Writing is a journey, both imaginary and physical. My first book took me to the Arctic to 'catch the colours' of the Northern Lights. Then I hunkered down to catch the wind-blown voices of polar explorers on Shackleton's 1914-17 Endurance expedition. More recently I'm obsessed by space: the race, the rockets, the final frontier.

Hear a BBC Radio Leicester interview about my space poetry at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wfpyp
Explore my digital narrrative PHILAE'S BOOK OF HOURS, published by the European Space Agency, at:

My prose-poetry collections FIREBRIDGE TO SKYSHORE
and MAD, HOPELESS & POSSIBLE are both published by Original Plus Press at:

Contact me for signed copies or bookings at:

Visit the writers' development service I co-run at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

About Me

My photo
Leicester, East Midlands
As a storyteller, my work crosses boundaries of myth, science, history and spoken word. It has been presented in the British Science Museum, Ledbury Poetry Festival, National Space Centre and the European Space Agency website. In 2014 I ran a digital residency on WW1 for 14-18NOW and Writing East Midlands. I teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University and have experience of leading school events, workshop tuition and mentoring. In addition, I co-run The Writers' Shed, a service for writers, at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

But How do You Make Money?

  • Is a writer someone who publishes books? - or someone who works with story and words to help a community explore its identity?
  • Can an author's on-line writing become more important than their actual books?
  • could self-publishing - maybe to a niche audiences - play a vital part in building careers of new writers?
These were just some of the questions we tossed around in Damien Walter' fascinating talk, The Entrepreneurial Writer, offered as part of the Writing School's series on New Ways with Writing. Walter is a writer himself - of Weird & Speculative fiction - as well as a Literature Development worker and a professional blogger for The Guardian. So well placed to discuss some emerging trends in the writing economy.

With 1300 Creative Writing graduates emerging every year in the UK - and a similar no. of manuscripts appearing on the slush pile of one publishing house in that time - it may be time to review what exactly does a writer do? One answer could lie in the realm of Social Literature - where writing is about social outcomes rather than producing books. Damien gave us the e.g. of the US best-selling author Dave Eggers who in 2002 founded the 826 Valencia project in San Francisco to raise literacy amongst the Mexican population there. So a writer with a social conscience - but this also helped build his own career and profile. The same can be seen locally with poets like Lydia Towsey and Rob Gee, involved in Bright Sparks and WORD events.

Damien went to to look at the traditional divide between commercial literature and arts-subsidised literature. He told a wonderful story of the best-selling sci-fi author Neal Stephenson attending a writer's convention where another author asked him:
'So where do you teach?'
'I don't teach anywhere.'
(Pause) 'Yes, but what else do you do?'
'I'm ... a writer.'
'Yes, but - what do you DO? How do you make money?'

And so it went on. But Walter suggested that this 'never the twain shall meet' barrier was breaking down. He cited the e.g. of Graham Joyce, a highly successful fantasy author, currently writing screenplays as well as the script for the Doom 4 computer game, yet also lecturing in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University and winning literary fiction prizes. Walter believes the traditional market for genre fiction is collapsing with readers demanding more originality and literary technique. Commercial publishers are seeking out graduates of Creative Writing courses and universities are looking for successful commercial authors to staff their courses. Other means of authors making an income may lie with offering workshops or performances.

We turned to the advantages the new social media present for writers. Walter thought this media was changing the writer's role dramatically. It's now possible for authors or poets to go directly to an audience interested in your subject. The best-selling author Neil Gaiman - what is it with these Neil/ Neals? - has 1.5 million followers on Twitter. The 5 nominees for the Hugo Awards this year all had a huge blog following and arguably, their on-line writing is now a much bigger part of their role as writers than producing fiction. But it also sells books to a loyal and enthusiastic audience. Which led us on to the potential for new writers to find a niche audience to self-publish to, breaking ground perhaps before mainstream publishers think about taking them on.

Is that where the future-present of new media is taking us? Who knows? But this course of seminars for writers has given us a chance to take stock of an industry in the throes of enormous change. And like all change, while some time-honoured structures come tumbling down, other opportunities emerge. The The Entrepreneurial Writer, according to Walter, is looking out for these, whilst also opening up to the wider question of what are writers actually for?

See my blogs on the previous talks:

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Angel of Brooklyn

Are you looking for the ideal present for an avid novel-reader? Or maybe it's you that likes to snuggle into the armchair with a ravishingly good story that lasts for days. 'Angel of Brooklyn' by Janette Jenkins didn't last many days because it was a page-turner that kept me up at night. This was one of the year's best-reads for me with its spellbinding story and beautiful prose. How are you going to resist a book with the opening line: 'A week before they killed her, Beatrice told them about the dead birds ...'?

If you start with the promise of that line, you have to deliver a helluva story and Jenkins does. She's helped by a heroine who has emerged remarkably sane from a bizarre and lonely childhood. Glamorous yet good-natured, she's an American stranded in a Lancashire backwater just as the First World War breaks. Inevitably, her terribly English husband, Jonathon, abandons his new bride to sign up for the adventure in France. This leaves Beatrice to the mercies of the Anglezarke's small-town wives. You're rooting for her as soon as you hear one of them comment: 'You might speak English and have the same coloured skin and everything but it's the little things that turn you into a foreigner.'

Jenkins, like me, is a Bolton girl and knows her Northern landscapes. I loved her first novel, Columbus Day, set in my childhood summer haunt of Blackpool. But her writing has grown and 'Angel of Brooklyn' is in another league. This is storytelling that simply doesn't put a foot wrong. She has captured convincingly the hushed world of an Edwardian village with its back-room grocer's shop and annual day-trips to Morecambe. But she has cunningly juxtaposed this with the strange home-life Beatrice endured in Normal, Illinois, with her amateur taxidermist father and would-be preacher brother. As the back-blurb says, Jenkins expertly mixes 'American Gothic with gritty Northern realism' and it is an enchanting if disturbing concoction.

Birds flit through the novel, knitting narratives together. The stuffed birds of her father's kitchen-table. The migrating birds swooping over Anglezarke reservoir. And the angel wings Beatrice wore for her Coney Island show-girl act when she escaped to New York. The pre-war chapters begin as a list of 'Ten (or more ) True Things' our heroine can reveal about herself to her English neighbours. But they open into a nightmarish account of her father's degeneration from obsession to lunacy. In between, the English chapters move us through the unfolding bitterness of wives damaged by the fall-out of 1914.

It only takes two years for all semblance of politeness to unravel. Jenkins expertly stitches these two narratives together to build to the tragedy implied in her opening line. The resolution doesn't disappoint but I was sorry to leave her heroine and both fictional worlds behind.

Polar Embarkations

As my profile says, writing takes you places. Yesterday I headed west to catch up with Susan Richardson in Cardiff. Beside the Bay, we took in the Captain Scott white mosaic sculpture before diving into the Norwegian Church cafe. Cardiff, she told me, was twinned with Bergen and was Scott's departure point. As I tucked into a Norwegian Fisherman's Platter (delicious sweet-cured herrings), we traded arctic obsessions and planned a collaboration. Susan's beautiful collection, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, is drawn from her journeys to Iceland and other arctic countries in the footsteps of 2 Viking women. My own collection, Firebridge to Skyshore, similarly traces a journey to the arctic to gather stories of the Northern Lights.

It felt like the beginning of an expedition into some white unknown. We took stock, mapped directions, drew up costings. Where are we headed? North certainly. We want to tell our stories of the arctic to diverse audiences who are off the beaten track of arts events. We want to celebrate this frozen wilderness and its heritage even as the thaw sets in. We want to entertain, to bind with word spells. And we figure two polar poets can exert more magnetism than a lone voice. Between us, we can conjure Viking women, arctic explorers, reindeer herders, auroral scientists, penguins and polar bears. Right now, the ship is in harbour waiting on a name ( suggestions on a postcard please).

Meanwhile, back in Leicester, another collaboration is underfoot, this one taking the aurora borealis as its theme. Following two sell-out shows at London's Science Museum (Dana Centre), we have decided to bring this Northern Lights spectacular to the National Space Centre in Leicester. It looks likely to be February 2010. Two auroral scientists from the University will join film-maker Brian McClave and myself to present a fusion of physics, poetry and film of the Northern Lights. It should be a knock-out show in the dramatic Space Theatre and thanks to funding by Leicester University's Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group, it will be entirely free! (Keep checking my website for date and details which should soon be sorted).

On-line Magazines

Last Monday, I attended another in the excellent series of talks on 'New Ways of Writing', run by the Writing School, Leicester. This time we had Farhana Shaikh of 'The Asian Writer' introducing us to the world of On-Line Magazines. This enterprising young woman set up her site in 2007, addressing a niche market of Brit-Asian writers/ readers and now gets 20,000 hits for each edition. There is no budget as yet to pay contributors but the site is regularly visited by agents and editors so it's a great showcase for emerging talent.

Farhana wasn't out to promote her own magazine to us but it's an excellent e.g. of the potential audiences of such magazines – far beyond the scale of small press journals with a readership of maybe hundreds. She showed us that the format of on-line magazines varies widely. Some are modelled on print magazine pages and may even be digital offshoots of such titles (see Marie Claire or The Guardian). You might sample and then pay to download a pdf file (see Five Dials). Or a site like The View from Here uses newer technologies and the style of social media with Flash design, You-Tube clips, hyperlinks etc. Typical features of on-line magazines include:
  • regular updates
  • original content if digital version of print mag.
  • Website channels/ options
  • features, columns, blogs
  • huge readerships
  • run by large media outlets or individuals
  • low overheads
  • use freelancers & often welcome submissions
Some on-line mags. do pay contributors. In particular, the US market for on-line mags. is huge and more lucrative. It's possible to identify possible UK sites through the comprehensive listings offered by Mslexia or The Poetry Library sites. The beauty of this is you can access a wide range of publications to sample for free at the press of a button. As with submissions elsewhere, you want to check guidelines, identify a named editor, research the readership and content and show you understand on-line media in any copy you send in.

Is it wise to write for free? It might be that such pieces could build a relationship with editors that leads to paid commissions. But understand you won't usually be able to sell published material elsewhere. But if that sounds harsh, take a peek at the Guest Writer's slot on The View from Here. This is regularly read by 7,000 visitors. Does your work usually reach that many readers in one go? It can't hurt to press that 'enter' button and take a trawl through the hyperspace of new media magazines. Just as soon as I stop attending writing courses, I intend to find time to do so!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Mutterings from the Wall

On a train through the flatlands
tunnelling east into skies
that crush the land with light;
crows flung windward from dark fields,
telegraph wires that slacken
and loop towards luminous ditches;
I am reading about men
counting bricks on a wall, longing
for moons and listening all night
to a sick bulb humming.

My reading material on my way to the Suffolk poetry weekend, (see below) was a compelling collection of poems. Brian Daldorph's Jail Time (published by Original Plus Press) is a clamour of voices, sorrowing, sly, sardonic, of men awaiting trial or serving sentences in the Douglas County Jail, Kansas. And on that first night inside, 'the moans, the moans, the moans'. The American idiom of these voices comes right at you out of the pages:

'… and I'm not comin' back here, I hate the way
they treat me here and I thank Jesus they treat me like that,
you know what I'm sayin'?'

I like the way Daldorph has paid attention, caught not only these inflections but the twists and turns of attitude and the everyday anguish of lives both inside and outside. The poet, a Yorkshire man, has served more than seven years himself, as a writer in residence. And time is an inevitable theme; doing it, dodging it, weighing it out:

'I'm trying to remember every moment
of my life: this should take me the first part
of eternity. Then I'll find something else to do.'

Walls is another, a concrete image, solid and tactile, but also figurative: 'in this cell/ there are four walls/ 492 bricks.' One man makes a big deal of the visit his woman has promised, is envied by others. She's coming because 'she has to tell it to his face/ and he ain't stupid' but still, 'she's coming to visit next week', he keeps saying.

Forms vary in this collection. There are short, wry stanzas. And there are tight packed sonnets that hammer out uneven rhythms and rhymes with a metallic clang:

'Last night the guy in the next cell
kept yelling, I hate jail, I hate jail …
He'd give up three meals to see the moon.
Alone he sits in his room.'

I love that this con has very precisely identified the worth of a moon in jail values. Sometimes the rhymes seem to be borrowed from inmates in Daldorph's writing class but he honours their freshness:

'the one about dying like a skunk
under car wheels
each time he quits junk.'

When the train pulled into Ipswich, I was thumbing the book a second time. 74 fine poems. And did I mention the haunting charcoal drawings, intimate mugshots of the men, by Kerry Niemann? For an hour or two I walked in their orange suits and velcroed slippers and touched those clammy walls. I listened in to murmured confessions. It felt a privilege to get inside these stories and a relief not to be living them. I was out in 'the big time' again but I suspect I'll be back.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Word Stitching in Suffolk

So a birthday blog! My present to myself this year was a weekend workshop in Suffolk. On Friday 13th, at Belstead House, 13 poets gathered. As a furore of winds and rain broke outside, we settled into the library for a warm welcome from the weekend's hosts, Michael Laskey and Joanna Cutts, editors of the Smiths Knoll magazine. We shared the well-equipped Conference Centre, a Tudor Hall in lovely gardens, with a group of quilters. As the weekend went on, it was clear the quilters were engaged in some huge and colourful undertaking, patches being laid out on the sitting-room carpet. We were similarly engrossed but never worked as late as those quilters.

Saturday opened with some free writing - two 7 mins. poems - to stretch our versifying muscles. Outside, a tree flamed orange against a wall of dark firs before a sheet of rain and hail drowned everything. Then it was the main business of the day, workshopping one poem by each poet. The group worked closely with each poem, sifted detail and asked useful questions. 13 is enough to hear a range of readings, some unexpected, of your poem. And experienced poets can not only sense a false note or a misplaced line but offer alternative ways in. You get as much out of doing the same for others, honing skills of snipping and sounding out and rejigging.

In the afternoon, Joanna and Michael gave individual 15mins. consultations. As a writer, you're always trying to develop your internal editor so it's a great opportunity to sit with two professionals who handle your work with care and insight. And these two enjoy poems and are good company. The rest of the time, we were free to walk, sleep, write, whatever. For Saturday evening's 'editorial meeting', Michael and Joanna brought a real sample of this week's submissions to select for publication. Joanna said they often end up placing a poem after 'a dialogue' with the poet i.e. they go through a process of drafts first. That's typical of the care taken with Smiths Knoll submissions - you get your work back quickly, sometimes even with a helpful comment.

The quilters were up at the crack of dawn on Sunday for the final push, stitching before breakfast. We continued with a successful format of free writing, workshopping and readarounds of favourite poems. When not busy with our 'poetry bee', it was great to share experiences and information with writers who really know the contemporary poetry scene. If you're looking for a good poetry workshop, I can really recommend the Smiths Knoll annual event. I liked very much the painstaking attention to craft, the encouragement to raise my game. And scores of poems by writers present and beyond, in every mood and form, stitched into the weekend's cloth. My thanks go especially to Michael and Joanna but also to my fellow poets who made it such a pleasurable 3 days. A good birthday treat.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Small-Press Sums for Shelf-Life

Another Monday evening at the Writing School's course on New Ways with Writing. When I arrive, the room is already buzzing with the tense energy of Ross Bradshaw pacing the room and gathering his thoughts. Ross is the force behind Five Leaves Press, an small press based in Nottingham, as well as organiser of the Lowdham Book Festival. He was here to open our eyes to the somewhat harsh realities of Independent Publishing but also the unique opportunities it offers to writers.

He began with sums. If a book has the cover price of £10, how much goes to the author? Who else has to get paid out of that? How much to the bookshop? What about distribution? We squirmed and struggled to pluck figures out of the air, making half-informed guesses with no option to phone a friend. 75p is the answer to the author's share - some of which might go to an agent. A whopping 50% to the bookshop. And if they're lucky, a measly 50p to the publisher, out of which they have to pay all their staff, premises, running costs etc. Although the maths made my head hurt, his lesson on the brutal economics of publishing today was unforgettable.

So Ross's talk renewed my respect for the hard slog and dedication of the small publisher, running on knife-edge margins. This includes my own publisher, Original Press - which like 49% of independent publishers is a one-person company. It's snippets like this that came thick and fast from Ross. And it's why getting to hear somebody with so much industry knowledge is invaluable for writers learning their trade. For trade it is. Published writers can go out of print very quickly if their books aren't shifting enough copies. Why? Because 'land is expensive' so keeping stock sitting in warehouses isn't an option.

The good news is 'Independents care what happens to writers'. They can revive careers with reissues - bringing a writer 'back to shelf-life' . They can discover new writers who go on to launch careers with the mainstream press. Small Press publishers are consistently more prepared to take risks on material they believe in. This is why publishers like Tindal Street Press or Canongate end up with authors on the Booker lists, for instance. The Independents also have more commitment to communities of readers. So the list of Five Leaves' celebrates the literature of Nottinghamshire, both past and present.

We moved on to new developments such as the arrival of Print on Demand. This is great news for writers as it becomes economical to bring back books that went out of print or to produce small print runs for books that won't sell like Jordan's latest autobiography. E-readers were also discussed. I was amazed to learn that Amazon US already makes more money from e-books than paper books. Ross predicted that the future for bookselling lay with the Grey Pound, especially women. We are the generation with a culture of buying and reading books.

It was a very wide-ranging survey of the publishing landscape from a real insider. You might like to dip into Ross' blogs on the Literature Network or Five Leaves websites. I particularly enjoyed the editorial meeting on swearing ...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Text Bites and Blogspeak

Our seminar on Writers and the Internet the other evening (see below)was so thought-provoking, I want to come back to it this morning. Still puzzling over some things:

How is the Internet changing my practice as a writer?

Definitely this has become a much more publicly engaged role. We blog/ tweet/ facebook - all suddenly become verbs - and our interaction with our audience or readers goes far beyond the occasional event or publication. When I first thought of becoming a writer, I thought of the solitary life in the study producing a text. But it turns out to an existence full of performance, attending events, networking,e-mailing, interactions both face-to-face and virtual.

Is the Internet changing my brain?

Harder to say. Will suggested we're getting used to shorter, more episodic forms of communication - the blog, for instance. Rather than the hours-at-a-time reading or writing. We switch around, we hyperlink, we multi-task with windows on our screen. But the core writing for me is still the long, silent, interior conversation with my imagination. Though if I was novel-writing at present, I'm sure I'd be wanting to bring in some of that texture of modern communication into the work. I'm sure it will change the novel form.

Is blogging writing?

Well, obviously, I'm typing and shaping prose. But it's also talking. I'm in first person addressing you and you feel present to me, it's got an immediacy about it. And I'm improvising as we do in speech with barely a spell-check in sight. But the thing that I've discovered in blogging, is that it also has the PLEASURE of writing in it. That it's a kind of free-writing - no end in sight, no deadlines, no evaluation of the text produced. Just the pleasure in words, in shaping thought into them. Sometimes - in a Facebook snippet or text bite - it's even poetry.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

I am therefore I tweet?

Last night I went to a fascinating talk about Writers and the Internet, given by Will Buckingham of De Montfort University. This was hosted by the Writing School, Leicester, as part of their New Ways with Writing course. This excellent course, running for another 3 weeks, features talks and discussion about how writers situate themselves in a world of virtual technologies and upheaval in the publishing world.

The evening had a practical side with writers sharing resources and strategies. We carried out a Web Presence Audit to see how people actually find us on-line. What happens when you Google your name? I've discovered on a Google Image search, 13 out of 21 images are of me or my work but there other Siobhan Logans out there. We had discussions about why some writers might need multiple identities if they have common names or write in different genres. Within the group, we were all at different stages of tweeting, blogging, Facebooking etc. The elusive question of WHAT IS TWITTER FOR? was never quite settled - except it is a moving feast and one writer is scoring canny PR points by tweeting their next novel, 130 characters at a time ...

But what stayed with me most was the intriguing introduction by Will Buckingham on how the Internet is reshaping our world. He raised the idea that the web is not only changing how we send messages or produce texts but creating different ways of EXISTING IN THE WORLD. So as we click onto Facebook or tap out an impromptu blog or e-mail that short story, we are shifting into 'other ways of thinking that are not private and enclosed'. Writers are no longer locked into their studies in splendid isolation - it only looks that way to long-suffering partners. And as 'silent reading' gives way to tweeting and MSN chats, the status of the BOOK is also in flux.

Will's talk raised profound questions about self and identity and mass culture as much as practical issues of how we negotiate this new terrain as writers. I'm still wondering. Do I think differently now? Do you?