Saturday, February 28, 2009

Shhhhh - I'm writing

It's been quiet on this blog for a day or two. Why? Because I've been immersed in a writing project. Normal services will be resumed though. Thanks for bearing with me.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Baha'i leaders in Iran

I just read the following letter from the Times Online and am re posting it below. The continuing imprisonment of Baha'is in Iran is hugely worrying and I am very pleased to see such a list of prominent artists raising their voices on the subject.

Sir, We are deeply concerned at the continuing imprisonment for more than eight months of seven leaders of the Baha’i community in Iran. No formal evidence has been brought against them.

They have not been given access to their legal counsel, the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. She has had no access to their files and has suffered threats and intimidation since taking on their case.
Spurious charges now look likely to be filed against these Baha’is in the Revolutionary Court. “Espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic” are their alleged crimes.

In reality, their only “crime”, which the current regime finds intolerable, is that they hold a religious belief that is different from the majority.

As artists who strive to uplift the human spirit and enrich society through our work, we register our solidarity with all those in Iran who are being persecuted for promoting the best development of society — be it through the arts and media, the promotion of education, social and economic development, or adherence to moral principles.

Further, we join with the governments, human rights organisations and people of goodwill throughout the world who have so far raised their voices calling for a fair trial, if not the complete release of the Baha’i leaders in Iran.

David Baddiel
Bill Bailey
Morwenna Banks
Sanjeev Bhasker
Jo Brand
Russell Brand
Rob Brydon
Jimmy Carr
Jack Dee
Omid Djalili
Sean Lock
Lee Mack
Alexei Sayle
Meera Syal
Mark Thomas

The original article can be found at:

Labour Party policy on Dyslexia

Readers of this blog may remember comments made by Graham Stringer MP some time ago, which made the surprising announcement that dyslexia does not exist. (Surprising to those of us who are dyslexic).

I was angry at the time because I knew the statement would spread confusion and distress among a group of people who suffer enough distress already.

At the time, I wrote a couple of articles on the issue, went on radio to talk about it and, once I'd calmed down a bit, wrote to the Labour Party asking for clarification. They were kind enough to get back to me with a statement. I then wrote back requesting permission to reproduce their statement on my blog. To that I have still received no reply. After a long delay, I have decided to publish their statement anyway, and trust that if they want me to remove it, they'll let me know.

My question:

Following recent statements by Labour MP Graham Stringer, I would like to know if it is Labour Party policy that 'dyslexia is a cruel fiction'. If not, I'd be grateful to know what Labour Party policy is on this matter. Or indeed if the Labour Party has no policy. Many thanks.


Dear Mr Duncan Thank you for your email about Graham Stringer's comments. His comments made do not reflect Labour Party policy. We understand the distress and frustration that many parents of a dyslexic child feel so keenly. Often they have endured years of struggle trying to get extra help to overcome their child's difficulties with reading and writing. That is why the Labour Government is working with a number of dyslexia organisations to identify and promote best practice in identifying and supporting children with dyslexia.The Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls, has asked schools to look closely at the support they offer for dyslexia. As well as helping fund the British Dyslexia Association parents' helpline, the government are spending £1m through the 'No to Failure' project which is trailblazing and evaluating the effect of both specialist training for teachers and specialist tuition for children with dyslexia. Ed Balls has asked Sir Jim Rose - who is currently doing a review of the primary curriculum - to look at these and other schemes and make recommendations on the identification and teaching of children with dyslexia. He will be publishing his recommendations in the Spring. Regards, Ben Nicol Membership & Communications Unit The Labour Party

Monday, February 23, 2009

Develop Your Novel

Tonight is my first session teaching a 6 week writing course entitled "Develop Your Novel". It is taking place at the Adult Education College in Leicester and is organised by the wonderful Writing School Leicester.

I'm sure I will know some of the students from other courses. Several of my students from the previous course will probably sign up. And there will be others I have had the pleasure of teaching at other times before that.

So the question is: what can I possibly tell them that I haven't told them already? Ultimately, the only way to learn to write a novel is to write one. There doesn't seem to be a shortcut.

I am reminded of a pottery course I went on a couple of years ago. My dream was to learn to throw pots on a wheel. That is still my dream. Does that mean the course was a failure? No. I did throw some pots. One or two of them I am quite proud of. But if I had the time and a suitable course came along, I would surely take it. Because there is no end to how much better I could get with practice and occasional hints from the teacher.

I think it is the same for creative writing. Perhaps I won't cover much ground that is fundamentally new. But I have no doubt that the students will learn. In fact, I have no doubt that I will learn too. The day I stop learning is the day I give it up.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A story in the head

Once I have a story in my head, I can't rest properly. Not until it is out on the page or fixed down in some other way. That is the situation I am in right now.

I can't let you know what it is just yet. But the ideas are coming all in a rush and I need to find a process for imposing a structure on them.

The structure I choose initially is the Three Act Structure. I want to pick out two of the major plot points and fix them down. The first will come approximately a quarter of the way into the story. The second will come more or less three quarters of the way through. Then - with those in place - I'll be able to start putting the various other plot devices into place within that structure. It seems very likely that some of the raw ideas won't have a place and will need to be thrown out. But at least I will know.

Does it sound as if I am artificially imposing a predetermined structure? Yes, I am. But that is the magic of story craft. There is infinite possible variation - even within such rigidity.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Coping with bad reviews

I was reading through the archive and found the following. I'd so forgotten it that it made me laugh out loud.

Bad Reviews - four philosophies:

Mendacity “Me? I don’t care what other people think.”

Superiority “The reviewers don’t know what they’re talking about, dahling.”

Denial “A bad review? With my writing? Be reasonable!”

Pragmatism “There’s only one thing worse than being talked about… not being talked about.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Househusband and Writer or Writer and Househusband?

I had a call from BBC Radio Leicester this morning and ended up doing a short phone interview. They were looking for someone to comment on what it is like to be a househusband - following on from some recent comment by a politician.

Well, I was a househusband a few years ago. And I wrote an article about it that was published in the Times. Back then, I called myself a "househusband and a writer". But since then my children have both gone to school and I spent less and less time looking after the house and more and more time being a writer. I came to the point of calling myself a "writer and a househusband." And now, just a "writer".

Perhaps that Times article (which I believe is reprinted somewhere on the web by a group of people arguing that men should not be househusbands!) is the reason I get contacted from time to time to speak about the subject.

So here is what I remember:

I got lots of time with my children. Precious and irreplaceable time.

I found many of the services aimed at helping mothers of young children were hard for me to access. Not that I was barred from taking part in 'parent and toddler' events. But I was always the only man there and things would clearly have been easier for everyone if I hadn't been present.

I found myself somewhat isolated as a result.

But it was a hugely creative and formative time for me and was the period in which I emerged as a novelist.

The day my youngest child started school - beyond which I had no excuse for not seeking a real job - was the day my first novel was accepted for publication.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where does creativity come from?

I was just reading Chris Jones's blog and came across this video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about creativity.

She talks about the process of creativity, the pressure that the label of 'genius' brings to artists and how that has often driven them towards self-destruction, ways in which people in the past have viewed creative genius as something external, and ways in which - whatever the science of creativity may tell us - it can sometimes be helpful to relate to it as coming from an external source.

It is very thought provoking and very well delivered.

I have often been struck by the common experience of many writers who describe the sensation of things coming to them as if from an external source. This does not mean they think it is really happening that way. But that is never-the-less the way it feels. This happened to me when I wrote the opening of my novel "Backlash" - it felt almost as if the words were being dictated to me. Such a shame that doesn't happen all the time! But when it does - on those rare occasions - it often brings the most memorable results.

Anyway - the video is 19 minutes long, and well worth a watch if you are interested in that kind of thing.

Reading Matters

I watched a very interesting program on BBC IPlayer last night - "Reading Matters". It may still be available - if so do check it out - assuming you are interested in writing. Or catch it when it is hopefully repeated.

The program talked about the relationship between the physical brain and the process of reading. No mention of dyslexia, unfortunately. But that would probably have been off the main theme.

It has been known for a long time that the brain has a set of 'mirror neurons' which fire off in response to our observations of other people's actions. (I seem to be an extreme example of this, because I find my leg twitching when I watch a football match on TV and a player extends his own leg to get the ball!) But I learned from the program that our mirror neurons also fire in response to the words we read.

It is enough for us to read a description of some one's actions to have our brains modelling the same action. And how much more so, do our brains model other people's emotions. The emotions we show in the characters in our stories are literally modelled in the brains of our readers. The circuits that would generate that emotion in us are tried out. Relating to stories is literally a hard-wired response.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Writers on the road

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself on a freezing cold street in the middle of Leicester, getting three wonderful writers to lie down in the middle of the road. Sometimes creativity leads and you just have to follow, even though you find yourself in strange places.
The original creative idea came from writer Terri Bradshaw, who suggested a name and image for the upcoming Leicester Writers' Club show. She said if we called it "Writers on the road", we could promote the event with a picture of some writers ON a road. Simple. Brilliant.
So we did it and I got to take the photograph - which was perhaps less dangerous than having to lie in the road. But my fingers near froze handling the camera!
Note: This wonderfully narrow, and thoroughly road-like road is Short Street, just behind the bus station in Leicester.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chris d'Lacey video

After shooting comes editing. Each time I am involved in video editing, I am amazed how much of the story telling takes place at that stage. Even if you have the script rock-solid beforehand. Even if you follow the script to the letter as you shoot.

If take 45 seconds of Chris talking to camera, I'll not want to hold that one shot for the full time in the final version - because it would feel slow if I did. Clearly, I need to be able to cut away from the shot of Chris talking for a few seconds and then cut back. What do I show in the cutaway? A shot of his bookcase perhaps? Or a cuddly toy on his desk? And where exactly do I drop that shot into the speech?

Just as readers will form opinions of a novel based on subtle hints of language, so viewers will form opinions based on this kind of minute change.

The video is finished now, however. Hopefully, I'll be able to put it on Youtube or a similar service. I'll let you know when it goes up.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I shot Chris d'Lacey

It's true. I shot the bestselling children's author, Chris d'Lacey. And I did it yesterday. But before I start getting hate mail from some of his hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans around the world, let me say that I shot him photographically, rather than in a crime novel sense.

To explain: Chris asked me to bring camera and lights to his place yesterday to shoot a short video, in which he talks about his soon-to-be-published novel "Darkfire" - latest in the hugely popular dragon series.

The shoot was fun, as you would expect with Chris. I'll hopefully get another shot or two tonight, then edit it all together in the coming days. The video is being made to be shown at a conference, but I hope it will also be released over the web. If it does, I'll post a link to it here.

The interesting thing for me, which I noticed as I was filming Chris sitting outside his house, is that his garden is inhabited by several small creatures, whose snouts and eyes peer through the undergrowth here and there. Yes - there are dragons in Chris d'Lacey's garden. Now, I have to say that I didn't actually see any of them move, so they may be made of stone. But who is to say that they don't come to life when no one is looking?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jack Carraway - update

I had quite a bit of e-mail on the subject of Jack Carraway since posting the last blog entry earlier today. And I was thrilled to discover, as a result, that there is a Carraway fan site here.

"Fiction is the new truth"

I just found an interesting website called Authonomy. It is the property of Harper Collins, publishers. People upload chapters of unpublished novels and you can look at them, review them etc. The most popular ones get looked at by HC for possible publication. It seems reasonably democratic.

Unfortunately you have to register to browse the books - though that is a mercifully simple process and comes without strings attached.

If you do have a look, check out the novel FORGED TRUTH by Jack Carraway. It strongly reminds me of Catch 22 - but set against the election of a new US president. I am told that Carraway has connections to Leicester - though to say more might be dangerous as the secret service has ears everywhere!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Groundhog Day and Zombie Undead

How many stories have so encapsulated an idea that their title has become a phrase in the English language? I can think of two. Catch 22 and Groundhog Day. Curiously both describe a kind of trap where you can never get out of the situation.

Well, I look out of my window this morning and see a blanket of snow. Will my writing class be on this evening? Yes, it's Groundhog Day. Exactly a week ago, I looked out on a snowy scene and asked myself the same question.

But in reality things move on. This is the final class in a series of five and the snow does not look so deep or so disruptive as it did a week ago. Last week, eight dedicated writers pushed their way through to reach the class. I'm sure there will be as many or more tonight.

The class is "Starting to write a novel", but I am going to have to come clean and tell the students that I can't actually teach them to write a novel at all. Lots of people tell me they have a book in their head that they will write one day. A few of those actually do the brave thing and start writing it. A fraction of the ones who start writing will press on to the end. And of those a surprisingly small number get round to sending their completed work out to publishers. But the harsh truth of it is this - there is no shortcut to learning to write a novel. You just have to write one. And then another. And then another. (Whether or not you get published, you still continue to learn with everything you write.)

A class can do some things though. It can give help and support and advice along the way. It can teach techniques. And hopefully it can make the journey easier and more enjoyable.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of acting in a zombie movie being shot in Leicester. (No, I was not a zombie. Though I was devoured by one or two of them!) The picture below is a mobile phone snap, so forgive the poor resolution.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Twenty-five random things

There is a chain message sweeping Facebook, in which people are invited to create a list of 25 things about themselves. As it seemed like a good writing activity, I had a go at it this morning. Twenty-five is a large enough number to force you to start thinking creatively, so it works quite well as an exercise.

Here is my list:

1. Although I hate chain messages and never send them on, I am interested in the “25 things” idea and have thus decided to try writing one for myself, but will definitely not be taking part in the chain, and thus can be regarded as a loose link.

2. I enjoy living now, am deeply suspicious of the future and have already forgotten much of the past.

3. I can’t understand why it is impossible to buy good marmalade.

4. I love clashing ideas together to see what happens, but feel very uneasy when people clash themselves together. When personalities are clashing, the ideas are usually forgotten.

5. The diversity of the human race is a source of great joy to me.

6. A good story is a wonderful thing. It entertains and it heals. If I can leave at least one good story behind me when I am gone, my life won’t have been wasted.

7. I don’t like the word ‘dyslexic’ because it emphasises the weakest aspect of what it is to have this kind of brain architecture and it ignores all the really strong, fun and lovely things.

8. It would be really neat to have an empathy thermostat (would that be empath-o-stat?). I could then turn it down from time to time, and not pick up other people’s feelings quite so strongly. And how amazingly useful to have a remote control for other people’s empathy setting. I could go round sorting out other people’s relationship problems through empathy adjustments up and down.

9. The enlightenment gave us loads of neat stuff, but it also set up a barrier between science and religion that, in my opinion, is to the detriment of both. The impulse to search out the truth should surely be the foundation of both. Wherever that leads.

10. Good chocolate ice cream is a beautiful thing.

11. It is in the nature of people to be creative. The more I have given my creativity outlets, the more creative I have seemed to become. I think the reality is that creativity is always there, we just don’t usually allow ourselves to notice. You could say that our unconscious minds provide a stream of creativity which our conscious minds are taught to cover up. You could also say that we are made in the image of a Creator.

12. It seems to me that a group of people working together in the pursuit of excellence can achieve almost anything.

13. I love the ocean but live a long way from it.

14. I love a really good sandwich, but can’t eat bread.

15. I am terribly competitive when it comes to playing games. But seeing my children doing things better than me gives me more pleasure than winning ever could.

16. The formative moments of my life have usually been connected to prayer and meditation. For example, praying at the shrines of the Bâb and Baha’u’llah. I think we are connected through time to moments like that.

17. I am not a morning person.

18. I find conformity difficult. Partly because I’m not very good at it. Partly because I instinctively reject the concept. I have always felt out of step with the society around me and have been very grateful whenever I find people who accept me as I am.

19. The two kinds of people I love to be around: the creative and the spiritually radiant. But combine the two and I am in heaven.

20. I would one day like to see the aurora – northern or southern, I do not mind which. Being able to see the Earth’s and the Sun’s magnetic fields interacting, to at once understand what is happening and to be bathed in the mystery of it.

21. I’d also like to see a whale.

22. Though I don’t tend to see the past, as it is behind me, school days have cast a long shadow over my life. Only now I seem to be coming out from under that shadow.

23. I believe vision can change reality.

24. People hate it when children don’t listen to them. But how many adults really listen when children are speaking? It is a rare quality - one that I strongly admire.

25. I am incurably curious.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Writers' e-mail forum

The snow closed the Adult Education College in Leicester last night. Since that is where Leicester Writers' Club gathers on Thursdays, our meeting had to be cancelled. However, club members are a keen bunch of people, so contrived a way of meeting 'virtually' through our e-mail forum.

Between 7pm and 9pm last night, a bunch of us 'gathered' around our own individual computers in our own individual homes and set about the usual business of our manuscript meetings. We posted chapters or poems or whatever we had been working on. The text was then delivered to each others' e-mail. We read and then commented - in more e-mails.

The upshot of this was, we had a couple of hours of reading and typing responses. My estimate is that I received around 100 e-mails in that time.

One of the members of my Monday night novel writing class has pointed out that these blog entries and comments on them are credited as having been posted at odd times of the day. Something to do with time zones, I think. I'll have a look at my blogspot settings and see if I can remedy that. But for the record, this is being posted at 10.20 in the morning, or there abouts. GMT, that is.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A story is a story is a story - but more so

Setting out to write a children's story has been an interesting experience. What sets a story for children apart from a story written for adults? Nothing that I can see.

Readers still have to engage with the characters. There still needs to be a trigger, a quest, surprises and choices need to come along. There needs to be a climactic moment, possibly a last minute reversal of fortune. There needs to be a resolution.

Having said all that, there are obvious differences. But these are in degree rather than being absolutes. Events have to unfold rather faster. Narrative drive can't be allowed to let up. All good practice whatever age you are writing for. Perhaps writing for children is a purer form of story telling?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Penguins, Snow and Writing Classes

I know a load of writers who report that they start writing a work of fiction and then witness the events or themes of their novel happening in real life. How does this happen? Are they subconsciously picking up on something before it becomes obvious? It happened to me once, when I started writing a novel about a fictional riot and a couple of months into the writing process, riots started to break out in cities across England.

Well, how about this: I started writing a story about penguins last week and... wow, it's snowing! I guess, it is winter, so no great surprises. However, this time the effect is working in reverse. The snow falling in real life has given me an idea for the story.

International readers may not understand the British relationship with snow. (Or, should that be the English relationship with snow?) We complain that winters aren't what they used to be. Then we get half an inch of the stuff dusting our gardens and suddenly the whole country is thrown into confusion. Traffic slews to a halt. Trains are stopped, planes grounded. This is followed by our annual round of self-examination, where we worry about how bad we are at coping with snow. Sounds pathetic? Don't be fooled, we love critical self examination just as much as we love to talk about the weather, so this is a win-win situation for us.

My question is - will the 'Starting to Write a Novel' class that I am supposed to be giving this evening be cancelled? Not if I can help it. Unless they close the college, or the roads become impassible, I'll be there. Hopefully I'll have some students. I'm really enjoying this course.