Showing posts with label Alex English. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alex English. Show all posts

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Divergent Thinking by Alex English


I've been reading books by Edward de Bono, a doctor and creative thinking guru, recently and thinking about the application of his techniques to writing. Lately I've been focussing on what he terms 'divergent thinking'.

Convergent thinking is logical problem-solving – using the facts to get to an answer. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, involves coming up with a large volume of ideas, not all necessarily good quality ones. It's another name for brainstorming and is a skill that can be practised and improved upon, for example by setting a timer for 90 seconds and seeing how many uses you can think of for a paper clip, or a brick. I've been working on this exercise and have found that I am getting better at thinking up more ideas, and more unique ideas, the more I practice.

At first glance, this kind of creative problem solving seems more applicable to business than to a children's book, but I've actually found it's helping me come up with more surprising and less predictable plots. When my character is faced with a problem – whether that's entering the impenetrable fortress, fighting off a crew of sky pirates singlehandedly with only a whistle and a net or rescuing a friend from a vicious cloud bear, using this quick technique to think of a large volume of potential solutions is a nice way to come up with an unexpected plot twist. And it's quick too! Why not give it a try?

Alex English's new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.
 

www.alexenglish.co.uk
www.twitter.com/alexthepink




Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Writing forward by Alex English

I’ve always had the habit of writing in bits and bobs, going back and forwards through my story picking out various scenes, tweaking here and changing there. When I wrote my forthcoming novel, Sky Pirates: Echo Quickthorn and the Great Beyond, I had no idea if it would be a series or a stand-alone book (or even whether it would be published). I just wrote it, very much pantsing my way through and discovering the world along with my character. I didn't have a long series arc mapped out or plans for a trilogy. But now that the first book is more-or-less finished (off to typesetting this week – hurrah!) and I have started writing the second book in the series, I’ve realised that this time I can’t go back and change the beginning. The first book is fixed and I have to go on. A scary thought for a fiddler like me.
Help! Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash
In an improv workshop with Sally Nichols many years ago at a SCBWI retreat we played various games but one particularly stuck in my mind. We stood in a circle and built a story step by step – each person had to make up one story beat, the story then moved on to the next person and the next around the circle. I can’t remember the fine details of the exercise, but one thing that did really stick with me was Sally’s exhortation to keep the story progressing forward. Each beat needed to change something and move the story on, but more than that there was no possibility of going back to seed in something at the beginning that you need at the end. 
Often when I write it’s only when I get to the end that I realise what the beginning needs to be. But when stories are told orally and real-time like this you can only use what you already have, however small the detail, and build on it.

Whenever we got stuck in the improv exercise, Sally urged us to look back at what had gone before. What skills did our characters have? What experiences had they gone through? What possessions did they own? Which of those side-characters that made cameos earlier could come in useful now? Which of those small details that we thought were just for colour could prove to be more significant?

Onward! Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
As I was chatting to a friend at the recent Folly Farm retreat, it occurred to me that this concept is going to come in very useful when writing a series. Yes, the first book is finished. Any opportunities to go back and sneak in a crucial clue for use in future books are now gone. But that’s okay – thinking back to Sally’s workshop has made me realise I have everything I need. I'll take what I have and write forward. The only way out is on! 

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.
 

www.alexenglish.co.uk

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Year Ends and Hell Yeahs! by Alex English

Photo by Alan Hurt Jr. on Unsplash

I may be strange, but one of the few things I miss about having a proper job is the performance reviews. Back when I was employed, I knew how well or otherwise I was doing (in fact, sometimes I knew too much). But as an author, I’m never quite sure.

As I'm my own boss I've decided to take responsibility and review myself. As I'm a kind and supportive boss, I've decided to stick with the positives and forget the negatives. I like to call this my ‘hell yeah list’, and I write one every new year. I’ve been doing this for (almost) a decade now, and it makes interesting reading going back over them. It's a lazy person's gratitude journal – a few bullet points slung together once a year to help me focus on the good things.

What sort of items should go on the hell yeah list? They can be anything you like – you're the boss after all. I include all sorts of stuff, from hobbies to personal life as well as work. Here are a few of my writing-related highlights over the decade:

Circa 2011 I was celebrating learning how to box and making a wedding cake for my brother-in-law (not at the same time). The only writing-related entry is interviewing Larry Lamb for a Country Life butter commercial (something I’d almost forgotten I’d done - thanks, list!)

In 2012 I’d had my first baby, quit my day job, sold some recipes to a magazine, taken a children’s writing class at CityLit and sent out my first picture book manuscript. I’m glad I put this on – starting to send manuscripts out was a key step for me after playing around with writing children’s books for more than a decade before that. I found that rejections weren't quite as terrible as I had imagined.

By some fluke, in 2013 I had my first picture book contract. I’d also completed my first younger fiction manuscript. This never ended up selling, but it felt like a big achievement at the time to finish a story of 12,000 words. I also started, but ran out of steam and didn’t finish, a middle-grade story.



2014 was the year I published my first picture book, YUCK SAID THE YAK, braved my first school visit and achieved my dream of being on stage at the SCBWI mass book launch! I also made it to the end of a new middle-grade story draft.

In 2015 I got my first agent, ran my first festival event and went to Folly Farm for the first time. I redrafted my middle-grade story, but it still wasn’t good enough to send out. It’s still in a drawer now.

BSU Corsham Court campus

In 2016 I signed a contract for my first picture book with Bloomsbury (still forthcoming… in 2021!) and started my MA at Bath Spa.

In 2017, I had my first award nomination when Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine was shortlisted for the Dundee Picture Book Award. I also ‘survived World Book Day’ and wrote my first educational title for a Korean publisher.

A move to Paris was a big item for 2018, as was finishing my MA and completing a screenwriting certificate with UCLA.

I haven’t written my list yet for 2019, but it’s bound to include signing with my wonderful new agent, Thérèse Coen, graduating from Bath Spa and getting a book deal for my first middle-grade series SKY PIRATES.

My hell yeah lists help me to finish off the year and look ahead to the new one with excitement. Do you keep a list of your past achievements?

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.
 

www.alexenglish.co.uk

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Learning from the other arts - Alex English

I'm a sucker for writing books and like many other ABBA bloggers (Rowena springs to mind!) I have shelves full of guides. Recently, I've tried looking further afield to other art forms to see what I can learn and whether I can apply it to writing. Here's what I've found:

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

Screenwriting

There are multitudes of screenwriting books that many novelists use already. Screenwriters are by necessity very strong on structure due to the huge budgets and fixed time-constraints of the screen. In this sense, a screenplay is very similar to a picture book. You can't overrun an episode of EastEnders by ten minutes any more than you can stretch out a picture book story to 17 spreads.

Key takeaways: read about screenwriting if you want to get your head around plot and structure

Recommended reads: Story by Robert McKee, Into the Woods by John Yorke, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (just to get you started, there are many, many more).

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

Songwriting

I somehow stumbled upon reading Pat Pattison's songwriting tips, and I've found them very helpful for writing rhyming picture books. While poetry books often focus on blank verse, songwriting looks more closely at rhyme and rhythm, which is just what's needed for a picture book. I've never really learned how to write in rhyme, and most picture book writing guides don't cover it thoroughly.

Key takeaways: Chapter 4 has a guide to building a 'worksheet' – in brief a sort of brainstorm-on-paper of ideas and rhymes associated with the themes of the song you are writing. I tend to write my story in prose before turning it into rhyme, and now I'm going to try including a rhyme worksheet as a middle step in my process.


Recommended reads: Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison

Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
Cartooning
I recently took a cartooning course with Neil Kerber, which has been great fun to practise with the kids. Drawing was supposed to be a hobby, but it's actually proved incredibly handy to be able to sketch characters and props for my work in progress. It also saves hours searching around Pinterest for that elusive image in my head.

Key takeaways: Keep it loose. Draw and see what comes out. It doesn't have to be perfect. Have fun!


Recommended reads: Comics: Easy as ABC! by Ivan Brunetti

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Dance

I know nothing about dance, but I recently read The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, an acclaimed choreographer. She talks about her creative process, how she researches a dance piece (fascinating!) and how she actively develops her career. She talks about the importance of teaching/mentoring others to solidify your own knowledge. What would you teach yourself six months ago?

Key takeaways: There's a lot in this book, but I love the way Tharp uses a big box to gather her project material. I've started keeping a dedicated notebook for each project (previously I had a trillion notebooks with notes from different things scattered throughout), but a file box might work even better to collate random scraps of information and objects related to a book.

Recommended reads: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp   

Photo by Mika Korhonen on Unsplash

Fashion design

On a whim, I borrowed a book about fashion design research and found it a surprisingly enlightening read. Nobody really tells you how to get ideas for a novel, but fashion designers at college have to document a proper research process and show how their ideas came about.

Key takeaways: "Fashion doesn't come from fashion" (i.e. don't take your inspiration from the catwalk). Books don't (just) come from books either. It's easy to feel you have to keep completely up-to-date with reading every new book release, but as long as you have a feel for what a current book is, it can be more useful to look more widely and take creative inspiration from elsewhere, art galleries, museums and maybe even real life!

Recommended reads: Fashion Design Research by Ezinma Mbonu


How about you? Have you ever taken inspiration for your creative process from another art form?


Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.
 

www.alexenglish.co.uk

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Spiky names and round names – Alex English

Shortly after writing last month's post on naming characters, I stumbled upon a fascinating psychological study looking into how people judge your personality based solely on the sound of your name. It all comes down to whether a name sounds 'round' or 'spiky'.

Kiki the cactus

If your name sounds 'round' you can be seen as adaptable, easy-going, friendly, sensitive and versatile, but also introverted. But if you have a spiky name people are more likely to assume you are aggressive, harsh, mean and sarcastic. On the bright side, you also might be considered to be more determined than somebody with a 'rounder' name.

So what makes a name round or spiky?

Ella the cat

Spiky names contain short, sharp sounds like K and T, technically known as 'voiceless stops', which are the sort of sounds you make by blocking airflow in your vocal cords. Round names have resonant  M or L sounds in them in them. So Kiki is 'spiky' but Ella is 'round'.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that there was no connection between peoples' names and their actual personalities, it’s just a case of names being perceived in a certain way. And in real life, we would thankfully have much more to go on than simply a name. However, this research did get me thinking about how I could apply it to naming characters.

My current heroine is called Echo, which puts her firmly in camp spiky with that hard K sound in the middle. Her gentler sidekick, Horace, is 'round' in both name and character. Chance? Or have I subconsciously named these characters according to the rules of sound?

I’m not sure, but as a spiky Alex I probably wouldn't tell you anyway!

How about you? Is your name rounded or spiky? How about those of your characters?


Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.
 

www.alexenglish.co.uk

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Fantastic names and where to find them - Alex English

What's in a name? I find that names say so much about a person that I can’t get really see my characters until I've christened them. But fantasy characters deserve fantastic names. Once I have one, they spring to life before me.



I keep a little notebook of juicy words, most of which I've snaffled while reading poetry, and this comes in very handy when coming up with fantasy character surnames. However, I do also use generators when I'm in a pinch (or just fancy some fun). Here are a few methods that I've tried:

1 Look on the map



It was when I was listening to Philip Pullman‘s audiobook The Collectors that this idea came to me. Pullman had named two of his characters Horley and Grinstead. As a former resident of Reigate these names are very familiar – Horley and East Grinstead are both nearby towns in Surrey/Sussex.

There are plenty of peculiar British town names, but of course you could use any location. Snodsbury, Pucklechurch and Picklescott are all fabulous. Mudford Sock sounds like a ready-made character.

2 Construct a compound noun

These work particularly well in fantasy and this method is a favourite of mine for coming up with surnames. In my current book I have a Quickthorn, a Daggerwing (which also happens to be a butterfly variety, another great source) and a Milkweed, to name a few.

This generator gave me Gravelweather, Stepslinks and Skyflake. Some for the notebook!

3 Try the Roald Dahl method

For a more commonplace character, you might try using your Roald Dahl name – take your grandparent’s first name and add it to the first thing that catches your eye. 

I’m Arthur Cushion.

4 Consult your inner librarian

Your librarian name is the first name of the oldest person you know followed by a last name composed of the adjective that describes how you move through a room combined with the main ingredient from the last sandwich you ate. 

Mine is Sarah Stompavocado. Read the full twitter thread for lots of fabulous ideas!

5 Get real

On a more serious note, for those of us attempting to represent cultures other than our own, it's worth spending the time to get names right, rather than sticking to what we might think we know. A recent CLPE report found a disproportionate number of 'diverse' characters named Jasmine.  

I find this name generator useful for generating realistic contemporary names, and it can be adjusted by age group and country of name origin. If in doubt it's always best to ask for help from someone in that community. 


How do you come up with names for your fantastic characters?


Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 


Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.
 

www.alexenglish.co.uk

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Getting started when you're stuck by Alex English


It seems like ages ago when I wrote about keeping going in the summer holidays. Today was the day that my kids (finally!) went back to school and no longer could I put off getting started on the second draft of my first middle-grade novel. I’ve been dying to get stuck in for weeks, but my first major edit is the intimidiating prospect of writing a whole new chapter. The more I thought about it the more stuck I got. Today I made a breakthrough, though. Here’s how I did it:

 

1. Just write, stupid!

Yes, it’s an obvious one. Thinking about writing isn’t writing. Worrying about a new chapter isn’t writing a new chapter. To break myself out of my funk I started by setting a timer for 15 minutes, got my trusty fountain pen and a scruffy old notebook and started free-writing around my character and the scene I had very sketchily thought about.  Within a few minutes, the ideas started flowing along with my ink. I was back with my characters and they took over.

The trick is not to put too much pressure on. If you feel like the first line has to be perfect you never get started. But if your only plan is to put pen to paper for 15 minutes, it’s amazing what comes out.

 

2. Go for a walk

People talk about this all the time but it really works. There’s something about walking around that gets both the blood and the ideas flowing, and September is the perfect time of year for a stroll. If I’m feeling tense or worried about something, walking around outside amongst the trees instantly helps. If it's rainy, I stick on Spotify and have a dance by myself in the kitchen.

 

3. Better still, walk and dictate

Many of us have spoken about the benefits of dictation before, and I find I’m using it more and more. In fact I’m dictating this blog post on my iPhone whilst cooking a sweet potato vindaloo! If you have an iPhone, all the software you need is built in. I record using the standard notes programme, and upload to my computer at the end of the day. I love this for getting words on the page when I'm under deadline pressure.

 

4. If in doubt, change it up

In all today, I wrote 1,000 words of my new first chapter and have plenty of ideas for the rest. I did this through a combination of methods: dictating on the way back from the school run into my phone, typing directly into my computer when I got back, free-writing with pen and ink, and finally dictating my free writes into my laptop afterwards.

Not too shabby considering I had no clue how I was going to get started this morning.


How do you break yourself out of a writing funk, or get creative when you're feeling tense and under pressure?


Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More picture books and her first middle-grade novel are forthcoming in 2020/2021/2022.
www.alexenglish.co.uk

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Monday, 5 August 2019

Five (more) great podcasts for writers - Alex English


Last year, Dan Metcalf gave us his top six podcasts for writery types, so I thought I would brazenly steal his format and give an update with my current favourite listens for children's authors. Here goes:


1. Out on the Wire

Cartoonist Jessica Abel's podcast is about making stories for radio, but is really all about storytelling, and the takeaways are equally useful for people writing non-fiction, graphic novels, or really any form of narrative. The show ran a while ago, but it's still possible to listen to all the episodes and it works best if you listen to them chronologically. I like the clarity of Jessica's delivery (there's no rambling here). The show also has a great format – a factual episode followed by a workshop episode, where listeners send in their work to be critiqued. There are plenty of accompanying bonus goodies like worksheets to be downloaded from Jessica's site too. I liked this podcast so much I bought the graphic novel version.


2. Serial

You may well know about Serial already, but if you don't LISTEN NOW! This is investigative journalism at its finest, utterly gripping and skilfully told. I am currently listening to season three, but I recommend starting where it all began with season one – a true crime story set in Baltimore, where a teenage student goes missing and her boyfriend is arrested.


3. The Pen Addict

Perhaps a bit of a niche one, but I am a huge pen and ink fan and can listen to this podcast about fountain pens all day. You wouldn't think it would be possible to talk about pens and ink (and sometimes notebooks) for regular hour-long episodes, but these guys manage it. It's a rambling chat between friends that's strangely soothing and has helped me pass many a long car-ride round the M25.

4. On the Page

This is a screenwriting podcast, but, like Out on the Wire, it has applications to all forms of storytelling. Host Pilar Alessandra is an incredibly knowledgeable screenwriting tutor who occasionally visits the UK to run workshops, but here you can benefit from her expertise for free. I particularly like her log line competitions where listeners have to pique our interest in their stories in just a couple of sentences. A good discipline for all writers!


5. Everything Under the Sun

And finally, after all that craft and hard-hitting journalism, a bit of fun especially for children's authors. Everything Under the Sun is the creation of Molly Oldfield, author and writer for QI, and addresses the most pressing questions troubling the nation's small children. From 'which animal makes the best daddy?' to more serious questions like 'why do some people not have houses and live on the street?', Molly answers her young listener's questions with wit and clarity. Coming in at around ten minutes, this podcast is perfect for a quick listen and always helps me to get onto a child's wavelength.

I love podcasts in the car, walking to the shops or over lunch. There's a whole universe of shows out there to discover. What are your favourites?

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More picture books and her first middle-grade novel are forthcoming in 2020/2021/2022.
www.alexenglish.co.uk


Friday, 5 July 2019

Keeping going in the summer holidays - Alex English

The school holidays are looming, in fact, here in France they've already begun and will go on for nine (nine!) weeks. These long summer months are a great time to relax and unwind with the kids, but not so great for getting any writing done. Here are a few things I've tried to help keep my writing going while school's out.

Summer's here!

1. Down tools for the summer

In the absence of deadlines, the most obvious option to the summer conundrum may be to stop writing and take a break. Unfortunately for me, while working around the children is difficult, not working is even worse! Ideas bubbling inside me with no time to write make me a tetchy and irritable mum. So, while I've tried this before, I don't recommend it unless you want a break.

2. Embrace childcare when you can

This is an obvious, albeit sometimes expensive one. We live in France so grandparental help is limited, as are holiday clubs, but whenever there is a chance to palm the kids off on someone else and write, I am not ashamed to take it.

3. Work on mini projects 

When the kids were babies, I wrote in nap times. I was mainly working on picture books at that point, which were easy projects to pick up and put down. I sometimes even worked alongside my children. If they were busy playing with Brio trains on the floor, I would sit alongside them and scribble picture book ideas longhand in my notebook. As long as I was sitting with them, and not staring at a screen, they were happy to play alongside as I doodled. So, a picture book text or a few poems might be the sort of writing to do over the summer to keep your writing brain well-oiled and ready for September. Similarly, bits of research or website admin can be easier to do in small snatches than longer pieces of fiction.
Drawing lizard characters for my WIP with my co-conspirator

4. Co-work with the children

As my children have got (a little) older and started to enjoy colouring and drawing, working alongside them has become easier. My boys' love for drawing has inspired me to start myself, so often in the holidays I can be found sketching maps of book settings with my children, drawing my characters or key props. I also like to test out potential school visit workshop ideas on them, or take them to interesting museums for research under the guise of 'fun'.

5. Get up early

Longer fiction demands periods of deeper concentration, and this summer I was loathe to completely stop work for two months when I had just put together a synopsis for my next middle-grade novel and was bursting with inspiration. I've often read about writers getting up early and writing before the children wake, but have only recently tried it for myself (night-time waking and general knackeredness had always precluded it before). Anyway, I am pleased to report that it really works! I don't write masses, but I tend to get around 300-500 words done by jumping (staggering) out of bed thirty minutes earlier. A bit like running, I never want to do it but I am glad afterwards that it's done. There's something very liberating about having a little bit of writing complete before I've even had breakfast, and it leaves me free to enjoy the rest of the day with my boys.


6. Don't beat yourself up

Lastly, life as a writer with kids is tough. If after all this, you get nothing done at all, don't beat yourself up. There's always September!


Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More picture books and her first middle-grade novel are forthcoming.
www.alexenglish.co.uk

Sunday, 5 May 2019

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place - Alex English

In my previous blog post I wrote about Lynda Barry’s simple template for listing the details of the day with her Daily Diary.

Now I’d like to introduce you to Georges Perec – a French novelist and filmmaker and member of the Oulipo group of writers, famed for their constrained writing (Perec famously wrote a novel consisting only of words that don’t contain the letter ‘e’).



In 1974, frustrated with newspapers’ focus on disasters and sensationalist stories (which rings very true with me at the moment – I almost cannot bear to read the news), Perec decided to shift his focus to the ordinary mundanities of life.

“The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing.” 
Georges Perec 

The result was a short (40 pages!) book titled An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, published in 1975. It consists solely of lists of every detail of ‘mundane life’ that Perec observed while sitting in a cafe on Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris for three days.


There's something rather beautiful and hypnotic in these simple lists, and it's something I've tried to get into the habit of doing whenever I have a spare moment.


The numbers in Perec's notes refer to buses.



Refreshments are allowed!

'Exhausting a place' is something I now do whenever I'm not sure what to write. There's no expectation of a finished piece, just an exercise in noting down details. And I do happen to live in Paris at the moment, but it doesn't have to be a glamorous-sounding location. Anywhere can be exhausted, all it require is pen, paper and (most importantly) your attention.

As a side note, during my research into Georges Perec, I happened upon this rather lovely short film An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Sussex by Jessica Bishopp, inspired by Perec’s book.

I also came across this intriguing creative writing workshop, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicester, on Tuesday 16 July.

Have you ever tried 'exhausting a place'?

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing and she has more forthcoming from Bloomsbury and Faber & Faber.
www.alexenglish.co.uk

Friday, 5 April 2019

Lynda Barry's Daily Diary - Alex English

I am fascinated by the creative process, and lap up books on creativity. One of my favourite writers (and illustrators) on the subject is Lynda Barry, an American cartoonist, author and assistant professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.



If you haven't heard of Lynda, I urge you to look her up and buy her books. Syllabus is a particular joy. It is what it says on the tin, the syllabus of her workshops at Wisconsin-Madison, set out like a densely-illustrated graphic novel. It feels like taking a sneaky look through someone's rather beautiful sketchpad.

Barry's class is a hybrid of comics and writing class for students of all disciplines. She believes that everyone can write and draw, and the class she runs is one of pure creativity. There's no 3-act-structure or how to find an agent, it's all about observation, imagination and not being scared to fail. She selects her students across disciplines, aiming for a mix of interests, ages and abilities. Then she gives everyone a code name (for one class, everyone was named for part of the brain).



While I dream of being able to take a class like this, reading Syllabus is the next best thing for someone who is not likely to be heading to Wisconsin any time soon. The key takeaway for me from the book was the incredible Daily Diary.

Now, I'm sure pretty much all writers keep some kind of notebook, whether it's a literal block of paper or a digital alternative. But what Lynda does is construct a format for daily notes that helps to train her students to hear, see and remember the world around them. It's a really simple way to 'fill the well' of inspiration. She insists her students complete it every day, but the format is so simple that it's not at all intimidating, even for a beginner.
"The point of the daily diary exercise is not to record what you already know about what happened to you in the last 24 hours. Instead, it’s an invitation to the back of your mind to come forward and reveal to you the perishable images about the day you didn’t notice you noticed at all." Lynda Barry
The daily diary takes five minutes. You split your page into four. The first quarter is for 7 things you did (2 minutes). The second quarter is for 7 things you saw (2 minutes). The third quarter is for something you overhead (30 secs). The fourth quarter is a quick sketch of something you saw (30 secs). Easy. Five minutes! Even the busiest person ever could fit this in to their life.


It's very simple, but an incredibly useful tool. I love looking back over my daily diaries.


One day in August, I saw a man with the tip of his pinkie finger missing, a man holding a baby with a napkin balanced on its head (while he ate lunch over it) and a giant bee sculpture. I also ate moon ice cream. All in one day! I can feel the story ideas bubbling already.


I have no idea what I drew here, but I know I told off my son for tearing leaves from a tree. Quote of the day was 'it's so I don't drop my lunch on her head!' Presumably about the aforementioned baby.

I am sure I would never have remembered these little gems without Lynda Barry's daily diary. Even my ordinary notebook habits would not have picked up these miniscule morsels, but they're a great resource for characters, dialogue and story ideas.

I really do urge you to give Lynda's daily diary a go and to check out her books. There are also plenty of other variations on the daily diary format on her fantastic tumblr page.

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing and she has more forthcoming from Bloomsbury and Faber & Faber.
www.alexenglish.co.uk

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Getting inspired... by myself aged six - Alex English

At a recent writing for children workshop, we were invited to think about ourselves aged six. What did we like? Who were we friends with? What did we read? What happened in the world that year (I had to look this up on wikipedia)? Which of these events had an impact on us?

It was a very enlightening exercise, but for some of the questions I found it difficult to remember. I was a huge bookworm as a child, but I had phases of reading Blyton adventures, horse stories, school stories (The Chalet School and Trebizon series were huge favourites at various points in time), sci-fi, and all sorts of others. Trying to remember which books came when was tricky.

Fortunately, my mum had kept all my writing books from school. They made enlightening reading and it was inspiring to get back into my own head circa 1980-something.


You could perhaps have predicted that I was going to make a picture book author by reading my first piece of published writing, aged five, complete with Pop! Bang! Whizz! 

I love the fact that the school magazine was typed on an actual typewriter and photocopied. The line-breaks also make this little tale strangely poetic. 


I read the whole magazine from cover to cover and found lots of little gems like this one above. It was a great way to get back to thinking like a child. A boot getting sucked off in the mud! What a story.


I'd forgotten those hairbands with windmills that go round. Love the last line. I'm never one for a completely happy ending.


Getting older now, I think I was six or seven when I came up with this cracker of an inciting incident. Suddenly a flying saucer landed in the garden! Wicked aunties featured in my stories heavily circa 1986. As did Sarah W, best friend of the moment.


My favourite foods haven't changed much since age six. Fish and chips is a solid choice, plus who doesn't love ice cream with sliced strawberries?



Once upon a time there was (sic) four children and their names were Edmund, Lucy, Peter and Susan.... 

Hmm, this story sounds somewhat familiar. I can vividly remember picking The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe from the school library at the end of term, and from this excerpt it seems that I got hooked on C.S.Lewis around age six. Interesting to note that I thought the Pevensies went to stay with the professor during their summer holidays, rather than being Blitz evacuees.


"A punk has colourful hair. She goes to the disco every day." 



I have no memory whatsoever of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson's wedding. However it obviously had enough impact on me aged six to inspire the names for two gerbils in this story!

Do you ever re-read your childhood writing? Maybe you should give it a try, I really found it helped me tap into young me and gave me lots of ideas in the process.

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing and she has more forthcoming from Bloomsbury and Faber & Faber.
www.alexenglish.co.uk