Showing posts with label Meg Harper. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Meg Harper. Show all posts

Friday, 2 September 2011

Goodbye and Thank You from Meg

This is my final blog for the SAS for the time being at least. I’m a far from ideal blogger as I rarely get chance to read other blogs and comment on them. The pressure on my time is currently increasing so there’s no hope of change in the immediate future.

One major cause is the need to make money! As readers will know from my previous blogs, I’m a part-time writer, running a youth theatre as well and keeping financially afloat by doing a lot of free-lance projects which are writing related. Unfortunately, as we know all too well, funding to the arts and schools is tight or, in some areas, almost non-existent, and the impact is big on free-lancers such as myself. In the past, I would have weathered the storm but as I am, to put it euphemistically, making the transition back to a single lifestyle, I can’t rely on a partner’s income to help with the shortfall. That’s the bad news and it does make me wonder about how much children’s literature (and literature in general!) is kept afloat by partners with bigger incomes! I certainly know of one author whose husband says he rather likes seeing himself as a patron of the arts!

The good news is that I have fallen on my feet in my quest for another part-time job to give me some more regular income. I’m becoming a part-time school librarian, job-sharing with someone who has (we hope!) all the technical know-how that we need. What I’ve been employed to provide is the love of children’s literature and the va-va-voom – apparently! At the time I was appointed, I felt like I had about as much va-va-voom as a dead rat but I have at least begun to twitch now! We’re hoping to start a children’s book group within the school and get into reading for the Oxfordshire Book Award and perhaps even the Carnegie. All brilliant ideas for things you wish school librarians would do (apart from employ you as visiting authors for a very large fee and plug your latest book to the exclusion of all others!) will be very gratefully received. Of course I hope we’ll be able to have lots of author visits but you all know about budgets...

So...I won’t be giving up writing. The current plan is to spend 4 days a week being the youth theatre/librarian person, leaving space to carry on writing and keep my fingers in some at least of my other pies (the ones that are still solvent principally!) With some midsummer enthusiasm, I started a new novel. I hope I’ll have enough va-va-voom to continue it – and, with heady optimism now, at least to read the ABBA blog in the future, if not contribute to it!

Thank you for reading my various posts in the past and especially to those who have commented. I’ve really enjoyed the posts I’ve read here. Long may you all keep on blogging.

Friday, 29 July 2011

An Awfully Creative Adventure - Meg Harper

I’m laughing this morning over Andrew’s 6 monthly skips! So that’s why our garage is stuffed to the gunnels! I’ve missed a trick there! I’m also taking a welcome break from the huge task of getting a house that has been ‘lived in’ (ehem) by 4 teenagers ready for the market. Anyone wanting a large family house in Warwick, step this way! It has new carpets throughout except, of course, in my study – another place stuffed to the gunnels and impossible to empty for the day. So my new study carpet is – guess where? In the garage!
Today, however, I really want to write about a school project that I’ve been engaged in intermittently all academic year. This was at Limehurst High School, a middle school in Loughborough which is definitely the pleasantest, happiest secondary school I have ever encountered and where it was a privilege to be the visiting author. There are times when I question the value of author visits. If it’s a case of the ‘author talk’ delivered to every class in the school, I wonder what lasting benefit there will be. I am far more excited by being invited in to run workshops or, as in this case, to be a partner in a long-term project.
The brief at Limehurst was to run a workshop with a small group of year 8s, teaching them the nuts and bolts of story writing so that they could teach a slightly larger group of year 7s, who would then write a story suitable to be turned into an animation for year 2s from a local primary school. Nothing too complicated then! As so often, I found myself deconstructing what I do myself (principally by instinct in my case) in order to make the vital elements clear enough for young people to absorb and cascade down to their juniors. Fortunately, I often write short stories, not simply novels, and I also have some very limited experience of writing animations – so I felt competent enough to know where to start. As so often, however, I learned as we went on. I was there as consultant when the years 8s taught the year 7s and was alongside them as they thrashed out their plots and wrote and edited their stories. I sometimes think I don’t know very much about creating story but as we worked, I appreciated that I really do know what I’m doing. I know where to cut and prune, I know what’s needed to lift a plot and to keep the pace. I know how to create the crisis and how to satisfactorily resolve. And I realised what a mammoth task the young people were facing – and yet again, how ludicrous it is that year 6s are expected to write short stories for their SATS in a mere 45 minutes. Grrrrrrr!
In the end, the year 7s had the barebones of two workable stories so we asked if they could animate both. Fortunately, the lovely Leo and Theo of Lunchbox Films were ready to give it a whirl and the school was confident they could provide funding – so the year 7s set out on the laborious task of animating their stories. A couple of weeks ago the big moment arrived. The year 2s from the local primary school arrived for the premiere – and so did I! You can see the results below. (Well - maybe not - I've tried to post the links and they're showing on the dashboard version but not on the blog - but here are none hot links if you're interested!

My next task is to see if my agent’s interested in submitting the original stories to publishers. I’ve edited them in conference with the young people and have kept as much of their original wording as I can. I was thrilled by how engaged they were with that process – but then, we were doing what I wish schools could do more. A real task for a real purpose. There were lots of really memorable moments but it all felt very worthwhile when one of the participants said, ‘I used to think I was no good at English but doing this project has made me realise that I really am.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Maybe I'll turn into a geek? Meg Harper

Once upon a time I thought I would grow up and become an author. I would be rather like Joey Bettany in ‘The Chalet School’ books, churning out endless best-selling books for girls and managing a family on the side. Joey managed to write the best-sellers whilst producing 13 children, including triplets and two sets of twins. I didn’t intend to replicate that but I did think I might follow her lead and alternately spend hours quietly working on my books, doing the earth-mother bit or walking my dog (a St Bernard, of course). Occasionally I might have to suffer bouts of life-threatening illness but they might be quite a nice rest from the pregnancies. Seems to me, however, that barring producing one set of twins and a couple of other children, my life as a writer couldn’t be more different from Joey’s!
I certainly never imagined days such as the one I’ve just spent with some of the game designers at a local computer games company, providing training on creating better stories. What a revelation that has been! In the last few weeks I’ve been introduced to the world of Mass Effect, Bio Shock and more. I’ve learnt new terminology – I know what RPG and Open World and Shooter mean (very proud of myself, I am) and I now know that games players seem to divide into those who want re-play potential and those who don’t. I could turn into a geek at this rate. I haven’t gone over to the dark side – I’ll still be a reader rather than a games player (though remarkably, given the hours many games absorb, the people I worked with today seemed to do both) but I was intrigued by the similarities (huge) and the differences (few) between our crafts. I now feel a bit of an idle slob because, essentially, I don’t want to work for my next chapter – I want to turn over the page and find it waiting for me. I can’t be bothered to shoot a load of enemies first. I don’t want to be proactive and become the silent protagonist, armed perhaps only with a drill and endlessly having to find supplies – and sometimes having to go back a few steps in the story because I foolishly got myself wounded. It seems like a lot of effort in order to get the next bit of the story, especially when it isn’t always very good.
But then that is why I’ve been employed. Get the stories even better (and some of them are very good already) and even book-obsessed people like me might get tempted into computer games. I feel very, very naive today. You know all that stuff about boys not reading and what are we going to do about it? Well, it’s certainly not for lack of a desire for story! It’s because so many computer games are story based and there’s many a proactive young lad out there who, unlike me, wants to splice his story experience with a bit of action, whether it’s a shoot out, some exploration of the game world or cracking a puzzle. It’s not surprising that ‘just a story’ can seem a bit tame to a child brought up on X boxes and Playstations. Girls are far less keen on computer games, of course, so writers for girls have an easier job hanging onto their audience. The success of ‘Twilight’ shows us once again that girls like romance mixed with their action – and that’s a lot harder to provide in a computer game – as is a tear-jerking weepie. Computer game structure and getting through competitive levels doesn’t really blend well with the romantic or humorous genre – so it’s no surprise that boys are still buying funny books and girls are still buying romance. Or that’s how it suddenly seems to me! Bring on the arguments!

PS. In the photo are the members of a summer writing group I lead last summer, launching their book at Waterstones. One of them is a computer games designer!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Creating Pisstory Meg Harper

There used to be a beautiful garden on the corner of our road. Not the sort of cottagey, lush, chaotic garden I’d rather like myself but a traditional, rather formal combination of greensward and floribunda roses with a few tastefully placed specimen shrubs. There was also a gleaming penny farthing as a feature, incongruous but appealing, always delicately outlined with tiny fairy lights at Christmas.
The creator moved away last year and yesterday the new occupants committed an act of dire destruction. Diggers arrived and the entire garden had gone by 11am. Perhaps the owners are going to create something wonderful themselves. Judging by the number of huge white delivery sacks sagging in the wreckage, however, I suspect that they want something low maintenance – a parking lot, for example.
Far be it from me to decry progress or personal freedom of choice. The new owners clearly need something other than a formal garden and fair enough; it is their property. Nonetheless, I wept over the glorious rose bushes which I hope have at least reached the municipal composter and I find myself asking questions about our responsibility to the community in our public acts. That garden gave me great joy and I used to tell the creator so when he was out there tending it. He still lives locally so he will have the pain of seeing that his work has been destroyed. How much should we reign in our personal desires out of consideration for others? A big question. How much value should we put on that which already exists when it stands in the way of something new? It’s a question which town planners and developers constantly battle with and which Capability Brown and his sponsors didn’t seem to consider at all!
What has all this to do with children’s books?!
The other day I did one of my occasional reccies in Waterstones. What’s being promoted, what’s new, what haven’t I read that I should have etc etc. To be honest, I was appalled. There was nothing like the wide selection carried by my local independent. That’s normal but this time the range was even narrower than usual and the blocks of books by the usual suspects were vast. More shocking, in my opinion, was the increased shelf-space given over to the Snot and Bogey brigade. The desperation to publish books that boys will read is getting alarming. Humour revolves around poo and flatulence (we now have the adventures of a farting dog, for goodness sake!) and history is degenerating into pisstory. I’ve recently had a short fictionalised biography of Elizabeth 1st published. ('Elizabeth 1st - The Story of the Last Tudor Queen') Imagine my delight at my most recent school visit when I was approached by a child who wanted to ask a question about it. And the question? Was it true that Elizabeth 1st had used the first toilet ever? Elizabeth 1st must be one of the most formidable personalities our national history offers – and a child’s interest has somehow been reduced to where she went to the loo!
It seems to me that what happened to my neighbour’s garden is happening to children’s literature. In pursuing current agendas (getting boys to read at any cost, for example) we’re trashing a great tradition. I think of the heritage that lies behind the early readers that are being churned out now and I’m asking questions. I’m a left-wing, liberal, armchair revolutionary but I’m also a Christian (albeit a heretical one!) and I’m thinking about what it says in Philippians 4: 8 ...’whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’ It seems to me that instead we’re asking our children to think about poo. We are replacing what has traditionally been seen as worthy content of children’s books by something far inferior. The same goes for what seems to be happening in my neighbour’s garden.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Benefits of Collaboration? Meg Harper

I have three professional lives:
1. As an author
2. As a creative practitioner, engaged in a whole range of free-lance projects, from one day author visits, to term long residencies, to drama/literacy workshops in museums and other locations.
3. As the director of a youth theatre.
Today, I write from life 3, with about 20 minutes left before the arts centre foyer starts filling up with 75 young people, aged 5 – 16, about to perform their second and final night of the Mill Youth Theatre Showcase. Last night went very well, with only one glitch when I suddenly got a message from the technician – one of my most senior members had managed to get himself hand-cuffed in the Green Room! My mind instantly flew to that ghastly scene with the cuffs, the axe, the water and a desperate Leonardo ‘Titanic’ but as I was stage managing as well as directing there was nothing I could do. ‘But there are no handcuffs in this show!’ I protested ‘There are now,’ said the teccie, sardonically. It was left to the house manager, the bar staff and the jewellery teacher (rudely plucked with file from her class) to attempt to get the demented boy out of the things and to stop insisting that if they didn’t Meg would kill him! Fortunately, he’d locked himself in by only one wrist so in the end they gave up, strapped it out of the way with elastic bands and told him to put on his sweatshirt to cover it. Let’s hope he really has learned not to play with the props now! We’ll move the footlights too – that way we might avoid the heart-stopping moment when one character kicked over a chair and nearly smashed one! Oof. My hair is greyer today.
So what’s all this go to do with life number 1? Collaboration, that’s what. Long ago, when I took this job on with just 3 members of an ailing youth theatre, I decided that the only way forward was to become a devising company. We would make up our own plays. That way we’d avoid the painful problem of children learning scripts and then ‘delivering’ them, rather than speaking in a normal, (if loud!) manner. We’d also be able to avoid ‘main parts’ and kids hanging around getting bored. My aim would be to keep everyone on task for as much time as was humanly possible and for every child to be involved as much as they possibly could be. In any case – how many plays suitable for children to perform, do you find with casts of between 8 and 16 characters, with all the parts reasonably equally weighted?
That was the thinking – the result has surpassed my wildest dreams. Ten years later, we have 6 mini companies within The Mill Youth Theatre, all producing their own devised performances twice a year. At first I hunted desperately for stories suitable for adaptation – but even that was difficult. Now, however, we start with a stimulus – music, a picture, some impro, a story – and we take it from there. It can be very scary. At about week 3, I am always panicking that this story isn’t going to come together and we won’t have a play. I certainly thought that this term, especially with the story about the ghostly lighthouse that appears and disappears at random and traps people inside it! It sounds perfectly reasonable now but it didn’t at the time!
But my point is that the stories the children devise with my help are far more imaginative and unusual than anything I could come up with on my own. They amaze me. And so I have begun to revise my view of such companies as Working Partners and their method of creation. We know that they are very successful – and I can see why. A group will come up with far more ideas than an individual will – and with far more creative solutions to plot problems. On occasions we vote for the next step in the story – we did for the end of our creepy play about ‘The Blue Hands’, inspired by a photograph 'Hand of Betty', by local artist Steve Gold, and ended with the ‘good’ Blue Hand turning out to be a trickster with her own agenda for overthrowing the Blue Handed regime – and succeeding! Now that was a surprise!
I admit I have been sneery about the work of book packagers – I personally find such examples as the endless Rainbow Fairies depressing! But there is no doubt that such series are a hit and for good reasons. Many minds have many advantages. I’m not sure why so many of us continue to work in such splendid isolation – or maybe we don’t? What’s really going on out there? Do tell.
PS. Last night’s show went very well – but I’m shattered today – so apologies for the tardy post.
PPS. I've just realised that my latest book 'Elizabeth 1st - The Story of the Last Tudor Queen' is published today by A&C Black

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Little Rant about Picture Books Meg Harper

I’m preparing for a library workshop on Friday – the theme is Cops and Robbers because my latest book, an early reader, is called ‘Stop, Thief!’ So we’re going to bring it to life with props and hopefully no actual theft and read other Cops and Robbers stories and make board games and the like. Hence, I have been re-reading wonderful old ‘Cops and Robbers’ and ‘Burglar Bill’ by Janet and Allan Ahlberg – and once again I am thinking, ‘What’s happened to picture books with subtle, delicate pictures and rich, satisfying texts of more than a few words?’ Ones that feature people rather than cutesie blob-like animals in garish colours? What’s happened to books like the ‘Church Mice’ series by Graham Oakley or classics like ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes or wonderful, satisfying cartoon picture books like those of Philippe Dupasquier and Posie Simmonds? To the gentle pastel palettes of Helen Oxenbury or John Burningham? I support my wonderful local independent bookshop Warwick Books which though marvellous is tiny so maybe I should be visiting a bigger store – but the impression I get is that the vast majority of picture books now feature brash illustrations and minimal text. Some of that text is excellent, of course, and we’re seeing some wonderfully quirky exceptions such as the work Emily Gravett, but my over-riding impression is that the richness and diversity of picture books is diminishing. Picture books are a wonderful source of ideas for drama with young people but I’m struggling to find new ones these days. I leapt with glee on ‘Library Lion’ by Michelle Knudsen illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, the other day. Here we have delicate, evocative touching pictures and a ‘proper story’ which held me gripped and I know children will love – and it even has a wonderful, thought-provoking message embedded.
I don’t think I’m being an old fuddie duddie who can’t move with the times here. I know children are bombarded with technicolour TV and so perhaps publishers think that they need to compete with all that brightness and bittiness. I’m not suggesting we dump delightful Nick Sharratt or eschew Elmer. I’m just asking for more substantial stories in picture books and more variety in characters and styles. I’m quite happy with anthropomorphosis at its best – who can forget Jill Murphy’s hilarious Large family of elephants or Mick Inkpen’s Penguin Small who meets the Neverwasanocerous? But I’m fed up with endless blobby creatures with unmemorable characters and only a passing resemblance to the animals they’re supposed to be, especially when nothing much happens to them anyway!
Perhaps publishers could take a look at some of the work coming out of the Cambridge MA in illustration from which SAS member Sue Ferraby is just graduating.
Those are her pictures, heading this blog. I’ve been a fan for years.
Do take a look at the web-site above. Haunting pictures and the hint of enthralling stories to go with them. I wish!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Writing as Life Saving Meg Harper

First, the good news. Last time I was writing here, I was mid-struggle with a self-publishing project for the creative writing group that I teach. Well, the book has been published. ‘Oxfordshire Originals’ is a very respectable little collection of short stories and poems and we hope to launch it properly later in the Spring. My short biography of Elizabeth 1st for KS2 is all done bar a final edit and has received a terse ‘very good’ from my friend who is a professor of Tudor History. I’m up to my ears in work, all of a creative nature – so my work life is very happy.
On the domestic front, however, things are so bad that the scriptwriters of the Archers could find inspiration. I’m told Nigel has fallen off the roof and died! Well, no one’s died here but events in the last few weeks have proved equally unexpected and unlikely – so I am once again reminded that fact often proves stranger than fiction.
In the midst of this, there are things that have saved my sanity – my friends, my daughter introducing me to Michael Macintyre (who may be a Tory but at least he is a funny one), walking, swimming – and a wonderful book.
And that’s what I want to write about. For years, I have agonised over the value of my writing. Not in the ‘Am I great? Could I be the next George Eliot?’ fruitless sort of way but in the ‘Am I making a worthwhile contribution to the community?’ sort of way. Brought up by a disabled mother, I learnt to see doctors as god-like. To be a doctor seemed the most valuable thing anyone could be or do. But I was useless at sciences so there was no hope of a career there – and anyway, I wanted to be a children’s writer, a goal I have achieved. But there has always been a niggle. For me, as I despairingly explained to a friend once, ‘Just fun, won’t do’ - and writing is so much fun! I am learning to get over that – but I still struggle with the fact that there are just so many other books out there – what am I thinking of, trying to write yet another?
Talking about this to a friend recently, she told me how books for her had been a life-saver as a small and very troubled child in a broken home. Books had been her haven. They had saved her life. More should be written. Hmm, I thought, sceptically. And then I started reading ‘The Road Home’ by Rose Tremain.
It’s an understated story about Lev, an economic migrant, but it had me gripped. Something about Lev’s struggle to make his way, to pick himself up again and again from the blows that battered him, gave me hope. I kept returning to his story as haven and inspiration. I still think of Lev now and remind myself that if he could do it, so can I – even though he is a fictional character. It is not a story where all ends happily – but it is a story where grit and perseverance and love prevail.
I still don’t know about my own writing – how worthwhile it is compared with other things that I do. But I do know that Rose Tremain’s book has helped me – and I am sure there are innumerable people out there for whom a particular book has been a special help through a particularly traumatic time in their lives. Please do share any that have done that for you. Thank you.

Friday, 10 December 2010

A Cautionary Tale Part 2 Meg Harper

You can tell how much of a flap I was in last week - I posted my blog on the wrong day! Apologies to Nicola Morgan! So if you missed Part 1 of this and are interested, please scroll back to 2nd Dec. My cunning plan to put a warning note in my diary misfired; I interpreted it as, 'Do blog today!' not, 'It's next week!'

Anyway, I was stressing away about my Summer Creative Writing Project's self-publishing venture running aground and was issuing dire warnings to all and sundry. The happy ending is that the ship seems to be afloat again though we won't have a book out for Christmas - but we will have a very nice looking and (I hope!) very well edited anthology in the New Year!

What do I learn? Make sure that what is needed by each deadline is absolutely clear. What has become standard to me, will not be to students. Now how did I not realise that? Doh!

I think I had my share of this space last week so that's all for now - except to say how much I'm enjoying the messages from the editor I'm working with at the moment. She manages to combine enthusiasm with rigour in a way which is highly motivating. I think I respond like a rather dim dog. Pat me and I'll do anything you want - and quickly! : )

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Cautionary Tale Meg Harper

This won’t be an erudite blog – it’ll probably be more of a venting of current angst – but hopefully it might be helpful to anyone else involved in what I call para-writing ie. all the work that writers do that has something to do with writing but isn’t actually the thing itself! I love it – I’m not someone who wants to write all day, everyday – but it certainly has its moments.
So – the history. For the last three summers I have run a 3 day creative writing course for adults, with the aim of publishing an anthology of their work. The first year we published ‘Banbury Stories’, the second year we published ‘New Stories for Old’ and this year we are still hoping to publish ‘Oxfordshire Originals’.
This year, one of the students approached me to explain that he was a small publisher himself. He publishes directories. He knows the process and thought he could do a better job than could be done through Lulu. He was interested in the idea of us forming a sort of co-operative. We would all agree to buy 7 books but would not contribute anything else to the cost of publication and he would aim to promote the book commercially. He thought he could cover his expenses and even make a small profit for us all. For him it was an experiment in publishing something more creative, he explained – and the group would get their work published to a higher specification at little extra cost. He hoped, if it was a success, to publish further anthologies of Oxfordshire Originals on the same basis – not quite vanity publishing but heading in that direction.
I am not a risk-taker on the whole, but on this occasion I thought it was worth a shot. The student seemed to know what he was doing and be very genuine and I still believe that he is. I agreed to be the editor of his version of the anthology as an experiment. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had enough awareness of how time-consuming editing is and we have, I think, had a misunderstanding about what was meant by ‘the stories are to be ready by the end of November’. To cut a long story short, despite my best efforts and protestations, he has gone to press with a book which has far too many minor errors in it for my liking.
I explained my discomfort and asked him to get in touch with his printer urgently to delay the print-run but he has refused and instead is threatening to abort the whole project . I therefore emailed the contributors to ask if they would prefer to go ahead or for me to do my usual Lulu version after Christmas and I’m waiting for the verdict. So far, its 2 all! Meanwhile, the student has emailed the contributors, telling them that I’ve lost faith in the project (untrue) and offering them a different deal which really is vanity publishing.
Deep sigh. What do I learn from this apart from not to take risks?
1. Not all publishing is done to the same high standards of editing! Clearly certain directories are not!
2. Just because someone is a publisher, he/she won’t necessarily know how long the process of editing fiction takes.
3. We are vulnerable. I feel my goodwill has been taken advantage of here. I have put more time into this than if I had been creating my own publication, all unpaid, but am not being treated as an equal partner in the process. I may be being paranoid but I think there are people out there who see publishing as a way to make a quick buck because other people are so keen to be published. That makes writers who also work as creative writing teachers vulnerable and also their students.
4. Some people don’t care about perfection – they just want something published. Others care very deeply that a book is as perfect as it possibly can be and will hold out for that. I have both sorts in my creative writing group – and it will make this situation difficult to resolve.
Perhaps I have felt even more perfectionist than normal because my latest book, ‘Stop, thief!, a book of only 500 words has a glaring misprint on (would you believe it?) page 13. Apparently, the wrong file was sent to the printer! Ironic, hey?
Well, wish me luck! There are some good stories in the book so if it does get published by my student, you can order it from Amazon and enjoy – and count the errors too!

Meg Harper
Latest book: ‘Stop, thief!’, published by A&C Black

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Are writers swimmers? Or swimmers writers? Meg Harper

Some years ago, I read an article about the preponderance of writers who love swimming. I remember being intrigued at the time and so, since all else that I have on my mind about writing is yet more ranting about the way it is taught in schools (dear heaven, why, for example, are children still spending hour after hour hand-writing but if they want to learn to type they have to do it of their own volition in the lunch hour?), I’m going to submit a light-hearted and brief blog on that topic.
It intrigued me, of course' because I am a keen swimmer. I try to swim twice a week and do 30-40 lengths on each visit. No, I don’t plan my stories as I churn up and down though on a good day my mind does seem to do some creative mulling, once it’s discharged all the everyday worrying! On a bad day the pool is so busy that I have to devote all my attention to not getting mown down by the hefty men who seem to see a small, middle-aged woman who is swimming faster than them as a major male-ego challenge.
I love swimming so much that I worry about what would happen if I stopped being able to – I get too old and infirm, I can’t afford it, water is in such short supply that we can’t have public baths etc etc. I ask myself the question, if you had to give up swimming or writing, which would it be and (excuse me for blasphemy on this blog) it would have to be writing. Shock, horror! I’m convinced that swimming keeps me sane with its unique ability to relax and exercise me and to somehow wash my mind and body free of worry and anxiety and tensions.
Iris Murdoch was a keen swimmer. So, notoriously were Byron and Shelley. I don’t know of others but I’m intrigued to find out if there are more. I know that many writers walk each day and many take dogs with them – we get a fair bit of writerly doggie worship on Facebook - but are we closet swimmers too? Is that how we avoid writer’s bum? Let’s face it, if you go to a conference, on the whole you won’t meet a gang of obese writers – so what’s our secret? We’re a remarkably lean, fit-looking bunch on the whole. Maybe we should write a book and market it!
And those of us who are keen swimmers – does it help in the creative process? Do others find it liberates the brain for a bit of creative mulling? Or for planning whole chapters? Could I get an article for a writing magazine out of this?
Or shall I just tell school teachers to forget all that story planning stuff and take the children swimming?
So – how many of us are swimmers then? And does it help you to write if you are?'s Sunday morning. Normally I would swim but today I'm away from home. Darn, darn, darn. And that's the reason for no pictures either. Sorry!

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Fiction or Faction - which do we value most? - Meg Harper

I’m writing a short biography of Elizabeth 1st for KS2 in story form – and I’m loving it. I’m panicking about the deadline looming but apart from that, I’m having a ball! I applied for the job, so to speak, because I’m vaguely interested in the Tudors. From time to time I don my Tudor togs and go off to Kentwell Hall in Suffolk to enjoy that merry jape called re-enactment. I generally arrive and have to ask my fellow lunatics, ‘What year is this? Who’s on the throne? What’s just happened?’ and then bluff my way through however many days it is of pretending I’m totally au fait with a period about which I know very little but which certainly intrigues me. These days I try to hang out in the Tudor kitchen where at least I know a little about Tudor cookery and it has the advantage of usually being warm. Gone are the days when I pretended I was the widow of a basket maker who had sadly met his demise under a cart, his brains all spilled in the mire, God rest him. (Basket makers were neither female nor as cack-handed as I and I had to have some excuse for my want of skill. On the bright side, I do now have two lop-sided quivers, one holding loo rolls and the other kitchen utensils, but any self-respecting Tudor basket maker would fall about laughing at the sight of them.)

Anyway, I digress. The other reason I applied was that I have a dear friend who is an Emeritus Professor of Tudor History and is the leading expert on Anne Boleyn – so he has a vast library and could direct me to the right books. He also has an incredibly low opinion of Philippa Gregory’s fiction and I am beginning to dread the day when he reads my feeble efforts! Although he says he doesn’t mind historical fiction he can’t stand it when writers suggest things that ‘couldn’t possibly have happened or been said.’ So no suggesting young Liz had a baby by Robert Dudley and had it adopted/suffocated/thrown on the fire or, God forbid, that she was actually a man! Well, I haven’t done any of that – but I’m still very nervous...
However, my point today is how much I’m enjoying the process. I’ll hardly make any money, I’m risking a huge telling off from my friend, I nearly had heart failure when I saw the book advertised on Amazon when I hadn’t actually started it and I’m certainly not going to win any prizes. But I am learning so much - far more than I’ve ever learnt from writing fiction (though I did have a jolly fun day out at Crufts doing research about Irish Wolfhounds once!). And I am really enjoying the process of fictionalizing facts and of deciding what to include and what to throw out. The same was all true when I was writing ‘Wha’ever – the teenager’s guide to spinal cord injury’.

Why, then, do I still have the drive to write complete fiction? I have discovered that I love writing both fiction and faction – I even quite enjoyed writing an activity book for teachers – but I have this inexplicable feeling that fiction is the big thing and everything else is somehow lesser (except perhaps poetry). I have no idea if this is born out in sales – obviously Harry Potter has swept the board – but lower down the league tables I’m wondering. Does David Starkey outsell Philippa Gregory or vice versa? How do popular non-fiction writers do? Richard Dawkins, for example or Richard Nelson Bolles (‘What colour is your parachute?’)

We see so few awards for non-fiction and faction. Is there really a hierarchy here in the public mind (as well as buried in mine) or am I imagining it? And if there is, why? I am having to be creative and imaginative as I write my little history book – the difference is that instead of providing story I have to provide knowledge. Is the one seen to be more valuable than the other?

Monday, 19 July 2010

Five tips for Visiting Authors - Meg Harper

You won’t all want to be visiting authors – and I may not be for long, given the recession! But inadvertently I’ve done a lot of this sort of work in recent years, partly because I really enjoy it – so, if you’re interested yourself, these are my tips:
1. Be Nice. I’ve said this before and Penny Dolan famously says it too in her informative and amusing guide to school visiting. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being nice from start to finish – and when you first arrive, there will be few clues about who the key players are especially on a dressing up day. The Head might be the one in the toga with the laurel wreath but could equally well be one of the many snowmen. Expect absolutely anything and store it away to dine out off later. There is absolutely no point in getting uppity and every point in riding the storm – wild horses might not be able to drag you back to this particular school/library etc but you want them to recommend you to others! I’ve had the headteacher who asked if it was OK to have her piano lesson in the same room as I was holding my workshop, the recorder group playing in the next classroom divided from me with a vinyl screen, the tour of schools where they hadn’t factored in a lunch break, fire drills and a real fire...endless fun! However...I will not carry on with children or teachers talking over me and I make this very clear by waiting with a pointed smile (just watch it – these nice smiley teeth are still teeth...) or with teachers a very concerned, ‘Sorry – is there something wrong?’ Let’s face, it there may be! I’ve even gone as far as (isolating the particular child with a look), ‘Do you know, I’m really surprised! I usually find in schools that children are quiet for visitors!’ Still smiley, still nice! If you get left on your own and you’re not happy, follow Helena Pielichaty’s tip and follow the teacher out (nicely!). You shouldn’t be left on your own. If it’s a quick nip out to grab paper, fair enough – it shouldn’t happen but it will – but anything more than that and you should take nice action.

2. Travel by train where possible and practical. Advantages – you will be picked up and therefore won’t suffer the stress of finding the school lurking obscurely behind the giant yew hedge, struggling for a parking space and negotiating the security system. You’ll also have a golden opportunity to demonstrate your niceness to the person who collects you – even the taxi driver who probably has a child at the school or knows someone else who does! Disadvantages – you may have a heavy case to battle with and you may not make a quick getaway – combat the former by not taking too many books to sell. Unless you are Mark ‘I can sell sand to the Arabs’ Robson, you probably won’t sell very many anyway and this will only dishearten you if you’ve taken a hundred. Wherever possible suggest a 9.30 start rather than 9 – you’ll avoid the hectic rush of pupil arrival time and registration.

3. Get all arrangements confirmed in writing. I have a booking form I ask to be filled in. Very early on, I was asked by Ottakars to do a World Book Day visit and thought I had declined. Come the day, I was ill in bed – very unusual as I was home-educating my four kids at the time but had begged them to leave me in peace for a couple of hours. And then came the phone call – Ottakars had a class of schoolchildren waiting for me – where was I? I have never dressed, bundled my kids into the car or driven faster in my life but I don’t want to repeat the experience! Recently, I was reliant on an agency to book me into a B&B – and I hadn’t bothered to get that confirmed in writing. Oops a daisy......

4. Be flexible and creative but don’t agree to do anything beyond your capabilities. I now have workshops for every age group which I advertise on my web-site (you definitely need one!) and I have the confidence to know I can probably create something new to almost any spec – but I have very tentatively built up my work with pupils with special needs. Recently asked if I could cope with a school where every child had English as an additional language, I was honest about the fact that I didn’t know and suggested I visited as writer/drama practitioner rather than just the former! I’m still very careful about accepting jobs where I’m specifically asked for ‘boy appeal’.

5. Wear trousers! Then you don’t need to worry about ending up on stage with your lovely skirt tucked in your knickers – I had a very lucky escape with a teacher sprinting after me to unhook at the last minute or the sweet little year 1s clustered round your feet leaving snot trails. So make that machine washable trousers too, just in case.....
Last word – enjoy!

The photo was done for the particular schools web-site so I trust it’s OK here!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

And then...and then...and then... Meg Harper

My Creative Partners project is all over bar the shouting – I have to attend something called a wash-up meeting next week! Don’t you just love modern management jargon?! I have learnt a great deal from the project and could rant at a few politicians about a variety of educational and social issues as a result. But as a writer who works in schools I am fascinated by what I observed about little children and what, for them, constitutes a story. Tomorrow I will be working in a different school and will work with gifted and talented children from years 1-5 but the teacher, although she wanted me to work with year 1 and 2 wasn’t quite sure what she wanted me to do with them – something about writing stories and having fun – but she wasn’t sure what. And suddenly, I didn’t know what to suggest. I explained that from what I have observed, small children have nothing like such a strong sense of the structure of a story as adults do. This ought to be obvious, I think. We presumably learn the structure of story gradually over the years as we read and hear more and more of them. Some of us enjoy stories that break the rules, where the basic structure is experimented with and the ‘rules’ are broken – I do myself. David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ is brilliant in my opinion – Sarah Water’s ‘The Night Watch’ is less successful but I admire the attempt to subvert the structure. Others hate all that – many are the moans I have heard about the ambiguous ending of ‘Atonement’. But when I was 5 or 6, I was still absorbing how stories worked – I certainly couldn’t have explained that a story had a beginning, a middle and an end, let alone that there was something we could call a ‘build-up’ and a ‘resolution’. I know I wrote stories that went on until I got fed up with them and then they just stopped. And why not? Stories are entertainment and for little children, lots of action is entertaining – so they make up stories which go ‘and then...and then...and then...’ and that’s fine. When they get a bit older, they start noticing that things have got a bit ridiculous and so there are a lot of ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ endings. To me, all this is a natural part of the process of absorbing a norm of our culture.
So why on earth are younger and younger children having ‘story structure’ drilled into them? I am part of the process because I am frequently asked to talk about story planning and I co-operate because I am always happy to share my experience of my craft and to try to meet the needs of those employing me. I can do a good, fun and memorable workshop on story planning and story structure and I think it’s perfectly appropriate for children who have had a rich and lengthy experience of story. But for younger children? No – surely it is better to let their idea run riot, their imaginations roam freely, for them to enjoy the glories of ‘and then... and then...and then...’. My 5-7s youth theatre group is devising a delightful little play this term in which Monkey meets the Emperor Master in the jungle and is taught Kung Fu because he is being sent on a quest to save the moon which is being eaten by the Astro Rat. On the way he encounters the Crocodile King, Howler Monkey and his friend Marmaduke, a mad Scientist and some helpful Stars. As you do. My adult brain has been much challenged by encouraging them to bring this amazing quest to a satisfactory conclusion which makes sense! I don’t think they would mind at all if it didn’t! They are simply enjoying the journey, adding in more and more adventures for Monkey.
So that’s what I think I’ll be doing with the Year 1s and 2s tomorrow – enjoying a story journey and not worrying about structure. How much does a story need it anyway? Do I only enjoy the satisfaction of a story that sticks to the traditional structure because that’s what I’m used to in my small corner of Western civilisation? I wonder. What do you think? Anybody out there an expert on the theory of narrative?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

One of those weeks! Meg Harper

Oh dear, here I am at 11pm and I still haven’t managed to write my blog! The life of the writer cum general free lance arts practitioner sometimes falls apart!
The week started badly with 3 hours stuck in a jam on the M4O when I was supposed to be at a day of my Creative Partnership in Oxford – I had to give up and go home in the end as the motorway was closed and no way was I going to negotiate narrow roads and the Banbury bottle-neck with three lanes of motorway traffic that had been shunted off with me!
Yesterday was one of those days where you juggle the rest of your life – dentist, flooring man to fix the new floor that’s not right, hospital appointment, counselling (I’m the counsellor but it’s beginning to feel like I need the counselling!), rush home to cook tea before racing off to the theatre where I’m taking gang of kids from my youth theatre to see a show. (See it if you can – ‘A Handful of Henna’ – currently on tour with the Oxfordshire Touring Company – it’s brilliant!) Part way through cooking the tea I realised I’d be much better off staying with friends after the theatre trip, rather than coming home, as today was another Creative Partnership day and the theatre is half way to Oxford – and I really didn’t fancy another miserable motorway morning! So that’s what I jolly well did – one big problem – no Internet access till I got home again – and tonight’s been a mix of making tea, sorting out stressy exam-burdened daughters and all the usual joys of living with teenagers!
Blog? What’s that? Writing – is that something I did, once upon a time?
So.... this is an apology for a blog! But I do wonder how many of us struggle with the problem that writing is the thing that can always be squeezed out. Its great virtue is that’s it’s so flexible – we can almost do it anywhere and anytime – but that is also it’s great vice. We can always do it later! Well – not endlessly later in my case as yesterday I did also manage to post a signed contract back to my agent. I’ll be writing a short biography of Elizabeth 1st for Keystage 2 over the next few months. It’s a new challenge for me but an interesting one. Which is much what I can say about this week so far – challenging – but very interesting! However, I do apologise for the resulting lateness of this blog and the fact that it’s neither one nor the other! But it’s a very real reflection of how the life of a children’s writer often is, I think!

Saturday, 10 April 2010

An Awfully Big Hedgehog Adventure! Meg Harper

Way back in January, I landed a job with Creative Partnerships – now here I am, a short way into it. If you’re full-time writer with no interest in taking on one of the many para-writing jobs that exist, you may want to give this blog a miss. If, however, you wonder what on earth Creative Partners get up to, then read on!
I’m working in Blackbird Leys, the biggest council estate in Europe (apparently) on the outskirts of Oxford and my brief, together with Vergine, a storyteller and Lisa, a visual/spatial artist, is to see how we can use the outdoors to enable children in Foundation and Year 1 to express and communicate better and to make connections. What a challenge that is! We are all well outside our comfort zones – all experienced as artists in schools but none of us particularly au fait with the very youngest, all of whom are in the earliest stages of literacy or are pre-literate. I found myself reading the optimistic words of the literacy framework for the children I’m working with:
“... children in pairs or individually (possibly then working with a response partner) write their own simple patterned texts (on paper or on screen), developing their writing by adding a few further words or phrases from a given beginning, following a specific pattern or within an appropriate frame. Outcomes are then shared and discussed.”
and wondering which planet the writers are living on Nonetheless, believe it or not – we have actually hit that particular target and are very proud of our two poems about Rats and Rabbits who we all know live outdoors (and we’ve played some excellent outdoor games about them) even if we’ve never seen them in the wild. We might see some on our planned trip to the local nature reserve, though I’ve been warned we’re more likely to see (and carefully avoid!) litter, discarded condoms and worse!
Why, you might be wondering, why does the government think three artists none of whom have qualifications to teach very young children, can have any impact here? Why not just draft in some extra teaching staff? And why, you might be wondering, would any sane writer want to leave her garret to go and engage with this?
Because (hallelujah!) we are creative thinkers! For once there is some cheer! Researchers have worked out that the next generation will have to be flexible, adaptive, innovative thinkers to thrive – and which people have those transferable skills? Artists, of course! It’s true enough, isn’t it? Where do you get your ideas from? What made you think of that? How d’you come up with such interesting plots? And so the skills we have as creative writers are invaluable for pursuing creative enquiry questions because we will keep thinking outside the box, coming up with the quirky, considering any and all ideas before we progress. And believe me, we so need to!
Vergine, Lisa and I are on a steep learning curve working out what’s going to work, what’s really relevant, what will be fun at the same time as being educational, all inspired by the outdoors and, was often as we can, working with the children actually in the outdoors. We are almost literally a breath of fresh air. We started out with some pretty unrealistic thinking, all bright green grass and primroses, and are adapting fast to the inspiration of an urban outdoors and the well-equipped school areas, to using lots of stories, games and pictures based on the outdoors and to cudgelling our brains for more exciting ideas. But I’m used to that, as you all will be too – it is crucial to our success as artists. Our transferable skills have been rumbled and what fun and what a challenge it is to use them in such a very different way from writing at my desk!
The latest wacky idea on my part was to send two soft toys, Rabbit and Rhino home each night with different children so that they could take them outside and write a little and draw a picture about what they did. The children are loving this, dutifully taking the toys home (named Sharpay and Troy by the way if you’re a ‘High School Musical’ fan!) and, by their standards, doing a fair bit of writing about what happens. The only trouble is that, although they take them to bed and keep them close, few of them take them outside. We sat and chatted about it. Where could they take them outside? What would be some good places?
‘Tesco,’ said one.
‘To my friend’s house,’ said another.
It’s a limited environment and most of the children don’t have any where much to play or parents likely to take them further afield. And so another toy, Harriet Hedgehog has been staying with me all holiday and having Big Outdoor Advantures as you’ll see from the photos! She may be inspiration, the children may get vicarious pleasure out of seeing where she’s been, we may begin to write a story about her adventures. We shall see. And if The Adventures of Harriet Hedgehog go down like a lead balloon, then we’ll think of something else because that’s where our strengths lie. Don’t they? : D

PS. I've included a couple of nice literary photos!!! Anyone want to guess where they are?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Being Nice by Meg Harper

Ahah! It’s Monday and this is Schoolvisitville-on-sea! Hurray! It only entailed a last minute change of travel plan when we realised that my husband really did need the car, so I have arrived in the civilised way by train. I only had to stay with my sister over night in Birmingham and get up at 5.45! Yey! I’m raring to go. Where’s my pick up?

Ahah! So really they wanted me to go to a different station! Fine. No worries. The nice taxi man takes me to my first school and we have a jolly nice chat. First rule of author visits according to Penny Dolan’s Survival Guide is Be Nice. So I am. I have been being Nice since 6.15 when my brother-in-law took me to the railway station.

Ahah! The teacher taking this session didn’t know I was coming. Neither did the kids! No worries – we have a great time anyway – except for the three who don’t come back after break because they don’t want to miss PE and ‘Miss said it was OK’. Wounded? No, no. I am far too Nice.

Ahah! Lunchtime! I am famished. It’s a long time since breakfast. A taxi whisks me across town to the next school. This taxi driver is Not Nice. He does not want to talk so I am Nice and Quiet. Phew.

‘Ahah!’ says the Nice receptionist. ‘We’re so glad you’ve arrived. We’ve got two classes waiting for you in the library.’
‘But I haven’t had any lunch yet,’ I say Nicely.
Looks of horror.
‘We’ll try and get you some. But the children are waiting for you in the library.’
‘Yes, I do understand how difficult it is,’ I say very Nicely indeed, ‘and I’ll go and start the session – but I do need some lunch please.’
The egg sandwiches and biscuits look enticingly Nice, sitting on the desk while I talk to the children. In the end I ask a Nice teacher to read a draft for me while I stuff them down my face (nicely).

Ahah! Two schools and three workshops down and it is time to go to my B&B. Oh goodie.
‘So where do you need to be taken?’ asks the very Nice Head of English.
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘The agency said you were booking it.’
‘No, they said that they were.’

We are both very Nice about it, especially when the agency lady is not at work and we have to wait while enquiries are made. I am especially nice when the phone goes and it is not the agency but the Head of English’s little boy’s nursery – he is throwing up violently and needs a parent RIGHT NOW!

The agency sorts it out. The Head of English (who deserves the Nice Woman of the Year Award) sends her husband to collect her son and takes me to my extremely Nice B&B and I finish my day with a nice hot shower, a very Nice tasty meal and an incredibly Nice walk on the beach under the Nicest sunset I’ve seen for a long time. My face aches a bit from my Nice smile but I cannot deny that I have had a Nice day.
Penny is right. Be Nice. Then you can cope with absolutely anything on a school visit. (Well – maybe not – nobody’s wiped their nose on my skirt (I wear drainpipes just in case!) or thrown up on me yet!) It’s as well, really. I’ve visited ten in the last fortnight! Can I be horrible and grumpy for a bit now please???  Seriously, though – it’s been great fun – and if you haven’t read Penny’s post on the ten reasons for doing them, please do! Now I’m really looking forward to some quiet time in my study!

PS.I'm not stealing a baby in the picture - just taking part in my Princess Amelia workshop for Reception and Year 1!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

How I was arrogant and became more humble by teaching creative writing - Meg Harper

One of the things I have done today is think about what I might do with my creative writing class which meets once a month – haven’t quite decided yet but I have a vague idea and I’m looking forward to it. The class lasts for 2 hours and we always over-run.
A few years ago I would have vowed I would never teach creative writing. I would never be part of a writing group. What? Go back to English teaching after discovering the liberation of drama teaching? No way! Sit around listening to wannabes read their dire stuff and be part of a back-scratching circle that hasn’t got the guts to say please go away and take up crotchet instead? Gosh, I was arrogant! Now I love both the teaching and the listening, I have started another (very tiny) writing group for people who want to write their autobiographies (thank you, Leslie Wilson for that lovely idea) and I am awe-struck by the talent of some of the writers and their dedication. Not only that, I am humbled by being part of a group, the bedrock of which is people who will graciously accept criticism and apply it and also give it where necessary with gentleness and sensitivity.
So how did I get from there (arrogant and dismissive) to here? (impressed and humbled)
Like a lot of the bits of my work portfolio, this happened by chance. The creative writing tutor at The Mill Arts Centre where I run the Youth Theatre, resigned suddenly. There was a gap. You write books, don’t you Meg? You’re a qualified teacher? Could you possibly.....? That was nearly three years ago. In the intervening summers I’ve run 2 intensive 3 days workshops where a tiny group has written and self-published an anthology of their work via lovely (if clunky at times) (Incidentally, is it just me but has the P&P multiplied a hundred-fold?) And what a learning curve that has been! For me, a spin-off looks like a new publication with A&C Black but I’ve yet to sign the contract so I’m not holding my breath!
It’s not all awe and wonder, of course! One aspect I didn’t anticipate is that whilst members come and go, I have two members who have been with me from the start and two other long-standing members – and there’s an overlap between the creative writing group and the autobiography group – so each session has to be new and original. There’s no re-cycling of old lessons! The downside of this is that every so often it does my head in and panic ensues! I’m primarily a children’s fiction writer – so what gives me any qualification whatsoever to teach poetry, travel writing, crime fiction, etc etc etc? The upside is that I have to jolly well find out! And it is very interesting and good for me. Last time we were dwelling on an idea culled from the Myslexia short story competition that a satisfying story is one in which change takes place, preferably within an intriguing context. It turned out to be quite a contraversial idea and led to an interesting discussion, not to mention some very original story plans.
So what will Saturday’s class hold? I don’t know yet – but the hour we devote to reading and commenting on what the members have brought along will be fascinating. Some will have taken what we did last time and worked on that. Others have on-going projects and they’ll share the next bit. I’m really hoping Stewart will have written the next instalment of his Sci-Fi novel and that Rebecca’s children’s novel is as funny as last time. But the best bit for me will be John’s poetry. I am gradually making a collection of his stunning poems. I am very happy to write the stuff I write – fluent, readable, light, accessible. But I cannot help being envious of those who can write poetry well. I will never write like John Vickers. Let me introduce you to his work. Those of you who are my Facebook friends may have already encountered this which is my favourite.
The Caravan and the Curlews

The wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks.
we always come here in late September
where dad searches the mudflats for curlews.

The tin roof sags and bends and sinks and leaks
and dad woke at dawn cursing my mother -
the wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks.

I want to pursue what my dad pursues,
I've been stuck in here with mam forever
and dad searches the mudflats for curlews.

Is it really the long curved bill he seeks,
or has he found here something lovelier?
The wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks,

and dad listens to the shoreline calls, clues
as to redshank, godwit, oystercatcher
but dad searches the mudflats for curlews

he's been thinking of little else for weeks.
Yet I wish we could bird-watch together.
The wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks
and dad searches the mudflats for curlews.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Bonding with the Big Outdoors

OK, I know Creative Partners doesn’t pay the going Society of Authors’ rate for author visits but I’ve just accepted a job with them. Will you all forgive me? I’m not proud. Times is hard and the work will be fun and you will know by how that I simply can’t resist the temptation to do everything that has to do with writing that isn’t actually writing. (I did write three chapters in the last two days, honest!) Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the ‘enquiry question’ set by the school. A storyteller, a visual artist and I will be helping years 1 and 2 and their teachers to explore the question:
‘How can we use the outdoors to enable children (and adults they learn with) to better express and communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings and make connections?’
My first thoughts are about exploring what they mean by that question – especially ‘make connections’ – but come on, folks – what do you all think? How do you use the outdoors to better express etc etc? Do you? Don’t you? Are they barking up the wrong tree? (Ho, ho, ho!) Personally, I find a brisk walk of a morning an essential part of a writing day – it’s great mulling time. I don’t mean I thrash out ideas that way, though I have a friend who does, but it just allows my mind to go into freefall, wandering all over the place in a relaxed sort of way and I think that’s very helpful and fruitful. It’s also moderately helpful in the battle against writer’s bum! But how useful a brisk walk would be in a big group, I don’t know – and almost inevitably, we’ll be doing group activities. Of course, I’m already thinking along more structured lines – building willow story-sharing arbours, thinking outdoor theatre, planning story trails (there’s a lovely one all laminated and ready to use if you go to Hackfall Landscape Gardens up near Ripon – see my photos) – but how do we as writers use the outdoors? I’ll be fascinated to hear. For me, places are often the inspiration for a story or creep in there somewhere. A long time ago I visited Chastleton House in the Cotswolds and was inspired to write ‘The Ghost in the Gallery’, partly because of the astonishing interior but also because of the spooky, neglected topiary garden. Stockport’s amazing air-raid shelters tunnelled into the sandstone banks of the Mersey sneaked into ‘Piper’, Thurlestone Bay in Devon provided the beach in ‘Fur’ – but this isn’t really about helping me to better express and communicate – it’s more about ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
I am intrigued. Perhaps they have a gut feeling that these small children, living on a fairly grim estate, are creatures of the TV and the play station and need to be outdoors. I would agree – but whether to help their expression and communication, I don’t know. I am excited and challenged and eager to find out. I will be on a journey of discovery and I hope to let you know what I learn. Certainly Forest Schools of which there are now quite a few in the English state system, find that the amount of time and activity spent outdoors has hugely beneficial effects on children’s learning and well-being. I find it fascinating. The stereotypical view of the writer is of one beavering away in his or her study – an indoor person. But here we’re going to be exploring writerly stuff with the focus on the outdoors – which suits me perfectly in moderation. I just want to know what the rest of you are up to! Passionately embracing the snow and the ice as your lifeblood just now – or rejoicing in the cosiness of a job that can keep you in all day? And how would you answer that enquiry question?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Getting people to do it!

I spent fifteen minutes this morning chatting to a free-lance journalist writing an article called ‘So you want to be a writer?’ for ‘Cerys’, a magazine for 12-16 year old girls. Inevitably, I was asked for my top 3 tips for budding writers. ‘Read lots!’ is always my number one ‘Do it!’ is probably my second – I meet so many people, some of them in the creative writing class I teach who claim to want to write but don’t actually make the time. But my third – well, there are lots of things I could say. Today we were chewing the fat about what got me into writing in the first place and a big catalyst for me was doing very well in one of those ‘prize is getting your book published’ competitions run by Faber. That boosted my confidence and I went on from there. But I was also reminded that a big encouragement as a child was winning the story writing competitions in our local newspaper, ‘The Stockport Advertiser’. I have no idea how many people entered (probably very few – my brother-in-law is currently a dab hand at winning all sorts of goodies in newspaper competitions because he’s realised that so few people enter them) but I was highly delighted by the publication of my stories and the prize of a book that always followed. Once I even had tea with local author, Joyce Stranger, who generously gave me signed copies of two of her hardbacks. That was very thrilling. Her advice to budding writers was to live a broad and rich life – she didn’t seem too impressed with my plan to go to university to study English and maybe I should have taken heed!
I’m curious about the effect the competition winning had. I am not normally a person who enjoys competition (like Katherine, commenting on Sarah Molloy’s blog, I’d prefer to see us all as colleagues rather than rivals although, being realistic, I appreciate that it really is a competitive market out there and we can’t all be winners!) but it certainly gave me a spur as a young writer, partly, I suppose, because books of my own were scarce and I loved the prizes as well as the publication.
And so I have fallen to wondering about whether we could be encouraging young writers in this way? I’ve done some judging of school and bookshop competitions and it can be a deadly task, bringing back shades of the marking that killed a lot of the joy of being a schoolteacher. But I’m still wondering. Should we be setting competitions on our own web-sites? Occasionally from here? In collaboration with local bookshops? Or papers? Should we be nagging our publishers?
I’m pondering. What can we the writers of now, be doing to encourage the writers of the future? Or doesn’t it matter? Are they all so text happy with their Facebooking and mobiles and MSN that they don’t need any encouragement from us to write, even if the writing they do is not quite like ours?
Now I’m going to go away and consider whether I should be offering recreational creative writing to kids as well as to adults...hmm...about time I did some of own writing too, or I’ll be guilty of what I accuse others of and never actually ‘doing it’! (Though I might go and enter a competition in a local newspaper...hmm...a day at a luxury spa might be nice...and I could take a notebook and pretend I was writing.........!)

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Doing Moral Outrage - Meg Harper

When I was young and dreamt of being a children’s writer, I never imagined it would take me to China but that’s where I have recently been, invited by the British Schools of Beijing and Guangzhou to do my author/drama practitioner stuff for 3.5 days. Of course, by the time I’d added a couple of days sight-seeing in both Beijing and Hong Kong plus my time in transit, the whole trip took 11 days and I doubt if I’ll have made much profit but I have had an amazing, mind-expanding trip, moments of which I’ll never forget (especially three of us crammed into a motorised rick-shaw built for two, being driven down three lanes of heavy traffic in the Beijing rush-hour. Or my encounter with a taxi driver who, quite typically in Beijing taxi drivers doesn’t know where anywhere is but isn’t going to lose face by admitting it!)
This, however, is not the place for a travel blog. What of all of this, is relevant to children’s writing? Well....possibly the books I read. Late at night and on journeys, there was the luxury of time to read. On the flight out, I sweated my way through ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Very gripping. I would like to write gripping books for children, but without making readers nauseous with terror, without depicting scenes of violence degrading to women, without having a mind which pictures these things. I see from the sequel sample that the opening chapter is more of the same. Thanks but I think I’ve got the message!
With some relief I turned ot ‘The Roar’, the summer choice of my children’s book group by newcomer Emma Clayton. I enjoyed it. I had issues with the structure and the ending, all too frustratingly set up for what I expect will be a trilogy, but there was much to admire, not least the terrifyingly convincing picture of another world where the rich have quite literally built on top of the poor, condemning them to a life in the dreadful ‘Shadows’, a subterranean world of mould and darkness and squalor.
And then there was Leslie Wilson’s ‘Saving Rafael’, a refreshing spin on the holocaust novel – which I dropped in the bath! Really sorry, Leslie, but at least I was so gripped that I carried on reading and kept it in a plastic bag!
What connects there 3 books? Well...moral outrage, I think. It’s there in all of them. Steig Larsson, though I question his methods, is quietly ranting about violence against women and fraud, the strong terrorising those they perceive as weak. Emma Clayton is outraged by what we are doing to our world, both physically and socially. And Leslie, of course, is outraged by the holocaust – by our inhumanity.
We bloggers are all creators of story. We are all entertainers. But so many of us are also something else. Reflectors. Commentators. Prophets. Preachers. Voices crying in the wilderness?
So what, as I turn to story making again, be it on page or stage, should I be writing about? I could do moral outrage a-plenty after this trip. I have been treated with the utmost respect and courtesy throughout my stay in China – but supposing I had been a Chinese writer during the cultural revolution? Hmm. And Chairman Mao is still hugely honoured as a great hero by the ordinary Chinese. In Hong Kong I found a market full of stunning tropical fish, hung up in plastic bags, terrapins and turtles in tiny crates and puppies for sale in Perspex boxes measuring about 60cm beneath little dog jackets bearing the words. ‘We love all pets.’ Not far away, another market sold caged birds by the hundred.
A couple of weeks before I left, I stopped a child from kicking a plastic water bottle around during our break at Youth Theatre.
‘You need to look after that,’ I said. ‘When the oil runs out, we won’t have any more.’
The child looked at me, bewildered. She is eight and I am sure is re-cycling with the best of them. But she didn’t know about the oil running out. Nor did most of the others. Nor did they know where plastic comes from. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a plastic water bottle, discarded on a less well-trodden part of the Great Wall of China. In my hotels, I was given two water bottles a day. The teachers I was mixing with told me how bad they felt that their drinking water all comes in plastic bottles as the tap water is not safe. That’s right across China and Hong Kong. I don’t want to think about all those water bottles – nor the idea that you can see the Great Wall from the moon but not vice versa because of the pollution – which was certainly very evident in smoggy Beijing.
I am not surprised that Steig, Emma and Leslie are doing moral outrage. More power to their elbows. I have done it myself in the past. But after this trip – well – where do I even begin to start?