Monday, November 30, 2009

A good book find!

Woo-hoo! Just finished my third walk to the shops near my house in the past two days (I now officially have all the paperwork completed and mailed to renew my US driver's license. Please, Jesse White, Secretary of State of Illinois, let this work!). To reward myself on the way home, I stopped in the Oxfam charity bookshop and lo and behold found Lucy M Boston's THE CHILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE which was one of the ghost stories recommended to me earlier this month. I think it's even out of print. 99p baby! Figured I'd share the joy.

Nudity and Mouthwash: Adverts you won't see in the US

My adverts you won't see in the US series was inspired by the below ad, which I first saw last winter. I thought I had lost it for good, but apparently it boosted sales over 9%, so it's back on the telly! I bring you the Corsodyl Mint Mouthwash ad 'Gorgeous' (warning: does contain nudity):

The ad actually starts thirty seconds in. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Around this time of year, many people like to discuss the "first" Thanksgiving. Americans debate Thanksgiving's historical accuracy and our culture's depiction of Native Americans. What I find interesting about the "first" Thanksgiving is that the idea of thanksgiving sprang from multiple countries' religious traditions of giving thanks to God. Thanksgiving was especially important for immigrants as they settled in foreign lands and faced the threat of war, starvation and death. So there are numerous records of thanksgiving ceremonies throughout early American history, in Massachusetts, but also in the Spanish colony of Florida, and in the Virginia Colony, near Jamestown.

Admittedly, when Phil and I arrived in Bristol just over two years ago, there was no threat of war, starvation or death. But even so, the transition wasn't exactly easy, so we were thankful for all the kindness shown to us on our arrival. Last year we celebrated Thanksgiving as a potluck at our house, inviting all of our new UK friends to join us. We are continuing the tradition this year.

And I feel I have so much to be thankful for.

I'm thankful for all the basic necessities I have which many others lack. I'm thankful for a roof over my head, plenty of food to eat, heat, fresh water and health (yes, I've had a cold/flu how many times this autumn? But really, it could be so much worse).

I'm thankful for a large and loving family which I get to speak to and see often, even though they live so far away (thank God for Skype!).

I'm thankful for my friends, old friends who have stayed in touch and new friends who have reached out to me.

I'm thankful for the opportunity this year to pursue my writing dream. And I'm also thankful for my fellow students, teachers and supportive family who have helped me enjoy pursuing it so much.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Writing on a rainy November day

As I said in my previous post, it has been a rainy, gloomy week. Of course, I shouldn't complain. There's been flooding and evacuations in other parts of the UK. As one Guardian journalist living in Wales, Robert Penn, writes, "November has always been the month we endure."

In order to prove his point, Robert Penn has collected several quotes from UK writers about the weather and they are so delightful, I have to share:

"'Continuous rain for the last three days... novel progressing well,' Evelyn Waugh noted on 1 November 1939.

'I really begin to doubt whether England is a beautiful country,' George Bernard Shaw wrote on 2 November, 1896...

and on 5 November, 1685, the diarist John Evelyn moaned: 'Extraordinary wett morning, & I indisposed by a very greate rheume.'"

Now, even if it is a gloomy, wet morning, doesn't that make you feel better? Hundreds of years ago, other writers were feeling gloomy, wet, and yet still scribbling away.

Cozy British things

A rainy day... actually, it's been a rainy week. So now seems like a good opportunity to blog about things I love about the UK.

Duvets. I know some people have duvets in the US, but I had never slept with a duvet until I came here. Here everyone sleeps with a duvet. In the UK, comforter means a stuffed toy or security blanket, not bedding as we think of it in the US. Duvets are cosy, warm and soft. Plus, the Brits have the term "duvet day" for those days where it's just too hard to get out of bed. Love it.

Scarves. I have picked on the Brits for wearing scarves indoors. It's very 80s power woman. Or hippy dippy. But then I tried it and have completely gone native in this regard. A warm neck is a happy neck.

Local meats and cheeses. When I make jambalaya, I can buy chorizo from my local butcher or farmer's market that has been made entirely locally. And it's so good and strong, it infuses the whole dish with flavor. Who knew goats cheese came in so many different varieties? I sampled four different types on Saturday as I tried to decide which to buy. Apparently the concept of farmers markets was invented by Americans, and is quite new to this country. But Britain definitely respects its local farms, in a way I didn't see when I lived in the US.

Friday, November 20, 2009

My life as a reality show

I've always thought an X-Factor / American Idol-style reality show with writers would be really interesting. Probably why I like Project Runway so much. I find it fascinating to watch creative minds struggling with a problem. Course, watching people in solitude banging their heads against desks and scribbling away might not be so interesting. At least, not to anyone but me.

Last night I watched The Restaurant, in which couples compete against each other to open their own restaurant in partnership with chef Raymond Blanc. Kind of a Project Runway with food, a snotty French accent and some truly incompetent people (no, no, don't flick the customers off!).

While I was watching it, it occurred to me that my current life (studying for my MA in Writing for Young People) is much like a writing reality show already. I have a variety of challenges each week. At the end of the week these challenges are judged (well, kindly critiqued) by my peers and teachers. Okay, there's no Heidi Klum or Raymond Blanc, but I do have the amazing Julia Green and Steve Voake.

And the best part? No elimination. And no competition, only support, friendship and the opportunity to discuss writing with people who love it as much as I do. And much like some of the true incompetents on The Restaurant, I find myself surprisingly learning so much and maybe even getting better at my craft.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gasping, choking, sputtering... to write a paragraph

I have been working on revising chapter 14 of my novel for a week? two weeks? It's hard to say exactly, because in between I have been revising other bits of writing, critiquing, writing pieces for my workshop classes, etc. But let's just say I've been agonizing over chapter 14 for some time.

Today I was at it again and had a terrific moment of insight. I scrawled in my notebook, "What does [main character] think is happening?" I knew this was a pivotal question and would help me break through many of my difficulties because as I wrote it I had no idea what the answer was.

And perhaps that sounds a bit dumb. It's a basic question. But I was so focused on my character's voice and her having a legitimate emotional reaction to the situation, that I had completely neglected to consider her powers of reasoning.

So what did I do when I made this startling revelation? I journaled for about 10 more minutes, sorting out what my main character is thinking, and how this changes my plot. Then I desperately wanted a nap. But I didn't give in. Instead I printed out my fellow students' assignments for the week and did some critiquing. I put chapter 14 away, possibly for the rest of the day. Why? Because I was all out of writing energy.

I'm a total writing wimp. Writing is a very physical activity, as well as a mental one, for me. When I struggle with a seemingly insurmountable task, like chapter 14, or plot out a story, or develop a character, I end up gasping. I'm exhausted.

I try to make up for this by keeping busy. I intersperse my writing time with blog posts (like now), critiques and various writing assignments. As long as my butt is in my chair, writing, for 3-4 hours a day, isn't that good enough? Lately I've begun to think it's not. Is it possible for me to work harder? I've been stuck on chapter 14 for an awfully long time.

Do other writers struggle with these issues of stamina? How do you cope?

Monday, November 16, 2009

A violent way of life

In September, a student at Fenger Academy High School in Chicago was beaten to death. Why am I writing about this now? Well, I used to teach at Fenger. And it's taken me this long to figure out what I want to say about it.

The year after I left Fenger, I wrote a personal essay combining some of my most horrific stories about the school. It was called Silence. The students who attend Fenger, many of whom are intelligent, ambitious and wonderful people, have no voice. The adults who know Fenger best, the teachers, other staff members, principals and parents, don't know what to say. The problems at Fenger are deeply rooted in poverty, the Roseland neighborhood, racism, drugs, alcohol, white flight, public housing, etc etc etc. There are no easy answers. After working at Fenger for two years, I'm not sure there are any answers.

The Chicago Tribune and other Chicago news sources have printed volumes on Derrion Albert's death, and the public shock has been immense. President Obama has arranged for his staff members to visit with Chicago Public School officials to discuss how to prevent this violence. But what many people don't understand is that this incident is not surprising. Fenger has one of the highest arrest rates in Chicago Public Schools. Fenger makes the news at least once a year for acts of violence. Last year (or was it longer ago?) a kid was beaten and then locked in a wire cage in the gym. One of my colleagues left after a gun was pulled on him. The only reason this incident is different is because it was caught on film and broadcast to thousands of people whom had never seen anything like it before.

Chicago Public Schools' immediate answer to the problem has been to increase security guards and police officers at the school. While this might prevent some violence, this "solution" is horrific. Imagine if a student were killed in a suburban school or an independent school. The school would invite hordes of counselors to talk to the students, to make sense of the random violence. But Fenger only gets more guards and police.

That's why I was pleased to see an article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday morning reporting that the organization CeaseFire had met with a group of Fenger students. According to the article, "The group [CeaseFire] sees violence as a learned behavior that has become acceptable in certain pockets of the city -- a learned behavior that can be un-learned."

CeaseFire has had tremendous success in areas like Roseland and I'm so glad to hear they are now working with Fenger students.

Violence is certainly a way of life at Fenger. Because I was an English teacher, so many of the stories I remember from Fenger revolve around literature. Here is one:

In my sophomore American Literature class, I taught TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Remember that seminal scene where the angry mob surrounds Atticus? Everything comes to a head when a man spits in Atticus' face. Atticus refuses to attack him. The situation is saved by the appearance of Atticus' daughter, who in her naivete and youth breaks up an ugly situation. My students were horrified by this scene. They had developed a grudging respect for Atticus, but now saw him as a coward, a complete wuss. I was horrified by my students. Surely Atticus was heroic by not giving in to violence? My students informed me he wouldn't last a minute in Roseland. They're probably right. They told me if someone spits in your face, you had better fight back, otherwise you develop a reputation for weakness. Doesn't it take more bravery, then, not to fight back? Maybe, they agreed, but what would be the point? In their community, it's a valid question.

My best wishes to CeaseFire and to all the students at Fenger. After two years, I chose to leave. I'm always aware my former students, and Fenger's current students, have no such choice.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My writing space

People are generally fascinated with work spaces, especially artists' work spaces. We see their work as magic and want to know how it happens. I've seen the coffee shop in Edinburgh where JK Rowling wrote a portion of Harry Potter. Blue Balliett apparently did most of her writing on her home's clothes dryer. A friend recently showed me the website Where I Write which features photographs of science fiction and fantasy authors in their work spaces.

The pictures are fascinating to breeze through. Big spaces, small spaces, lots of bookcases, cats and small dogs... Sci fi/fantasy writers seem to prefer dark wood. One guy with candles in an attic... MARGARET WEIS (a favorite childhood writer). Actually, Weis' picture is interesting; like the others she has a computer, but no desk or table. Judging from the picture, she just writes with her laptop as God (or IBM or whomever) intended, on her lap. That's nothing, though, compared to Gregory Frost's picture, where he appears quite reclined on his couch.

Now that I am writing full time, space has become especially important to me. Not because I think I'm more important or my writing is more important or anything like that. Just because, unlike Weis, I'm a spreader-outer. The more work I do, the more I spread out.

In case anyone is curious, here's a shot of my work space:

I know, I know, the plant is also becoming quite a spreader-outer. If anyone has any suggestions for how to tame it, I'm all ears.

My biggest problem with my work space...

Actually, we're studying conflict in class, so let me put this is conflict terms:

As the main character, my goal is to have a place to spread out my writing accoutrements. My opposition (my husband) also has a goal. His goal is to eat dinner on our dining room table. This conflict will of course escalate as I spread out more and more, and come to head every night at dinner. The resolution is that when I get a million dollar book contract (HAH!), we will use the money to buy me a desk.*

What about you? Where do you write? Is conflict involved???

*Not that I need a million dollar book contract to buy a desk (I do understand they're cheaper than that), but this just feeds into my whole anti-materialism, temporary life in the UK thing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ghost stories

As I believe I mentioned in my previous post, one of my tasks for this semester is to write a paper. The paper is intended as a review and reflection on a certain type of book or elements in books. For example, people have examined banned books, beginnings, gender roles, etc. I am writing my paper on plot elements (or maybe plot structure, something along those lines) in ghost stories.

There have been a number of American ghost stories which have come out in the past year to great reviews, but living in the UK, these are difficult for me to get a hold of. So my brief has been slightly older ghost stories, a mixture of traditional and non-traditional, for middle grade or young adult readers. I was going to read a few for adults (Audrey Niffenegger's HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY and Sarah Waters' THE LITTLE STRANGER), but so many children's stories have been suggested, I've had to rule adults out.

I've actually been overwhelmed by the number of suggestions I've received. I started this project thinking there aren't many good ghost stories out there. I still stand by that assumption. But "not many" in the fiction world, of course, can easily translate into 30 as opposed to 300. I've also learned there seems to be a second wave of ghost stories coming out. They were quite popular when I was growing up, in the 80s, and suddenly there has been a resurgence in the market. A good thing for me as a reader. As a writer? Who knows, I try not to think about those types of things.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints (and word limits for my paper!) I can only read 5-6 books. But I thought it would be fun to share with you all of my suggestions, and see if you have any to add (I would love to know of any goodies I'm missing!).

Here's the list. I'll put a star next to ones I've already read and a double star next to ones which are currently sitting in my house waiting for me:

Mary Downing Hahn; WITCH CATCHER

Robert Westall; THE SCARECROWS*
Robert Westall; THE WATCH HOUSE*

Sonya Hartnett; SURRENDER*


Peggy Parish; a number of titles... also the author of the Amelia Bedelia books!

Hayden Thorne; BANSHEE



Antonia Barber; THE GHOST


Julia Jarman; GHOST WRITER*

Peter Beagle; TAMSIN**

Kathryn Reiss; DREADFUL SORRY**

Richie Tankersley Cusick; WALK OF THE SPIRITS
Richie Tankersley Cusick; UNSEEN**
(though this may actually be about zombies...)

Katie Alender; BAD GIRLS DON'T DIE (looks amazing, though unfortunately too American and recent, I can't get my hands on a copy)

Cliff McNish; BREATHE*


Margaret Mahy; a number of titles...

Geraldine McCaughrean; A WHITE DARKNESS

Ann Pilling; THE PIT


Even typing this list is depressing--so many lovely books!

But that being said--any suggestions? What are your favorites? Any books on this list you've read?

Please read the comments of this blog post for some additional suggestions. My friends at Verla Kay's Blueboards have also added a few more suggestions:

Meg Cabot's MEDIATOR series
(can I just say how happy I am for an excuse to read ANOTHER Meg Cabot book? Unfortunately, my lovely husband is becoming concerned my obsession with Meg Cabot is a tad unhealthy).


Patricia Clapp; JANE-EMILY

And I've had several people remind me of perhaps the best novel-length ghost story ever (yeah, I think I'm happy with that claim): A CHRISTMAS CAROL. How could I neglect to mention one of my favorites?


More fun suggestions!

Amanda Marrone; DEVOURED

Elizabeth Bunce; A CURSE AS DARK AS GOLD


Monday, November 9, 2009

Organizing my sleep-addled self

When I first learned I would be doing an MA in writing, numerous people warned me I would write more than I ever had before.

I didn't believe them. I'm a little thick like that.

I figured I often spent 3 hours a day writing. How much more could a course force me to do?

Well, a lot. I wouldn't say I work more than 3-4 hours a day, but I also go to school for 6 hours a week, and spend an additional 3 hours a week traveling. Plus there's weekly talks by visiting professionals (agents, writers, publishers) and time spent getting to know my classmates. On top of all that, I am required to read 1-2 books a week for class. I read another book a week, and take notes on it, to prep for a paper due at the end of the term. I need to critique seven of my classmates assignments every week. And that doesn't count my own writing. Each week I'm given two writing assignments, one of which I submit for a class critique. I'm supposed to reflect on the critiques I receive, and note what comments are similar from week to week. I am then expected to revise my assignments for submission at the end of the term. Oh, and I'm supposed to be working on my novel in my spare time.

Freudian slip... there's a lot of "supposed to"s in that previous paragraph. Uh... yeah.

Actually, I think I'm doing pretty well with my work, but I am constantly making to-do lists in my writing notebook. And along the way, I've discovered a useful tip which I'd like to share.

In the evening, when I am finished writing for the day, I make a list of all the writing I hope to accomplish for tomorrow, in order. I try to set my most challenging and creative assignment for first thing in the morning.

In the morning, if I don't have a list, I find myself checking my email first thing, or sneaking a peek at Twitter. But if I do have a list, I almost always get right to work. Early in the morning I find I'm often too tired to argue with myself.

This tactic, small as it is, has helped enormously in making sure I accomplish the writing I need to, and also don't back down on the hard assignments.

Do you have any tricks for disciplining yourself to do those challenging or non-fun tasks?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Happy Guy Fawkes Day, Obama!

Yesterday was Guy Fawkes Day in the UK. In 1605, Fawkes and his co-conspirators planned to blow up Parliament to circumvent Protestant rule. They were arrested before the attack could take place. The anniversary of Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot is celebrated in the UK with bonfires, fireworks, and Guy Fawkes burned in effigy.

To me, it's a fascinating aspect of British culture that the triumph of the government over the individual is celebrated. Very un-American. But maybe I'm being too literal about it. Either way, that's a whole other blog post.

If you remember, a little over a year ago, Obama had just been elected president and celebrated in Grant Park in Chicago (oh how sad I was to not be in my hometown that night!). Meanwhile, a few days later, I was taking a writing course at the University of Bristol. It was an evening class, coinciding with Guy Fawkes night, and while we sat at tables in silence, trying to concentrate on our writing, fireworks exploded around us. Our instructor asked us to write about something we were passionate about. I'll share with you a bit of what I wrote:

"I am passionate about Barack Obama... I was so excited to wake up this morning. It is as if the whole world has changed. Fireworks are going off and I know it’s for Guy Fawkes, but America is celebrating a rebellion of its own... For a day I feel like I’m enveloped in this movie, the music swells and I need someone to pinch me as the fireworks flash through the sky. How will I ever explain this to anyone?"

I'm still not sure I can explain the joy and the complete unreality I felt that whole week. And how proud I suddenly was to admit my nationality.

So while the Brits remembered Guy Fawkes' failed gunpowder plot last night, to me the fireworks are a celebration of my country and Obama's election.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Looking for the next Bonfire

The UK has been having an interesting discussion lately regarding historical fiction.

This is one of the things I love about the UK, I must say. The US might have a discussion about race, if we're feeling really angry, but more often our discussions are about Balloon Boy and the Yankees dynasty. We would not have a national discussion about historical fiction.


The Man Booker prize ostensibly rewards the finest fiction produced in the past year as written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland (so no Americans, sorry). The release of the shortlist for this year's Man Booker prize stirred some contention when the public realized a number of the books listed were historical fiction. Indeed, the winner of the Booker prize, Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL, is set in Henry VIII's court.

As Tim Adams for the Guardian wrote:

"Writers have always mined the past for stories that will illuminate the present, but the current appetite for historical fiction, and historical drama and anniversary-based TV and journalism, seems like something different – a flight from the here and now. (The future, of course, has for a little while been something we would rather not think about, or hoped might go away.)"

This is surprisingly similar to the conclusion of Simon Schama's TV documentary series A History of Britain, where he summed up his reflections on the most recent episode on Churchill and Orwell, but also the entire series:

"…It's our cultural bloodstream, the secret of who we are, and it tells us to let go of the past, even as we honour it. To lament what ought to be lamented and to celebrate what should be celebrated. And if in the end, that history turns out to reveal itself as a patriot, well then I think that neither Churchill nor Orwell would have minded that very much, and as a matter of fact, neither do I."

Of course, one could argue that Americans also honor their history. But is it part of our cultural bloodstream? Tim Adams thinks not to the same extent. As he said,

"There was a time when British novels did what they said on the tin... they took on the present and found new ways to understand it (this is still what the best American novelists, by and large, attempt – it is hard to imagine Richard Ford or Jonathan Franzen, to take two examples, having too much to say about the Pilgrim Fathers or Abraham Lincoln)."

It's an interesting, complex debate. When I watched Schama's documentary, his claims about Britain's "cultural bloodstream" resonated as true for me, even as a former American history teacher. I think there is a certain level of fascination with the past here that I don't see in the same way in the US. But of course, these are all generalizations, not absolute truths.

So how interesting it was last week Tuesday, when I had the opportunity to listen to two literary agents share their thoughts on the industry as part of my writing course's Tuesday night series.

Both agents (I'm going to avoid mentioning names, since this was a private forum), are fans of historical fiction and historical thrillers and represent a number of authors of these genres. They're happy to get more, too. But they referenced the historical fiction debate, and said something I found quite interesting. They believe there aren't enough overarching commentaries on modern Britain published today. They praised BRICK LANE by Monica Ali, but wanted more, ala Charles Dickens or THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe.

I can't imagine writing such a thing, talk about intimidating. But I do love this writing. And perhaps they are right, perhaps the UK needs more commentary on its present.

Monday, November 2, 2009

England's Oldest Hotel

Sunday night, Phil and I took some much needed time off to celebrate our anniversary. We visited The Old Bell Hotel in Malmesbury, which claims to be the oldest continually run hotel in England. Here's their explanation:

"The central part of the building was built in 1220 by Walter Loring, Abbot of the Abbey [next door] from 1208 to 1244. Its function was to entertain important guests, as the Abbey was then one of the most important seats of learning in England after Glastonbury. As far as it is known The Old Bell has been continuously in use as a place of entertainment since that time."

I've actually been there before for work and kept thinking a place this neat, this romantic, and with such gorgeous food should not be used for work. So I had to take Phil back to properly enjoy it.

It was a short trip, but completely relaxing. We wandered up and down Malmesbury's narrow alleyways, lined with stone houses, strolled along the river, poked our heads in various shops. I found a perfect travel bag, which I've been searching for forever! It's big enough for a book and a camera, has a wide, long strap so I can sling it across my chest and hopefully minimize back ache, and it's organic cotton, fair trade and blue with purple stripes. LOVE! Oh, and this morning I had a long soak in a claw-foot bath tub. I don't think I've ever been in such a big bath tub. So yes... much relaxed.

I apologize I don't have more pictures to show off, but of course the camera battery died an hour into the trip.

Now back to writing like mad!

Oh, but first, one random bit of British trivia for you, again from The Old Bell's publicity:

"An interesting fact about the spiral staircase at the East End is that it rotates in the opposite way to those in a castle. In a building that requires fortification the spiral staircase descends anti-clockwise, so leaving the "sword arm" free for fighting. A staircase that descends in the clockwise direction denotes men of peace."