Sunday, July 15, 2018

Mentoring writers and the Society of Authors

Some of you will know that I teach creative writing and mentor writers.

Last week I was privileged to give a keynote one hour workshop at the first Society of Authors event to be held in Wales for many years.

It was held in Cornerstones, Cardiff on a too-hot day. I gave a presentation on using psychology to create convincing characters that captivate readers and leap off the page – this approach also helps to overcome writers' block.

Thanks to Society of Authors coordinator Jo McCrum for giving me the chance to do this! And all the writers who gave me such great feedback afterwards.

Jo suggested I turn my notes into an e-book. When I've finished my current non-fiction book on creating sustainable 'one planet' cities, I will definitely do this will all my material for my writing course.

The next Welsh SoA event will be held in Swansea in September and be a simple get-together run with the help of children's writer Helen Docherty who's based in the town.

Right now I have an interesting job working with six PhD students of sustainable placemaking. They want to turn their ideas about living well into short stories for children.

Being academics writing fiction does not come easily for many of them but they're doing really well! They're now well into their first drafts and we hope to have an e-book out in the autumn! More later.

 If anyone here wants to know more, do get in touch and look at the page on my website about the writing course.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Come on a weekend retreat to experiment with writing about climate change

Incredible as it may seem it's still possible for children to go through school and come out the other end and hardly be aware of the existence of climate change, because it is barely touched upon in the curriculum.

It seems like a pretty vital topic, then, for writers to choose to include in their stories – to bring the reality of this topic into a children's imaginations!

That's why, this March, I'm running a weekend retreat for writers at the Welsh writing centre Ty Newydd, set in the stunningly beautiful Lleyn Peninsula.

Helping me to do this will be the poet, dramatist, climate change campaigner and performer Emily Hinshelwood.

We will be challenging writers to think about ways to expose and write about the often hidden connection between our profligate use of fossil fuels and the loss of habitat, life and lifestyle – that many in the world are already experiencing.

In our everyday lives we often don't have the opportunity or space to consider the emotions that arise in us as a response to such a nebulous and all encompassing threat as catastrophic climate change.

This threat seems both remote and near, far away in time, and yet touching the every day weather and the behaviour of plants and wildlife around us even now – as if they are early warning sensors.

We don't know how to interpret these portents and the very uncertainty around climate change and the sheer size of the fact makes us feel powerless and afraid.

Some of us go into denial, some of us are paralysed with shock and some of us are galvanised into action.

In writing for children, they mustn't be made to feel frightened or scared into shock and powerlessness, they must be helped to feel that the future does contain hope and that it is possible to do something. But there is so much to know. Where can writers start?

There is already no shortage of novels for children with the theme of climate change. Three years ago I took part in a session at the Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival where, with the author of the Carbon Diaries, Saci Lloyd, we touched on some of them.

For our pains we were accused of poisoning children's minds by the right-wing press and online trolls!

I've written something about the history of writing and climate change here.

In another project I've been involved with, Weatherfronts, an anthology of writing about climate change, some writers have addressed the question with a story set at a domestic scale rather than apocalyptic science-fiction.

Darragh Martin wrote a hilarious story for young children about fighting off a nasty polluter called 'Thumbelina Jellyfizz and the Elephant in the Bathroom'.



And what about picturing a bright future where we have solved the problems of climate change but maybe we have other problems instead?

To build a bright future we first have to envision it. Children, with their unfettered imaginations, unconstrained by preconceptions, are well able to contribute their own ideas. Writers can stimulate them to do this.

So our weekend course will discuss the many facets of climate change and the ways in which its impact is felt both by participants on the course and people throughout the world.

We will experiment with a variety of different approaches and investigate ways of tapping our emotional reactions, of using research, imagining possible scenarios, and generating meaningful stories.

We will also be using the cycle of recovery from shock and grief because we think it is directly relevant here.

We have seen people move through these psychological stages:

  1. shock & denial when they first hear about climate change; 
  2. pain & guilt about the suffering that humanity has caused and is causing by the use of fossil fuels; 
  3. anger and blame-laying
  4. depression, powerlessness, reflection
  5. an upward turn as one realises that life could still continue; 
  6. reconstruction of one's life in a new way that is more sustainable, perhaps making connections with like-minded people; 
  7. and finally acceptance and hope as they learn to deal with the new situation.

This almost sounds like a 'voyage and return' scenario or perhaps a 'conquering the monster' type of story, doesn't it?

It's going to be exciting to see what people come up with. Emily and I can't wait to see you there!

Find out more here: http://www.tynewydd.wales/course/writing-climate-change/

[I am the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller. I also run a regular writing course, called 'Making Readers Care' that can be taken online. Contact me if interested.]

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Will the real Robin Hood please stand up?

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen...

Robin Hood has a personal appeal to me, since I'm from Nottingham and my childhood was spent visiting Sherwood Forest, the Major Oak, the castle, and admiring the statue of Robin in front of its walls, while enjoying one of the tv series that happened to be aired at the time.


It's a simple, romantic, adventurous legend, and one enveloped in a love of nature.

The forest is emblematic of a haven. It represents freedom from oppressive authority, rather than terror (as in northern European folk stories where forests are populated by wolves, giants, elves and evil stepmothers), and it is a source of sustenance – both food and riches to be plundered from rich barons haplessly passing through.

Robin is popular amongst his peers, and will typically be protected by the peasantry to whom he donates such riches. There are no consequences to their having received stolen goods!

The legend of Robin Hood – around 800 years old – continues to excite both children and adults around the world.

Robin Hood

Yet another movie is coming out next year, and there have been at least three tv series.



Disney brought out what's probably the worst ever version for children in 1973 where, bizarrely, Robin is anthropomorphised as a fox:



The most appealing aspect of the legend nowadays is that of social justice (perhaps it was always so): hence his name is given to a proposed tax on banking transactions, and he is a hero of the Occupy movement, while the myth has inspired a fictional character in a modern setting seeking justice in the novel Sherwood Nation.

For a while now I've been working on a reinvention of the legend which has involved some interesting research, and this month I returned to the forest, which has its own educational visitor centre, exploring the myth and catering for the half a million visitors it gets every year.

Chief exhibit is the Major Oak, where Robin and his merrie men were supposed to have hidden from the Sheriff's men:


First celebrated in 1803, it is now supported and protected by a team of specialists, and is both stupendously huge and fulsomely thriving.

It's estimated to be around 800 years old, although it's impossible to be sure without cutting it down and counting the rings, which would be like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. If it is that old, it couldn't possibly have hidden the outlaws in its copious hollow – it might have been an acorn twinkling in its parent's metaphorical eye.

When I was a kid, the public could still enter the hollow of the oak. It smelt rather unromantically of urine. Perhaps it was really Robin Hood's toilet.

The forest is chiefly birch and oak and quite beautiful. Nowadays there are no wolves, boar or deer to keep the brambles and bracken down. There's a good case to be made for rewilding at least parts of Sherwood Forest.


Encountering a wild boar would add to the atmosphere – and sense of adventure!

But you can still think yourself back to the old days, if you wander off the beaten track and sit alone for a while, quietly, just listening and looking.

I've also visited the caves. Nottingham is riddled with them, like a giant piece of Gorgonzola, the town being built mostly on a seam of (getting geological here) Bunter Sandstone, which is soft and easy to carve out.

In Brythonic times it was known as the Place of Caves, and, since before records began, it's said that the caves were populated. Many buildings in the old town are built into the rock, with back rooms or cellars that are caves.

Most famous of these is what is probably the oldest Inn in the world, the Trip to Jerusalem (first port of call on a Chaucerian type pilgrimage), built into the foot of the castle rock. This is the best picture I could get looking from the upper bar up the old chimney that wound its way to the top, where the old castle was:



The passage is blocked off now, but I remember when it wasn't.

The caves that I explored (with permission from the council) are situated behind a cemetery close to my old school. There's evidence they are still lived in – nowadays by the  otherwise homeless.



There are several succinct cave networks, and some of them still haven't been fully explored. There's a visitor centre for the caves too.

At risk that this post is beginning to sound like it's sponsored by Nottingham Council's tourism department (it isn't, but donations gratefully received), let's move on to a little bit of other history, namely, what was it like to be a child in 1190?

Children were free until the age of 7 or 8, when they would begin schooling. This lasted until the age of 11 or 12. 

After that boys had to either work or be apprenticed to a trade, and non-peasant girls would begin learning etiquette and the skills to be a noble wife. 

The sons of nobleman had to learn how to be vicious in combat in order to be successful knights. I mean REALLY vicious. 

If a boy could not afford to be a knight (it cost a lot to buy chain mail, armour, swords and horses), then they lost their right to land.

Many of these boys had no choice but to live in the forest amongst the other outlaws, stealing and butchering to survive.


For the most part the common people were otherwise left to fend for themselves, as long as they gave their tithes to the manor and respected the church and Norman law. Otherwise they were steeped in beliefs in magic, the Green Man and fayries...

A tough life – but you knew your place. 27 generations ago.  I quite like to think one of my ancestors might have been an outlaw and lived with Robin Hood. A bit of him or her lives on in me....

David's  writing course can be found here. He is the author of Hybrids, Stormteller and Marvel's Captain Britain amongst others. His new short story imagining a future Britain – For The Greater Good – is featured in this free ebook: Weatherfronts: The Stories We Tell.  Hybrids and Stormteller can be found and bought here.




Monday, September 04, 2017

The beauty of scepticism: a review of Murmurs of Doubt by Rebecca Fox

A review of Murmurs of Doubt by Rebecca Fox (Graphic novel, Ockham Publishing, 178pp, £11.99) See: http://doubtcomic.com/.



Today I read that according to a new survey over half the people in the UK don't subscribe to a religion. I don't know what they do believe. I can only speak for myself. After being brought up Church of England, briefly flirting with evangelicism, I became an atheist– or rather a nihilist – by the time I left school.

This didn't fill the religion-shaped hole in my conditioning, however, and I spent half a lifetime looking at other, particularly Eastern religions. I've flirted with chaos magic and the I-Ching, practised meditation, been on a Zen retreat, practised tai ch'i, loved the idea of animism (but only as a metaphor), rejected astrology and homeopathy and most new age thinking.

And for most of my adult life I've subscribed to the New Scientist.

The point is, I've wanted to believe, but only in something that can be supported by evidence. Science relies on doubt, especially of its own findings, in pursuit of further and deeper truths.

Religion makes you feel as though you belong to something bigger than yourself. So does contemplating the universe.

Organised religion gives you a social group. But so does any shared interest group.

Religion can provide redemption: but so does counselling or therapy.

Religion can provide peace of mind: so does meditation (which I still practice).

For everything religion does, something else can do it less harmfully.

At university I studied (besides art) philosophy, including the philosophies of mind and religion. Amongst the tools of this discipline is Occam's Razor, which says that the simplest solution to a problem is usually the best.

Religion is a very complex solution to any of the above problems, and the alternatives, believe me, are much simpler.

And more likely to be true.

Rebecca Fox's beautifully drawn graphic story collection is an account of her own similar journey, and that of others, through the mists of doubt. The twelve tales it contains are set in many cultures: Western, African, Chinese, Indian and more.

They illustrate the many facets of belief, and of the value of questioning received 'wisdoms'.

Anyone who has ever felt the limitations of handed-down customs and conditioning will appreciate the examples given by these tales.

As the character in 'Pillow Talk' – a lesbian justifying her position to her partner – says: "I'm not an athiest because I'm angry. I'm an athiest AND I'm angry . I'm furious because this bullshit hurts people".

Having just re-watched Louis Theroux' documentaries on the Westboro' Baptist Church, I'm in total agreement.

We live in times where religious belief has been afforded too much respect. It has over-reached itself in some quarters. Freedom of speech should be respected but only to the extent that it does not permit to speak those who would remove others' freedom to speak.

If you're confused over where this line should be drawn, then this is the book for you.

The first story is about a Tibetan Buddhist monk who rejects the dogma of reincarnation. Of course it is possible to believe that meditation has a value without believing in Buddhist precepts. That value is based on your experience. So I will agree with the monk's assertion that "I want to experience this world through eyes unclouded by doctrine and superstition".

Fox follows each story with a page of discussion and references. She very much views the book as a learning tool. She is anxious to explain everything. She has many reasons to be justified in this. Amongst them is the motivation for the story 'Mayfly'.

In 'Mayfly', a young Indian girl's curiosity is a reason to be afraid, because in her culture, if she chooses the path of knowledge then her family will see it as a rejection of them and their culture. To us in a liberal country it might not seem so much of a big deal, but in some communities it is reason enough for violence to occur.

I left out a motivation for religious belief above. The prospect of the end of our lives is the biggest fear we can face. The ideal of an afterlife in which there is reward or punishment for our deeds is the engine behind many belief systems.

But if you don't believe in an afterlife, then the prospect of death is absolute finality. It is this prospect that's addressed in the story 'Dying in the Light'.

The final tale, 'Unreal City', addresses the paradox felt by most philosophers who have questioned everything. A nurse, commuting on the London Underground, meets a fox – the embodiment of the author – and confronts the value of her life-saving skills, asking: what, in truth, can I take for granted? If it is nothing, then I am totally alone. But I don't want to be alone.

Doubt must end somewhere. For each of us it will be in a different place.

Wheeling starlings decorate the cover of this beautiful book and its accompanying website. They are, for Fox, a metaphor for the illusion of our desire to see patterns where none exist. But it's a beautiful illusion that some may prefer.

If I have a reservation about this ambitious and unique book, it is this: the stories have the feel of parables, one told for each apostle of Jesus; or perhaps all of them for doubting Thomas. I feel as though I am being given a sermon, just as I did as a child sitting in a pew when forced to go to church.

All the characters unfold their narratives in monologues or dialogues with very similar voices. They don't seem to have differentiated existences independent of Fox. I like to be shown drama in a story, not be told about it.

Instead of dialogues between two characters with differing viewpoints I would prefer to see them dramatised. High drama, with plenty at stake, forcing protagonists to make life or death choices, which compel me to ask and decide (rather than be told): what would I do in their position?

Possessing the luxury of doubt means being given the space to do so.

Find out more here.

Friday, September 01, 2017

New creative writing courses starting on Wed. 13 Sept.

I'm looking forward to the new classes starting soon!

  • Last years' evening course will continue at 7pm for advanced writers and those wishing to continue from last year. New members are welcome to join that too, but will have to catch up a bit faster with the modules!
  • Less confident writers thinking of beginning a new work might prefer the afternoon session, from 2-4pm. Both are held in the YMCA on Market Square, Llandovery, SA20 0AB, on the first floor in the youth club room.


What to expect:
The course is designed to create a safe space for writers to learn about aspects of story-telling, the creation of believable characters, of a good plot and realistic dialogue, and, above all, how to make readers care and want to read on and on... Students are encouraged to offer kind, constructive criticism to each other.
 
Which course should you come on?

  • Afternoons: For people curious about writing and those wishing to start a piece of work. Each lesson studies a particular aspect of writing, with practical exercises. These are often aimed at helping students develop a short story, novel or script. You work on your own story idea, developing it, and apply the exercises to the development of your work, stage by stage. You bring in the result of your exercise each week, and these are discussed by everyone in a spirit of mutual support. We begin with character creation, moving on to plot & structure, & so on.
  • Evenings: For students from last year who are in the process of working on the novels they began before, plus anyone already well into working on a long piece. Students will set their own challenges, in consultation with the tutor and class, and bring in the resulting work for discussion. We will concentrate on advanced issues such as: how the story unfolds beat by beat; style; convincing dialogue; editing; pacing and suspense; advanced structural changes. The aim is to finish the work and market or publish it. All students will also learn about the publishing industry, agents and marketing their work. I've been amazed at how much fun and how popular it has been last year.

Online course:
If you can't make the lesson times, you can take the course online. The following link also tells you more about the course content and contains testimonials from previous students. You can do a combination of online and 'real world' modules if you can't make every week's session: http://davidthorpe.info/online-writing-course/ or call 07901 925671.

Cost:
  • First taster session (beginners) £3.00
  • All other sessions: £5. Concessions: £4.50
  • A block of ten sessions: £42 (save £8)
  • Each online module: £8 (includes individual feedback on your work)
Last year's students' work:
Life: Ten Slices from the Cutting Edge, is a highly readable collection of the work of ten of the many students who attended last year. Download it at no cost as a PDF here: http://davidthorpe.info/life.pdf.

David Thorpe, hello@davidthorpe.infohello@davidthorpe.info Tel. 07901 925671

Monday, August 28, 2017

My talk on September 8 in London on climate fiction


I'm speaking about 'The rise of climate fiction: beyond dystopias and utopias' at this free event below:

Friday September 8th, 10-5.30pm: Fate, Luck and Fortune: Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk, a workshop exploring the nature and role of the concepts of fate, luck and fortune in different types of narratives. 

Speakers: Nick Alfrey (Nottingham University), Claire Craig (Royal Society), Karen Henwood (Cardiff University), James Lyons (Exeter University), Joe Smith (Open University), David Thorpe (author and journalist), and Jonathan Wolff (Oxford University). To find out more and to register to attend: https://goo.gl/BnPWDN 

The evening before there is also this: Thursday, September 7th, 6pm: Professor Jackson Lears (Rutgers) on “The Return of Animal Spirits: Toward A Vitalist Narrative Of Environmental Risk” A public lecture. To find out more and to register to attend: https://goo.gl/rjdrqF
    
They are free and will be held at: University of Liverpool in London (Seminar Room 9), 33 Finsbury Square, London, EC2A 1A.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Launch party for my writing class' collection!


We're launching a collection of ten highly varied pieces of fiction by local writers at a party in the YMCA, Broad Street, Llandovery this Wednesday at 7pm! 

The stories in Life: Ten Slices from the Cutting Edge are the work of ten out of many more students who have been attending my local Writing for Fun and Profit course since September 2016.

The collection will be freely available to download online, as a PDF. The stories illustrate a wide range of imagination and genre.

Several are aimed at children: Jacqui Hyde's Trials follows the path of a boy from a Welsh hill farm wanting to be a footballer. If you've ever wondered what diarist Samuel Pepys might have got up to in the Civil War as a child, then you might get a clue from Julian Dutton's amusing, eponymous novel extract. And Primrose by Stella Starnes gets inside the head of a young teenager growing up in a local village under the thumb of her mother.

Two are in the genre of speculative fiction: Mike Tomlin's Guardian is from an ongoing published ebook series about the discovery of a hidden alien presence in our midst, while Pete Barker's Share & Enjoy tracks a small band of rebels in a dystopian future and is the opening of a completed novel. If you enjoy a sardonic take on life, there is nothing better in this collection than Mari Mitchell's A Dish Best Eaten Cold, another novel opening.

Four short stories are of the classic type where an unexpected twist at the end throws the whole story into a lovely new perspective: Ciaran O'Connell's The Rose Blossom, about a misunderstanding on holiday, Henry's Story by Mary Thurgate, in which a chance, trivial event has life-changing consequences, and Assistance by Kathy Biggs, on the theme of 'what goes around, comes around'. In The Cunning Man's Last Day by historian Sara Fox, a fortune teller from the upper Tywi valley in the last century seeks to escape the fate he has seen for himself.  

The writing course
The writing course itself is designed to create a safe space for writers to learn about aspects of story-telling, the creation of believable characters, of a good plot and realistic dialogue, and, above all, how to make readers care and want to read on and on... Students are encouraged to offer kind, constructive criticism to each other. Each lesson studies a particular aspect, with practical exercises, often aimed at helping students create a long work, be it a short story, novel, or script. They also learn about the publishing industry, agents and marketing their work. I've been amazed at how much fun and how popular it has been. There is certainly much talent in this area.


A new course starts for new students next September from Wednesday 13 September from 2-4pm in the afternoons in the YMCA on Market Square, Llandovery. The existing evening course will continue at 7pm on the same date and new members are welcome to join that too, but will have to catch up a bit faster with the modules! Or, you can take the course online and also find out more at this web page: http://davidthorpe.info/online-writing-course/ or call 07901 925671.