Wednesday 29 February 2012

Writing Workshops That Work For Me

I came to this creative writing business/madness quite late in the day. I never really had the confidence to put pen to paper, fingertip to keyboard until I hit thirty and had a proper good old think about want I wanted to achieve with the rest of my days. I had that image of me as a bitter old granny spitting out regret about what I could have done if I'd had the gumption. I then I realised it didn't matter if I failed, I just didn't want to be the bitter old trout that never tried in the first place.

Anyway, I digress slightly. When I started exploring the old childhood writing dream, it occurred to me on more than one occasion that I would love to complete an MA in Creative Writing. It also occurred to me on just as many occasions that I neither had the money or the time to set aside to undertake such an enormous task. I was aware I needed help and guidance but not quite sure where else to look for it.

When searching online for creative writing courses, many struck me as being a bit on the pricey side. If I had the dosh, I would be more than happy to fork our the funds for a post-graduate qualification, but $600 for a six week online beginners course with minimal contact from anybody who had the slightest inkling about what they're harping on about? *muffled cough* RIP OFF!

So, more searching required then...

At the time I was living in sunny Brisbane, Australia. After wasting a lot of time on the internet, I stumbled across a magnificent organisation right on my doorstep (or a short bus ride away). The Queensland Writers Centre helps develop and connect writers across the state. It is also the publisher of The Australian Writers' Marketplace (similar to The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook), so is therefore rather fantastic and brilliant and vital. I attended a number of courses here - they were all excellent and informative, and very importantly, from my perspective, bloody good value for money (ie. much cheaper than rip-off central mentioned above). An example of the quality of advice on offer - I attended a young adult workshop run by YA queen, Melina Marchetta. There you go.

When moving back to the UK, I searched for a similar organisation in London and found Spread The Word.  They provide workshops, networking and mentoring for writers of all levels, schools and community groups. I attended my first workshop them last week, a day focusing on first novels, run by newly-published author, the excellent Katy Darby. It was a mine of useful information and thoroughly entertaining. And, rather amazingly, it only cost me £20. And even more amazingly, it offers subsidies to those on lower incomes or benefits.

It is so wonderful to find these places that aim to provide access to expert tuition to everybody. Maybe one day I'll undertake that MA. But it's reassuring to know that support and encouragement is there, even if I don't.

Does anyone else know of any similar groups or organisations? I know there are other fantastic Australian ones in different states, but I would be interested to find other UK-based ones. Let me know might be interesting to start up a database of good-value for money writing courses out there...

Wednesday 22 February 2012

REVIEW - 'Swim The Fly', Don Calame (Templar, 2011)

Fifteen-year-old Matt Gratton and his two best friends, Coop and Sean, always set themselves a summertime goal. This year's? To see a real-live naked girl for the first time — quite a challenge, given that none of the guys has the nerve to even ask a girl out on a date. But catching a girl in the buff starts to look easy compared to Matt's other summertime aspiration: to swim the 100-yard butterfly (the hardest stroke known to God or man) as a way to impress Kelly West, the sizzling new star of the swim team. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Can I just say, before I begin, if you're not a fan of American Pie, The Inbetweeners, toilet humour and knob jokes, then maybe this book might not be for you. If, like me, you're a big appreciator of all of the above, then I'm pretty sure that you'll get many a chuckle from Swim The Fly.

This is a book that boys will probably love. I say probably because I have never been a teenage boy, but it's a pretty safe assumption. The American Pie comparison tells you most of what you need to know about this  - it doesn't cut as close to the bone as this film, but the central premise, protagonist and comedy are very similar, and they both share very funny set pieces about loose bowels. I won't go into further detail.

What I loved the most about this was the glorious prose - so natural and with such a ring of truth about it. The whole effect is so effortless, which probably indicates the exact opposite - it takes a supreme skill to be able to pull off prose this good. Since I've started to read YA on a regular basis, I've come across so many stories where the author has attempted to find a convincing teenage voice, but has, instead managed to create something forced and slightly cringy. These characters bounce off each other and create snappy exchanges. The relationships here are just spot on  - 

'Sometimes I hate my brother. Like real, deep down, wish-I-could-beat-the-snot-out-of-him hate. It'll pass. It always does. He'll do something out-of-the-blue nice and all will be forgiven. But right now I want to push him down the stairs.'

Now, anyone who has a sibling can testify to the fact that this IS FACT. The man is a genius.

A key part to my enjoyment of this was Matt. He's a great narrator - likable, self-depricating, shy, funny, a bit of a doofus. Something there that most can identify with. Most of the (male) supporting characters are just as well-developed and believable. However, the two main female characters, object-of-affection, Kelly and her best friend, Valerie are a touch one-dimensional. Valerie is just, well, nice. And that's about it. There was never enough there for me to decide whether I liked her or not. Matt's Grandpa had to be my favourite though. Think George Constanza's Dad from Seinfeld. Pure comedy.

A couple of things stopped me from completely adoring this - maybe because so much of the prose had an authentic ring to it, many of the slightly contrived set-pieces stuck out for the wrong reasons - would three boys really think they could get away with cross-dressing to get into a girls changing room? Would this idea even occur to them? Again, I've never been a teenage boy, so I could be wrong.

Also, it could have done with being a bit shorter. The pace that was set in the first few chapters started to drag in the final third and once it was clear where Matt's story was going, the plot seemed to just drift towards it's natural conclusion with slightly less spark than it started out with.

Nevertheless, I would highly recommend this. But only if the phrase 'that's what she said' makes you chortle.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

REVIEW - 'Finding Violet Park' (Harper Collins Childrens', 2007)

Sixteen-year-old Lucas Swain becomes intrigued by the urn of ashes left in a cab office. Convinced that its occupant -- Violet Park -- is communicating with him, he contrives to gain possession of the urn, little realising that his quest will take him on a voyage of self-discovery and identity, forcing him to finally confront what happened to his absent (and possibly dead) father. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

I completely adored this book. And what makes it all the more fantastic it that I wasn't expecting brilliance on this level. I was expecting a good read, yes. The only previous Jenny Valentine I'd read was the rather good 'The Double Life of Cassiel Roadnight'. I enjoyed it, yes. It was a clever, taught little mystery, intelligently written, with a convincing voice. BUT I had a few niggles with certain aspects and this cast a little bit of a downer on it all.

When I read the synopsis for this, I wasn't desperate to rip it from the shelves and devour there and then. (Although, to be fair, only a couple of books have has this effect on me thus far.) I was expecting quaint, twee adolescent learns valuable life lessons through talking to/learning about a dead lady, blah, blah, blah.

Finding Violet ParkWhat I got, however, was an ingenious, skillfully layered, revealing only teeny tiny nuggets of information at precisely the right times. I did not have a bloody clue where this one was going, I just prayed that the build up would have a satisfying payout. And I was NOT disappointed. This plot is so bloody clever, it should be sparring with Stephen Fry. Even when I thought I knew what the hell was going on, it pulled another masterstroke and I was left sitting there with my mouth wide open in awe and wonder.

All the characters were just wonderful. As with Cassiel Roadnight, Valentine has given us an authentic male protagonist. The relationships were very convincing, particularly that between Lucas and his mother. And I loved Lucas's Nan. I had the image of Catherine Tate's sweary Nan every time she cropped up - very funny.

Only some very, very minor quibbles. Quibblettes, if you will. I would have liked a bit more of Lucas interacting with love interest, Martha. There exchanges rang a very truthful note, and for purely selfish reasons, I wanted just a little bit more. Also, I know this sounds a bit odd, considering the book was essentially all about her, but I would have enjoyed a little bit more Violet. Her appearances were too brief and felt a little rushed. Just needed a little bit MORE, because it was all so damn good and I'm greedy like that.

A beautiful depiction about how past events an cast a dark shadow over lives and how it can feel impossible to pull away from them, so the only way of coping is to bask in it and drink it in.

A fine, fine book.