10 Highlights of Swanwick 2017

Goodness! Swanwick seems like such a long time ago now. It’s crazy how just six weeks ago today, I was sat in the foyer at The Hayes putting together welcome packs for all the delegates.

If, like me, you’re already excited for the 2018 school, here’s another story from fellow Swanwicker Elizabeth Hopkinson to help fill the darkening days of Autumn:

Swanwick Writers’ Summer School really is the week that keeps on giving.

I first attended twelve  years ago and every year something has happened there to change my writing life. 2017 has been the best year of all, with so many good things to take away and follow up at home. My writing year is already different because of Swanwick.

Here are 10 highlights:

1. Winning 2nd Prize in the Short Story Contest. Not only did I take home a fabulous (if heavy) framed certificate, but also a free critique from Writing Magazine. And during the week, I was able to chat to Jonathan Telfer of Writing Magazine about the best way to use it.

Congratulations to Elizabeth, who won second prize in the Swanwick Short Story Competition for 2017.

2. Running my own contest via the Swanwick Facebook group, to name the children’s’ novel that provided our cat Sootica’s name. (Sootica the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams). The prize was a proof copy of my short story collection, Tales from the Hidden Grove, for which I now have an extra reviewer!

3. My 1-1 with John Lamont. Thanks to his advice, I have already begun to visualise the future I want. (Although I did get some funny looks photographing myself in Waterstones for the new Pinterest board!)

4. An invitation to join Yorkshire Writers’ Lunch in Huddersfield.

5. The tag line to my trilogy-in- progress brilliantly nailed by another Swanwicker over dinner: “The Magic Flute meets Farinelli Il Castrato”.

6. Getting a wheelchair-using beta reader for my trilogy. He read the first book in just a couple of days!

7. The opportunity to be part of Chasing Unicorns, a charity anthology in memory of former Swanwick chairman, Katy Clarke.

8. Procrastination-Free Day. I didn’t have the stamina to go past 2:30, but I got so many plot problems fixed. And I got stickers!

9. Learning how to be a journalist with Simon, on the Swanwick Standard. I wrote a piece for my local paper as soon as I got home.

10. Being able to revisit Swanwick whenever I want, thanks to Steve Barnett’s YouTube videos.

Thanks again, Swanwick! You’ve been amazing!

Elizabeth Hopkinson has had over 60 short stories published and won several prizes. Her first novel Silver Hands was published by Top Hat Books in 2013 and this year she has published an ebook of previously-published stories, Tales from the Hidden Grove. Elizabeth is a regular member of the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, where she has led a number of workshops. She lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK, with her husband, daughter and cat, in a tiny house that is being taken over by books and artwork.

Website: elizabethhopkinson.uk
Twitter: @hidden_grove
Facebook: ElizabethHopkinsonAuthor
Blog: hiddengroveextra.blogspot.co.uk
Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/author/show/3029262.Elizabeth_Hopkinson

Newsletter: tinyletter.com/hiddengrove
Patreon: patreon.com/elizabethhopkinson

More Swanwick Memories: Jennifer Wilson

Continuing the theme of sharing stories from my favourite writing event of the year, I am joined today by Jennifer C. Wilson.

I remember meeting her in 2016 when, as a fresh-faced White Badger, Jennifer told me her story over a drink in the bar. I am absolutely thrilled that she returned to Swanwick in 2017, and she has kindly agreed to tell us why.

Swanwick Memories, by Jennifer C. Wilson

I’d been thinking about going to Swanwick for about eight years. Each year since signing up for an adult education creative writing class back in Hexham, I’d download the programme and even pick out the courses I’d go along to, and yet, never quite got as far as booking. Now, I know that being published isn’t even remotely hinted at as being a requirement to go to Swanwick, but after my debut novel came out in October 2015, I decided that I had finally ‘earned my place’, and in January 2016, finally went ahead and booked up. I am so glad I did.

With my usual lack of punctuality, I got to Derby station three hours before the coach to Swanwick was due, and still remember the blind fear on receiving the email advising that the bus was now going to be round the back of the station, not the front, and “to let people know” if we saw them at the station. Cue a very awkward half hour trying to work out who might be going to Swanwick, and who might just think I was weird for approaching them and talking about buses… Luckily, I found some fellow Swanwickers, and next thing I know, we’re nattering over a cuppa in the Pumpkin Café. Not only did they show me where the bus was, I was also escorted to the Lakeside Reception, shown how to find my room, then taken back across to the main house to find where the other White Badgers were being welcomed with a (by now much-welcomed) glass of wine.

The rumours were true then – Swanwick really was full of friendly, helpful people. Less than an hour after arriving, I definitely felt I belonged.

That feeling didn’t leave me throughout the week, as I met friends I’m still happy to be in touch with (and already looking forward to seeing them again in August 2018!), and enjoyed even the passing five minute conversations which seemed to happen every time you looked slightly confused or lost.

As for the courses and talks – I came away from each and every one feeling so inspired. Either to try something new, with a new idea to play with, or an increased understanding in how to improve what I was already working on. For my first year, I chose ‘creative non-fiction’ as my specialist course for the week, and have since produced a book proposal which I intend to keep working on, and thanks to Sue Moorcroft and Michael Jecks’ courses, the manuscript for my second novel felt so much tighter and improved, ready for submission. In my second year, I returned to Sue’s course, this time on popular fiction, and also enjoyed this blog owner’s fun and informative course on writing intimate scenes.

I think the biggest thing about Swanwick though is simply spending a whole week in the company of other writers. I’m lucky that my friends and family are really supportive of my writing, but there’s a limit to how much even the most supportive person can take! At Swanwick, everyone is more than happy to discuss (at length) the books they love and loathe, the writing techniques they use, and how they are getting on (or otherwise) with their latest project. I got as much from chatting over lunch and in the bar after workshops as I did from the courses themselves. The subsequent online chatter and support via the Facebook group is great too, keeping the community spirit going throughout the rest of the year.

After booking for August 2017, I had started thinking I would skip a year, try somewhere new, do something different. I won’t be. This year, bringing two writing friends along made the whole thing feel even more like a community, and by Sunday lunchtime, we’d agreed that it could become ‘our annual thing’. Seeing them be as excited as I had been last year was just brilliant. I even volunteered with one of the open-mic nights, so felt even more a part of things.

Yes, I’ve come away exhausted again, but hey, at least we have Saturday and Sunday to catch up on all that sleep we miss when our brains are too busy plotting…

About Jennifer

Jennifer is a marine biologist by training, who spent much of her childhood stalking Mary, Queen of Scots (initially accidentally, but then with intention). She completed her BSc and MSc at the University of Hull, and has worked as a marine environmental consultant since graduating. Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east reignited Jennifer’s pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since. In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and also continues to develop her poetic voice, reading at a number of events, and with several pieces available online. She is also part of The Next Page, running workshops and other literary events in North Tyneside.

Jennifer’s debut novel, Kindred Spirits: Tower of London, was released by Crooked Cat Books in October 2015, and Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile was released in June 2017. She can be found online at her blog, on Twitter and Facebook, as well as at The Next Page’s blog. She’s currently working on her first self-published effort, a timeslip romance featuring Richard III (of course).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tempest v Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood rewrites a Shakespeare masterpiece

As a Patron of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I am lucky enough to get advance notice of the next season’s productions and when I learned that the RSC were performing The Tempest, I was thrilled. It’s not a play I had seen before and nor did I know the story.

Imagine then, if you will, how excited I was to learn that one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, had been commissioned to rewrite the story of The Tempest in novel form. Bingo!

The Tempest starts with a great storm, during which the King of Naples and his entourage, including the Duke of Milan, are shipwrecked. Watching this drama unfold is Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda.

It becomes clear that Prospero has conjured the storm himself with the help of the sprite, Ariel, because this group are his enemies. Indeed, the Duke of Milan is in fact his brother, Antonio, who betrayed him for the title of Duke some twelve years previously.

Now, to Hag-Seed. Our Prospero has become one Felix Duke, renowned theatre director who gets unceremoniously sacked and ends up working in a prison where he teaches Shakespeare to the inmates. His latest project is… Yup, you guessed it, The Tempest.

Felix’s Miranda is not real, she is a memory he has recreated and transposed into the present as a mechanism to deal with the grief at losing his daughter.

Estelle pulls strings for Felix, both inside the prison and in organising the visit of the politicos. She is the Ariel to Felix’s Prospero, creating the ‘storm’ which brings them to him.

Just like Prospero, Felix exacts his revenge during the production but afterwards feels strangely unfulfilled. The result is an anticlimax. What does this teach us about the nature of revenge, methinks? Is it really worth it? Or shall we just hold our heads high, despite the injustice inflicted by those who wronged us?

All in all, a fantastic production of The Tempest by the RSC, as one would expect, and an amazing work by Ms Atwood. Again, no surprises there. Well worth the time on both counts, if you have the opportunity.

To Walk Invisible: a Tribute to a Yorkshire family

Goodness! If you want heart-wrenching drama, you need look no further than the North York moors. Last night I watched To Walk Invisible, a BBC dramatisation of the life of the Bronte sisters.

To my shame, although both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two of my most-loved ‘classic’ novels, I must confess I knew little of the struggles of their respective authors’ domestic lives.

I was introduced to these classic novels partly by my mother, but also due to reading lists for English Literature classes at school. I read Jane Austen many years ago (during my school days, in fact) and her novels enjoy legendary status across the world, even today. But she produced stories that examine the quest for a suitable matrimonial match among the genteel English society into which she was born. They are hardly life or death situations, per se.

Austen couldn’t possibly have imagined the frustration of three sisters, united only in their despair for their wayward brother as he succumbed to his demons doing his level best to tear the family apart as he did so.

Few women back then published novels. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), writing around the same time, wrote under a pseudonym in order to be taken seriously. The Brontes were a well-educated family for their position, being daughters of the widowed Reverend Bronte, but their education appears to have been somewhat haphazard, starting off at a school, but then being removed by their father and taught a little at home after their two older sisters (Maria and Elizabeth) had contracted tuberculosis.

It occurs to me that perhaps it is only in enduring the seemingly bottomless pit of such torment that we, as writers, find tales of such extraordinary passion. They do say that it is only by knowing sadness that we can identify happiness when we find such a thing.

I shall ponder on this thought as I begin compiling my Must Do list for 2017.

Item #1 – a visit to Haworth!

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I have just got to tell you about this book I just finished. It’s another great choice from the book group that I joined last summer (thank you ladies!).

The book is set in the not-too-distant future. We learn that NASA has been making trips to Mars for some time. Sometimes these are unmanned trips to drop off supplies and sometimes manned voyages to conduct research. A tragic accident during one such journey results in astronaut Mark Watney being left behind after his crewmates presume him dead.

A large proportion of the book is written in Mark’s own words in the form of a logbook. We learn early on that he is an incredible individual with an astonishing sense of humour which never fails him, even in the most challenging of situations. It goes without saying that he is extremely clever and resourceful; his scientific, and especially botanical, knowledge saves his life on more than one occasion.

The reader gains a wonderful insight into the characters back on Earth, too. We meet the guys at NASA, desperately gathering the cleverest minds they have to put together a rescue plan and get him back home. I could really picture the billions of people glued to their TV screens watching him via satellite as he goes about his day on the Red Planet. We learn a little of his cremates too, as they learn he is still alive and mount a rescue operation to go back to Mars and collect him.

The author captures the reader’s imagination very quickly, and holds it throughout. I couldn’t put this book down. I’m not a scientific person, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the technical content, but from what I know of the author, I don’t get the impression he would have messed up.

This is a story of overcoming adversity, of soldiering on against all the odds, and ultimately, a tale of triumphant victory. I am not at all surprised this was made into a film. It lends itself very much to the Hollywood disaster movie genre very well.

512e-pP0zGL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_For those of you who have seen the film, I understand it’s also very good. It’s on my To Watch list. This is almost, but not quite, as long as my To Read list, which means it’s unlikely I’ll get round to it any time soon.

Awesome book though. It had me in tears on more than one occasion. A solid 9.5 out of 10 from me.

Why not a nice round 10? I hear you ask. Well, there’s a very good reason for that. I have a thing for geeks. Mr Watney is my favourite geek out there right now, and I have a teeny crush on him and I feel this emotional attachment may be clouding my judgement. So there!

Gone Girl – Is it worth the hype?

I was very late coming to this particular party, I’ll admit. Plus, I often find that I don’t agree with creative works which have been highly-acclaimed in the media (the movie Forrest Gump springs to mind here – I just didn’t get it).

So, I was more than pleasantly surprised when my mum recommended this to me. She has an eye for a good story, my mother, and we often enjoy the same authors, so I thanked her for lending me her copy and I launched into it with glee.

Let me say one thing first of all: the phrase “all is not what it seems” is not powerful enough for this book. It takes it to a whole new level. Read on…

Amy is married to Nick Dunne. They are the perfect couple, or so it seems, until Amy disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. The police believe she has been murdered by Nick, a theory which is bolstered by the fact that hergonegirl friends reveal to them that she was afraid of him. But he swears it isn’t true. On reading more into Nick’s character, we also realise he’s just not capable of anything like that.

Half the book is written as journal entries made by Amy, starting from the night they first met, and we learn how their relationship developed into what it is now. But, make no mistake, Diary Amy is very different from the woman that Nick believes he has married. And therein lies the problem with their marriage.

This is a thriller like no other. It sinks into our minds and searches through our insecurities and, like Amy, we learn that on many occasions, we too have been lured into becoming someone else for what we think is the benefit of our relationships.

This book will question how you view your partner. Do you really know them inside out? You may think you do, but do you, really? Do you support and encourage them, or do you hinder them in some way? Do you feel they stand in your way, perhaps?

As a singleton, I can ask these questions of my previous relationships and I know why they all failed. For those of you who are attached to someone, happily or otherwise, maybe you might find some of those questions difficult. But ask them you should, of yourself at least, if not your partner too.

Now, I am not saying this book will now necessarily mean that my next relationship will be a fantastic success, but I will certainly consider asking myself those questions when I meet someone new. Perhaps a good strategy as I find myself at the end of 2015 and staring a New Year in the face…

Here’s wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Liz xxx

To Kill A Mockingbird – Is it still relevant today?

I was absolutely thrilled when someone suggested we read this for my local bookclub last month.

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Having just read the sequel a few months ago, I was very much looking forward to getting into this one again. I say ‘again’ – we actually read this at school, and I remembered that I had really enjoyed it.

I have re-read a number of books from childhood recently. Regular readers may remember my post about the Lord of the Flies and how being an adult can change our perspective on a story. I did wonder if a second reading of Harper Lee’s classic tale would have a similar effect.

There were lots of things about the story which I had completely forgotten. The touching sub-plot of Boo Radley and his affection for Jem and Scout springs to mind.

I remember as a child there was a house in our street which looked a bit neglected compared to the others. It desperately needed a lick of paint and a tidy up of the garden, and that probably would have done it. But to us children it was the topic of much gossip, as was the older guy who lived there, apparently alone. We used to make up stories about how he had murdered all the other children in the neighbourhood, and we used to wonder which of us would be next. (Jeez, I just got a shiver up my spine thinking about that!)

I had also forgotten the court verdict after the infamous trial, although looking at the story as a whole, it almost doesn’t matter.

So, I arrived at bookclub last month full of lots of things to say. Inevitably, most of us thought exactly the same thing: this story is most definitely as relevant today as it ever has been.

*** SPOILER ALERT *** For those of you who have NOT read the sequel, please do not read beyond this point!

I came across this great article from the Huffington Post which discusses what we really think of Atticus Finch (a literary hero so great that his first name is a popular baby name for white males in the US). Especially when we learn that he does not quite deserve the pedestal upon which we have perched him for such a long time.

Consider too the recent uprisings in the US, including KKK rallies and the figures relating to civilian killings of members of the African American population by white police officers. This is very sobering reading and tells us that racism is, in fact, alive and well in certain areas of the United States. Shame on them.

The Sociological Spectre of Apathy

This is going to be one of those blog posts which asks more questions than it answers, so please bear with me. I like to prompt debate about things which matter to me; this is one of them.

books1I have a friend I’ve known for half my life. I don’t see him very often and when we do meet up, like many friends, the conversation revolves around work, family and mutual friends.

Recently, he happened to mention that his eleven year-old son hadn’t performed as well in school exams as he had expected, and my friend was concerned about this.

Now, his son goes to a fee-paying school. Both parents work – his wife runs a lucrative domicilary care business and he is a company director in another firm as well. This is not a family that is short of resources in the slightest.

“I bet I know one reason why,” I said, and shot him a knowing look. “When was the last time he read a book for pleasure?”

“Oh, I dunno,” came the reply. “Reading’s not his thing really.”

…not his thing…

I shivered.

Sadly, I fear that my friend’s son is not alone. I hear this much more often than I would like to, and it fills me with dismay.

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Studies have shown (click here to read more) that those who read fiction are more inclined to be quick to empathise with others and especially when this reading skill is developed in younger children. It teaches them to detect and understand how certain actions affect the feelings of other people.

We all know how a good story allows you to feel what the characters feel. How many of us have laughed and cried, felt the glow of romantic love or the despair of grief, when reading a story? This is the power of a good author. My favourite books are those which have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster. I want to be reaching for the tissues when I read, I want to be moved.

But for children like my friend’s son, brought up with no books in the house other than his mother’s nursing textbooks, what does this do a child’s emotional development?

Not having my own children, it may be inappropriate of me to comment upon the upbringing of other people’s offspring. But, actually, I think there’s a wider issue here.

If children don’t learn to empathise, what sort of people do they turn out to be? Isn’t that sort of the definition of a sociopath? And, are we convinced that enough emphasis is put upon reading books for pleasure, both in schools and at home?

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As a little girl, my mum used to take me to the local library. In the middle of the children’s area I remember seeing an enormous wooden box, full of brightly-coloured books for young children. (It probably wasn’t all that big, but I was only a toddler at the time!)

Mum tells me, even now, that I would have favourites that I kept asking for, week in, week out. The poor woman must have been bored to tears having to read the same books over and over! But, I am eternally grateful to her for bestowing upon me the greatest gift in the world. For, in teaching me to love literature, she taught me how to escape this world and travel to far-flung places, to have adventures beyond my wildest dreams.

I flew with dragons; I fought demons and befriended angels; I toppled evil tyrants and replaced them on the thrones of lands far, far away; and, I fell in love, over and over and over, with characters who possessed magical abilities, and yet, ultimately, very human traits.

My life would have been immeasurably different without books. Certainly, I doubt I would ever have become a writer. In my opinion, it’s shameful that there are children growing up in our society without being shown the door into this enchanting world of books.

So, I would welcome your comments here. What are your experiences of teaching your own or other people’s children to read? Is it really that important, or am I just banging on about something which is none of my business, being childfree?

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Review: From Cornwall to the Andes, Barbara Webb

I don’t read a great deal of non-fiction but I was drawn to this book, partly due to the striking painting on the cover (which I later found out is the author’s own work), and partly because of its acutely personal nature.

“How brave!” I thought. “What great courage this lady must have to share such a private and emotional journey in such a public way.”

I find I am drawn to people who display characteristics such as courage and strength. Webb seemed to be just such a person and so I decided to purchase this little book.

The first thing that is clear is that the author is no shrinking violet. This is a lady who has travelled all over the world, visiting countries and cultures of which most of us can only dream.

Yet not even such experiences can shield us from the very human condition of profound grief when a loved one dies.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been, after such a traumatic period in one’s life, to make the decision to commit to paper the journey from her late husband’s diagnosis through his death and into the unknown territory of widowhood.

But the beauty of this story is that there is no wallowing in self-pity amongst the pages. The illness and subsequent deterioration in her husband’s condition is handled with care and tenderness, which many in a similar position will find of great comfort.

Instead, we find a moving tribute to her late husband and a candid reflection of her own despair after his death. How lucky we are that the author found herself and created such a wonderful new life to share with us.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It moved me to tears on occasion, but between the pages lie also joy and hope, and this makes it an inspiration for those with a loved one also suffering from terminal illness.

You can find out more about Barbara Webb and her books below:

Website: http://www.cornwall2theandes.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cornwall2andes

 

Review: Labyrinth, Kate Mosse

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year so far, and I don’t say that lightly.

I love reading books where the action takes place along two different time lines, but so few authors can really get this right. I believe Kate Mosse has done a superb job with Labyrinth.

In 13th century France, the spirited and adventurous Alais, daughter to a leading political figure in Carcassonne, becomes aware of a greater truth that her father entrusts to her, that of the safekeeping of ancient Egyptian texts belonging to the Cathars. Her people are being persecuted, however, and she must keep the books safe from the hands of the Northern French Crusaders who are currently marching south, pillaging land and possessions as they go.

In the present day, Alice joins an archaeological dig in the Languedoc region and inadvertently disturbs a curious burial site, bringing Alais’ story to light. Everywhere she goes there are echoes of the past, threatening her sanity and ultimately, her life.

Mosse never allows the two plots to coincide. Instead, they run seamlessly alongside one another, merging only at the very end when the reader gains a beautiful understanding as if, we too have been entrusted with this sacred knowledge of a Universal Truth.

This is a great book for celebrating the role of women in fiction. Both leading characters are women, and neither is constrained by traditional, stereotypical female roles. There is a useful glossary at the back for interpreting the Occitan language (something akin to Old French, but with distinct differences), although this is hardly necessary, and her Author’s Note explains all historical references and separates the fact from fiction.

I was never a fan of history at school. Indeed, it is through reading wonderful books such as these, that the fire in my own belly ignites and I want to write my own stories about the past. I shall certainly be reading many more from Mosse, including her recent offering, The Taxidermist’s Daughter.