect make sure to say just that, with a great hoorah!

v  Make a note of what you think really works in this manuscript: what makes it interesting or original? What will any reader like about it?

v Make a clear and specific note of inconsistencies or implausibility in the plot.

v Make constructive suggestions for further developments in plot, structure and characters. Often good to couch these as questions; this acknowledges that the real authority regarding this manuscript is the writer her or himself.

v Suggest books or sources that may help with any development of the  novel. (Be careful here. It’s not always useful at this point to recommend work by other novelists…)

It would be great to hear of your experiences in helping your peers
 in this brave new world of independent publishing. WX

Sunday, 20 October 2013

How To Enjoy Your Book Launch: Paulie's Web

At lasr Paulie's Web was launched on Wednesday. It was all over - as my mother would say - 'like a wedding.'

Avril and I discussing
 finishing touches

Weeks of discussion, preparation, choosing the venue, inviting the special ones, writing the newspaper article, deciding on the programme, making sure there were plenty of books...

Anne Dover reading a chapter from
Paulie's Web, Superb.
The star of the evening.
  I think she enjoyed it
The art gallery in Bishop Auckland Town Hall was beautifully set out by Janet Strong and her staff at the library. There was wine and a typical Bishop Auckland Town Hall welcome. The books were beautifully displayed, making the most of the lovely cover of Paulie's Web

The occasion was chaired by Avril Joy, now a writer herself , and for a long time Head of Learning and Skills in the prison that inspired Paulie's Web, Special guests Mike Kirby ex governor of the same prison, special guest actress Anne Dover who records audio books for Isis and Soundings. Manning the books table was Gillian Wales who keeps us in order at  Room to Write. And me.

Ex governor Mike Kirby putting
the book into its national context.
He made plain his view that a society
may be judged by the way it treats
its prisoners.
He seemed to enjoy it

Avril, Anne and I enjoyed it
In the audience of over eighty people were readers and writers of all description. There were teachers, librarians,  journalists, prison officers and managers. My lovely Debora and Sean came from London.  There was Charlie the dynamic Reader in Residence and HMP Low Newton, and Sheila the present Writer in Residence there. There was my friend Terry from Bishop FM who squeezed in an interview for Bishop FM with our guest of honour Anne Dover. There were old friends from former lives and new friends from present ventures. There were strangers whom I was delighted to see: perhaps some women who had been in that prison those years ago when Paulie was beginning to live in my imagination.

Our whole evening - as is the book (scroll down here) -was dedicated to promoting  some kind of understanding of women who end up in prison and recognising the importance of seeing them as unique human beings rather than reductive stereotypes: as our sister, our cousin, our daughter or our mother..

I think we enjoyed it

I think they enjoyed it.

Reader in Residence, Charlie Darby Villis
and Writer in Residence Sheila Mulhern
talk to Glyn Wales who helped
Gillian with the books. Lots of books sold at this point!

I quite enjoyed it myself...

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Writing Woman and Queenie the Bag Lady

Three days to go! Count down to the launch of Paulie'a web (see sidebar) on Wednesday 16th October

I had terrific local response to the article (below) that I wrote for Jenny Needham Features Editor of the Northern Echo, focusing on South Durham references in my the prison expereince that lead to the writing of Paulie's Web.

Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people prisons can seem hidden, secret places but others have more personal experience of them  that might involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.

Some people here the North East will be in this position - having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.

 Inside this prison – as well as women from all parts of the country – I worked with women from County Durham. Teesside and North Yorkshire, serving sentences for every kind of offence. In the main they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.

In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street  when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side  swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton - The Writing Woman.’

When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.

My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that travelled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.

We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down  can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision - never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.

These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with  teacher and Head of Learning and Skills Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.

Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas - even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.

My novel is not a case study. It is a fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives not just behind bars but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. As well as Paulie - rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer - there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.

In Paulie’s Web there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise here is the laughter, comradeship and tears. Here is the bullying and night-time fear. Here is the learning and self–revelation.

The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.

On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read you might recognise, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.

The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

A Letter to Sylvie: Advice to a Writer Aged Fourteen

 A friend of mine asked me if I would give some advice to his friend's fourteen year old daughter. Let's call her Sylvie: This is what I wrote to her:

Dear Sylvie: 

I had to think hard before I answered your letter. Either I had to pat you on the head and say wonderful! You are amazing! You might be wonderful and amazing in many ways but you would never make any
progress with your writing if I just said that.

So I decided to respond to you as I would to any writer – as an individual. Really as an adult. Here we go - 

I am very impressed that you are thinking of writing seriously as part of your life. I can see from your letter that you are a very fluent writer and can really impress yourself.

I like the way your talk about your writing ‘When I begin writing something I don’t plan a lot, I just have a rough idea in my head and then expand on it as I write ‘ … This is a good way to start off  – working naturally and acknowledging the importance of your subconscious. Feeling this freedom to ‘expand on it as I write’ is an important part of the writing process. Too many ‘creative writing courses’ emphasise the importance of pre-thinking, planning and structure.. This can produce mechanical and derivative work and does not allow unique voices to emerge.

However, once you have a good chunk of writing, then reflection and retrospective structuring can sustain and elaborate your  unique voice. For a good writer, a high level of self-editing is important. This is a skill that will develop in years of writing. Remember to work on your edit after you have a chunk of writing to work on. Don't try to do the two things at once. It's very important to keep these processes separate.

You describe your own editing process, saying,   when I read through it I change only little things or sometimes large chunks. I imagine that by little things you mean points of spelling, grammar and syntax (look that word up…). This is the very first level of editing.

When you mention ‘large chunks’, this is the second level. I imagine by this you mean
  • *      changing the order of paragraphs
  • *      changing the time sequence of events
  • *      changing description to dialogue
  • *      making the use of tense consistent
  • *      re-enforcing the nature of cause and effect in your narrative
  • *      seeing that the forward arc of your story works

When you begin to teach yourself these second level skills you are on your way to being a writer.

In terms of subject matter I see you say   I can write any genre, however I like sticking to horror, drama, some action, and a little romance... And  I have been writing about supernatural beings such as; vampires, werewolves, and ghosts.

It is not unusual for young writers to begin with such themes.
This is a proper stage in beginning to write. I think that it has something to do with the fact that a young person lacks  real life experience – yet! - to draw on. Also it reflects   the power of great fairy tales in children’s conscious and subconscious mind. As I say, a good starting place.

But here is a warning! The problem is that some people get stuck on such subject matter and their writing becomes stale and – even worse – derivative. Instead of drawing on their own unique subconscious such writers imitate somebody else’s subconscious. Be careful not to love somebody’s books so much that you imitate them.

So, how do you become your own writer with your own unique voice?

My Top Tips

*      You should begin to read as a writer, asking yourself how does this or that writer have this or that effect
Read as a writer...
on you. Using this approach, continue to read widely looking at the work word by word, line by line.

For imaginative narrative, read many kinds of fiction from Shakespeare (have you read The Tempest? Wonderful fantasy evocation) to David Almond (Brilliant writer, try My Name is Mina: ‘A celebration of the richness of the everyday life’:  Sunday Times)

For extending your feeling for words and the rhythm of language read poetry -from Keats (combination of perfect word choice, assonance, rhyme and metre) to Carol Ann Duffy (modern syntax and references with a deep feeling for words and their power)

*      Warningdon’t practice amateur lit-crit on your reading! Just try to see  how the writer works; see how they get their effect. This is NOT the same as the amateur lit-crit practiced for exam answers.  

       Avoid Creative Writing Courses unless they are taught by experienced and published writers. And Eng.Lit degree does not equal this.

*      Dip into your pocket money and buy ON BECOMING A WRITER by Dorothea Brande. Read it and do her exercises which encourage you to write for twenty minutes first thing every morning come rain or shine without looking back for twenty one day. In this lump of free writing you will find your unique voice and your own original themes.

Good luck, Sylvie. And happy writing.



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