How to REALLY Know a Writer

A few months ago, along with 19 other writers from Wales, I took part in the Hay Festival Writers at Work programme*

All 20 of us – here’s the full list – spent 12 hours a day together, over 11 days, in the ‘tent’ designated for our workshops, in the canteen and, most evenings, in the pub.

We chatted over meals and during coffee breaks. We discussed where we were from and the sort of things we wrote. We shared our nervousness and excitement about being part of Writers at Work and discussed the masterclasses we’d been to and the amazing insights we’d been given into the way internationally renowned authors work.

A few days into the programme I thought I was getting to know my fellow writers pretty well

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Hay Festival Writers at Work 2018

And then we hosted the first of a series of events about Writers at Work. This was a chance to read our own work at Hay to an audience made up of the public – and each other.

It was a complete eye-opener

After the first few people had read their poetry or prose, it began to dawn on me that even after all the time spent socialising over lunches and coffees, only now was I being given the opportunity to really know them – to see their creativity and to understand what actually made them tick. And I realised that you can never truly know a creative person until you experience what they create.

Each writer came into their own as they took to the podium to showcase their work. They were in their element and it was remarkable to witness. There was such a breadth of fantastic writing on show, rich in diversity and totally inspiring. We had several sessions like this, and after each one I felt I knew my fellow writers so very much better.

So how do you really get to know a writer? Get to know their work. It’s the window into their personality, their soul and creativity.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x 

*Hay Writers at Work is a professional development course for writers from Wales. It’s the brain-child of Hay Festival’s Peter Florence, is funded by the Welsh Arts Council and run by Literature Wales. Author and educator Tiffany Murray is the programme co-ordinator.

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

 

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The Nocturnal Writer: When too much imagination is a bad thing…

I’m naturally a nocturnal writer…

That’s not to say I sit at my computer writing every night – that would be too disruptive for my family – no, what I mean is this: I do my best work after midnight, and I often write whole paragraphs in my head at half past three in the morning. Believe me, it’s not the most convenient way to work.

I know I’m not alone in this affliction. When Frances Hardinge, the Costa Prize-winning YA adult author, came to speak to us at Writers at Work as part of Hay Festival this year, she told us she’d be totally nocturnal if only that lifestyle would fit in with society.

A few of us nodded our agreement. Some of us had already had this discussion – how if we didn’t need to be mindful of our families and others keeping office hours, our days and nights could be reversed, and how much more productive we would be, how much more our natural creative selves.

After the talk, Frances signed my copy of her latest novel, ‘A Skinfull of Shadows’ – to real-life me, Wendy.

She asked me about being a natural nocturnal like her – she’d obviously noticed my nodding. I briefly mentioned how, as a child, I had swapped night for day for almost a whole year, and how blissful it had been.

I didn’t have time to tell her the complete story: that I was absent from junior school for months with an infection after an operation to remove my tonsils, and that when I was sent off to bed at night I’d write and read until dawn and then sleep until lunchtime. It suited me brilliantly.

I’d had trouble sleeping from a very young age, so I was delighted with my new routine. I was getting far more sleep than I normally did and, despite the infection, I was starting to feel better than I ever had before. But, of course, my parents were terribly worried by my new and weird sleeping habit. When my mum mentioned it to the doctor, he told her not to worry – my health was clearly improving and he predicted my sleeping pattern would too, once I was back at school.

It didn’t

The light would go out at 9 o’clock and I’d lie awake for hours, writing stories in my head. I say ‘writing’ rather than ‘making up stories’ because that’s what I did – I wrote passages in my mind, word for word, with actual punctuation and paragraph breaks. And after a night of busily ‘writing’, I still, of course, had to get up for school in the morning.

After a few months, my parents were worried by how tired I looked and I was taken back to the doctor. When I admitted what I did when I couldn’t sleep, the doctor diagnosed ‘too much imagination’. He didn’t have a cure for that.

And I’m still not cured

All my life I’ve written huge amounts in my head when I should be sleeping. I wrote paragraph after paragraph of ‘Not Thomas’ that way. I used to worry I’d forget it all, and sometimes I’d get up to scribble down passages in the half-light of dawn. But recently I’ve become more relaxed about the process. If it’s good enough to type up the next day, it’ll stay in my head. If not, I’ll have forgotten it by morning. It was encouraging to hear Roddy Doyle, another speaker at Hay Writers at Work, tell us he took the same approach.

We nocturnal writers may be a peculiar lot, but I’m certain of one thing – nocturnal or not, as a writer you can never have too much imagination.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x

P.S. Do you write best at night? And do you wish, like me, you could live your life nocturnally? Let me know what you think.

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

Eleanor Oliphant and Not Thomas on Shortlist for Waverton Good Read Award 2018

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The winner of the Waverton Good Read Award for debut novels published in 2017 will be announced later this month, and I’m delighted that my own novel, ‘Not Thomas’, is on the shortlist.

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I’m even more delighted (if that’s possible) that also on the shortlist is one of my favourite novels of the year, ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman. It won the Costa First Novel Award, and Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, so it’s no surprise that the film rights were snapped up – and by Reese Witherspoon, no less.

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Also on the shortlist is ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’ by Guardian journalist Keith Stuart, which is about a couple going through a difficult time in their relationship. They have a child with autism who loves playing Minecraft. It’s a very moving read and was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club.

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The other two debut titles on the list are ‘Montpelier Parade’ by Irish writer Karl Geary, a short novel set in Dublin and written in the second person, and ‘The Pinocchio Brief’ by Abi Silver, which is a riveting courtroom drama with a difference. I hadn’t read either book before they appeared on the shortlist but I have now and I really enjoyed them both.

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Only one novel can win, of course, and the winner will be chosen by the residents of Waverton in Cheshire on Tuesday, 26th June. But having ‘Not Thomas’ rub shoulders with such illustrious company on the shortlist is winning enough for me, no matter which title takes home the award.

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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My Experience of Hay Writers @ Work 2018

 It’s been a week now since I returned home from Hay Writers at Work, a professional development scheme for writers from Wales funded by the Arts Council of Wales and the brainchild of Hay Festival’s own Peter Florence.

I came across the call-out for applicants for the scheme in the Literature Wales’ newsletter back in March and decided to apply (under my real name, Wendy White). I was absolutely delighted when I found out a few weeks later that my application had been successful.

I spent 11 days at the festival, along with 19 other writers from Wales, being nurtured, nourished and inspired by the amazing programme of workshops and masterclasses wonderful Hay Fellow, Tiffany Murray, organised for us.

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A brief moment in the sunshine away from our Writers at Work tent

In future blogs I’ll be sharing some of the advice I gleaned from the authors, poets, publishers and agents who spoke to us, but today I’m sharing a link to Hay Festival’s blog page, and my own contribution to that. There are also posts on the website by some of the other writers who took part in the scheme, sharing their own viewpoints on our time at Hay.

It was an amazing and extremely beneficial 11 days. I came home exhausted after the packed programme, but truly inspired to take my writing to the next level and very grateful for the whole fantastic literary experience.

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The Hay Writers at Work class of 2018 with program organiser, Tiffany Murray (in sunglasses) Dr Phil George, Chair of the Arts Council Wales (right of photo) and our group organiser, Carys (back left)

But best of all, I’ve expanded my network of writing friends and I know they’ll be a real support to me. I’m looking forward to supporting their new work and cheering them on in the future too.

The Hay Writers at Work scheme can only go ahead with the generous help of the Arts Council of Wales but hopefully, if funding continues, places will be available for more writers from Wales to attend next year’s festival.

I’d advise any writer who’s eligible (that is, who’s from Wales or lives in Wales) to keep a look out for the notice in Literature Wales’ newsletter early in 2019 and just go ahead and apply – it’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss.

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A Hay Festival rose, presented to Eluned Gramich after her book launch at the festival

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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Hay Writers at Work 2018

I’m absolutely delighted to be among 20 writers from Wales who are taking part in the Writers at Work project at the Hay Festival this year

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Writers at Work will run for the whole 11 days of the festival and has a fantastic program of workshops and talks, with speakers ranging from authors and poets to publishing industry professionals. I’m especially looking forward to hearing the advice of Roddy Doyle, Frances Hardinge and Ian McEwan.

The object of the scheme, now in its third year, is to aid the professional development of writers from Wales. It’s funded by the Arts Council Wales and led by Hay Fellow, Tiffany Murray.

Meet the 20 writers taking part.

We’ll also have the chance to read from our work at public sessions and to discuss our new writing with members of the group.

I’m hugely grateful to be included in the class of 2018. It’s a fabulous opportunity and the start of the festival – 24th May – can’t come too soon! 

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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Inside a Prison Book Club

I’ve had some interesting invitations in my short time as an author – I’ve shared my children’s stories in school assembly halls, I’ve read my poetry at Women’s Institute meetings and I’ve spoken about my writing experiences at my local Workers’ Education Association. But a few months ago, a very unusual invitation appeared in my inbox which made me do a double take.

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The email was from Neil Barclay, who introduced himself as the librarian at HMP Thameside London and invited me to discuss my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, with their book club. At first I skimmed over the ‘HMP’, not registering its meaning. Then I did that double take. Yes, I had definitely seen the letters H, M & P and, of course, I knew exactly what they stood for – Her Majesty’s Prison.

The invitation had come completely out of the blue and it took me a moment to process that a prison would even have a book club. Then I saw Neil had included a link to the Prison Reading Groups’ website, a charity that provides books to prisoners, and it was obvious from that what an important role these clubs have. The PRG encourages reading for pleasure so that long hours spent alone can be put to good use – reading fiction is, after all, a walk in someone else’s shoes and a different perspective on the world.

Education Consultant Ruth Perry, who volunteers at the prison library, had come across my novel via a book blog. Yet again I had a reason to be thankful for those wonderful book bloggers who do a marvellous job of promoting new books from small publishers. Ruth read ‘Not Thomas’ and suggested to Neil that he might invite me to speak about it.

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With Ruth Perry who led the book club session

I was delighted Ruth had spotted my novel and extremely pleased to know that it was being read in prison. The novel is about Tomos, a neglected five-year-old boy, and I suspected that it might resonate with some of the men there. Neglect is the most common reason for a child to be taken into care, and many people in prison have been brought up in the care system. A sad childhood is not unusual among prisoners.

I eagerly accepted Neil’s invitation, curious to know what the readers at Thameside would make of my novel and keen to see the innovative library. Neil has won the prestigious Butler Trust Award for his work there and is greatly appreciated by the members of the library. In 2016 a journalist for The Guardian visited and reported on the positive effects of the power of books and it makes for very interesting reading.

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In front of the wall of titles of previous visitors, with the beautiful flowers I was given

Neil certainly succeeds in getting a wide range of guests to visit the library. Actors Sir Ian McKellen and David Morrissey have held recent events there, and authors Paula Hawkins of ‘Girl on the Train’ fame, and Val McDermid have also visited. Crime writer, Martina Cole, is a regular visitor, holding creative writing workshops at the library. I felt I was following in the footsteps of very illustrious people.

The whole morning – from meeting the book club members, as well as Neil, Ruth and Laura (an immigration lawyer who’d come along for the morning) to receiving the thoughtful and often moving feedback from the men in the group – was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Some of the comments the group made were very sad, especially from readers who could identify first hand with little Tomos. Some of the men said they’d cried as they read it – and I was impressed by their open approach in such a ‘manly’ environment.

After the book group session, Neil, Ruth and Laura took me on a short tour of part of the prison. A member of the library team kindly allowed me into his cell so I could see what living in that small space was like. It certainly made me realise the importance of the work Neil and his volunteers do there. Whether convicted of a crime or not, everyone needs a chance to relax and switch off from their environment. Reading in prison gives the men a way to do that, and it gives them a legitimate escape from their sometimes difficult surroundings.

My tour included a brightly decorated room furnished with soft toys where the men can record videos of themselves reading from picture books. It’s a wonderful project provided by the charity Storybook Dads, and it means that children don’t miss out on a bedtime story from their father while he’s away from them. Recording those videos is often an emotional experience for the men but a very worthwhile one. Neil explained that most prisons have now introduced the Storybook Dads scheme although sadly there are still some where it’s not available.

When I accepted Neil’s invitation I never imagined that spending a morning in prison would be an uplifting experience, but that’s exactly what it was. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

So a very big thank you to Ruth Perry and Neil Barclay for offering me such a wonderful opportunity, but most importantly a massive thank you to the men of HMP Thameside Book Club for reading ‘Not Thomas’ – I will never forget your sometimes sad but very kind words.

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Momentos of my visit

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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Waverton Good Read Award

A huge thank you to the residents of Waverton in Cheshire who have included ‘Not Thomas’ on the longlist of their debut novel award for 2018.

The Waverton Good Read Award is a really brilliant idea for a prize, where a whole village of book lovers become involved in reading and voting for their favourites. The award has been running for 15 years and was first given to Mark Haddon for his novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’.

This year there are some well-known titles among the 24 on the longlist, including Gail Honeyman’s ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’, Keith Stuart’s ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’ and Graham Norton’s ‘Holding’. Rebecca F John’s wonderful novel ‘The Haunting of Henry Twist’ is included too, which means there are two of us originally from Llanelli on the list.

The shortlisting happens later this month and, of course, with such strong contenders I’d be delighted if ‘Not Thomas’ got through to the second round. But being longlisted by real readers who have no agenda other than enjoying what they read is prize enough for me.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if there were more prizes like the Waverton Good Read Award?

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

People They Ain’t No Good

I came across this heartfelt cover of Nick Cave’s ‘People Ain’t No Good’ on the end credits of ‘Damned’ – Jo Brand’s very dark comedy about social workers. I had to add it to the tracklist for my WIP, ‘Emmet and Me’, about children’s homes in Ireland in the 1960s. It’s ideal for creating the right atmosphere to write by.

And ten-year-old Emmet and his friend Claire would definitely agree with the sentiment of the song’s title.

Camille O’Sullivan & ‘People Ain’t No Good’ Live Version  

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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A Galentine’s song – only a day late!

OK, so I know Galentine’s Day is officially Feb 13th but if, like me, you’re already fed up of hearing the word ‘Valentine’ mentioned on the radio and TV every two seconds (and it’s only 11 a.m.) may I offer you this song & video.

I can’t ever resist belting out the chorus at the top of my lungs – off-key of course – and the 11-year-old dancer in the video is just amazing. 

I hope you enjoy this song as much as I do. 

 

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

 

Surprise, Surprise…

Surprises are not my thing – my husband will vouch for that.

He normally sticks to selecting Christmas and birthday presents from a string of handy suggestions I give him, usually a long list of book titles. That way we avoid surprises and I get a stack of new books to read. Perfect.

As I say, that’s what he normally does but this year he bravely decided to go off-list.

He bought me something a little different. The present nestling under the tree from him to me was almost book-shaped, but not quite. It turned out to be –

a kindle. And yes, I was surprised.

I’ve occasionally attempted to read novels I’ve downloaded to my phone and not enjoyed them very much at all. I’ll concede, though, that reading on my phone has been fine for train journeys, when I’d rather not weigh down my bag with a novel. There’s also the added bonus of leaving space in my handbag for the new novel I inevitably buy while I’m out.

But reading electronically is nothing like that cosy, multi-sensory experience you get from actually holding a book in your hands and turning the pages. And I know I’m not the only person who adores the smell of a new book.

I think I might have mentioned these points just once or twice (if not a hundred times) to the aforementioned husband. And still, here it was, a kindle.

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It took me a while to even get it out of the box – after all, I’d been given real, actual books by my children for Christmas who’d sensibly stuck to the tried and tested formula. They both gasped when I unwrapped the interloper, unsure whether Dad had pulled off something extremely daring or had just got it oh so very wrong.

Well, it took us all a little while to find out.

After I’d devoured those brand new gorgeous novels, I turned to the kindle and got quite a surprise – of the pleasant kind. It was simple to use and extremely light, the text was large and I could read it while filing my nails or eating my breakfast (two activities that have always caused, in my opinion, wasted reading time).

I began by downloading a few titles I’d heard good things about on book blogs but hadn’t got around to buying. Some were even on 99p offer, which made me feel rather guilty – all the work that’s gone into a book is worth so, so much more than a mere 99p. But I soon remembered that my own book is sometimes on that special offer too, and I get quite excited if it creates a spike in sales.

So conscience eased slightly, I downloaded away and began sampling authors I’d never tried before. It was addictive. I found I was even reading as I stirred the pasta sauce for dinner. I was whizzing through titles. As a bonus, I could now also use my kindle to read the novels I’d had unread on my phone for so long, and at last I was enjoying those too.

I’ll admit I’m a convert.

What could have been a nasty surprise turned out to be anything but and I’ve probably read twice as many books as I would normally have since Christmas. I still love real pick-me-up-and-read-me books best of all and I can’t see that changing any time soon, but I certainly won’t be returning my kindle.

And extra brownie points to Simon for successfully going off-list!

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and on kindle, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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