Tuesday 27 December 2011


...................................................Benacre beach, grass, feather, shadows
........................................................... Old Father Time, Benacre
......................................................Southwold beach, Christmas morning
.......................................................Beach huts, Christmas morning
..........................................................Toby, mouth of River Blyth
........................................................Chris and I, Christmas morning walk
......................................................Benacre beach, sparrowhawk rising
....................................................Benacre bar
...................................................Walking on the sliding cliffs
......................................................Wood, pebbles, sand


Sunday 18 December 2011


And now for something completely different. I know only too well how hard it is to find the right people to work with as a writer, especially when seeking quality feedback and support. So, I invited novelist Jenn Ashworth and poet Sarah Hymas , not only experienced, well-published writers, but also experienced tutors,to talk a little about their place, The Writing Smithy, .

Vanessa Gebbie: For an aspiring writer seeking help, doing research to find the best place to spend what little spare cash they have, the world of writing consultancies can be a frightening, confusing place, chocca with all sorts of organisations promising to open doors, to change a writer's life. Why did you think there was room for another? Why did you start The Writing Smithy?
Jenn Ashworth: I had the idea floating around for a while - I'd worked as a freelance for other consultancies but had become uncomfortable with some of the working styles and policies I'd noticed. And even though there are lots and lots of consultancies offering services to writers, few of them are run by writers themselves and have the focus on process and rewriting that ours does.
Sarah Hymas: I had been working closely with writers for Litfest in Lancaster, as the editor of its publishing imprint, Flax. We offered one-to-one professional development sessions for writers we published and the feedback was, again and again, how useful the writers, at whatever points of their career, found the sessions The chance to talk candidly and confidentially with someone about your writing and career can clarify aspirations, definitions of success and so help with persuing the path you've chosen. I wanted to offer this to writers beyond the North West remit of Lancaster's Litfest. Plus, I really enjoy it myself! 

VG: Can you say a little more about The Writing Smithy's focus on process, first, then as another issue - rewriting? They are so fundamental - once I'd learned the way my own brain worked, as a writer, I was away! 

Jenn: I think partly this was a little bit of a reaction to what we saw as the 'get published quick' flavour of a lot of businesses doing this kind of work - of course we care about our own careers and most of our clients are very ambitious for themselves in that way too. But if the focus is on writing a synopsis, marketing yourself and so on - then where and when is editing, drafting, the long, slow process that learning to do something better involves being addressed? We do genuinely think that working on the writer as well as the writing itself is the most long-lasting form of help we can give other writers.

Sarah:  Plus we find it fascinating! As you said, Vanessa, once you found how your brain works you were away. That exploration of ourselves is so unique and ultimately rewarding for all of us, and to be alongside someone tunnelling their own synapses is a privilege. Hopefully it's a continually evolving process too, so there is always something new to learn at all stages of our journeys as writers. Certainly that's what we believe. It's an essential part of creativity: the search for the new... both externally and internally. As for your question about rewriting: its long, slow and intricate. But as creative as the first drafting process - there's something like the art of wood carving in the precision that is needed in the rewriting stage: keeping true to the essence of the thing without chopping off the thumb!

VG: How do you work with a writer on their own process? 

Jenn: I listen and observe a lot, and then ask questions that are aimed at getting the writer I am working with to examine the ways they instinctively or habitually go about things, and consider alternatives. I think it's just as important to understand why and when certain methods or techniques work as it is to know when they aren't, so I might also work with a writer to help them understand just why that brilliant paragraph or piece of writing works so well - to turn sucessess from flukes into choices.

Sarah: Yes, it is the questions that encourage the self-examination that are key, I agree with Jenn. And reading of course. How someone reads other people's work, what work you're drawn too, can also help to illuminate your instincts towards writing style and subject: what is it that we love about somebody else's approach to a subject we are interested in? How is our work different?

VG: So how do you guide them in the vital stage of rewriting a manuscript?

Jenn: the most important thing, for me, is before we even go near the writing - to help the writer I am working with articulate exactly what it is they are setting out to achieve. The writer sets the goals. I might ask questions aimed at getting the writer to clarify their goals, or encourage them to aim as high as they can, but writing is all about making decisions and I'm careful not to get in the way of that decision making process. All that's a lot more difficult than it sounds! I can and do give an honest reader's response to a manuscript and that might include some critical feedback, as you'd expect in a usual teaching situation, but my feedback is always aimed at helping a writer achieve what they want to - not my own idea of what makes good writing, or anyone else's.

Sarah: And that is always the crucial thing: to remove our own instincts and tastes from the process. It isn't about suggesting what would be good to write instead, but to flag up how everything builds towards towards that intention. And leave the writer to consider on the possible solutions, or to discuss those with them. I also think it's very useful to identify the 'nub' of a piece, be that the climax, anti-climax, key word or phrase in a poem that the writer believes to be holding it together. This can help with deciding on the shape of a poem: how to build up to that, fall away from it etc... Although having said that I'm always very keen to share with them other poets' work I love.

VG: Perhaps you can reveal a little of your own learning processes here - the things you've learned along the way that feed into what you are now doing for others?

Jenn: I've learned to get a handle on my own bad habits of procrastination and how to tune out distractions! Procrastination - motivation, these things come up very often and I feel I can speak a bit from experience! But I've also learned I need to be gentle with myself and that I need breaks - my concentration span isn't as long as I'd like it to be and that is what it is. Even if you can't totally eliminate your weaknesses, you can work around them!

Sarah: I think it's about trusting myself: I'm working on ideas and drafts even when it doesn't seem like it. When I'm walking or cooking or reading. And by understanding that you can give drafts the space they need to percolate. Patience is invaluable. After all, while it might feel like, it isn't heart surgery, everything can wait, really.

Thank you, both of you, for taking the time to consider my questions - all strength to you both, and to The Writing Smithy. Hats off, chaps - those writers who find you are lucky people.


I hope that’s been useful - please feel free to spread the word. And to close - I love the ethos, as stated on their website -

Your work is yours – we won’t steer you in a direction you’re not happy with and although growth means change, we understand what it’s like to be a writer. We don’t want to turn you into something you’re not.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Writers, beware bureaucracy...The Story of not getting £150

Postscript - another writer in the same position, different University, has waited since APRIL for her payment... this is unacceptable, isn't it? Why should writers be treated like this?
If you are reading this, and know of any other instances where Universities use and abuse writers, please let me know. Might as well make a list...with no names mentioned if you'd rather not.


Writers, be aware of the issues that can arise if you agree to a commission.
Back in the summer, I agreed to supply two stories to 'Matter', Sheffield Hallam University's annual anthology of poetry and short stories, written by students on their Masters in Creative Writing Programme, and supported by published writers like me - who were to be paid £150.
Or so I thought. In October, (three months after the commission, delivery and acceptance of the work) I asked about payment. This was prior to the launch of the anthology in London, to which I was invited, and at which I was asked to read. I was asked to bring an invoice, which I did. Yes, I'd read, gladly, launch was held in London Review Bookshop, The Coward's Tale was about to come out, so timing was great.
They didn't offer travel expenses, but I thought - hey, nice event, good people - I'll support. Trainfare, tube, car parking, cost me just over £35.00. OK - I'll pay for that out of my fee. That will leave me with £115 clear. I even bought my own copy of the anthology at the launch - 'Oh we should have given you one of those ... sorry.' which cost some further ££ from the pot. No one suggested giving me my money back...
A few weeks later, having heard nothing, about the fee, I queried via email. The reply came back - Oh sorry, we cant pay you without an electronic invoice."
I zapped one back - slightly niggled - as no one had previously asked for it electronically...
Weeks pass. over a month. Unis often work on a monthly pay system - but no - nothing. So I queried again... and yes, it would be paid soon, it was in the pipeline.
Oh good. Jump up and down in glee at the prospect...Except nothing happened.
I queried again. (Now five months since the commission, delivery and acceptance of the work, and now post-publication, in an anthology they are selling, selling MY WORK... and I bought my own to support... am I feeling VERY silly by now?
So will they pay me this time? Nope - "Oh sorry, the Finance dept outsources payments to Northgate. They need to check your tax status among other things, before they can process the payment..." ie - The payment hadn't even been processed. They were sitting on it, just as they'd sat on it back in October, waiting for me to query again - and again - and again.

I'm afraid I got cross. My husband said weeks ago - "They will string it out until you give up, Ness - querying it will cost you more than the final sum..." and I didn't like to believe that. But now, yup- he was right. The behaviour of the university was simply rude, disrespectful, and I wasnt going to waste my time any more....apart that is from a final timewaster - writing this, to warn writers to get payment UP FRONT in these circumstances. The people with whom I dealt over the anthology, and my stories - the creative people, were really nice. Charming - but they weren't the Finance people, who scatter their emails liberally with indicators of who they'd like to be - FINANCE DIRECTORATE. (Huh? Accounts Dept would do, thanks...) Orwell would love this lot.

I pulled the plug, and lost my payment, which I'd never had anyway, suspect they were trying hard to make me give up ...and which The Directorate can now delete from their system, and pay a minion the same as I should have been paid, for the deletion.

But final laugh, a form arrived from the Directorate just now - for me to fill in - yet more timewasting, and I'd no doubt get something wrong, and have to wait, and not be told until I queried in January. February, March.... They hadn't even clocked that I'd pulled the plug.

Learn from my lack of awareness, and my silly trusting nature. And here is the form... sent 5 months late, from the Sheffield Hallam Finance Directorate, who could not direct a leaf down a stream. Enjoy!

Status Enquiry Form

Your answers should be in respect of the work you are undertaking for Sheffield Hallam University

1 Full Name
2 Nature of Business
3 Full Address & post code

4 Daytime tel number
5 Mobile Number
6 HMRC office and 10 digit ref eg 981/1234567890
7 What is the exact nature of work to be undertaken for the University

8 Name & address of location at which the work is to be done

Who decided this?
9 State the frequency of the work eg
a) hours of attendance
b) Days of attendance
c) Length of contract
10 What is the
rate of pay
frequency of pay
who decided this
provide a sample copy of your invoices to the university
11 Contact name at location or name of individual/team in SHU offering work
12 If written contract or other documentation setting out conditions of engagement please provide a copy
13 How was the contract obtained. Eg tender, advert other (please state)
14 Who decides what work to be done
15 Who issues instruction/guidance on what, where, when and how the work is to be done?
16 is your work checked?
If so by whom
17 Can you be moved from job to job if the universities’ priorities change?
18 are you required to abide by a code of practice or other regulations laid down by SHU?
If so please give details of any handbook or other literature issued (you may be asked for a copy later)
19 Are you entitled to holiday pay, sick pay or other benefits?
20 Are you personally obliged to do the work?
21 is there an obligation to provide someone else to do the work if you are unavailable?
If you are not obliged to send someone else do you have the right to do so?
In reality is it possible to send someone else?
Have you ever sent someone in your place
If so who and when?
Who paid the person at 21d
22 What materials/equipment is necessary for the job?

Who provides these?
23 are any duties performed other than on university premises?
If so what are they?
Where are they performed
What equipment is provided and by whom (at the other location)
24 if while you are undertaking the work you are dismissed can/do you expect a period of notice?
If so how much notice would you expect and vice versa
Is the notice contractual/verbal or understood?
25 Do you have other clients for whom you undertake similar types of work

How many in the last 12 months
26 Do you pay any specific insurance premiums such as public liability insurance?
27 Are you engaged as a teacher or a tutor?

If the answer is yes – continue
If the answer is no go to question 30
28 Do you give instruction on 3 days or more in any 3 month period?
29 Are your duties designed to lead to a certificate, diploma, degree or professional qualification?
30 I certify that the above information supplied by me is correct to the best of my knowledge and belief. Signed Date
Based on the answers provided a decision will be made as to whether PAYE/NIC rules apply
If you require any further information please contact: Northgate Payroll Helpdesk 0870 0668695

Monday 12 December 2011


Pressies to meself!!
Three marvellous books by three writing friends - all three books clattered through the letterbox last week. So I shall tell you about them, and you must rush out and get them because they are terrific... just in time for Christmas.

‘Somewhere Else or Even Here’ (Salt Modern Fiction) is a Scott Prize winner and debut collection from A J Ashworth. I shall declare an interest here - I have admired AJA’s work ever since I first read her story ‘Overnight Miracles’ in the last Willesden Herald winners anthology New Short Stories 5, and was only too delighted when she asked me for a blurb quote for her collection. I said, using one of her own wonderful phrases -
‘The stories here really are shooting stars - ‘brilliant sparkling scratches’ against the night. A very gifted wrtiter. One to watch...’
The lovely Maggie Gee also blurbed as did Simon van Booy, winner of the 2009 Frank O’Connor Prize, who said:
‘With beauty, poise and fearlessness, A. J. Ashworth creates worlds that are chillingly real, exploring the raw human need for attachment and the fear of closeness in a way that is both tender and haunting. She is a fierce new talent.’

Nuff said, really. if you enjoy great short stories, get it. Easy.
Here it is on Salt Publishing’s website - HERE! Go get it!

Next, ‘The Juno Charm’ (Salmon Poetry) the third full collection of poetry from Nuala Ni Chonchuir. Author of three short story collections, and a novel described by The Irish Examiner as ‘a gem’ - Nuala is one of the most prolific and consistently strong writers I know, working across the forms with apparent ease. I was delighted to welcome her on a recent blog-tour stop for ‘The Juno Charm’ - and she allowed me to include one of the poems - so go back a few posts to read the intriguing poem entitled 'Japanese Madonna'.
To quote from the description of the collection - in this book Ni Chonchuir
‘explores the worlds of two marriages - one waning one waxing - and the pain of pregnancy loss and fertility struggles’ ... ‘employs her signature sensual frankness...’. 'Sometimes irreverent, always vivid, this is poetry ripe with imaginative possibility and wit.'

And I love Mary O’Donnell’s quote, which says that Nuala
‘reveals herself as a witty and energetic purveyor of the happiness and pleasure that lie on the far side of common experience.’

A great collection. ‘The Juno Charm’ can be bought from the publisher and other places...but it’s sold out on Amazon, so ...

Finally I have five copies (wheee!) of another poetry collection, and will be giving this to poetry-loving friends this Christmas. Bookseller, writer and general good egg Jen Campbell undertook a challenge over the weekend of 5/6 November, to write 100 poems in a weekend. She did this to raise money for EEC International, a charity that funds research centres looking into gene p63 and degenerative eye conditions associated with EEC Syndrome - (Electrodactyly-ectodermal dysplasia clefting syndrome) - which Jen has. It is likely that most people who have EEC syndrome will lose their sight. If a cure can be found for this degenerative eye sign problem, it will help thousands of people worldwide. Not just those with EEC.

The poems were written over 48 hours to tag-word prompts sent to Jen on Twitter. I knew that wonderful things can sometimes happen when a writer puts herself under pressure - sometimes - but these poems really are something quite special.

Here are two, with Jen’s permission.

No 35 (Tag word, “Collage”)

We find ourselves as decoupage.

I think this, standing on an escalator
leaning on your arm. We bend and
mould to fit. Adapt and layer over.

When you sleep, your limbs shed skin
like changing clothes. I could take them
to hang. Line the walls of a gallery.

We could spend the weekends walking
amongst ourselves
seeing how we’ve grown.

No 82 (Tag words ‘Mill” and “Holland”)

You want a shoulder tattooed tulip
looking back to time we spent there.

The thick air of autumn cafes
hand in hand with the canal.

Jen produced the books in a limited edition of 200, with cover brilliantly illustrated by Greg McLeod. If there any left, you can buy them via Jen’s blog HERE- If there are none left, you can read all about them, and her... at the same place.

Her first book (other than this one), the hilarious ‘Wierd Things Customers Say In Bookshops’ will be published by Constable and Robinson in April 2012.