Saturday, 28 March 2015

Does a Degree in Creative Writing make you a Creative Writer?


Flicking through a couple of writing mags, I'm struck by the number of creative writing courses now on offer. Anything from an MA to a BA to a short series of lectures. Even the Guardian is now cashing in and running all day sessions on how to write various types of genre fiction, non-fiction, blogs etc.

Many of these courses come with glowing endorsements from former students, some of whom have gone on to write best sellers/make small fortunes/land top jobs in the media profession. Call me Ms Cynic if you will (please do...) but I view the whole creative writing business with enough skepticism to refloat the Titanic.

I do not have a degree in creative writing. I don't have a certificate saying I attended any courses. Hell, I don't even have a badge saying writer. I just learned my craft as I wrote. Book after book after book. And as I read. Book after book after book. Because reading and writing was all I ever wanted to do.

So here's my take on the proliferation of degrees, second degrees, courses and 'Be a creative writer' stuff:

You can learn the structure of writing: how to balance sentences; how to vary action and description. You can learn how to construct characters, and how to write dialogue. You can learn grammar and punctuation.  BUT that spark, that inner drive, that ''talent" that separates the real writer from the creative writing clone is innate. You are born with it. And if you ain't got it, you ain't.

And as for the ''best seller'' newbie writers, who have probably landed their publishing contract on the back of their writing tutors' connections to various publishing houses, (shock horror .. did you not realise that's how it works?) once they leave the cosseted hothouse world of the degree course, and let go of their mentor's hand, it is rare to see them flourish beyond that first carefully nurtured book.

The finest writers in the canon of literature: Shakespeare, Keats, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy etc never went on a creative writing course, and never passed a single exam in creative writing. Would their works have been better if they had? I think not.



Thursday, 26 March 2015

WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU: Victorian Food


In 2013, we discovered that horse meat, sometimes as high as 80%, had been added to our food. People were shocked and outraged. Cheap burgers and meat products were removed from supermarket shelves and even the 'reputable' supermarkets found they were not immune from the scandal as expensive ready meals were tested and found to contain meat from more than one animal.

None of these products would have harmed or killed us outright - indeed in many countries, horses are slaughtered for the table. It was the deception, and the realization that we had less control over the contents of what we put on our plate that caused such anxiety.

In Victorian times, food was adulterated to a far more dangerous extent. There was no Food Standards Agency, no Inspectors to discover and prosecute the offenders. Reading what was found in some everyday foodstuffs, I am amazed that people survived as long as they did! And that's apart from the lack of universal refrigeration which made meat go ''off'' very quickly in the Summer months.

OK, those with weak stomachs .... do not read on!

* Sulphate of iron was added to tea and beer.

* Wine and cider both contained lead.

* Milk was frequently adulterated with chalk and watered down.

* Coffee was mixed with acorns.

* Sugar was mixed with sand.

* Gloucester cheese had red lead added to give it that distinctive colour.

* Butter, bread and gin all contained copper.

* Red lead was also used to colour red sweets.

Like today, street food played a large part in the Victorian diet. In 'Diamonds & Dust' I write about an elderly couple who ran a coffee stall. There were lots of these all over London as most offices and places of business did not have a canteen. As well as coffee, they sold bread and butter and ham sandwiches, which were a Victorian favourite. Amazingly there were whole stalls devoted entirely to ham sandwiches. Street stalls also sold soup and baked potatoes.

Seasonal food appeared on the streets as the year progressed. Watercress, strawberries and cherries were often sold by small girls, who turned up at Covent Garden in the very early morning to buy them. Muffins were sold by muffin men who rang their bells to announce their presence. Anybody apart from me remember the children's song: ''Have you heard the Muffin man ...who lives down Drury Lane''? Roast chestnuts were sold in paper twists off a brazier in the colder weather, as was cat's meat ...which was sometimes bought for human consumption as it was cheaper than butcher's meat.

In 1860, the government passed the Food and Drugs Act in an attempt to stamp out widespread food adulteration, but although the quality of food gradually improved, there was still no means of checking the street vendors or mass suppliers. Ring any bells? In 1868, machine produced tins of food began to appear for the first time on grocers' shelves. And of course, that opened up a whole new can of worms ...

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Getting Crotchety in the Library (The Adventures of L-Plate Gran)


When I was Little G's age (1951 if you MUST know) babies were left in playpens or Silver Cross prams, preferably outside in all weathers, until they went to school. Fast forward 64 years and it's a totally different world.

Before she left London, Little G had been to Baby Massage, Baby Yoga, Baby Art and Baby Cinema. And then there was all the musical stuff: Baby Bach, Mini Mozart and Tiny Tchaikovsky. OK, I made up the last two, but you get the picture.

As I don't want her to inhabit the same cultural wilderness that I grew up in, we have started rocking up to Baby Rhyme Time at the local library. The best way I can describe it is Last Night of the Proms for under 2s, conducted by a nice children's librarian and a large blue teddy bear.

The audience consists of a variety of screamers, crawlers, shufflers, lurchers, topplers and their minders: a few yummy mummies, one lone daddy and a lot of nannies and Eastern European au pairs. Now augmented by me and Little G

Little G loves it. She sits on the floor, propped up by me in case of spillage, and waves our bus ticket enthusiastically while burbling something that bears no resemblance whatsoever to what the librarian and the rest of the adult participants are singing.

Because we SING. Oh yes. Songs about speckled frogs, songs about currant buns, songs about body parts, and a song about some elderly Scottish bloke who had a farm. Cultural wilderness? Not on my watch.

To be continued ... ...


Saturday, 21 March 2015

The PINK SOFA meets ROSALIND ADAM


Lovely to have Ros back on The Pink Sofa once more. Ros is a talented writer, poet and blogger. Her best-selling children's book on Richard III is out and selling like hot-cakes, and she is here to share some fascinating facts about this mysterious but much in the news monarch.

A Few Fascinating Facts

Hello Carol and a big thank you for inviting me onto your delightfully squelchy sofa. I’m sure that The Pink Sofa could list out a few fascinating facts about all the visitors who have sat here before me. Oooh! I can see that Pink Sofa is determined to keep the gossip to itself. What a spoil sport! Never mind. I haven’t arrived empty handed. I’ve come armed with some snippets about Richard III.

You see, I reckon there’s something compulsive about snippets, those bits of information that you find in tiny Fact Boxes in non-fiction books. This is why I was determined to ensure that my non-fiction books would have copious Fact Boxes.

The Children’s Book of Richard III is my second non-fiction book. It tells of a life of battles, accusations and enemies, a bloody death, a body lost for centuries and rediscovered under a city car park. What’s more, it has colourful, witty illustrations by Alice Povey.

As I say, I just happen to have with me today a selection of snippets, five facts to be precise, about Richard III and, if you enjoy these, there are plenty more in the book!

Fact Number 1
Richard III’s prayer book is on display at Lambeth Palace in London. It contains a personal prayer written by Richard, himself.

Fact Number 2
On the day Richard’s wife, Queen Anne, died there was an eclipse of the sun. In those days this was thought to be a bad omen and bad omen it turned out to be for Richard who was killed five months later.

Fact Number 3
Richard only held one parliament but he passed a number of laws standardizing weights and measures. In other words, he decreed that a yard of cloth must measure the same no matter who was selling it. It seems obvious to us but not to traders in Richard’s time.

Fact Number 4
In the late 16th century the Mayor of Leicester had a stone pillar in his garden that bore the inscription, ‘Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.’ So people did know where he was buried.

Fact Number 5
The DNA that the scientists used to verify the recently discovered skeleton was taken from the son of a lady called Mrs Ibsen. Richard was Mrs Ibsen’s great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great Uncle.

The Children’s Book of Richard III can be purchased from Amazon at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Childrens-Book-Richard-III/dp/0992930200/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Adventures of L-Plate Gran: A la Recherche du Snack Perdu



It is impossible to leave the house in the company of a one year old without carrying enough supplies to equip and run a small Antarctic Expedition.

Everywhere we go, we are accompanied by change of clothes, nappies, toys, drink and most importantly, as You must be mad has dinned it into me during my 2 days training that Little G is not to be exposed to the addictive lure of sugary treats: a packet of rice cakes.

Today, we head out to our favourite cafe for a snack break. Behind the counter are treacle tarts, peanut butter chocolate brownies and Portuguese cheesecakes.

I check Little G's supplies. No rice cakes. I have clearly failed in my duties. Worse, I cannot, in all conscience sit munching cake while Little G has nothing to eat. So we bid a sad farewell to the cafe and trudge hungrily back home.

A short while later, I am in the kitchen making Little G's lunchtime cheese sandwich, when I notice that it has gone suspiciously quiet next door. I trek into the living room. No immediate sign of her. Then I hear a rustling behind the sofa. I peer round the side.

Little G is sitting on the floor, the open packet of rice cakes (which must have fallen out of the buggy unnoticed by me) next to her. From her contented expression, it is clear that mass consumption has recently taken place.

I eat her cheese sandwich in stoical silence.

To be continued ... ...

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Passport to Nowhere


It has been some time since the 2 Grumpy Old Sods had to face their greatest enemy: Bureaucracy. However last week landed a doozy in our laps. Some of you will remember that back in October 2013, I refused to pay the outrageous sum of £75 to renew my passport and HM Passport Office yanked up its drawbridge and refused to return my passport pics and my old passport.

Seventeen months later, we decided to try again: the arrival of Little G and the suggestion of a family holiday in Italy luring us out from our bunker. Thus I went and got the passport pic from Hell (if I go on holiday 1. I wear my specs and 2. I smile - why can't my pics reflect this?) and BH filled in the online form telling HM Passport Office VERY CLEARLY that we couldn't fill in details of my previous passport as they had retained it in October 2013. Along with the pictures we sent at the time.

Two weeks later, HM Passport Office, bastion of utter stupidity and plain downright incompetence, sent a letter saying they couldn't accept my application as I hadn't filled in ''Section 10'' properly. This refers to my old passport. Which they have kept. As we told them on the original form. So we couldn't fill it in.

And now we have to fill in the whole thing again online. And send in 2 more pics, signed on the back by someone who has known me for 2 years so that excludes the cat. And even then, they will only ''consider my application'' so no guarantee of a new passport.

To add insult to injury a few days after my application was refused, BH's new passport arrived. As he says, if I wanted a new passport for some nefarious purpose, I'd get it at once. He is very tempted to ask HM Passport Office to fast track my application. Oh - and could they recommend any safe border crossings from Turkey.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Adventures of L-Plate Gran: Buggy Blues



It's big, it's purple, and it has three positions. None of them currently mastered by L-Plate Gran. I am talking about the buggy (what DID you think I was talking about?). Little G has a top of the range Stokke buggy and I'm struggling to get to grips with its complexities.

It has a handbag strap, and a drinks holder. There is a matching buggy bag tray and a foot extending thingy. I'm sure somewhere there is a button that will solve world hunger or send drones to bomb ISIS, but heck can I work out how to lower it from sitting to lying?

I remember the old red stripy Maclarens buggy owned when You must be mad was the same age. It had clips at the side to lay it flat. That was it. Easy for the amateur adult-idiot to master. No need to engage brain. Didn't have to go on Google and download an App.

I am just not getting on with the buggy. The wheels spin 360 degrees unexpectedly. The various press/pull/lift/lower buttons defeat me. Little G regards me with an amused expression as I huff and puff and try to alter the seat.

If only she could talk, I'm sure she'd be able to instruct me. She has that patient 'I'm with stupid' expression that I've seen on much older children's faces. But she can't talk, so I struggle on, because at back of my befuddled brain is the lurking fear that if I cannot master the buggy, what hope is there for my future motability scooter?

To be continued ... ...

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The PINK SOFA meets Jess Simmonds



Jess is one of my English students. She's about to sit her GCSEs before going on to Sixth Form. Jess is a writer and a thinker with plenty to say, and the SOFA is delighted to give her some space to share her views. I asked her about her writing, how she saw herself as a modern teenager, and as a young woman and to chat about life in general


 ''I don’t recall the exact age or book that got me into reading…I always read as a child and it’s been an interest that's stayed with me. At the moment I love reading horror, true crime and sci fi, but I also love classics such as Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, and all of George Orwell’s books. I am inspired constantly by Stephen King especially, the quote “they can’t scare me if I scare them first” is something of a personal motivator.

I see my identity as whatever I want it to be, despite the surrounding pressures I feel to be this or that. I feel the pressure to be skinny but curvy, pretty but not intimidatingly pretty, submissive but assertive, and dumb but intelligently dumb. I feel like one day I’m being told to be something then the next I’m being told to be the opposite. 

And even when I fit the bill EXACTLY, its still not right. My dictated identity is, however, a “bitch” because I don’t sugar-coat my feelings or thoughts and I don’t feel the need to flatter stupid little boys and immature little girls wearing masks of maturity; a “nerd” because I care about my future and what happens in it, and I have a “wrong” obsession with video games (which are, as I’ve been told, for boys only), as well as lastly a “hypocrite” because I claim to be a feminist despite looking down on and criticising the majority of girls in my generation (I can’t help that the majority of them only share one brain cell, but, whatever…). 

And radfems (as a general population, I’m sure some of them are nice) can go and die in the hole they built in the “patriarchy, in the words of Frances Bean Cobain. You don’t have to fight for your right to not wear a bra or not shave your armpits, those are things you just do. Ruining the whole concept of feminism however, may be something you have to fight for a right to do…

 Although sometimes I immensely dislike who I am, I’ve actually quite come to like me. You are, after all, your only real life companion. You are born alone, you die alone and all that…however sometimes I wish I was a few years into the future with a criminology and English degree under my belt, working at a nice well paid job in a psychiatric prison, writing books on the sde.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that they wish cheap space travel would come quicker. I sincerely hope for all the other living organisms in the galaxy, this never happens. It’s bad enough that we’ve already destroyed one planet, if it dies, we should die with it and let the rest of the galaxy finally live in peace, like it was supposed to. Modern politics ticks me off, modern education ticks me off. I’m a pessimist that gets ticked off by a lot of things, including the human race itself, more often than not. Why can’t we find a middle ground? Between capitalism and communism, peace and war, discipline and freewill? 

The stupidity of humans never ceases to amaze me; one of the reasons why I think I’m so interested in serial killers: I can relate to their lack of understanding of (and sometimes, lack of empathy towards) people. Not that I don’t think the world has its nice moments, however few and far between they are, and I still keep a little faith in the kindness of strangers. I think about a lot of different things constantly, my head is like a little machine that is continually whirring over a million things at one. I find it difficult to stay in one place.''

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Adventures of L-Plate Gran: Not Like Riding A Bike



Don't worry, they said: it'll be just like riding a bike. I didn't have the heart to tell them that bike-riding was not one of my top accomplishments, falling off one rating slightly higher. And there was far less traffic around when I rode it ... and ... oh, I could go on, but you get the general idea.

On Wednesday, I take over the minding of my granddaughter - hereafter referred to as Little G to protect the innocent and in the hope that if she ever reads it in 18 years time, I can deny all knowledge.

I shall be in sole charge of a one year old for two whole days from 7 am while my daughter, hereafter referred to as You must be mad, returns to work. It is 34 years since I looked after a child on my own and I was a lot younger then, and didn't need quite so much makeup to appear in public.

But hey, I have had two days' training. I have 3 pages of notes. Little G is an amiable baby with oceans of goodwill and I have social media to advise and guide me.

 What could possibly go amiss?

To be continued ...   ....

Saturday, 28 February 2015

How to Be a Good Editor


Christmas is well and truly over, so I am now embarking upon the major process of editing the first draft of Death & Dominion, book three in the Diamonds & Dust series, before sending it to my publisher for a read through.

Editing is, in its essence, the art of making things sound better. I have had various editors in my time and they all work in different ways. My OUP editor maintained a firm hands-off stance, more or less allowing the book to emerge from manuscript to finished product unscathed with just a few marginal queries en route. On the other hand, I have had editors who carefully scrutinise every paragraph, and red-pencil everything they want changing.

It is a fine balance for the writer to maintain. On the one hand an editor does (or should) know what makes good, readable prose and so it is in one's interest to take on board suggestions offered. However it is a moot point how far an editor allows their own 'reading' of the manuscript, and involvement in the creative process to predominate over the original voice of the author. I have been told, on one memorable occasion, that a character ''wouldn't have said that''. As if I knew nothing about them. Sometimes, you have to fight for your integrity. It is never an easy balance.

On this occasion though, I shall be doing my own edits, which means I shall be fighting for my integrity against myself, which will be interesting, and the internal Civil War will probably throw up all sorts of queries. Which I shall have to refer to myself to solve. Hopefully any conflict and animosity will abate enough so that the two of us can get on with it.

By the time the book reaches my ''real'' editor, it will be almost Summer. I am not good in hot weather, but the heat in the Victorian era must have been almost insupportable for women. Forced to go about in tight whalebone corsets, stockings, and numerous undergarments, forbidden to show their arms and legs for fear of exciting male sensibilities, one can barely imagine the torture they must have undergone.

And then there was the smell to contend with. In the days before Bazalgette revolutionised the sewerage system, everything made its malodorous journey through London to the River Thames, into which raw sewage and the by-products from factories, and slaughterhouses were poured, so that in the heat of summer, the stink was unbearable.

There is a story that Queen Victoria, visiting the Houses of Parliament one day, noticed small pieces of screwed-up toilet paper floating on the Thames. Upon inquiring of an official what they were, she was told that they contained messages of goodwill from her subjects.
Now that's what I call good editing.