Monday, 21 November 2016

SCBWI dooby doo .. where are you? In Winchester #scbwicon16

I hadn't been to Winchester before, yet there I was, preparing to dip my toe into the world of SCBWI (Society of Children's British Writers and Illustrators - a branch of the international group) as a relatively new member. The town didn't disappoint, interesting streets steeped in history sparkled under blue skies, and as the light faded festive lights glittered around the cathedral and the Christmas market.

It was lovely, but it was November and my mind was on other things - the Friday Night Critique.

After all, a writer should be read, feedback is invaluable, but it doesn't make it any easier - submitting and exposing your work to others. There's those voices, 'It's not good enough' 'It is only a first draft' 'It's a work in progress.' You have to put the excuses aside and listen. We gathered at the University to follow the Ursual Le Guin method of critique - Shut up and listen. As my group diplomatically critiques my writing, I see what I have been in denial about - Some of it's shite (they didn't put it so bluntly) but there's a good story there, I've just got to re-write it. I'm happy to take and give constructive criticism from such a supportive group, after all, we're all in the same boat.

Saturday I trudged back up the hill, cutting through the atmospheric graveyard, brave solo in the light, and settled to hear the keynote from the wonderful David Almond. I'd seen David some years before at the Cambridge Literature Festival. I love his work, the brave and poetic prose of My Name is Mina and Skellig, the dance of words in Savage. He's a writer who releases the creative without fear. He didn't disappoint either.

A writer recently said to me, 'Gone are the days when a writer could just write, like Roald Dahl disappearing into his shed.' That may be true to some extent, between the blogs, tweets, forest of social networking, personal networking, submissions, rejections, self promotion, agents, publishers and school visits we need to prioritise one thing - THE BLOODY WRITING! Thank goodness for David Almond reminding us to do just that.

With his soft Geordie lilt he enchanted the audience from start to finish and assured us that in uncertain, mad times,

'What we do is even more important than it has been before... we write for children in a state of becoming - forward thinking and moving - its an act of growth.' In the Northern town where David originated, although a rich and beautiful place, he wanted what most kids want, to be someone, to be a famous footballer or pop star, to play for Newcastle. But he made up stuff and when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up said, 'I want to be a writer.' This was an unusual persuasion for a child from Felling-on- Tyne and often met with the reaction, 'Oooh you need a good imagination to be a writer lad.' Although he doubted it, it wasn't a problem for David, who believes we're all deeply creative. From the moment we utter our first sounds we're creating, we're communicating in that babies bawl that becomes language, that becomes us.
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His mother would take him as a babe in arms to his uncle's printing place down an alley in the town. There the infant David would light up as the presses rolled into motion, cooing and gaping at the most beautiful thing, that print. 'Black print on white paper is gorgeous.' He was influenced by the story tellers in his family, his aunty Jan, who had hardly read a book, could hold an audience spellbound when telling a story. My father is the same, illiterate until the age of twelve he wove stories in those Liverpool back rooms and can still spin a tale in his seventies. It's these human voices that inspire us, the parent at bedtime who tells a child 'once upon a time' the sharing of stories is a human trait. David cites his shared story place, the local library, as being a huge influence on his life, as it was for so many of us, where books to buy were a luxury. It was just across the street from where he played football, imagining he was a famous footballer as he played. 'The more I went into the library, the more I wanted to be a writer, to see a book I'd written on the shelf.' He had a fantastic day a few years ago when he went back to the library he visited as a boy, put his hand up to the shelf, and there it was, a book by David Almond and the ten year old boy inside him said 'yeahh.'

David's books begin in notebooks (who doesn't love a good notebook?)as scribbles, words and scrawls. In the process of doodling and playing he discovers things he didn't know, 'I know just about nowt.' He was generous enough to share these pages, as well as the inside of his pencil case, with it's sharpened pencils, sharpeners, highlighters and colours, 'my heart swoons for Faber Castell jumbo coloured pencils.' The process is 'turning the mess inside my head to straight lines on a page.' Then there is the computer and a process of writing up and re-drafting, printing and writing and re-writing. 'always have a title page, even if I've written only two pages, and if stuck, broaden the space between the lines.'

Skellig came from nowhere. He was walking away from the postbox having just sent a collection of short stories to his publisher (Counting Stars), when the first line ambushed him:' I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.' He draws a calendar and notes how many words and days he's written each day and each week. There is still that familiar feeling of being adrift, it can come in the middle of a manuscript, the feeling that 'I just can't do it anymore, I don't know what I am doing.' It is only by force of will that he finishes at all, writing in cafes and libraries, the shed was too cold.


With his inspirational words ringing in my ears I stay for his workshop, 'Release the writer within' and find creative exercises that I can put to use with the reluctant writers and readers I teach for my bread and butter job. After lunch I attend the Practice your pitch workshop where I'm paired up with a picture book writer, and me YA. It's a good mix. We discuss the wrestling of a concept into a three line 'wow' and laugh at our choice of Hollywood style pitches. If your book were a movie it would be?..... 'Alice in Wonderland meets Houdini in Blackpool.' 'Curious George meets Hairspray' - work out the storyline from those!!!

I sneak off for the walk down the hill and a late afternoon kip in my sumptuous B&B - Two Bare Feet, before donning costume and unwieldy wig and finding a like minded soul to walk to the party with.

The party is full of cracking characters, there's a mass book launch (I didn't realise Patrice Lawrence was here, I missed her at YALC and would have brought Orangeboy for her to sign) and a great compilation rejection video. I'd had an email rejection that very day, so laugh heartily and wryly at the 'not quite right for our list' section. Sunday there is an informative and sobering keynote from Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency and I make the self-publishing workshop with the inspiring Susan Price, Sarah Towle, Sarah Inglis and the wonderfully named Roxie Munroe before heading back after lunch as domestic matters call.

Armed with a notebook full of names and inspiration, it will take me a good while to work through everything, I was delighted with my first SCBWI conference. It didn't disappoint; Great speakers, amazing volunteers, friendly networks and a bunch of lovely writers, illustrators, publishers and creative people. A space to compare notes and discuss like minded interests. Instead of having to 'hide' my calling in the day job or my embarrassed shuffling mumbles announcing I'm a writer to friends and family, here I was given the assurance to sing it from the rooftops - I'm a writer and proud. As David Almond put it, 'We are ordinary, but we are also extraordinary.'

Monday, 7 November 2016

It was a dark and stormy night


It was a dark and stormy night. Somewhere out of the rain stained window of the Uber, couched in the back streets, is Stretford Memorial Hospital, at the back of Old Trafford. Place of my birth, on a night not unlike this one, I came into the world by my mum, with the comfort of midwives. My dad was sleeping soundly on the sofa at her parents house. It's the ties that bind us, family and bloodlines, and the reason I'm back in the city of my origin after a break of some twenty years, dipping my toe in the past, squashed in the back of Mohammed's clean Toyota with my mother and daughter. Three generations of Lancashire lasses, although the youngest was born in another Northern city. It's my mother who brings us here, reliving her past, sharing her history with her granddaughter. I'm just along for the ride. It's a slow one at that, we reach a gridlocked Deansgate as the rain really settles in and I notice homeless camped every ten metres. That's new. It's not good. Locals on nights out, stop and chat to share cigarettes and change, there's a group of volunteers dispensing hot food later.

Our journey North had been epic, Virgin trains left Euston promptly and it was an easy ride up through an England wearing it's coat of Autumn, nostalgia bound past the Ovaltine factory, further enhanced by the warm Vimto dispensed by my godmother that afternoon, but the trains into London were awful. The next few days we wander Manchester streets, my mum remembering the city of her birth and breeding from the model post-war estate of Whythenshawe, where she grew up, and before then in the terraces of Moss Side. Her sense of place is discombobulated by demolition and change, buildings gone and new ones have popped up in their place, but she still acts as a determined guide.

Our hotel is next to Spinningfields, an area I don't recall ever being there. I used to alight at Victoria Station and walk the length of Deansgate to work at The Manchester Evening News, now dispensed as a free paper on every street corner. I don't remember the buildings of steel and glass, the bars and restaurants or the sweeping bridges across the River Irwell, but I do remember the bitter wind that came off it's waters. We wander up to the cathedral and The Mitre hotel, where my parents spent their wedding night. That's still there, as is The Shambles round the corner

Elizabethan style buildings that were moved several hundred feet some years ago, brick by brick, on rollers. Mum tells me The Shambles used to be the butchers area, the shambles would be the blood and guts they washed into the street. There's now a swish new Harvey Nichols nearby and associated chain stores, all clean and bright leading up to the mish mash of the Arndale. The Royal Exchange still thrives as a theatre and I'm pleased to see and Kendals on Deansgate, one of a clutch of Manchester department stores still in existence, although changing it's name. Up Deansgate and down King Street where the Christmas markets are setting up. King Street was the height of sophistication during my time in Manchester. Then the long, long walk down Oxford Road to the University and beyond, The Whitworth Art gallery is much further than I remember, until I realise I have been confusing it with the city centre Manchester Art Gallery.


It's newly refurbished, more steel and glass, and has a beautiful cafe that floats out into the autumn trees of Whitworth park. We wander through an eclectic mix of art, I find some sketches by Raphael and notice the walls are painted in Little Green Paint. I'm using that in our kitchen. We meet a friend and find a Spanish cocktail and tapas bar on Deansgate. It's happy hour. We're happy the cocktails are only £5, my daughter incredulous at the bar prices after living in London. In the evening we join the Manchester high life at the beautiful Tattu, sitting under the cherry tree and devouring their delicious food. My feet throb from all the walking, in time to the loud house music. I feel we should be in a club, but those days are gone.

The next days brings more memories, a wander through the Northern Quarter and to Afflecks Palace, Mecca of my student days. A wry smile that my daughter spends more time in the poster shop looking for Smiths memorabilia than I ever did. She buys vinyl, like I did, from Picadilly Records. She's the same age as me when I used to get the train from Liverpool to Manchester for shopping day trips, when the clothes were second hand, not vintage and the Northern Quarter didn't exist. My mum can go further back, she remembers Tib Street as full of pet shops, the cast iron kerbs are still there, to protect the pavements form the horses and carts.


We walk on to Manchester Art gallery, past the old Stock exchange where my father worked and would wave to my mother in the offices across the road, past Picadilly Gardens where they met. I'm delighted to see one of my favourite paintings is still there, the manic and colourful 'work'by Ford Maddox Brown





After replenishing our energy with tea and cake we walk on to the new People's History Museum. A informative and educational way to remember what made this city, and so many of our Northern cities great, the people. There's even time for a suffragette board game, Pank-a-squith. My mum proves to be a more effective suffragette than I, as does my daughter. Some things skip a generation. After our shared weekend experiences I resolve to re-activate my revolutionary fervour and plan another three generation weekend next year. I buy the board game at the shop, and leave it at the hotel. They have promised to post it on. Thank you Manchester.