Saturday 30 December 2017

75 books read in 2017

Feeling creatively somewhat wrung out after 9/10 books of all sorts in ten years, I decided to put creating aside for 2017, and concentrate on other things, mainly teaching, mentoring and hugely important this last - reading. My own reading has taken such a back seat over the last few - time to catch up. 

I aimed at 100 books in the year, was joined by some friends, and we began a closed Facebook group - all with the same goal: to read as much as we could. We weren't all reading the same books, I hasten to add - not a 'reading group' - just a group of interested people, all reading, and all making a note - nothing more, of the books they'd read. A note, a word attached to an uploaded cover image soon increased to a line or two of subjective comment. And the group burgeoned to over 200 names. 

Did I make 100? No. I read 75. They are listed below in order of reading. Nothing planned - just following my nose and interests, some I ought to have read and somehow never did, others I stumbled across, some recommendations, others that has been on my shelf for decades...and occasional light humour as counterpoint. But it is interesting (to me) to see what categories they fell into:

Novels: 29
Short Fiction: 9
Poetry: 14
History/Military History: 5
Biog/autobiog: 4
Humour: 3

the rest... all sorts - philosophy, journalism, religious analysis...

I re-read some of my favourites by friends and colleagues, including The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, Some of Us Glow More than Others by Tania Hershman, Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy, The Flood by Maggie Gee, The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, and Voices from Stone and Bronze by Caroline Davies. All to be recommended highly. 

I chose some books by writers of colour  - novels, poetry, short stories.  

The writer/book I am most pleased to have met/ best read of the year (thanks to a recommendation from one of the group members): Plainsong, by Kent Haruf  

I hated and discarded only one book: Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. 

Here's the list for anyone who is interested. ( [R] means a re-read.) 

[R]The Many                   Wyl Menmuir            #1     Salt a novel

Speak, Memory                  Vladimir Nabokov   # 2           Putnam           autobiograpy
The Shock of the Fall        Nathan Filer             #3           Harper/Collins novel

The Sun Fish             Eilean Ni Chuilleanain     #4           Gallery poetry
[R]They Called it Passchendaele  L MacDonald #5           Penguin military history
Ways of Seeing               John Berger             #6            Penguin           non fic
G                                       John Berger            #7             Bloomsbury     novel
Time's Arrow                     Martin Amis            #8             Penguin novel
First Person &other stories  Ali Smith        #9             Penguin short stories
The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson     #10           Penguin           novel
Too Loud a Solitude               Bohumil Hrabal   #11           Abacus           novel
Sieze the Day                    Saul Bellow              #12           Penguin         novel

The Book of Memory            Petina Gappah     #13           Faber             novel

The Way of the Strangers: encounters w Islamic State  G Wood   #14  Allen Lane religion/current 

The Bright White Tree            Joanna Seldon    #15            Worple poetry 
A Life Discarded          Alexander Masters        #16           4th Estate biography

Plainsong                            Kent Haruf             #17            Picador novel

[R] In Another Country David Constantine       #18             Comma            short stories
Trump and me                          Mark Singer     #19             Penguin journalism/bio
[R] Dark Roots                       Cate Kennedy   #20             Atlantic short stories
The Hundred Fathom Curve /John Barr           #21            Red Hen poetry

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl/Grayson Perry     #22  Vintage autobiography

The Havocs                              Jacob Polley   #23             Picador           poetry
Olive Kitteridge                    Elizabeth Strout   #24       S/Shuster novel in stories
[R]Never Let Me Go             Kazuo Ishiguro   #25             Faber             novel
To Kill a Mockingbird        Harper  Lee            #26             Arrow             novel
Britty Britty Bang Bang    Hugh Dennis           #27     Headline non fic/humour/history
[R] The Flood                   Maggie Gee           #28             Saqi novel
[R]The Essex Serpent        Sarah Perry           #29            Serpent's Tail  novel
lThe Runaway Jury       John Grisham           #30           Arrow               novel
Seven stories         Gabriel Garcia Marquez   #31           Penguin            short stories
Beloved                        Toni Morrison            #32           Vintage              novel

The Handmaid's Tale                   Margaret Attwood    #33                 Vintage          novel
After the Funeral                       Agatha Christie           #34     Harper Collins     novel crime

Contemporary Black British Short Stories   ed. Jacob Ross  #35 Peepal Tree   short stories
The Riddle of the Sands            Erskine Childers                    #36           Dover           novel 

The Berlin Wall Cafe                                Paul Durcan       #37             Harvill         poetry
Springlines       Clare Best /Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis         #38     Little Toller poetry/art/essay
The Snow Child                          Eowyn Ivey                   #39 Tinder            novel
In the Wild Wood                Frances Gapper                    #40     Cultured Llama  short stories
Boy in the Striped Pyjamas  John Boyne                       #41                                 novel
[R]Twenty Prose Poems             Baudelaire                     #42         City Lights     prose poetry

His Bloody Project  Graeme McRae Burnet                   #43       Contraband        novel 
Philip Larkin:Poems (selected by Martin Amis)               #44             Faber             poetry
The Wife - how it works         various                               #45  Ladybird/Penguin     humour

[R]Voices from Stone and Bronze Caroline Davies          #46             Cinnamon         poetry
[R]Candide                                   Voltaire                           #47 Penguin            classics
[R]Some of us Glow more than Others/Tania Hershman #48       Unthank          short stories
The Travels of Lady Bulldog Burton Toksvig/Nightingale #49             Little,Brown     humour
On Writing                               Stephen King                   #50 Hodder              memoir
Lusitania                                   various                            #51  Pen and Sword military history
The Disappearance of Adele Bedeaux Graeme Macrae Burnet #52 Contraband      novel
{R}The Redemption of Galen Pike  Carys Davies            #53             Salt        short stories
The 39 steps                          John Buchan                    #54 Samuel French      novel spy
Diary of a Bad Year          J M Coetzee                            #55             Vintage         novel

Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy  James Kale McNeley  #56     Uni of Arizona     philosophy
Strange Pilgrims   Gabriel Garcia Marquez                     #57           Penguin       short stories
[R]Somme unseen panoramas Barton/Banning #58 Constable/IWM      history/military
Night Sky with Exit Wounds   Ocean Vuong                 #59               Cape                  poetry
Do no Harm                         Henry Marsh                   #60             W&N       non fic medical

On the trail of the poets of WW1:E Blunden McPhail/Guest  #61     Pen&sword biog/history/military
The Magic Toy Shop                 Angela Carter           #62 Virago                  novel
Elizabeth is Missing                  Emma Healey           #63             Penguin           novel

101 things with  mexican sprayer  Heinz Deppe         #64                   ?                  humour
The Seasons of Cullen Church/Bernard O'Donoghue  #65              Faber               poetry
Narcissistic Lovers  Cynthia Zane/Kevin Dibble          #66             New Horizon   non fic
The Wars                       Timothy Findley                     #67           Penguin           fiction
Very selected                        Mimi Khalvati                  #68     Smith Doorstop             poetry
{R}The Spire                          William Golding            #69           Faber and Faber     novel
The Soul of Kindness    Elizabeth Taylor                    #70            Chatto                    novel
Into the Wild                   Jon Krakauer                        #71         Pan/MacMillan     non-fiction
Once an Artist Always an Artist Capt C J Bloomfield #72  Self pub (1921) memoir/milit hist

The Parrot the Horse and the man   Amarjit Chandan #73               Arc                    poetry
An Anthology of Mine Rex Whistler #74 Hamish Hamilton poetry/paint'gs
Photographing the Fallen Jeremy Gordon-Smith #75 Pen & Sword military history

Wednesday 20 December 2017

Writers' HQ - the place to turn to for writing support

Looking for something really interesting to add to this nearly defunct blogette, I decided to have a natter with Jo Gatford, who set up a brilliant organisation for writers called Writers' HQ. Why? Well - let her tell you - but it chimes with me, as I do worry that so many writing opportunities are geared to those with the cash, the confidence, the freedom and the chutzpah to go for it. What if you just don't fit that profile? 
  That's exactly what I asked Jo...

There are 101 organisations for writers springing up all over the place. Why should a writer look closely/closer at Writers' HQ? What can your organisation do for them? 

Writer’s HQ was set up as an alternative for people who can’t afford/don’t want to/don’t have time to take a Creative Writing MA or go on longer residential retreats. There are indeed 101 organisations out there offering courses or retreats but a) many of them can be prohibitively expensive, b) many of them require significant time and dedication or attendance at a specific location that’s simply impossible for struggling writers trying to juggle work/life/study/kids, and c) the literary world can unfortunately sometimes give off a somewhat elitist vibe, and emerging/aspiring writers often suffer from imposter syndrome and/or feel that they need to be a ‘proper writer’ (whatever the hell that means) to take an expensive writing course or attend a retreat.

As parents/writers/low-income workers, we really struggled to find accessible courses or groups that would fit our needs, and Writers’ HQ really emerged to try to fill this gap. Our online courses are designed to fit in around work, life responsibilities, childcare, study, and whatever else gets in the way of writing – so people can take part online, tackle small chunks at a time, join a lively and friendly (and sweary) writing community and get their sh*t done at a pace that suits them.

The central ethos of WHQ is to offer space and time to write, writing advice and expertise, and community support for writers no matter where they are, how long they’ve been writing, or how much time they have to assign to writing. We’re kind of the ‘scruffy nerf herders’ of the writing world. We acknowledge that writing is really bloody hard and the average writer spends a lot of time doubting their abilities. We also swear a lot and enjoy posting stupid gifs which seems to appeal to writers who tend to procrastinate online. 

How does Writers HQ work?

So. Our online courses are available worldwide to anyone with an internet connection. You can sign up to individual courses or become a member and get ongoing access to ALL our courses (with new ones being released every month or so) – a bit like Netflix for writers. Once you’re registered, you’ll work through a series of exercises towards a tangible outcome (such as plotting a novel) at your own pace, with plenty of opportunity for flexibility, peer discussion and feedback. Our private Facebook group is open all hours for anti-procrastination pep talks and general writerly discussion (because, let’s face it, you’re all on Facebook anyway, so you might as well be reminded to write while you’re there).

A huge proportion of our students go on to take more than one course and often work their way methodically through the series – from plotting to editing to submitting a novel, or from idea generation to writing short fiction to submitting to lit mags and competitions. And we get results. Our Wall of Fame is testimony to the many successes our students have had in the last year – most recently we had FOUR students longlisted for the Mslexia novel award, a handful of writers landed literary agents or publishing deals, and a whole bunch more had their short fiction published, or were long/short listed for competitions. We are very proud literary mother hens and we love shouting our students’ achievements from the rooftops (or at least Twitter).  

Our one-day regional retreats are available in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Portsmouth and Worthing each month (with more locations coming soon!). Essentially, at a WHQ retreat, we shut you in a room for 6 hours and ply you with unlimited caffeine and snacks, feed you a tasty lunch, and get everyone to set a tangible personal writing goal for the day. Then we work in small, manageable chunks of writing time, checking in periodically to see how everyone’s getting on, and awarding gold stars for good behaviour (it’s honestly quite remarkable how motivational shiny stickers can be for adults). It’s absolutely not competitive, but the average writer tends to get about 3-5,000 words down in a single day – though we have a few incredibly prolific outliers who have managed a staggering 10,000+ words in one session! 

We’ve found one-day retreats are far more accessible for people who work full time or have kids or generally find it hard to carve out time to write. They’re also much cheaper than residential retreats and often more productive than informal writing groups, and around 80% of attendees are repeat offenders, meaning that you see a lot of the same faces each month, get to know other local writers, and keep up to date with how everyone’s projects are getting on gives them a really lovely community feel.

Many writing opportunities are only accessible to those who can pay/get childcare easily and so forth. How are you addressing these issues? Any plans to help with childcare by providing a creche, for example? 

We both have a couple of sprogs each, so we know how hard it is to get back into writing once you emerge from the daze of the newborn/toddler days. And we get A LOT of parents (mostly mums, actually, who seem to find it harder to prioritise their writing time) at our retreats and on our courses so we’re constantly looking for ways to accommodate people with kiddos. This is exactly why we decided to run one-day retreats, as it can be really tough to get away for a week-long retreat (not only logistically but also because of the never-ending parental guilt), while finding one day per month at a weekend is much more feasible. Similarly, our online courses can be done in the evenings or during nap times/when little ones are at nursery or school in small, manageable chunks.

We’ve actually been talking a lot recently about a possibility of organising a longer residential retreat avec childcare but obviously there are a lot of logistics to consider – it’s definitely on our list for 2018 though! 

I happily added some video support - who else do you have in this series, and what sort of topics are they blathering about?

Oh how we love your videos (watch them all here)! We’ve also had some fantastic advice from award-winning writers like Paul McVeigh (author of The Good Son and winner of the Polari Prize), Emma Healey (author of Elizabeth is Missing and winner of the Costa First Novel Award), Catriona Ward (author of Rawblood, Best Horror Novel – British Fantasy Awards 2016) and Ed Hogan (author of Blackmoor, winner of the Desmond Elliot Prize), editor of Open Pen literary magazine Sean Preston, and literary agent Samar Hammam, so we have a huge range of experiences from the publishing world. We use all our author videos in our online courses covering all sorts of useful subjects such as: 

How does running this add to/impinge on your own writing?

Ah. Well. Do as we say, not as we do… The last year has been pretty manic for us – we were awarded funding from Arts Council England to help us set up our online courses and we’ve been busy training our regional retreat representatives to expand across the UK, as well as planning new courses and content for 2018 and supporting our existing writers. 

We’re both currently writing/editing a novel each, with plans to get them finished (and published!) in 2018, so we’re going through exactly the same trials and tribulations as our students. One of the main intentions of setting up WHQ was to allow us to factor in writing time and we’re getting there slowly. Maybe we need to take some of our own advice and ‘stop f**king about and start writing’.