Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Times Are A'Changin' by Debbie Bennett

2016. A year of change. I wonder when they look back on 2016 in the years and decades to come, whether they will say that 2016 was the turning point, the pivotal moment when the world reached some kind of critical mass? I say they because I’ll be 53 in January and while I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon, this isn’t my world anymore – this world belongs to my daughter and her generation, to make the best of as they see fit with whatever legacy we’ve left them.

Brexit and the US elections. Neither gave the result that was expected and both, I think, made people sit up and realise the complacency with which we live our lives. Whichever way you voted in either election or referendum, we are on the cusp of something new – and we won’t know what it is, or what it may become, for a good many years yet.

On a smaller scale, the indie revolution is turning and changing. Music, arts, ebooks – whatever your flavour – I believe it’s becoming harder now to make your mark. Those who built their platforms in the heady days of the noughties are reaping the benefits; firmly embedded in Google, they pop up at the top of searches and they seem to know effortlessly how it all just works. I wish I knew the magical formula. Those of us who followed after have found it harder, and those who are only now beginning their self-publishing journey will be scrabbling for a slice of the Amazon pie as the crumbs get even smaller.

And online isn’t forever – no matter what I've said in other posts about protecting your privacy. The digital footprints in the sands of the internet are washed constantly by the waves of technology and what was once permanent is now obsolete. How many of us have photos on CDs? I have footage from my wedding from 1990 – back then not many people had video cameras and I was lucky in that my boss was a bit of a geek and had all the latest technology. His camera was a huge thing you had to balance on a shoulder, and my video is on VHS tape. I no longer have a VHS player and my new pc doesn’t even have a DVD or CD drive. These days we store everything on USB sticks and SD cards. Easily lost and easily forgotten.

What of our ebooks? How long before mobi and epub formats are unreadable and we are simply a mass of digital code somewhere. Our own kindle ‘libraries’ aren’t even our own – they are simply licenses to read certain books – so when our kindle is obsolete, what of the thousands of books stored on it? Paperbacks at least have a permanence about them. I have some treasured paperbacks from my childhood and despite my book-cull earlier this year, I still have several hundred physical books I couldn’t bear to lose. As well as my own paperbacks, of course!

Various prophets and predictions have always imbued times of great change with tales of second comings, of apocalypses and revelations and the end of the world as we know it. Society has never been more secular and yet fiction loves to deal with pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds. An omen, maybe? Can we all be Katniss or Triss? Horror is fashionable once again – exploring our fears within the ‘safe’ world of fiction?

What will the world look like in 2026?


Monday, 5 December 2016

After the Flood - Kathleen Jones looks back on a rather soggy year.

What do you expect if you live in an old water mill?
One year ago today my house was full of water - like the houses of thousands (6000 alone in Cumbria) of other people across Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire.  It’s not a good memory.  A year later, most of us are still living with the consequences.  Insurance companies were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and even when settlements were reached, there just weren’t enough builders in the north to repair the damage straight away.  Roads, bridges and railway viaducts were swept away, and some of the infrastructure is still waiting to be restored.

Work in Progress! the green mould marks the water level on the outside wall.

The little cottage we rely on for part of our livelihood is still drying out - the ceiling beams were sodden and we’ve only just been able to get the place re-wired so that we can put some heating in.  But the floors are newly laid and the kitchen on the way to completion.



On the ground floor of the mill itself, there’s still a gaping hole full of rubble, boarded up windows and warped doors, but that is all going to change in the next few weeks.


Ground floor of the mill - way to go yet. Check the arched windows with the pic below one year ago.

Upstairs in the workshop (almost three feet deep a year ago) the floor has been repaired, though there’s still a lot of work to do.  I live in hope of the damp and the mould being gone and the windows and doors being secured.  But at least I’m in my own home, comfortably on the top floor, where I can shut the door on the mess.  Hundreds of others are still living in temporary accommodation. I’m one of the lucky ones this Christmas.

Ground floor windows about to disappear in December 2015, the footbridge in the distance disappeared completely underwater.
And soon it will be the end of 2016 and I can’t say that I will be sorry.  I will be saying goodbye to one of the most stressful years of my life, which I would never have survived without the help and support of wonderful friends and family.

My son-in-law pitching in
Or without the support of the Royal Literary Fund, the charitable organisation set up in the 18th century to help writers in trouble.  They have employed me as a Fellow throughout this year, so that financial anxieties were not too pressing.  Working for them, visiting universities across the UK for a research project, has kept me sane as well as solvent.

As you can imagine, it’s been difficult to write, through so much chaos, but I have been writing poetry and have just heard that a small collection of it is to be published next year, though the contract hasn’t been signed yet - fingers crossed!


And I’ve been re-writing my biography of Catherine Cookson - one of the authors featured recently on the BBC's ‘Books that Made Britain’ series - with a view to re-publishing it.  The original, published by Times Warner, was blocked by the Cookson Estate who withdrew permission to quote from her novels because they thought the book was too controversial.  I’m hoping I can get it back into print next year, so watch this space. Being a natural optimist, I’m looking forward to 2017 as a new beginning and a year of repair and renewal.  Though how that will work out with Trump and Brexit, I don’t know.  We live in ‘interesting times’!


Kathleen Jones is a biographer, poet and novelist who lives in the Lake District - most of the time on dry land.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life' can be found on Facebook and Tweets incognito as @kathyferber 

Her website is www.kathleenjones.co.uk



Sunday, 4 December 2016

Is NaNoWriMo really a good idea? (And are the AIs really out to get me?) by Rosalie Warren



In 2015 I did NaNoWriMo, the writing challenge that encourages you to complete a 50,000 word first draft within the month of November. I needed a bit of motivation for my new science fiction novel, and I believed that the 1700 words (approximately) required per day would not be beyond me, since I often write (or used to write – see below) around 1500-2000 words a day anyway. NaNo seemed like a good way of making sure I kept to that, while enabling me to finish my first draft just in time to start my Christmas shopping.

It proved to be a lot harder than I’d expected. What I’d forgotten was that, although I often wrote as much as 2000 words a day, I generally allowed myself at least one day off a week – sometimes two. I’d even give myself an extra day or so if I was travelling, babysitting, or feeling under the weather. NaNo permits no such luxuries. Or rather, it does, but you have to catch up on any time lost and the whole thing soon gets away from you. It was a tough month and I sometimes found myself getting up extra early to write or catching up on it before I went to bed. Fine, you say. A bit of discipline never did anyone any harm. Think of all those authors with full-time jobs and/or caring commitments – the only way they can write is to get up at 5 a.m. (May I just stop to convey my deepest admiration and respect for all writers who do this. You are true stars and deserve to win the Man Booker, every one of you.)

Somehow, I managed to complete my 50,000 words before December burst upon us, and I enjoyed a brief surge of achievement before the Christmas shopping kicked in. I realised, of course, that what I had was just a draft, and a very drafty (and draughty, as in full of holes) one at that. But that’s usual for me – my first drafts always need lots of work, even to the point of reading them through and then binning and rewriting them from scratch. (Not being able to read my own handwriting is one of the reasons for this, and I do like to write my first drafts with a black inky pen on lovely smooth paper – don’t get me started…) Anyway, the draft was filed away on my (literal) desktop, where it sits to this day, giving me accusing glances as I gaze vacantly at the weather forecast on my screen, devour the Archers website and Authors Electric, and scurry along behind my friends on Facebook. 

Normally, I’d have managed to bring myself to look at it by February or March. I’d have done the requisite cringing that always accompanies a read of my own work (like hearing your voice on tape or seeing yourself on video, ugh). Then I’d have knuckled down and started the rewrite. I might have attempted a synopsis/plan before starting again. Settled on the names of my characters, at least to make them consistent. Checked a few scientific facts online to make sure I hadn’t made stupid mistakes. I’d have soon been writing again, for better or worse, and by now, a year later, I’d have had a second, third or even fourth draft safely stashed in nine different places on my laptop, on our other computer and somewhere in that mysterious ‘cloud’. Oh yes, and a print copy, just in case my story came true and the AIs (artifical intelligences) ate up all our electronic data in their quest for domination of the universe. (If you can’t suspend your own disbelief, whose can you? Is that good English? Probably not…)

I’ve just had a thought. Maybe the AIs have been sabotaging my story from the start? Now that might make for a much better plot… I’ll follow it up later, when I’ve finished blaming NaNo for my failure to produce a book.

No, I’m not really going to blame NaNo. It wouldn’t be fair, though I suspect that 1700 words a day does not suit me as a writer. I think it’s just too much. I ended up so far ahead of my imagination that I was writing drivel – even more than usual, you might want to say. I was writing for the sake of writing and I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Sometimes, yes, like forcing yourself to go for a walk or a swim and then finding you enjoy it after all – but not every day. Writing isn’t the same as walking, anyway. Our creative brains need time to refill themselves. Perhaps everyone has an optimum word rate and the key is to find it, at least when circumstances allow (and to be prepared to adjust it as we change and grow). 

A number of other things have happened this year to put me off writing, including a period of poor health. The thing is, though, I never gave up completely… or not for long. I’m now into another book, which seems to be going quite well (though at a much slower rate than I’m used to, and certainly not 1700 words a day). It’s that NaNo novel in particular that I don’t seem able to face. I can’t even look at it. I somehow dust it once a week without moving the tissue box that lies on top. As for actually opening the folder… no. NO NO NO!!!

The Scary Pile (Note: this photo wins the prize for the least interesting picture posted on Authors Electric in 2016. By a LONG way...)

 I was all set to write this post when, the other morning, I woke up with a little glimmer of something in my head. Maybe I’d had a dream. Or perhaps my brain had done some filing, some sorting, some reasoning, and now found itself able to contemplate that NaNo book again. Not to open the folder. That would be a crazy step too far. But to think, a tiny bit, about the story and the characters, and to admit that it could actually be quite interesting.

Maybe the AIs have decided I’m no longer a threat and removed the firewall from my head. Or maybe it’s simply the passage of time. Whatever has happened, I’ve at least convinced myself that NaNo doesn’t work for me, though I’m sure it’s fine for some of the writers, some of the time. Watch out, though - my second work of scifi may be rolling off the press at some point in the next two (or twenty) years. 

My first scifi novel (2015). It was the people, not the AIs, who were bad in this one. The AIs were fine. That's probably why they let me write it.
Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren
Best wishes,
Ros

Saturday, 3 December 2016

City on the Edge of No Tomorrows - Umberto Tosi

The election debacle has me flashing on 1968 when it seemed to this old lefty - as it does today - that the stars were arrayed against our every hope for that better world we had thought briefly within our grasp. Part of it has to do with my preparing to release a new, print edition of Our Own Kind, a semiautobiographical novella about black-and-white relationships at a newspaper during the catastrophic three months between the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles - a story that I tried to let unfold along nexus of private lives and public calamities while skirting the edges of America's ever-present racial divide.

And here we are again. Fast forward 48 years to another American presidential election year ending badly. This one started out almost as a comedy. But the potential for calamity is worse - quite conceivably an end of the republic as we know it. Nearly every measure Trump and his corporate Republican cronies are salivating to enact will have terrible personal consequences for tens of millions of Americans, particularly middle class and poor, living in urban centers, where most of the population resides. This is not to mention mass roundups, detentions, and deportation Trump & Co. promise to gleeful xenophobes and those who will profit grandly from such enterprises. And he didn't even win, not in any decisive confirming sense. November 8 looks more and more like a coup than an election. Let the fascist occupation begin.

The Vichy media's talking heads and well-meaning liberals babble interminably how resentful. underemployed white males in the rust belt states voted and overlook the multiracial American majority coalition of male and female working poor, middle class and millennial voters who soundly rejected Trump at the ballot box. The media's back-to-normal buzz ignores the rampant coast-to-coast apprehension, disgust, and loathing coast-to-coast at this electoral travesty and Trump's menacing first steps in Washington. Serious secession movements are underway already in Oregon, Washington, and California, the nation's richest and most populous state by far. Families ponder emergency alternatives. Community-minded churches prepare for the ugly fallout.

Those spontaneous, massive post-election demonstrations in our cities were but a prelude. The first act opens with an Inauguration-Day "million-woman march" on Washington January 20th, but don't count on pundits to take it seriously. Trump meanwhile is derelict in his presidential duty to reassure and reunite the populace instead of throwing more red meat to his white nationalist base. His satraps threaten draconian repression of dissent and are seemingly eager to engage in thinly disguised ethnic cleansing and repression. You don't have to be a writer to smell the arrogance and greed already emanating from Donald Trump's new and expanded Washington swamp.

The corporate hacks and right-wing fanatics who run Congress and helped enthrone Trump can't wait to destroy what's left of the social safety net in order to fund their giveaways to the rich.

No wonder. American's aren't stupid. Most of us, like the outgoing president whom we actually elected twice by large majorities, value integrity, hard work, diversity, knowledge, compassion and have been too damned fair and nice to the people who obviously wish us ill. We've been punked. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren pointed out recently, "Republicans do not have majority support in this country. The majority of voters supported Democratic senators over Republican ones. The majority of voters supported the Democratic candidate for president over the Republican one. ... They don't have a mandate," she declared.

It's not like after your team loses a football game. The threats of an unchecked Trump administration are life-changing and pervasive, a poisonous brew of America's worst social Darwinist, racist, misogynist, anti-intellectual, reckless, militaristic ideas.

Normalizing news media, demagoguery, and empty promises be damned, it's hard to believe that half the country will just line up and drink Trump's Kool-Aid in the coming, uncompromising four years. It's a perfect storm. The Trump coalition of deplorable billionaires, flimflam televangelists, corporate stooges, and white nationalists has made no secret of its intention to destroy every progressive gain of the past century, not just those under Obama. It's a corporate lobbyist's wet dream. Trump's friends can steal all they want, while granting the wishes of those hostile to minority and women's rights, gay rights, environmental safeguards, science, public education, child care, immigration, first- and fourteenth-amendment freedoms, renewable energy, net neutrality, food-and-drug regulations, public health and safety protections, banking regulations, prison and police reforms, every form of public investment except, of course, corporate giveaways. Forget freedom of the press. Flexing muscles, top Trump aide Corey Lewandowski has already threatened jailing New York Times editor Dean Baquet for publishing part of Trump's 1995 tax return during the presidential campaign.

Already they chomp at their silver spoons to kill every federal health care and medical assistance program in sight, mindlessly throwing millions to the dogs of "free market" providers. They're ready to repeal Obamacare, gut Medicare and Medicaid and replace them with harebrained partial "tax vouchers". Millions of families will suffer, including thousands of Trump voters in eastern Kentucky suddenly worried about losing their ACA coverage. I worry about one of my daughters who cannot afford to be bumped from Obamacare-protected health coverage because of a previous condition that calls for costly, probably overpriced medication she critically needs. I am concerned about a grandson with a neurological disability whose medical benefits Trump and the Republicans can't wait to slash to pay for their planned corporate and billionaire-benefiting boondoggles.

Nixon, Ulysses Grant and Warren G. Harding will be regarded as boy scouts compared to Trump, who is hip deep in conflicts of interest weeks before even taking office. It was no secret to everyone in his home state of California that Richard M. Nixon - the 1968 "change candidate" - was a duplicitous scoundrel. But he was a statesman and savant compared to Trump. Today's Republicans wouldn't even have nominated him. Tricky Dick may have been neurotic, sleazy and vindictive, but  he was not unhinged. He was calculating, but not impulsive. Plus, a Democratic-controlled Congress and a liberal Supreme Court were there to hold him in check through much of his administration. Trump and his cabinet of cronies, however, start with complete control of Congress, thanks to Byzantine gerrymandering that allows them to win seats without having to win more votes than their opponents.

Nixon ticker-tape parade, Chicago Loop, 1968
Nixon won the popular vote in both of his elections. On the other hand, Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by more than 2.5 million nationwide and counting as of this writing.  Nixon tried the Watergate break-in. Trump did him better. He got help from the FBI and Vladimir Putin's FSB hackers. He'll annex the White House to Trump Tower courtesy of Electoral College, an archaic institution long overdue for repeal, conceived when the U.S. Constitution sanctioned slavery and allowed only propertied white men to vote.

The Electoral College system makes hacking a US election relatively easy for super-sophisticated operatives like, say, those working for the FSB. They don't have to rig votes across America's hugely complex electoral landscape. All they would have to do is inflate the vote-counts from a handful of Trump-leaning key precincts just enough to gain an edge in a half dozen swing states to tip the Electoral College Trump's way.

Forget all the post-electoral political hand-wringing. We've got more basic problems. The US Constitution, for all its glorious history, enumerated rights, checks-and-balances, and federalism, has become dysfunctional. The whole system needs a 21st-century upgrade, starting with abolition of the Electoral College. The redoubtable Constitution - as applied now - favors oligarchy and discourages even the most gradual progressive change. Its anachronisms promote racial, sexual, political and economic inequality while stifling popular participation.

It gives white voters in sparsely populated rural states disproportionate electoral power over far-more-numerous citizens of the multi-ethnic metropolitan centers that produce most of the nation's wealth. The system gives corporations more rights than people. Unlike the constitutions of progressive states like California, officials in Washington can wheel and deal freely without fear of public initiatives, referendums, and recalls.

Yes, reform seems remote right now, but so, we can imagine, did women's suffrage a hundred and twenty years ago when only men voted. So did the 1964 Civil Rights Act when Rosa Parks got on that Montgomery Alabama bus. So it seemed in the 1960s when inner cities were in revolt, fires burned, the Vietnam war seemed unending, blood ran in the streets. It was two steps forward, one step back then, as now, maybe two.

How foolish of Democrats (progressive and centrist alike) merely to call out the pro-Trump forces for their extreme policies and rabble-rousing racism during the campaign, without seeing the inexorable, dark-money-funded putsch moving just under the surface. Trump crying "rigged election" should have tipped them off that he was a ring master diverting attention from the real fixers. You have to hand it to him. He knows how to distract our hollowed-out pusillanimous news media.

Criticism be damned, a Harry Truman or a Teddy Roosevelt would have fired Republican FBI Director James Comey summarily last July when he first put his thumb on the electoral scale - illegally - with that gratuitous memo attacking Hillary Clinton personally as an addendum to his official report that the FBI had found nothing to prosecute in a year of investigating her emails. Obama should have known that Comey would not stop there. And why did the FBI downplay links between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin's U.S. election hackers?

This feels like the end of an abusive marriage when divorce seems the only civilized alternative. Barack Obama - with his hopeful message of white-state-blue-state, black-white American unity - tried to be America's marriage counselor. Obama's terms ends with dignity, but with little hope of the conciliatory dream coming true. He leaves as one of America's most beloved presidents while Trump enters, seemingly oblivious to being so far its most reviled. He offers no quarter, arrogantly assuming a popular mandate he never won, dismissive of compromise. His entourage of cronies, cranks and haters seem fiendishly intent on opening the treasury to mega-corporations while riding roughshod over everyone else.

Red-state Republicans wanted no part of Obama's "one America" and did their best to sabotage it for eight years. Texas talked secession. I thought to myself, fine. There's the door. This isn't 1860. Texas secession could be a win-win. Millions on both coasts and here in Chicago seem to feel the same way after this foul-smelling election. They want no part of Trumpism and what he plans to shove down their throats. The hashtags are flying: #NotMyPresident, #Resist, #CalExit. Marchers march and a national opposition movement that - in the words of Michael Moore - "will dwarf Occupy Wall Street" unless Trump pivots towards national reconciliation and/or hell freezes over.

No more kumbaya. The Czechs said goodbye to Slovenia for the better of both. The Soviet republics went their separate ways in 1991 to the benefit of all. If Scotland can choose to exit a post-Brexit UK, then why not Blue from Red-state America? Why not a create a Republic of Pacifica? A Canadian-style Commonwealth of New England? A sovereign Chicagoland? An autonomous Land of Enchantment down Santa Fe way?

It's a good bet that we'll get along much better as exes than we have as irreconcilable spouses. It doesn't have to be a nasty divorce. A productive Commonwealth or confederation would be feasible after the dust settled. But at this moment, forced cohabitation under Trump's pussy-grabbing thumb starts to feel like rape. Just call it "states rights" on steroids. It's what the banana Republicans have always wanted.

As in 1968, the center has not held. Maybe it was an illusion all along.

It would seem that no good can come of this, but no one can predict the course of events once Trump does his worst. One thing seems certain, however. These are times when writers and artists double down, make their voices heard and their visions clear while they still can do so.

When all that we have known fails us, we are compelled to seek what is new and as yet inconceivable. We shall overcome, but only by rejecting, refusing and resisting the miasma of total Trumpism, each in our own most effective way. The only path is forward, leading by example and courage, undaunted by bullying and vapid Tweets.

We humans can be terrible bastards, but we also are, by nature, the species that imagines and creates as it breathes, a species capable of passion and moral resolve, makers of worlds. Anyway, what choice is there? The hijackers of American democracy offer no viable future, not even for themselves. Their parasitic agenda is unsustainable. Let us not go gently into their dark night.
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Umberto Tosi is the author of Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry, during the 1990s an oughts. He has been editor of San Francisco magazine and California Business, and has written extensively for major metropolitan newspapers, magazines online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies. He resides in Chicago with his partner, noted visual artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris.


Friday, 2 December 2016

Big Mouths and Old Habits by Fran Brady

In a previous life, I was a professional encourager. Trained in community development and open to whatever career pathway opened up, (i.e. where I could earn enough money, as a single parent, to keep my family of three teenage daughters, a dog and two cats housed, fed and clothed), I had a plethora of jobs. All of them drew upon my training and expanded my experience and skills in facilitating other people to get more out life and develop their potential. I ended up managing a children's charity in Edinburgh which involved supervising and supporting 10 staff and 30 - 40 volunteers.

When I left full-time working (the word 'retired' is laughably inaccurate since I have been busier than ever) and took up creative writing, I firmly told myself that, from then on, I was going to concentrate on my own development and give up the encouraging/facilitating lark. I was new to the writing game with loads to learn; so this seemed perfectly reasonable.

I reckoned without my big mouth which has a habit of opening (and offering) whenever help is called for. I reckoned without my modus vivendi which leads me to have all these 'good ideas' for what would be helpful and empowering for others. Old habits don't just die hard in me - they appear to have discovered the secret of eternal life.
Linlithgow Palace and Loch


What does this modus look like? Well, I set up a writing group eighteen months ago and it has been so 'encouraging' that I have spent the last few weeks putting together (or 'curating', as current newspeak goes) a 60-page anthology. We meet in Linlithgow, one the most scenic small towns in the UK and steeped in history. Its fifteenth century palace was the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots (she whom Good Queen Bess had beheaded in 1587). The Palace overlooks a beautiful, tranquil loch, home to lots of beautiful birds: swans, grebes, goosanders, coots, ducks . . . so we are calling our group 'The Loch Lights' and our anthology 'Light on the Loch'.



Mary Queen of Scots
Last year, I became editor of a quarterly magazine called 'WordWise'. Having appreciated receiving it four times a year for the six years I had been a member of the Scottish Fellowship of Christian Writers, I was suffering from another of my chronic old habits: I was feeling guilty about taking and not giving anything back. You see: I am a hopeless case.
               
The past month has gone by in a diet of drafts and edits for both these publications, with a side order of a monthly column for our church magazine ('View from the Pew') and my AE Electric blog for dessert. The final draft of my fourth novel sits forlornly on my desk, covered in the proof-reader's markings, awaiting a window of opportunity, and I suspect I am too late to get the reprint of my third novel out in time for Christmas presents. Meanwhile, there's the annual Christmas catch-up letter to do . . 

I guess it's not so easy to reinvent oneself. But I'm going to try - again!  My New Year resolution will be to programme and prioritise blocked-off creative writing days in my diary. You heard it here first. Oh, and to keep my mouth shut, sit on my hands, stare at the floor, block my ears and generally disengage from the human race whenever the cry goes up for 'someone to . . .' or whenever I feel the urge to encourage coming upon me. I may last till the end of February . . . but every journey begins with the first step and all that.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Shall I compare thee to a Sonnets Day?

In these uncertain times, it’s good to be able to report that the Shakespearian sonnet is alive and well.  This was my conclusion after a delightful Sonnets Day at the Weston Library (the airy, austerely beautiful new wing of Oxford University’s Bodleian library) a couple of weeks ago.
    By way of celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Bodleian decided to create a special edition of the Bard’s 154 sonnets, inviting letterpress printers from around the world to print a sonnet each in any style or language they chose. Sheets of widely differing sizes, colours, design, fonts and languages flooded in and are being collated at the library, and to mark the conclusion of this Sonnets 2016 Project, the Bodleian held a brief exhibition of some of these wonderful hand-printed offerings, many on handmade paper.

Linocut by Coral Rose Dalitz
Sonnet 146, printed by Pegasus School pupils
    Earlier in the year, half a dozen Oxford primary schools took part in a Sonnets Alive! Project, run by writer in residence Kate Clanchy.  Pupils wrote their own sonnets, a selection of which were gathered in a charming letterpress booklet, magically titled I Feel That the Heart of June is in Me (the title of a poem written by Windale School pupils), hand printed by children from Pegasus School. Some of these contributions were read out by their authors and the quality was astonishingly high, showing an acute understanding of metre and some breathtakingly beautiful images. Even Oxford Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage’s warning in his welcoming speech that he planned to steal a few of these lines (and for praise you can go no higher than that) didn’t prepare me for gems such as
                                       
                                          ‘....I am the dawn when children
                 wake and see the pale sunrise piercing the shorn
                 shadows. I am the flame which yet burns on.’ 
                 (Flame by Jemima Webster & Khanh Pham).

    After the readings it was time to look at the exhibition, which included an enchanting Sonnet Tree: a structure hung with couplets, quatrains and full-length poems, all written by schoolchildren during the Sonnet’s Alive! workshops.  Here again, richness of poetic imagery, instinctive understanding of rhythm and metre, together with a positive revelling in Elizabethan vocabulary, showed just how much these young people had immersed themselves in Shakespearean sonnetry. As Simon Armitage wittily implied, with budding poets like these hammering at the door, the current generation of poets had better watch their backs.

And Shakespeare’s own place in the canon? I defy anyone to put this more succinctly than 5 year-old Inigo.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Two Years You’ll Never Forget - Guest Post by Marie-Louise Jensen

It can be tricky to pinpoint the moment when you first had an idea for a book. And with my Sixth Formers, I didn’t even plan to write a book. I just sat down to write a scene, based on an amusing anecdote my son had told me. 

At first, I didn’t have the voice right and I was disappointed with how it came out. But instead of putting it aside, I kept trying. Over the next week or so, I played with different characters and ideas. I still didn’t plan to write a novel. And then one afternoon, I tried writing first person in the voice of a teen boy character I’d created and suddenly voice, story and concept all came together and I was completely hooked.

I’m normally a historical fiction author, with a number of teen and 9-12  novels traditionally published by OUP and Fiction Express. I love stories set in the past. But every now and then, you need variety. For me, Sixth Formers was a huge change, and it was as refreshing as a cool shower on a hot day. I had, after all, just had two sons go through sixth form, so the life, issues, the preoccupations and the challenges were very present in my mind. It brought my own sixth form back to me in quite a powerful way. Although this story absolutely isn’t a tale of my own sixth form - which is so long ago that it might almost as well have been in the dinosaur era for its relevance to the experiences of today’s teens.

There is at least one resemblance between my sixth form and today’s, however; these two years is a way stone between childhood and adulthood. You’ve chosen your subjects. You are still in school but planning the next step into higher education or work. You are still being nurtured, but you are being trusted with more freedoms and responsibilities. A time to try out more adult friendships, and often more mature relationships too.

Sixth form is a time of freedom, but also tremendous pressure, especially in today’s competitive environment. I get frustrated when older people say that A-levels these days are easy, everyone gets an A*, because they are not and they don’t. I think there is a tendency to underestimate the pressures on young people today and what impressed me most in my own sons and their friends was their awareness of these and the maturity and humour with which they often approached them.

The two years in sixth form is also fun, though; a time when you are surrounded with other people of your own age and stage. Sixth Formers was my first attempt to write humour and this was a learning curve; a very enjoyable one. My experience is that the first draft is rarely that funny – humour is something I need to layer in on successive rewrites. It was a lovely way to work. I often ended up crying with laughter as I edited while my sons rolled their eyes in another room in the house because ‘Mum’s laughing at her own jokes again.’

I chose to self-publish the story on Kindle because being upper-end YA there simply isn’t enough of a market for it. It is a bargain at 99p, because for this story, my main wish was to share it rather than leave it on a memory stick somewhere to go out of date. 

You can read the beginning of the story for free here: