Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Of Woods and Wood Magic by Steve Gladwin

We have a lot of nice wood in our house, not only a nice carved oak unit for the TV to stand on and a lovely pine book case and desk, but a an alder memorial chest, a wedding mirror in intricate Celtic knot-work carved in lime and a hare mirror of elm complete with ears. These last three were all created by the same wonderful woodcarver, Peter Boyd in Snowdonia, who has carved many such wonders before and since. Years ago, when we held our second storytelling festival here in the Vyrnwy Valley, the alder chest had a companion, the ‘singing head’ chair, made by Peter from the same wood, in the African style. It has the head of Bran the Blessed and after Celia died, I gifted it to my great friend and bardic companion Andy. A year or so after Celia died, we reunited both of these beautiful alder pieces in our show ‘Bright Pretty Things’ at the village hall here in Meifod. It was nice to see them together, inspiring story once again as they were meant to do.

Even though I’ve been a druid pagan for over twenty years, I've never been the sort of person who talks to trees, or even rests my hand on their trunks to hear their gentle rhythm, and as more of a dasher through life with a head constantly over teeming, I'm perhaps unlikely to.

However I did once discover a grove in 2003, which led to my first children’s book and to an enduing relationship with my particular grove of seven. In fact it's still the name I use professionally. There, on a little hill above a sweet chestnut tree blasted by a winter storm, Celia and I discovered it, seven trees stuck into a mound like flourishing cocktail sticks on an upturned orange. There are four flourishing oaks, two great grey beeches and a little ash tucked away on the end behind one of the oaks like a sheltering child with its great dark father. The seven trees soon grew identities and archetypes in my mind; Child, Dark Lord, Warrior, Queen, (later Princess), Bard, Seeker and Mage. And from the depths of the greatest Welsh myths I drew names for them - Pwyll, Gwern, Efnisien, Branwen, Taliesin, Ceridwen and Merlin. If the trees didn’t exactly come to life for me, then they became sort of companions in the background of my inspiration, and I would visit them often to thank them. Still on certain anniversaries connected to Celia, I go to visit and read small sections of the book to her and them. They live for me still as they will I hope for the readers of The Seven, even if they are truly sleeping.

‘At which point, the door in the fifth tree swung open --- and Lucy Morgan stepped out.
She blinked in the darkness, the beautiful singing that had held her until now still spinning around in her mind. She had no idea of where she had been, or how lucky she was to escape.

The real Grove of Seven

So, with the publication of The Seven in 2014 I added my own tiny wood to the great world woods of children’s books. For as long as I can remember, there have been woods to explore in books. This means that even if we don’t decide to venture into them, to avoid their varied dangers and temptations, we can ask books to do it for them. If we wish to stay safe and snug at home in winter, we can rely on Mole and Ratty to be the ones to go into the wild wood in search of Mr Badger while avoiding the weasels, or if we’ve eaten so much we don’t want to budge we can still join Winnie the Pooh and friends on the more gentle adventures of childhood, where everything is always sorted out before tea, which invariably involves honey. If we want to become outlaws, in hiding from the wicked sheriff and his men, we can always venture into the Green Wood to feast and play with Robin and Marion, Little John and Friar Tuck. And of course, when we were little we could make sure we fitted all of this in in time for bed.

‘These woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep.’

Only Robert Frost knew what he was thinking about when he wrote those words, but it is as good a description as any of the magic, and yes the sheer anticipation of childhood. Of course the stories of childhood and of any time are full of desolate shores and turbulent waves, of hidden caves and treacherous mountains as well as deep woods and forests. In The Hobbit, Tolkien takes us on a tour of all of these and more besides, and so onward into The Lord of the Rings. But for all the goblin caves and mines of Moria, Desolation of Smaug and Paths of the Dead, it’s the ancient forests of Mirkwood and Fangorn which have always had the strongest and most dangerous pull for me. Woods and forests are full of scheming stoats and weasels, as well as aggressive giant spiders who don’t take kindly to name calling. Woods and forests have depth on every level, because we can either plunge into them at will to seek adventure, or become lost in them willingly in one giant dare. If we go off the beaten track we know to beware, but that doesn’t stop us going anyway.

I realise I am wandering about a bit here, but that’s what happens when you enter a wood, you start off with an idea of the path you want to take, and then – often quite willingly – get yourself side-tracked.

As children we came to rely on books and TV to lead us happily astray, knowing we could always pick up the journey in the next chapter or episode, safely leaving the cliff hanger until another time. I have no idea how children feel about this nowadays, about the idea and anticipation of re-entering an old wood, or finding a new one you don't know the rules of yet. I can’t be alone in my generation of sixties children remembering just how exciting it felt either to enter a new world through a classic BBC tea time serial, or to reach the end of an episode barely able to breathe, with the thought of the next episode- when we’d get to find out the answer - seeming to be an age away.

And how many of our woodland adventures took place in winter? I’m one of those people who love snow and, because neither Rosie nor I drive, can truly appreciate it. But I’m sure it has a great deal to do with badger’s snug, safe house in The Wind in the Willows, the beaver’s den in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or the wolves running in The Box of Delights. Snow and woods! What could be a better combination?

And miles to go before I sleep

Of course as children our knowledge of wood and its various properties is necessarily limited. We might scrub around in it, use it to knock up approximate things in woodwork, or rely on other people to use it to keep us warm, but unless we were brought up by people who truly understand it, we don’t know our oak from our elbow. But long before people came to rely on its various properties in classic children’s literature, this classic old English rhyme provided us with a few clues.

Oak logs will warm you well
That are old and dry
Logs of pine will sweetly smell
But the sparks will fly
Birchs long will burn too fast
Chestnut scarce at all sir
Hawthorn logs are good to last
That are cut well in the fall sir

Surely you will find
There's no compare with the hard wood logs
That's cut in the winter time

Holly logs will burn like wax
You could burn them green
Elm logs burn like smouldering flax
With no flame to be seen
Beech logs for winter time
Yew logs as well sir
Green elder logs it is a crime
For any man to sell sir

Surely you will find
There's no compare with the hard wood logs
That's cut in the winter time

Pear logs and apple logs
They will scent your room
And cherry logs across the dogs
They smell like flowers of broom
But ash logs smooth and grey
Buy them green or old, sir
And buy up all that come your way
They're worth their weight in gold sir

That great modern bard Robin Williamson has a wonderful arrangement of this on his album ‘A Glint at the Kindling’, if you want to check it out, but it’s worthwhile having a copy of this most practical of rhymes on hand anyway.

Of course children, unless they are like Peter Pan, grow up. Perhaps if they are truly skilled in the love of wood, they turn their attention to making a living from carving it into beautiful things, like Peter Boyd, or like the wood carver who creates the mandolin in the wonderful song ‘Wood’ by Telling The Bees.

The minstrel takes the instrument and plays –aha
His only job to try and make it sing.
He practices the art of it for days – aha
But this beautiful thing
it gives him to sing
And he sings, How wonderful is wood, is wood -

But in the meantime, however young we might be at heart, and even if we don't have a handy wood or forest nearby, we can find our deep places wonderfully evoked, described and above all kept alive in so many books, and above all - in our minds, where such things will always be.

Yet if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed ponds
Where the otter whistles his mate
My thanks to the following for providing the inspiration.
Stopping by Woods - Robert Frost
The Way Through the Woods - Rudyard Kipling
The Woodcutter's Song - Old English. Sung by Robin Williamson on his album A Glint at the Kindling. Released in 2005 on Gott Discs with 5 Extra Tracks (The Five Bardic Mysteries)
Wood by Telling the Bees from the album Untie the Wind.
Sadly Telling the Bees have recently split up, but you can find them all over youtube and on their own site.
The Seven - Steve Gladwin - inspiration from the Grove of Seven.
Peter Boyd - You can find many of Peter's wonderful creations on his Peter Boyd Wood Sculptor site.

Finally a bit of fun. I had planned to write this blog about indecision,because I had at least three ideas which I didn't use. I may well use one or more of them in the future, but in the meantime here is a short quiz on what might have been. If you get more than half, help yourself to a biscuit from the nearest tin or its diet friendly equivalent.

The Missing Blogs Quiz

*The Box of Delight was written by John Masefield, but what is his most well known poem?

*The actor Sir Robert Stephens, who played the villain Abner Brown in the BBC TV adaptation of 1984, also played Aragorn in the BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but can you remember who played Sam?

*In Dr Michael Ward's Narnia Code theory, which planet does The Silver Chair represent.

*Which actor voices Aslan throughout the four BBC adaptations of the eighties.

*In the Paddington books, what is the nationality of Paddington's great friend and fellow immigrant, Mr Gruber.

*What is the name of the great cinema organist who Paddington helps out in the story 'Paddington goes to the Cinema?

There you go. You'll find the answers below. And if you fancy a post Christmas treat, the BBC Narnia are available from Amazon seller s for a ridiculous price. Go on now!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Answers to the Missing Blogs Quiz

a. Sea Fever. b. It was Bill Nighy (as William Nighy). c. The Moon. d. Ronald Pickup. e. Hungarian. e. Mr Reginald Grove in 'Paddington Helps Out'.



Monday, 22 January 2018

My Top 6 Podcasts for Us Writery Types, by Dan Metcalf

Continuing my array of listicles for this blog, I thought I’d dip into the world of podcasts. I’m a podcast addict. I love nothing more than to pop in a pair of earbuds and listen to the vast range of talk-radio style downloads available to the public for free. Free. D’you hear that? Free.

For those unfamiliar with the medium, a podcast is essentially a radio show that had been put onto the internet as a file which you listen to on your computer/phone either by streaming (when you’re on-line) or downloading (for when you’re off-line). That’s it. The BBC website has hundreds of their radio shows which you can download for free, including dramas, new music, news, debate, science and loads more. It’s worth a look if you are new to podcasts and want to find shows in your interest area.

Pleasingly, many series have been going for sometime so have a large back catalogue available to listen to straight away. I have recently been binging on some series and it’s a great way to learn about new subjects, especially as you can be a passive participant in the conversation and listen while you walk, exercise, cook or paint the kitchen.

I listen to a wide variety of podcast on tons of different subjects. I like to fill my ears with distractions aplenty which may inspire my life or writing, so I listen to drama (Tracks), technology (DigitalHuman), science (Infinite Monkey Cage) and Comedy (Beef and DairyPodcast) among others. For this post however I’d thought I’d keep my recommendations to those shows of interest to writers and readers. In no particular order, here goes nothin’:

1. Guardian Children’s Books Podcast is produced by the bestselling left wing newspaper of the same name and features talks and interviews with such luminaries as Jacqueline Wilson, Jeff Kinney, Eoin Colfer and Judith Kerr. There are around 80 episodes available at the time of writing and updates are sporadic (presumably due to the lack of coverage of children’s book in newspapers – that’s a subject for another day)

2. Jedlie’s Reading with Your Kids: One of the few children’s literature podcasts out there, this updates a LOT, with an enthusiastic host in the shape of magician Jedlie. It’s also open to requests for interviews, so if you have a book to plug, get over to the site and put in a request. And oooh look: Here's an episode with me on it! LINK!

3. One for the illustrators among you, Make It Then Tell Everybody is a series of podcast interviews on comics and drawing. The host is Dan Berry (www.thingsbydan.com) a comic artist and lecturer at Glydwr Univeristy. In each podcast, lasting roughly 30-40 minutes, he chats easily with his subjects about their background and their work, focussing in detail on their working methods. For artists, it's a great chance to hear the nitty gritty of working in the comics and illustration trade, and Berry has also talked to some writers, providing listeners with interviews that go into a level of detail that you rarely hear. His podcast with comics and screenwriter Tony Lee is one of the best I've ever heard, and is pleasingly frank about the industry.

Running through the interviews is the mantra which is reflected in the title of the website. The practical nature of the conversations can be inspiring, leaving the listener with a desire to go and create, even if, like me, you can barely draw a straight line.

Berry has a great presenting voice (almost soporific in its effect – one tweeter suggested he should do hypnosis CDs), and an easy, jokey manner with his interviewees. The quality of the audio is also astounding, better than some BBC productions, which adds an air of slickness to the operation. www.makeitthentelleverybody.com is a great find, and I recommend downloading a few podcasts straight away (did I mention it's all free?) and contributing to Dan's 'donate' fund, even if you don't think that comics are your 'thing'. Truly inspiring stuff.

4. If you’re interested in screenwriting: Created and hosted by Ben Blacker, a TV writer of shows such as Supernatural and Supaninjas, the Nerdist Writers Panel Podcast takes writers of TV, film, comics and books (but mostly TV) and grills them under a high heat until well and truly cooked. The panels have writers from hit TV shows such as Buffy, New Girl, Dollhouse, M*A*S*H, Bones, Lost, CSI, Friends, Sesame Street and many, many more. It's well worth listening to the entire run of 120-odd podcasts (at time of writing), even if you've never heard of the writers or the TV shows they've worked for. The stories of being inside the industry and pitching shows are fascinating and often hilarious.

Describing itself as a talk about the craft and business of writing, the show delves deep into the technical aspects of writing in the US. Know what 'breaking a story' is? Or 'A' story and 'B' story? Listen and you'll find out. I've learned so much about the modern TV industry just from tuning in every week and letting the masters of their craft chat into my earholes (more maybe than I did in university? Shh, don't tell the lecturers...).

Personal favourites are the Sesame Street Writers, anything with Jane Espensen, and the highly inspiring talk from the creators of The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, on the complexities of Transmedia storytelling. Go on, jump in, get wet. (if you like this, also check out the UK Scriptwriters Podcast)

5. Spektrmodule by Warren Ellis is a collection of music, haunting sounds and ambient tunes. Ellis himself is the writer of legendary comics such as Transmetropolitan, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Trees, RED, and now the Netflix series Castlevania. I have found the podcast to be perfect writing music: dark and eerie, with few lyrics to distract you from your work. It also makes great reading music.

6. The Creative Penn is a series which has been going for some 300+ episodes under the amiable hand of Joanna Penn, who writes thrillers under the pen name JF Penn. She is an indie author and an authority on the indie publishing movement. While most of the content focuses on publishing adult books yourself, anyone interested in writing can take away some nuggets of gold on marketing, creating and producing your own fiction. If you like this, then also seek out the Self Publishing Formula with Mark Dawson, and the Bestseller Experiment.

7. A new one to me, but packed with great info for writers The Folklore Podcast is a deep dive into folklore and fairytales with experts and academtics. Hosted by Mark Norman, this is a fine example of the podcasts put out there for free by enthusiasts. I highly recommend the one on Hansel & Gretel - I'll never read the story at bedtime to my son in the same way again...

I've given up trying to limit myself to a top 5 so you'll have to make do with seven. More recommendations as I find them.

As always, tell me about any I’ve missed in the comments on on Twitter @metcalfwriter.
Dan Metcalf is a writer for children. Find out more about him and his books at www.danmetcalf.co.uk

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Creative writing - when you have no ideas. by Anne Booth

Last week I was asked to go to a local university for an afternoon to teach some PGCE students Creative Writing. The idea  was that these were students who weren't necessarily writers themselves, but who would be teaching writing to children.

So I did some exercises to build confidence, and one of them, which came to me the morning of the course, worked so well I thought I would share it, as it was so much fun and made people think that perhaps they COULD come up with a beginning of a story. I hope it works for you, too.

I remembered  that one of the things people say to me is 'I can't write, I don't have any ideas.'

So I decided to start with facts.

I got the class to describe where we were in the most basic of ways.

We agreed the basic facts were:

We are in a mobile classroom, in a university, in a city, in England. The weather, we can see through the window, is rainy.

There is a woman, wearing a coat and boots. She is teaching.

I was going to just write everything on the white board and cross things out, but the tutor who had invited me had a better idea and connected her laptop up so that it projected on to the screen. She typed what I told her to and we could all read it.

Then I started changing things, and the tutor deleted and replaced words in front of our eyes.

So the class had to give me alternatives. We were not in a classroom - we were in a...

prison cell,

in a prison,

on an island,

in the Caribbean.

The weather, we could see through a crack in the wall, is sunny.

There is a man,

wearing T shirt and shorts.

He is doing push ups.

Then we started embellishing it a bit more, students calling out adjectives and adverbs.

We are in a damp prison cell in a dilapidated prison on an isolated island in the Caribbean. The weather, we can see through a crack in the wall, is sunny, but there are looming storm clouds on the horizon. There is an old man with tattoos, wearing orange shorts and a T shirt with a smiley face. he is doing pushups reluctantly, but athletically, with the strength of a much younger man. There is a prison guard sitting on his back, shouting 'just one more!'

Now, it is not going to be the basis of my next picture book, and I have given the film rights to the class, but it was definitely something out of nothing. We had a good discussion about clichés - someone said that having a tattooed prisoner was a bit unoriginal, and, for example, we decided that even if the prisoner is old, he doesn't have to struggle with pushups. It might not be the most brilliant  scenario ever written, but it certainly persuaded the group that 'not having an idea' is not an insurmountable problem, and we could all think of ways for the story to develop....

And i think I might try it myself one day, when I cannot think of how to start my next story....There is a woman, sitting on a sofa, writing....Now, what can I change it to...?

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Front and Back Burners - Joan Lennon

This time last year I was in the throes of wussiness.  The book (we'll call it Book A) I was writing demanded a character I really liked dying, and another character I really liked grieving.  The setting was bleak, and though the ending was positive, the road to get there was hard.  I was committed and eager to do this difficult story justice.  Twelve months later, is it told?  

Well, yes and no. 

Book A exists in Frankendraft form (the roughly-sewn-together version of a novel that - in my practice any way - exists before a full first draft).  And I'm still committed.  

Me and Book A (Wikipedia)

But over the last few months the eagerness has waned.  And the writing has slowed ... and slowed ... and stopped.  Okay, there was also Christmas and New Year and stuff, but those are done.  So, am I leaping back into this relationship?

Not so much.

I've started a new book - Book B - which is pacey and adventurous and nobody dies prematurely.  Am I unforgivably fickle?  Is this some kind of authorly serial monogamy?  Not even that.  I'm committed to BOTH books.  

This isn't goodbye, Book A.  I've shifted you to the back burner and the gas is on low, but I won't let you boil dry.  I will be back.  And then you will be back to the front ...

Meantime, Book B - let's turn up the heat!

Do any of the other authors out there have occasional lapses in fidelity too?  Tell all.  I, for one, won't judge.  


Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Claire McFall: An Unusual Success -- Lucy Coats

Way back in early 2013, I was sent a proof copy of Ferryman, a debut novel by an author called Claire McFall. It's a YA romantic retelling of the story of Charon, the ferryman of Hades, so perfect for me as a lover of all things Greek myth. Once I'd read it, I raved about it to all sorts of people, urging them to read it too, because I'd really loved it. That's how I get half my own book recommendations -- from people I know and trust. After that, I looked eagerly for McFall's next book, which was a dystopian thriller called Bombmaker.

In these pages, I wrote about that book that it was 'almost literally heart-stopping'. Even all these years later, I can recall that feeling of adrenaline as I read it, hardly able to turn the pages fast enough. Today, I am delighted to learn that McFall has just signed a film deal for Ferryman with Legendary Entertainment (Inception/Jurassic World/Batman Begins). This is where the unusual bit come in. Because the book is going to be made into not one film, but two, one for an English language audience, and a second for a Chinese language one. McFall has sold over a million copies of Ferryman in China since 2015, and her agent, Ben Illis, of The BIA, described visiting China with her as experiencing a kind of Beatlemania, complete with massive queues and even a fainting teenager. This is an extraordinary coup for a writer who is probably not as well known as she should be here in the UK. In fact, of all you readers and book lovers who read this blog, I wonder how many of you had heard of McFall before today? I hope it's a lot, but I wouldn't put money on it!

Book success is such a strange business, made up in part of luck as well as brilliant writing -- so what exactly is it about Ferryman that has entranced all those Chinese teenagers? Well, it definitely entranced me -- and I guess the territory it covers, the no man's land between life and death is fertile ground for any imagination, and any culture, somewhere where no normal rules apply, and where anything can happen, even love. I got distracted, and lost track of McFall's writing for a couple of years, but now I see that Ferryman has a sequel, Trespassers, published last year, and I'm looking forward to reading it greatly, as well as her Scottish Teenage Book Award-winning novel, Black Cairn Point.

I do love it when a success story happens after a lot of hard graft, and one of the things I hope happens here is that a lot more people are led to McFall's books. Trust me on this one, if you haven't read them yet, I urge you to, and her range is so wide (from romance to dystopian via spooky) that there should be something to suit most tastes. In many many cases, a film starts with a book, and authors often don't get enough credit. So let's hear it for the writers who start it all off! And let's applaud Claire McFall for reaching an audience most of us only dream of.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman

Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram

Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Liminal Spaces - by Lu Hersey

The end of January feels like a liminal time. Liminal literally means threshold – leaving one place and not yet through to another.

The days are getting lighter since the winter solstice, but we’re not really through to spring, and I’ve been thinking a lot about liminal spaces. Between times, between places. In folklore and shamanic traditions, dusk and dawn are liminal times, between night and day. The seashore, hedgerows, the edge of the forest, are all liminal places. These times and places are where worlds meet, and have a strong association with magic. Places you’re most likely to encounter faeries and elementals – at times of betwixt and between.

As it happens, I’m about to move house. I’ve already packed (mostly) and I’m waiting, trying not to panic about bills, legal forms and forwarding address. I have nowhere definite to move to. I’ve also chosen this time to leave job security behind and become self-employed as a writer. In this sense I’m currently in a liminal space. 

Anyway, I was thinking about this as I walked into town early one morning this week, wrapped up in thought and feeling slightly anxious about everything. I came to the big roundabout leading to the main shopping centre in Bristol, known as the Bear Pit. It’s a place I generally avoid at night if I’m on my own – it's a place of fights and muggings down there, and I’m not a fan of underpasses at the best of times.

It was still half light, as the sun takes so long to come up in winter –  but I decided to take a risk, as it’s much quicker to go down through the Bear Pit than walk all round it. Also, it was freezing cold and I was already running late for an appointment.

As I hurried through, I suddenly came across something really extraordinary. A young woman in her nightclothes (admittedly very warm, thick nightclothes and probably with jeans underneath) was sitting up in her bed - down in the underpass. Maybe the bed was made up of pallettes, but it really looked like a proper bed, with sheets, quilts and everything. The woman was drinking a takeaway coffee and surrounded by a group of three homeless men, sitting on crates around her bed, listening to her talking animatedly about her plans for the future. She had an aura of a faerie queen surrounded by her seelie court, and seemed so full of life and enthusiasm, she was practically glowing.

I couldn’t stop, and it seemed rude to stare, so I just smiled and dropped some coins on her bedside table (seriously – she had a bedside table. Okay, maybe just another crate with a cloth on...) and walked on, thinking about liminal spaces. After all, underpasses are liminal spaces, thresholds to other places you want to get to.

I did half wonder if she was real – making her bed in the urban equivalent of a hedgerow, or a seashore – and she did look a bit like Titania (probably just the hair). But it made me think about living in a society where thousands of people, not just young women like her, end up sleeping in doorways and underpasses. In liminal places.

I’d been worrying about moving from one comfortable home and finding another – when here was someone who lived in a freezing, drafty underpass in the middle of a roundabout. Yet she was filled with life and laughter, and I was in danger of becoming a moaning minnie.

As we get closer to Imbolc (the Celtic fire festival at the beginning of February, which marks the spark of new life and creativity), I can't stop thinking about the plight of all those stuck in liminal places. I don't have any answers to the massive problem of homelessness, but am left wondering what change we can bring about, and how we can do it. Very few homeless people look as happy as that faerie queen and her seelie court.

And surely everyone deserves the basic right to cross the threshold, if they wish?

Lu Hersey