Showing posts with label Shirley-Anne McMillan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shirley-Anne McMillan. Show all posts

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Joyful Things by Shirley-Anne McMillan

It has been a stressful few days but I don't want to talk about it, or to write about it, mainly because the stress has come from an accumulation of the most boring things ever- an unpicked row of knitting, having to redo a video that I liked best the first time around, the wifi misbehaving and losing some work because of it... I can't complete this list as I can hear myself snoring.

So anyway! Here are some of the things that brought me joy recently:

  • My sister and her partner's rendition of Bernie Sanders via the medium of snow (see above)
  • This video of ice-skaters skating to Metallica in New York
  • This story of two incredibly nerdy men high-fiving one another once a week for six years, brought to my attention by my friend David Dark who has a wonderful newsletter called Dark Matter
  • The scene in Hairspray where John Travolta and Christopher Walken dance together through the laundry in the back yard (just the whole film actually)
  • New books! I'm almost finished reading Liz Kessler's excellent When The World Was Ours and although it is a sad story I feel so glad that it's in the world. If you need to do further research on why 'Own Voices' is important, or why 'issues' books need to be available to young people, then have a look. Next on my list is Keren David's What We're Scared Of. It feels like a good idea to read both books together.

The only thing missing from this list is new stationery, so I'll need to sort that our immediately. Recommendations welcome!

Hope you're all OK this weather x

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Our Moon Is The Moon Moon - Shirley-Anne McMillan

One of the nice things about having a space-obsessed six year old at the minute is that even though I have to watch the same clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about black holes three times a day, he also enjoys talking about the moon. I love the moon right now. We're familiar with it- we see it every night, we've even been there and we've sent robots there to take pictures. But there's nobody on it right now. It's completely peaceful. It's quiet. No stupid arguments on the moon internet, because there is no moon internet. No stupid politicians messing everything up. No coronavirus. Sometimes people talk about getting away from earth and going to the moon. But I like it because that's not possible. Not yet anyway. For now, the moon is unspoilt by humans. My son will sometimes say 'Other planets have moons with names, but our moon is the moon moon.' It always makes me think of this poem and I imagine my boy as the boy who escapes with the moon across the sky. I hope you're all doing OK. x

Ballad of the Moon Moon

For Conchita García Lorca
Moon came to the forge
in her petticoat of nard
The boy looks and looks
the boy looks at the Moon
In the turbulent air
Moon lifts up her arms
showing — pure and sexy — 
her beaten-tin breasts
Run Moon run Moon Moon
If the gypsies came
white rings and white necklaces
they would beat from your heart
Boy will you let me dance — 
when the gypsies come
they’ll find you on the anvil
with your little eyes shut
Run Moon run Moon Moon
I hear the horses’ hoofs
Leave me boy! Don’t walk
on my lane of white starch

The horseman came beating
the drum of the plains
The boy at the forge
has his little eyes shut
Through the olive groves
in bronze and in dreams
here the gypsies come
their heads riding high
their eyelids hanging low

How the night heron sings
how it sings in the tree
Moon crosses the sky
with a boy by the hand

At the forge the gypsies
cry and then scream
The wind watches watches
the wind watches the Moon

Photo by my older son.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Lorca Under Lockdown - Shirley-Anne McMillan

I hope everyone is well.

I seem to be starting every greeting like that at the minute. Even in these days of mindfulness-mania we are still surprised to find that life can change really suddenly. Respecting the present moment has become popular because of its advantages: a beautiful day becomes highly significant through the awareness that it will change- why else would it be particularly beautiful. But it becomes challenging if the present moment is a difficult one.

The big shock of the pandemic wasn't so much that things change, as that they changed for everyone all at once. We are now having a more collective experience than perhaps we have ever had before. It's a bit trippy, isn't it?

So I'm getting to the part in my YA novel work-in-progress where the students go on a school trip to Granada where they will encounter Federico Garcia Lorca. This day last year I was in Granada. The feeling of it is still very present. Which is lucky, because I didn't think it would take me this long to write the novel. Anyway, I'm deliberately remembering it now, and as a consequence I'm going back to his poetry and his thoughts about writing, and the point of his own work.

I return to this piece, which I could only find in Spanish online. In a tiny corner of a mostly-Spanish-language museum book shop in Granada I found a £1.50 English language translation of it. It's called In The Garden of Lunar Grapefruit and it details a man's thoughts, as he sets out on a long journey, about the possibilities he has missed in life- all the things that didn't happen, which could have happened. It is a piece about regret and determination, and it is not difficult to imagine that Lorca was thinking of his own life and how he could not be fully free to live as a gay man. But now I am reading it and thinking of all the cancelled events of this Spring: the concerts my teenager wanted to attend, the gigs he was due to play, my sister's wedding, her hen weekend. All the things we were looking forward to which will not happen now. And it makes me think that those things only existed in a dream- they were only really possibilities- and what is real is what we have now. I don't mean this post to be something sad, really. It is just a fleeting thought about permanence (or the lack of it) and how strange it is to be thrust into considering that reality is only ever a moment.

Here's an extract from In The Garden of Lunar Grapefruit:

A sharp emotion, like an elegy for the things that have never been- good things and bad, large things and small- invades the landscape of my eyes, which are almost hidden behind a pair of violet-tinted glasses. A bitter emotion that compels me to walk towards this quivering garden on the highest prairies of the air.... What is past remains filled with yellow undergrowth... No man ever toppled backwards onto death. But, when momentarily contemplating that desolate, infinite landscape, I have seen drafts of unpublished life- multiple, overlapping drafts, like the buckets on an endless waterwheel. 
Wishing you some happy moments today. x

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Finding Your Girl Squad by Dr Angharad Rudkin and Ruth Fitzgerald Review by Shirley-Anne McMillan

I've just finished reading this lovely book by Dr Angharad Rudkin and Ruth Fitzgerald and I wanted to say a few words about it. My first thought on the title (which is, in full, 'Finding Your Girl Squad - Making and Keeping Friends Who Love You for You') was that we need an adult version of this book. Loneliness seems to be an increasingly problem in society generally. I don't know very many people who haven't struggled, in this age of hyper-connectivity, to, well, connect. There is so much talk about gangs and 'finding your tribe', so why is it so difficult to do?

Anyway, this book isn't for old people like me, it's for young girls, probably aged around 9 to early teens. It's written in a style which is very familiar to me as I'm really fond of Ruth Fitzgerald's hilariously knowing Emily Sparkes series for the same age of reader. Finding Your Girl Squad is similarly funny and written in a style which expertly spans that difficult period between Primary and Secondary school where you don't want a book that's too 'childish' or to too difficult to understand. It has elements of cartoon/comic book, but also agony-aunt style case studies which tackle issues like how to deal with changes in your friendship group as you get older, and what we mean by our 'real selves'.

I liked the emphasis on individuality as well as acknowledging the need for belonging and I loved how the writers addressed the unifying factor of  everyone's weirdness, promising the 'super psychology secrets!'  which can help young people cope with the intricacies of relationships which they will encounter but might have trouble processing.

I can see this book being helpful for use by parents and teachers as well as directly helping young people, but I think it will also have adult readers who are sneaking a peek for themselves as well, and there's nothing wrong with that.

This auld woman approves.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Hope's The Thing With Feathers

A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to appear at Deptcon, Ireland's biggest YA convention. It was a thrill for me to meet other writers and particularly to meet so many young adult readers. I have written another piece about it which will be appearing on the Headstuff blog in a few days so I won't repeat myself. There is something that I did want to say which I didn't get time to go into when I was being interviewed, and it's a thought that has been tugging at me since the convention.

The panel I was on at Depton. From right to left: me, Tom Pollock, Bethany Rutter, Deirdre Sullivan

Hope is a big theme for me when I'm writing. I often end up writing dark or serious storylines and I learned from one of my writing mentors, Damian Gorman, that it's important to balance this out with light. I have found over the years that I actually really enjoy writing humour. It doesn't naturally occur to me to include it, but I love it and so I try to incorporate some light hearted scenes in my books. But hope runs a bit deeper than this. It is a thing which inspires me but it doesn't necessarily come from within me. People ask me all the time why I write for young adults and one of the reasons is that today's young adults are by and large really incredible people. I don't need to tell you this, you can just pick up a newspaper and read about Extinction Rebellion or the young people I work with at Shimna Integrated College.

I tend to think of these young people as relentlessly hopeful, but I don't mean that they're being naive. Hope to me is not a feeling- it goes beyond that. It is a kind of rebellion in itself. It says 'Things are really awful and yet, I will continue to continue.' You can do that, even when you don't feel it. You can do it out of anger, it doesn't have to be pretty. That is something I have learned from young people, and it is something I want to write about over and over again. There isn't anything magical about survival or hope; it's not a thing that you need to work up or find at the end of a rainbow. It is just a matter of continuing. Deciding to hope can be the bravest thing, and the most mundane thing, all at the same time.

My son is a musician and when he does covers it makes me listen to the songs in a different way. This summer at a local festival he covered The 1975's 'Always Wanna Die Sometimes'. It contains these lines which I felt like I had suddenly heard for the first time when I heard him singing it:
You win, you lose, you sing the blues 
There's no point in buying concrete shoes, 
I refuse...... 
I can hardly speak 
And when I try, it's nothing but a squeak 
On the video, living room for small 
If you can't survive, just try
I will sign off with a song that my friend Julie Lee sings based on Emily Dickinson's poem. Hope you love it as much as I do.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Dead Poets Society

This isn't a post about the film, but since I've mentioned it now, I do love the film. When I was teacher I always made sure my Year 10 classes saw it before we looked at the module on Seamus Heaney. Heaney was an alive-poet at the time, but the film is about the communion of saints between dead and alive ones, so I felt it was appropriate. And that's what this post is about too.
O Captain! My captain!

So anyway. I am haunted by these dead poets. Mainly Lorca, but since I chased him around Riverside Park in New York and met Langston Hughes at the Schomberg, I feel like Hughes has the eye out for me too. I will explain. 

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland gave me a grant this year to research Federico Garcia Lorca for a novel I'm writing. The journey has taken me to Granada and New York, by way of Manchester, Sunbury Pennsylvania, Woodstock and an elderly Amish couple's warm, wood-smokey home. On the way to the New York City my friend Peterson and I listened to podcast about the Harlem Renaissance, and I learned about Langston Hughes, the poet, who wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers when he was only seventeen. If he'd been on Twitter they'd've said his parents wrote it, and that he was a puppet of social justice warriors, no doubt. Anyway, I came home and Langston appears to have followed me, I have heard his name spoken several times since then and, inexplicably drawn to an album  I hadn't heard in years, I hear the words through Courtney Pine; 'I've known rivers, ancient dusty rivers, and my soul has grown deep like the rivers...  I heard his name again last weekend at the Children's Books Ireland conference, referenced by Kwame Alexander who grew up in New York with a mother who nurtured his skill with words.

I don't know why dead poets are so important, but they are. Maybe it's because they've left a deliberate legacy. These words we read are what they gave of themselves, so carefully. I like it that we can haunt them back, returning to their work, bringing our own words to them, asking them to listen to us and then waiting for their response. I think this kind of nerdy seance can be traced back to my evangelical Christian youth, when we'd ask questions of God and then randomly open the Bible, hoping that the spirit would cause the pages to fall open at just the right answer. It's not a bad way to proceed when you're at a loss for words, although I suppose it bears considering that we only ever read the Bible or poetry with a mind that already knows what we seek- we are only looking for the words to stick our truths to after all.

When Michael Donaghy was alive he wrote this poem about him haunting his father and his father haunting him back. 

Haunts by Michael Donaghy

Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me,

though not as I’ve appeared before,
on the battlements of your signature,
or margin of a book you can’t throw out,
or darkened shop front where your face
first shocks itself into a mask of mine,
but here, alive, one Christmas long ago
when you were three, upstairs, asleep,
and haunting me because I conjured you
the way that child you were would cry out
waking in the dark, and when you spoke
in no child’s voice but out of radio silence,
the hall clock ticking like a radar blip,
a bottle breaking faintly streets away,
you said, as I say now, Don’t be afraid.

It's a kind of time travel poem about mortality and communication and, like a lot of his poems, I can read it over and over and find myself in lots of different ways inside it. Years ago, before social media as we now know it, I was telling someone on a forum (remember those?) about Michael Donaghy. I was saying how wonderful I thought his poetry was. Soon after, Michael posted a note on the forum to say that he had found the post during a random ego-google and really appreciated it. We emailed back and forth a couple of times. I'd say it was back when the internet was lovely, but that kind of thing can still happen. Sadly, Michael Donaghy died a few years later. He was not old. His poetry continues to follow me around. I feel like I have this lovely ethereal community of dead poets who let me speak and listen to them. You know, the 'fantasy dinner party' that people talk about, but it's not really a fantasy, because they're still here.

Anyone else? Who is haunting you right now?

Monday, 26 August 2019

Planning and Pantsing the subplot in Every Sparrow Falling

Normally when I'm planning a book I'll spend time writing a long outline and then I'll try to write a synopsis and then I'll write a chapter-by-chapter outline. I know some people hate doing this and it would never have been my instinct except that the first book I tried to write failed really badly around half way through because I just had no idea where it was going. The characters didn't take on the 'life of their own' that I had been hoping for. They just wanted to sit around eating burritos and drinking wine. It was really boring (I mean, that lifestyle sounds fine to me, but I don't want to read about other people doing it). So the next time around I decided to get planning.

I still retain the right to pants the plot. I find that if my characters are doing things and going places then they do develop and they start having opinions about my ideas and sometimes they don't want to do the things I had planned for their futures. Fine by me. I'm laid back like that; we can negotiate. Even if it means their destruction, but hey, that's free will for ya.

So it happened with Every Sparrow Falling. It was always going to be Cariad's story and I wrote the whole first draft not giving much thought to anyone else but her. When it was almost finished, however, I knew there was something missing from the story. There were characters who I had loved writing and I wondered if they might have something more to add. So I let them step forward and take the main stage for a time. Brains and Muff changed Cariad's story significantly, to her delight and mine.

Every Sparrow Falling is out on 12th September. You can read more about it here.

Initial reviews have been mostly really positive, and I can see that the readers who have loved it have loved Brains and Muff's story as much I did. It's a relief, because there is an element of Brains and Muff's storyline which I was so unsure about. I can't say what it is as it's a major spoiler but I asked my writing group and beta readers what they thought. They had differing opinions on it but the discussion really helped me to decide what to do. In the end I went with what the characters wanted to do. Writing for me is often the result of an irritating thought, like some kind of flying insect that won't leave me alone until I write it away from myself. Brains and Muff were more helpful than that; turning up in a crisis, bringing soup and offering to hoover the house. So I felt I owed it to them to let them drive their own story in the end. It was difficult, and I don't know how people will react in general, but they're off, with Cariad, out into the world.

Every Sparrow Falling should be in your bookshops on 12th September. Support your local bookshops if you can. You can also pre-order from Amazon. If you're around Belfast then please join me to launch the book at No Alibis on Saturday 14th September at 4.30pm.  And if you're planning to do any of those things then massive thanks in advance. It means a great deal. x

Friday, 26 July 2019


So I'm sitting in a Costa at a table in the corner - furthest table away from the door - thinking about writing this blog post about art and performance and magic - and a tortoiseshell butterfly suddenly lands on the table beside my toffee muffin. It is the day that Boris Johnson has been made Actual Prime Minister and I could give in to a different kind of amazement, but I'm choosing to be happy about this lovely visitation. I want to write about this kind of thing - beauty that makes life worth living and which is free, so that everyone can have it, and which reminds us that we came from the earth and we will return to it. This is a mystery which belongs to itself. No politicians can get a hold of it and monetise it, and that makes it very valuable, even though it's a widely available thing. I have never subscribed to the idea that our impermanence or smallness or lack of individual power makes us insignificant. To me it is the opposite, and it's there for everyone. 

So I thought about trying to explain 'Duende' but I won't say much, because it's Googleable, and Lorca explained it properly. You can read his thoughts about it here.  

Lorca in a cave with a gypsy flamenco family.

Instead I'm going to share a video that represents what I'm trying to say. My son is a young musician and he works so hard at his music and he gets so annoyed when it makes a mistake. I tell him about Patti Smith performing at Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize ceremony. She messes the song and stops, apologises, and starts again. When it happened some fans of Bob were really annoyed with her for causing an awkward moment on Bob's big day. Leonard Cohen famously sang 'There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.' I don't know if Patti's mistake was some part of the wonderfulness of this performance. I can only say that to me she embodied the spirit of Hard Rain completely. Something a bit magical happens in the struggle- and in the reaching out and in our receiving. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

A Room Of One's Own? Dream On.

Another article came out this week about writers having no money and being unable to live off being-a-writer. Loads of writers shared the post and all the writers agreed: it was true. I don't know if people who aren't writers care about those articles or it's just writers passing them around to articulate the shared misery. In any case I find them difficult to read because they take me away from writing and my reasons for writing. I don't believe that 'vocation' should be a substitute for getting paid, but I've also never been under the illusion that I could ever live off writing on its own. I do several other jobs for money and I'm struggling for cash, but lots of people are, and at least the jobs I do are things that feel meaningful to me. When I dream about having plenty of money one of the first things I'd do would be to sort out Virginia Woolf's maxim about women needing 'a room of one's own in order to write fiction'. I'd really like that. I'd like an attic-type room with sloping ceilings, a really comfortable sofa to read on, a nice big desk in front of a large window overlooking the sea. Please and thank you. But right now it's fantasy, and I expect that's the case for lots of writers.

I wanted to write this post to detail how I manage to write books without having my own room, then. I don't want anyone to think that I'm having a dreadful time- I'm not. I love writing and I can find spaces when I need to in our house or in nearby cafes. Finding the time is a separate problem, but I don't want to write about that now (mainly because I haven't really figured it out). Here is how I fake having my own space so that I can be alone with the story.

The non-negotiable for me is having uninterrupted time. Therefore, I can't write when my youngest is at home and I'm the only one taking care of him. The others in the house are better at not interrupting and I can at least take a chance on it. It's hard for me to think of a worse irritation when it comes to writing than being interrupted. I know that other writers can write with their kids playing around them and constantly interrupting them, and I know that when I publish this there will be those who say 'Well I have to, I just don't have the choice.' But I physically can't do it. There's something about how my brain works (or doesn't work) when I'm writing that requires the security of knowing that I can start a thought and probably get to the end of it without someone asking for juice or a biscuit or making me go and look for their green PJ Masks vehicle. I'm sure Will Self is probably clever enough to write novels and entertain children and cook dinners and do laundry all at the same time (and I'm sure he does all those things) but I can't do that.

Once I have a guarantee of some minutes I can start thinking about faking the silence. I suppose I am pretty high maintenance really, and not very suited to the writing life. Ideally I'd like complete silence. Maybe a bit of birdsong. And cafe noises are OK as long as they are distant and don't include babies crying or people having loud business conversations. Clearly, I don't have that much control over my environment, so the next best thing, the thing that I've been using since children graced my life, and probably the thing I am most grateful for (and yet have never mentioned in the acknowledgements of any of my books), is headphones. Headphones are the room that you don't have. They are the audio-control you don't have. The good ones are expensive but not as expensive as renting an office or building an extension or moving to a bigger house.

I have several pairs of headphones.

I have cheap in-ear ones which go everywhere with me in case I forget the good ones. They were a fiver out of Tesco and they'll do in an emergency.

I have my excellent Sennheiser HD 202 headphones (about £35) which for some reason have a lead so long you could  probably nip downstairs and make a cup of tea without removing them. They're not noise-cancelling ones but they are the next best thing as they cover your whole ear and the sound is very good and they do block out most external noise.

I have my Jabra Move bluetooth headphones (around £70) which are also very good. Not quite as noise-blocking as the Sennheiser ones (the cans are slightly smaller) and you have to keep them charged up which can be a pain if you're out, but they are pretty great and they're normally the ones I take to cafes because they don't have a lead at all so they're less faffy. Also great for walks or doing the housework.

You can get super duper noise cancelling headphones which are brilliant and expensive, but I find that the above works well for me. I've been using them for a few years.

Obviously by using headphones you don't get complete silence because you have to put something through them in order to block out the other noise. Everyone has their own music that they find good to write-to. I can't have anything with lyrics or I find myself trying to listen to the words. I sometimes play Schubert or Sibelius- classical music that I like but don't know well enough for it to be distracting. Or, more often, ambient or electronic music (The Unknowns was mostly written to the soundtrack of Daniel Avery's Drone Logic). You can get online tracks which play background noises that sound like the ocean, or a coffee shop, or even the TARDIS, but depending on what kind of scene I'm writing I find that music can help energise me a bit.

Maybe it's an obvious solution to the modern problem with Virginia Woolf's idea, but it's one which I don't think gets promoted enough. I'm sure that loads of other people use headphones though, and I'd love to hear what you're all listening to.

Friday, 26 April 2019

A Word about #OwnVoices by Shirley-Anne McMillan

Over the last few weeks I have had several thoughts on this matter. Some of them were thoughts about my own writing and some of them were angry thoughts about other people’s writing. I don’t want to detail any of those thoughts here. There has been so much said, much more than has been listened to, and in some cases much more than should have been said. So I don’t want to add to all of that- all of us have to decide who to listen to, how best to listen, what to say or not-say, what to apply or not-apply to our own work. Sometimes people do the wrong thing. I am trying to be careful, not because I’m afraid of Twitter mobs, but because writing is really important to me and people are really important to me, and if I’m a witness to any lengthy discussion about writing involving people, which it always does, then it means I have conscious decisions to make and it’s my chance to do my best by writing and by people. With that, and an acknowledgement of my perpetual failings, in mind, here is what I’ve learned lately on this subject.

1. Twitter is not a good place to have this discussion
2. But, if you want, it’s possible to observe Twitter trying to have that discussion, take what you find there, and then have a less heated discussion with a smaller group
3. The smaller group should include people you potentially disagree with, but the key thing is that the smaller group should be made up of people you trust who also trust you. It might not be a perfect discussion. That has to be OK sometimes because some discussions are very big and take a long time.
4. It’s OK to just take what you’re learning and keep it to yourself sometimes. Take time to think and listen. Allow yourself to imagine and to change your mind.
5. When you’re listening, find the experts. Writers love to write. It’s how we process things. It can make social media a dangerous place though. We can come across as authoritative about things we don’t really know much about. If it’s an important issue my policy now is to find the experts and listen to them, even if a writer I like is really articulate and saying things that I think I agree with.

There’s probably more, but I want to add that all social media isn’t awful, and I have had some really brilliant and helpful discussions lately about #OwnVoices online. There’s no reason why that discussion can’t be interesting and useful for everyone who actually cares about the subject. I really hope it will make my work better in the long run. Good luck. Let me know how you handle this kind of thing too.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Barrington Stoke and Keren David's The Disconnect - Shirley-Anne McMillan

I felt like an idiot coming as late as I did to knowledge of Barrington Stoke, but I know now and I'm here to spread the word. I went to a seminar given by the publisher Barrington Stoke at the Children's Books Ireland conference a few years ago. They talked about children with dyslexia, reluctant readers, and other people who had trouble with reading books. Their novels are shorter than usual novels, they use a dyslexia-friendly font, and many young people report that they hadn't read a novel until they found their first Barrington Stoke.

One of the things I love best about their novels is that the stories are aimed at a particular age (eg 'teen') but the reading level is set below the average complexity of that age. Anyone who has taught children or adults who have trouble with literacy will know how difficult it is to find novels which aren't patronising for their age, and no teenager wants to sit and read the books they had in Primary school beside their peers who are reading the latest YA. Barrington Stoke choose only the best writers for their books (life goals: I'd love to be one of them some day) so you're getting top quality fiction which can be read by young people who might be reading their first book or just developing a love of fiction, but also won't bore readers who have a reading age on or above the average.

The last Barrington Stoke novel I read was Keren David's The Disconnect, aimed at teen readers whose reading level is the average for someone aged 8. It's coming out in April and it's brilliant. It's the story of a group of young people who are challenged by a mysterious business person to give up their phones for six weeks. There is a cash prize if they can manage it and Esther needs that money so she can visit her dad, sister and new baby nephew in New York. The challenge soon puts a strain on friendships, however, and Esther has to weigh up whether or not the sacrifice is worth it.

One of the things I enjoy most in good novels is a strong sense of place and I loved this in The Disconnect. It's set in London but it is strongly the London of Esther and so it feels local and cosy in a way that I could never experience the city as an outsider. Esther's mum and her partner run a cafe called Basabousa with Middle Eastern/British fusion food which sounds so wonderful that I'm hoping it's based on a real place. But the story is just great in general. It's full of friendship dilemmas, thoughts about identity and fitting-in, and a realistic look at youth culture's reliance on social media. It made me wish I could go back in time to the days when I was classroom teaching. I'd bring a class set and we'd all read it. It's that kind of book- I can't imagine a young person not enjoying it, whatever their reading age.

Many congratulations to Keren! Look out for The Disconnect when it lands in the middle of April, and check out the other Barrington Stoke titles too. If you have a favourite Barrington Stoke novel please leave a comment- I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Me and the ACES award, and Lorca and Manchester Shirley-Anne McMillan

Last year I applied for and received an Artists Career Enhancement Scheme (ACES) award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I knew when I was applying that the proposal would have to be something a bit special. I couldn't just write 'I need some more money to write another book please'. But the truth was that I really did need some more money to write another book. I started wondering how to sex up my application and I started asking other artists who had received the award in the past what they'd done.

One of the best pieces of advice I received was to stop thinking of it as a way to get a grant, but rather to ask myself 'If I had this money to spend on doing things that would help me creatively, what, in my dream life, would I do?' Which is, of course pretty much what it's meant to be for- enhancing my career (durrrr, Shirley!)

So, I decided to dream a little bit, and what I felt would be most helpful would be to go and spend time in the places where my next story was going to be set, and to go and meet those writers that I admire and whose work I have connected with very strongly. It seemed a bit nebulous but I liked the open-endedness of that idea- to just go and be somewhere, or to just go and be with these people. I liked the idea that there were no guarantees with it, because when you live to a budget you need guarantees- you can't just jet off to Granada on a whim with the idea that it *might* be amazingly helpful for your writing. But if someone *gave* you the money you could do it, just to see what happened. You could let your imagination shape that journey and open yourself to more possibilities than your budget normally allows.

So that's what I'm doing. I have a synopsis and a couple of chapters of the book written. It's set in a couple of locations in Belfast with some time in Granada. I'm using the ACES award to take time to write, to read a lot about Garcia Lorca (current literary obsession and tie-in with Work-In-Progress), to visit Granada and New York where he lived and spent time, and to visit writers who inspire me, with an open-ended agenda. 

This year so far I have spent time at Downhill Beach House which is a hostel on the North Coast of Ireland which opens its doors specifically for artists once a year so that we can go for long walks on the beach and write in our rooms and possibly even talk to one another once in a while.

This is Mussenden Temple as viewed from Downhill beach.
There is a scene in my next novel, Every Sparrow Falling, which features a seance in the temple.

And then last weekend I went to Manchester to meet Paul Magrs, one of my favourite writers who has written some beautiful YA fiction and tons of others things including mysteries, sci-fi novels and Doctor Who stories. I have to say it felt a bit weird asking if I could just go and meet him with no planned agenda. I had in mind that if it all didn't work out I could use the weekend as a writing retreat in lovely Manchester, and that would have been fine. But I did meet him and his partner Jeremy, and we had a great chat about all sorts of things including writing, art, politics, Pride, and our cultural differences relating to all those things. It gave me loads to think about. And some of the things that Paul said were really useful in thinking of myself-as-writer.

The next day I had lunch with Keris Stainton- another really wonderful writer who I had only known on social media previously. It was great to meet her too and we talked about writing, fan fiction, Bros and New York... It was so good to connect with people who are as genuine and kind in real life as they are online. The discussions were easy (for me. I hope for everyone else too!) and on reflection I feel like this year might be a kind of grounding year for me in terms of discovering what I'm about as a writer. I hope so.

Frank Sidebottom. Northern Quarter, Manchester.

So I'm writing this really to update people who are interested, and also as a little record of how 'ACES' is working out for me so far (really well! Thank you Arts Council NI!) but maybe also to encourage other people to apply for Arts Council grants. I think lots of people don't because they don't feel qualified enough or because the forms might put them off, but I got my first SIAP award before I was published and I'm currently writing on the laptop ACNI bought me. If you're frightened of the paperwork, ask the Arts Council themselves for help- sometimes they have info days to help with this kind of thing. 

Anyway. Here's a pic from the film Little Ashes, which I watched when I was at Downhill. It's a fictionalisation of the relationship between Lorca and Salvador Dali and once I got over seeing Edward-The-Sparkly-Vampire-From-Twilight playing Dali I quite enjoyed it. 

Saturday, 26 January 2019

No Joke

Today a comedy writer who has become known for his 'views' about transgender people joked on Twitter that he had been commissioned to write some YA novels from a 'gender critical' standpoint. I had written a long post about it, and in particular why he might have picked YA novels to make that joke. But I got bored. I am tired of transphobia. I am tired of people picking on young people and talking about teenagers as if they are puppets in a world of meddling and misguided adults. I am tired of earnestly pointing people towards Googleable information written by experts. So I'll just say this: as long as I am writing YA it will never be a joke to me. The concerns of marginalised young people will never be a joke to me. My next novel is out in September and I have started work on another, so I am relying on YA readers to hold me to account, and perhaps that is all that matters. Here is a picture of the sky outside my back door the other morning. Sometimes it's good to get off social media, open the door to the outside and realise that nature is queer and bigger than people's opinions, and that it tells itself in many more ways than we can hope to express on Twitter, or even in a novel. It's going to be OK.
Transing the sky

Monday, 26 November 2018

Making a Mini Zine

I learnt many things on my Masters course at Manchester Metropolitan University. I took the course hoping that it would get me over a bridge in my writing. I knew I could write a novel, I had already written one which I later self-published, but I also knew that there were things I needed to know which I didn't know and that, annoyingly, I had no idea what those things were, and I wasn't sure how to find out. I'm happy to say that, for me, the course at MMU did reveal those things to me and I went on to write more novels which were then published by Atom.

The course I took was part time and it was done online so I didn't have to be in Manchester, and in fact for most of the time during class I was in my bedroom, sometimes in my pyjamas, sometimes with snow falling outside, feeling very cosy and pleased with myself for not having to drive anywhere in the ice. But I did travel to Manchester a couple of times to meet my classmates. We attended some workshops during the summers and we did a reading at the Manchester Children's Book Festival. And during one of the workshops we learnt a thing which I have been passing on ever since, and it's this: how to make a mini-zine.

I first made zines as a child. My mum worked for a newspaper and I fancied making my own papers. I made one called Girls Talk, which my mum photocopied for me. It had articles about popstars and you could buy it for 10p, and it came with a free sticker. These days my zines tend to be comic strips or promotional things, but I run workshops for anyone who wants to make a zine about anything. Not that you really need a workshop- if you type 'how to make a zine' into Youtube you'll find loads of brilliant ideas- but one of the really nice things about a zine workshop is making them alongside other people.

Zines are the ultimate in radical self-publishing. These days social media invites everyone to share their thoughts and opinions, but if you do it in a zine you have a limited edition book of your own to pass on and post and leave on people's car windshields. And they can be truly anonymous, if that's what you need to be.

I'm never going to be a Youtuber, but here's my mini-zine demo. Happy Zining!

Friday, 26 October 2018

Ch Ch Ch Ch Changes. Phases, Doctor Who and the Gender Recognition Act

As I write this, today is the deadline for people to submit their responses to the UK Gender Recognition Act consultation (it will have passed by the time you're reading this) and news has just broken of the Trump administration's musings around the possibility of eradicating trans identities. There is always a lot of Twitter ‘discussion’ (to put it politely) around Trans issues but lately the noise has reached maddening levels. Pretty tough if you’re just a normal Trans person trying to go about your ordinary cat-meme youtube-recipe life. That’s not me, by the way, I am cisgender, but I'm interested in, and disturbed by, the current struggle for Trans equality and the escalation of the oppression of my Transgender friends and family.

Also in the last few weeks the new Doctor Who series has started, and I have a vested interest in that too (politically speaking, the world needs Doctor Who right now. Tell me I’m wrong. Don’t, because I’m not) and for me it’s impossible not to conflate the righteous development of the Doctor with the march of Trans liberation (and actually the liberation of humanity in general). It’s about phases.

Lots of people tell Transgender kids that they’re ‘going through a phase’. Sometimes they hear it from family. Sometimes they hear it from social media. They hear it from teachers. They hear it from National newspapers, famous and beloved writers, popstars… It’s everywhere; this idea that whatever it is they’re going through is somehow trivial and not as meaningful as they think. 

I know what it is to go through a phase, as many of us do. I loved Bros when I was 14. Like, I really loved them. I’d stay awake at night and listen to the Bros Front fan cassette on my personal stereo over and over. I drew pictures of them. I wore the lager bottle caps on my shoes. I delighted in Matt’s impersonation of Stevie Wonder on the Des O’Connor show. I mourned Craig. I was in it for life. It lasted for two years. 

I want to say something about phases though, because ‘phase’ can mean a couple of different things. We use it a lot to mean ‘trend’ or something which passes quickly. We imagine that when the craze is over (like Lo Lo Balls. Remember those?) we will quickly return to our lives before the craze happened (albeit with a broken ankle if you had a Lo Lo Ball).

But ‘phase’ can also mean a transition. We talk about the phases of adolescence, or sometimes the government will ‘phase in’ a particular economic change. ‘Phase’ here meaning those periods which have certain stages in order to progress towards a particularly altered state. We all know that by the end of adolescence we are changed- we don’t return, thankfully, to how we were before the transition began. We don’t know exactly how we’ll turn out, what twists or turns there might be as we discover who we are, but we do know that one phase ends and another begins- that we don’t have a ‘reset’ button- life changes us and our human journey is one of changes which don’t really ever stop.

In Doctor Who the Doctor might have regenerated into a woman now, and people will remind us, ‘She is still the essential Doctor though’, and this might be true, but it will also be true that being a woman will change the Doctor. She will never not have been a woman again, if we can cope with the timey wimey grammar. It’s complicated, but that’s OK.

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with my writing, then I can tell you that it has everything to do with it. I spend a lot of time thinking about characters before I ever write down a note about them, and right now I have this little thought in my head- something, somebody, in a phase, changing… It’s probably going to be different to what I’ve written before. The essential author will still be there, though. But it will be a change and, I hope, a development.

I don’t know what it is about us humans that we resist the phases of our own and one another’s lives. Sometimes I think I do it more than others, but I’m trying to be more aware of the tendency. One of my favourite verses by William Blake is with me as I try to let things and people and myself move freely in and out of phases.

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

So I suppose I am writing in praise of phases today, whether in fictional characters or the people who make them up, or in our own characters or bodies, which change all the time. Maybe we can learn to embrace the changes. If not it is our loss really, because we know the changes will keep on happening. Play us out, St Bowie.