Showing posts with label Sheena Wilkinson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sheena Wilkinson. Show all posts

Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Charm of Old Friends -- even when they're scruffy

Not an especially careful child 

Paul May’s lovely post about Jane Gardam last week struck a real chord with me. Partly because I’ve always loved Jane Gardam, and A Long Way From Verona one of my all-time favourite books, but also because of Paul’s celebration of the paperback Puffin. Like him, I grew up with those books, and my bookcases are full of them, often in deplorable condition: I was not an especially careful child, and my books were read over and over again. 

tatty but special 

Take Noel Streatfeild’s A Vicarage Family, for example. It’s tatty; in fact the back cover is detached from the rest of it. I’ve replaced it with a lovely, mint-condition hardback. Well, not exactly replaced… When I had a recent clear-out, my paperback of A Vicarage Family survived the cull when many a book was moved on to the Oxfam Bookshop.

Why? Because it was the copy I had as a child, the one I reread often, the one whose pages absorbed my tears when cousin John was killed in the war. Every time. It’s my copy in a way that the lovely new one will never be. Yes, the Shirley Hughes cover illustration has a charm the hardback lacks, but that was never the point.

ALWFV with some pals 
I’m not a serious book collector – any aspirations for a complete set of first edition Chalet School hardbacks in dust wrappers were set aside the day I left my sensible job to be a fulltime writer; but I do have hundreds of old children’s books, many with beautiful covers, and sturdy and fresh despite their age, because they were built for endurance.

Still, I often find myself drawn to a dog-eared 1970s Malory Towers ‘Dragon’ paperback for exactly the same reason I couldn’t get rid of A Vicarage Family. Nostalgia. I have to restrain myself sometimes from buying up all the 1970s paperback pony books in charity shops. The covers are often dreadful, and bear no relation to the ponies of the story, but they call to me like old friends.

Much of my childhood reading was courtesy of the local library, so the books I owned were very special to me – though the specialness didn’t prevent my reading them in the bath and up trees, hence the sorry state they ended up in. I had hardly any hardbacks, and those I’ve collected as an adult are often ex-library copies, which have the merit of being identical to the editions I borrowed but could never have owned as a child. More old friends, but the posher kind. 

older and built to last

My old paperbacks weren’t built to last — especially not when you read them in the bath — but I’ll always have a soft spot for the book covers of my youth.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Confessions of a Written-out Writer by Lynne Benton

Having finally got to the end of my ABC of children’s writers, I knew I was going to have to come up with some new ideas for this month’s blog, as well as for the next few months.  I’ve read and reread several of the last few blogs that other people have written and wonder how I can possibly write anything half as interesting and/or inspiring.  I loved Kelly’s excellent post about how not to inspire children to read, and Sheena’s post about the bright idea she had for using her beautiful new diary, and Mel’s about her much-loved grandmother and the robin, and wish I could come up with something as good.

However, all I have to offer this month is to tell you that I have finally come to the end of a six-week marathon of writing a children’s story for an online forum, tailoring each chapter according to how the children voted at the end of the previous one (at the end of each chapter I had to give them three options to choose from).  Then I’ve had to read and respond to some of their online comments.  I thought this would be the easiest part of the stint, but I hadn’t bargained for the number of children who were thrilled to be able to write to the person who had written this book for them.  The publisher expects me to reply to as many of their comments as I can, but if I tell you that to date I’ve had over 3000 comments, you will begin to see how time-consuming this has been!  It was a great idea, and has been a most interesting experience – and it was lovely to have instant feedback from my readers (most of whom have been delightful and complimentary) – but it has taken up far more of my time then I had anticipated.   Even now the book is finished, the comments are still pouring in, which I suppose proves that it really is encouraging them to read!    

In addition to all this I had, of course, to do the dreaded Tax Return (I know, I know, I should have done it last April, but inevitably I didn’t get round to it till January!)  Thankfully I managed to get it finished before the deadline, but it was another Thing that Had to be Done.  As well as dealing with nasty post-Christmas colds (self and husband), regular classes and meetings and other Things to Remember To Do as Soon as Possible.

So it’s all been a bit busy lately, and I haven’t had a chance, or, indeed, the headspace, to write any more of my current Work In Progress.  I’m really looking forward to getting back to it now, though. 

I'm sorry there are no pictures this month to leaven the text, and I do hope that by next month I’ll have come up with something rather more interesting to write about here!  Meanwhile, apologies from this written-out writer!  

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Retreating -- DIY style Sheena Wilkinson

One of our walks
I’m a serial retreater, and I’ve written on here several times about the importance of getting away to work somewhere free from the demands of daily life. 

But what about a retreat in my own house? A week when all I focus on is my writing? Isn’t that just normal life – or meant to be? Well, no, as anyone trying to juggle writing with events, workshops, school visits, etc. knows, it can be very hard to make yourself prioritise your writing with everything else knocking on the door –- sometimes literally. 

I was chatting to a writer friend, the lovely E. R. (Elizabeth) Murray about this. Elizabeth is an expert on retreats and we decided to have a DIY retreat at my house in County Down. We would keep strict working hours, but also prioritise good food and long walks – something we both love. Well, we did it last month, it was a great success, and I want to encourage other writers to consider doing the same thing. 

I don’t live in a grand house in an exotic location, but I was able to provide a quiet room, a designated working space and beautiful countryside nearby. We agreed about what we wanted to achieve and respected each other’s need for quiet and privacy to work. But it was lovely to have someone to say, How’s it going?and to share the joy/despair. Someone to make a cup of tea for. Someone to understand that another cup of tea is indeed necessary. 

This little room became Elizabeth's for the week
Elizabeth says she hates routine, but she’s very structured in how she works, which exactly fitted with me. I couldn’t have coped with someone wandering around seeking inspiration at three in the morning or leaving towels on the floor.  We both like order and tidiness, so we were able to tread lightly around each other. For me, knowing she was downstairs editing away helped me focus. I wanted to be able to report good progress. 

Lest this all sound a bit monastic, wine, and occasionally chips, were also involved. And words. A lot of words. On the page and on the lips – we fitted in a month’s work of chatting as well as a month’s worth of editing.

But don’t just take my word for it: this is what Elizabeth has to say about the experience:

I'm no stranger to writing retreats but spending five days with another writer, in their home, on a self-directed retreat was something I’d never done before. I had worked with Sheena on a week-long residential and we’d got on really well, so I thought it would be great. My only concern was that it might prove awkward being in someone else’s space when they’re used to having it to themselves to work in. But it turned out better than I could ever have imagined. 

Working to an agreed schedule with someone else (I usually hate routine) made the whole writing experience feel more sociable and less pressured; even though we were in separate areas working away, we could share our progress and thoughts over meals, and I felt much more relaxed than I often do while working alone. We had a lovely balance between solid working hours, long walks in beautiful countryside, and visits around the local area – it felt like a combination of holiday and retreat, and it was nice to feel you were working towards a reward.

We honestly got a lot of work done too!
What I took from our days together was a heap of work, but also the realisation that I often work too intensely and although I love writing, I often don’t leave enough space for breaks which are actually reviving. I am allergic to routine usually but I discovered that perhaps a few days of routine now and again wouldn’t hurt to shake things up a bit. And I learned that working on a retreat with a friend can be a truly joyous experience that brings an extra element of joy to your day and your writing. 

A DIY writing retreat is a great way to replicate something of what a more expensive retreat offers. So, find yourself a writing chum who won’t drive you crazy, agree on some house rules, and get retreating! 

See also --

Monday, 13 August 2018

Kay Goes Collecting -- Career Novels by Sheena Wilkinson

When I did my PhD on girls’ school and college novels back in the 1990s, it was very hard to find other people who took the books seriously. Now I am in touch, online and off, with many readers and collectors of old-fashioned children’s books – from the classic to the ephemeral, and meet up with them every two years at a wonderful conference in Bristol.  How things have changed in the last twenty years. And social change is at the heart of today’s post. 

One of these readers and collectors is Kay Clifford, who’s widely known to be the authority on the career novels which were popular after World War 2 – among the earliest YA fiction, you might say, since they were aimed at the teen reader thinking of her future. Kay’s talks at the Bristol conference are always informative and highly entertaining, so when I read that she was launching her book Career Novels for Girls (Mirfield Press, 2018) I knew I could expect a treat.

Little has been written about career novels, and when I started reading Kay’s book – which is every bit as informative and hilarious as her talks – I thought readers of this blog might like to know about this once booming area of children’s literature. As Kay repeats often in her book, they are fascinating documents of social change, and tell us a great deal about the attitudes of their times. 

I’ll let Kay continue in her own words: 

Those lovely career books of the 40s and 50s with their alliterative titles: Rennie Goes Riding; Cookery Kate; Shirley: Sales Assistant; Chris at the Kennels.  If you were named Ann, you could aspire to be Air Hostess Ann.  Except that you had to be Grammar School educated (which immediately narrowed the field), stand over 5’2”, weigh between 105lbs and 135lbs and understood that you’d be sacked as soon as you got married.  And, of course, every girl expected to get married, didn’t she?  A career was only for those years between leaving School and Finding A Man. 

So most of us, in spite of those glorious and uplifting career books, became a Secretary or a Nurse.  Or a Teacher if you were clever.  Or even a Librarian if you were really clever (for a girl, that is).  Some of us, reading those Bodley Head or Chatto & Windus career books yearned to be a Ship’s Officer, or a farmer, or the Captain of a Ship, or drive cars while our husbands did the housework (yes, there is one book – but only one book – where this happens) but we didn’t and couldn’t.

It would be 40 years before Eileen Nolan would be an Army Brigadier, and another 50 years before entry into Medical Schools would be 50% female.  But these books opened gates and gave us the right information.  They explained how to be an Almoner, how to be an Occupational Therapist, how to be a Physiotherapist.  They gave us dreams and aspirations which we may not have been able to satisfy in the 50s and 60s, but we could pass those dreams and aspirations on to our daughters and our grand-daughters. 

And today we can read and revel in these books.  The social detail.  The man of the house coming home at 5 o’clock and sitting down immediately at the table as his evening meal is put before him.  Meat and two veg of course.  Girls wearing gloves and hats when attending for their interviews.  Fathers having the final say-so as to whether the job is suitable or not.  A vanished world.  But with invaluable social information.  A by-gone world.  A snapshot in time of the 1940s and the 1950s.  

I’d really recommend Kay’s book to anyone interested in mid-twentieth-century children’s literature and/or social history. I’m no expert on careers novels, but I found this book an entertaining, wry, and informative insight into the worlds of our mothers and our grandmothers.


Friday, 13 July 2018

That Charney Magic by Sheena Wilkinson

For the last six years I have spent four days every July at the Scattered Authors summer retreat at lovely Charney Manor in Oxfordshire. Often, in the last three years, I have wanted to blog about Charney, how special it is and what an important role it plays in my year, but I haven’t felt able to, for one crucial reason – along with friend and fellow-writer Lee Weatherly, I organised Charney from 2015-2017. I think the three Charneys we organised were enjoyable, varied and helpful, but it wouldn’t have been at all the thing for me to have said so in public.

This year, however, for the first time since 2014, I was able to attend Charney as a ‘normal’ punter, and – yay! That means I get to tell you how wonderful it was. I’ve often blogged here about the need for writers to retreat, and I’m lucky enough to have several great places where I can just disappear into my work for a few days or longer. I know that I would mot manage my freelance life so successfully without those times: sometimes they have kept me from feeling completely overloaded. This seems to be as much the case now when I am ‘writing fulltime’*, as when I was a teacher desperate for (and better able to afford!) time away. 

What I love about Charney is that it can be what you want it to be. There are sessions all day – a great mix of sessions, some based on knowledge and insight sharing, others purely creative. The evenings are fun, with, this year, a Desert Island Books session, a comedy workshop, and a fiendish quiz. And of course much chat.
The Solar doesn't look this quiet when its filled with Scattered Authors...

You don’t have to go to anything; some people do try to attend all the sessions, while others like to hide and write – it’s up to you; anything goes. Most people love Charney for the companionship of other writers in what can be a lonely business, and for me, often feeling a bit out of the loop over on Northern Ireland, that is a big part of its appeal. Some of my most supportive writer friends were met at Charney, and every year it attracts new people, which means new friends. It’s open to all Scattered Authors, and what I especially love is that it attracts people at very different stages of their careers, from shiny debuts to doyennes with a hundred books to their credit. 

This year, I’d had a very busy spring and early summer, and had struggled to make meaningful progress with my work-in-progress, an adult novel. I was very keen to get some sort of a rough draft bashed out by the end of July, because of beginning a commissioned teen historical novel in August, but this seemed less and less possible. But this year’s Charney came straight after three days at Gladstone’s Library, three days when it was so hot I couldn’t bear to go outdoors until after eight o’clock at night, which meant I wrote 4,500 words a day. (Something I have never managed before or since!) I was, at last, feeling so immersed in the story that I almost begrudged the array of fun-sounding sessions at Charney. Flash fiction? Iphone photography? Treasure hunt? Creative collage? All I wanted was words on the screen!

But it would be churlish, I thought, not to turn up at these sessions which had been so thoughtfully organised. Maybe a little flash fiction (with Jo Cotterill) would set me up for the day and get me in training for my ‘real’ writing. What happened was that Jo’s first prompt sent me straight into my story. I didn’t manage any flash fiction, but by eleven o’clock on the first morning I had several scenes that I’ve been able to use, and some insights into characters and plot that I wouldn’t have managed if I’d been sitting trying to get them.

That afternoon, fired with enthusiasm, I had my first experience of Jen Alexander’s famous creative collage workshop. I had thought it would be fun, because tearing and sticking and making pretty pictures is fun; what I hadn’t imagined was that the activity would solve a central story issue and give me a strong recurring leitmotif. 

My collage 

These two workshops, both fabulously enjoyable in their own right, each gave me gifts for my work in progress, gifts I didn’t know I needed, but that I made myself open to receive. That’s the magic of Charney. That’s why, however busy I am, I’ll always makes time for those four precious days in early July. And why, in the midst of worrying about word counts and targets, I’ll remember to play. 

Thanks so much to Jo Cotterill, Ruth Hatfield, John Dickinson and Kit Berry for organising such a wonderful Charney. And to any Scattered Author out there who hasn't yet been touched by the Charney magic -- do join us next year! 

* haha.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The Books That Survived by Sheena Wilkinson

Bedside friends 

This is a sort of sequel to last month’s post, 'Editing A House'. The Great Clear-Out is still a work a progress (as is the work in progress, but that’s a post for another day.)

well, of course I have kept my OWN books -- among others

I have been ruthless in my way. Seventeen bookcases are on their way to fifteen. I thought you’d like to see what was left – in the children’s books, which are all upstairs. There is a still half a bookcase of YA  to be sorted.

These represent the books I just can’t live without. The series I have collected over the years, the childhood friends that are were never things of great beauty to start with (1970s paperbacks) and have not been improved by the ravages of the years.

shabby old paperbacks mostly 
Some of these books I know so well that I know not only what's coming next in the story, but whole passages. Some day I will need to read them again -- and I will look up, and there they will be, waiting. For me, a house without the Marlows or the Blacketts or the Bettanys -- well, it's just not a home. 

Which books could you not live without?  

some more old pals 
classic school stories

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Editing A House by Sheena Wilkinson

This is going to be a short post. Partly because I’m super-busy with housey things, and also to illustrate a point. And the two things are related.

My late father liked to think of his style as minimalist. Which gave me some wry moments when I was clearing out his house after his death ten years ago. Perhaps he admired minimalism, but he certainly didn’t achieve it, I thought as I dragged down yet another set of fishing rods from the loft. (He had given up fishing about 1985, and had moved house with those rods more than once.)

on their way to a good home 

The experience of clearing Daddy’s house (1997 IKEA catalogue, anyone?) made me fairly ruthless about the clutter in my own. But still, every year or so I manage to get rid of more STUFF. Recently I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, partly by work-related things, but also by that said STUFF.  Things – especially books – had started to pile up, not literally because I don’t like mess, but in bookcases. I could always squeeze another one in somewhere. Did I need all those pony books? Even Jackie on Pony Island? Did I need three copies of Fly-By-Night? Why not just keep the first edition with the dustwrapper?  What about all those books by my friends? Wouldn’t they be hurt and offended if I gave them away? Why did I keep all that lit crit? My PhD was years ago. Did I just want to be the sort of person with clever books in her house?

STUFF (NB my own books are going nowhere!)
Gran’s china cabinet had been in my house since her death. I kept it because she loved it. I told myself it wasn’t really ugly; it was sort-of-Art-Deco. And even when one of the shelves broke and then I smashed a panel in the door with the end of the hoover, I kept it. Even though it took up too much space. Even though the linen I kept in it could be easily accommodated in the hot press. And then, clearing out the room to have it painted I saw how much nicer it was without it. And Gran did love the china cabinet, but she died in 2006, and I do not love it. It has gone.

Along with many other things – books, ornaments, flannelette sheets, ancient curtains, literary theory I will never ever read.  My rooms look brighter and cleaner. I did exactly what I encourage people to do in editing workshops: take out all the adverbs, the adjectives, the repetitions, and see what you’re left with. And then put back what you really need. My house feels edited. It’s not quite a haiku, and I would never want it to be – unlike Daddy I don’t even pretend to be a minimalist – but it’s more of a novella now than a three-volume novel. And I feel I can breathe and see more clearly.

Still not minimalist -- yes, I do need all those ceramic greyhounds

And if you find a book you gave me in a charity shop, be reassured that I enjoyed it and appreciated it, and that I passed it on after much agonising.

I did keep one extra copy of Fly-By-Night. I couldn’t read a first edition in the bath.

Sunday, 14 May 2017


This blog follows on neatly from yesterday’s Blog by Sheena Wilkinson, though when I wrote this I had no idea what hers would be about! 

I’ve just been going through a pile of my mother’s old exercise books, dating from the late thirties.  After she died I brought them back with me when we emptied her flat, but I’ve only just got round to looking at them. I was particularly keen to read her English books, to see what sort of work children at the top end of primary schools were expected to do back then.  We hear so much that those were “the good old days” that I was prepared to be impressed.

This is what I found:
As far as neatness was concerned, full marks.
As far as grammar, spelling and punctuation was concerned, full marks.
There were also several famous poems copied out faithfully.
But as far as writing anything creative was concerned, very few marks!

In four English exercise books I found only two pieces of genuinely creative work (ie stories – in those days nobody seemed to consider that children might try to write their own poetry!).  Only two stories which gave rein to the imagination.  I know my mother once said she didn’t have any imagination – maybe it was because she’d been given no chance to develop one.  All the other pieces of work were obviously exercises, probably copied down from the board, or from a book, or factual essays - beautiful to look at, but with no encouragement to be creative. 

I had thought that since we are, theoretically, so much more enlightened today, children would have far more opportunities to produce original creative work.  When I was at school in the sixties, although we were expected to use correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, we were also allowed the freedom to write stories about whatever interested us..  And when I was teaching in the late sixties and seventies there was plenty of emphasis on creative work of one sort or another.  Nowadays, however, with all the current emphasis on strange expressions like “fronted adverbials” being apparently essential for passing SATS tests, what space is left for creative work?  Clearly the technical aspects of grammar and spelling now take precedence over everything else.  Of course they are important, but they should help with creative work, not replace it.  This seems to me to be taking a backwards step, rather than looking forward.

My teachers, like Sheena's in her post yesterday, loved their subject and inspired me – but then they weren’t expected to teach to the tests all the time.  Okay, we did have the dreaded 11 plus in my day, but that was all – no SATS tests from age 5 upwards. 

I can’t help remembering a talk I heard once given by a famous children’s writer (I’d better not name her for reasons that will become obvious.)  She said that when she was at primary school her teacher used to come in every Monday morning with a hangover (now you see why I’d better not mention any names!) and said, “Sit down and write a story.”  So every Monday morning the whole class did just that – and she, as a budding writer, absolutely loved it!  (Was it in fact this opportunity that made her into a writer?) Of course one shouldn’t recommend such a way of teaching, and my teachers were way too responsible to behave that way, but I know I’d have loved to spend a whole morning writing a story! 

Of course we can't blame it all on the schools, or on our unbeloved ex-Education Secretary.  There should be time and opportunity for creativity at home, too - and in many cases they do.  But as comedian Jenny Éclair once said, all children should by law have a chance to be bored, because it was out of boredom that inspiration, imagination and creativity came – and I do agree.  How good it would be if after school and during their holidays children no longer had to worry about homework and tests, but instead had time and space to come up with new and creative ideas for amusing themselves.  This would surely be more useful for life, and would give their imaginations a chance to flourish.