Sunday, 31 January 2010

I Hate Changes

There used to be a Post Office on the corner of our street. The friendly Post Master knew us all, especially the local writers who handed over unsealed envelopes for weighing and then asked for two lots of stamps, one for the envelope and the other for the sae inside. He never held the envelopes upside down or tipped out their contents by mistake. He was a Post Master who cared. He cared about the pensioners, the local businesses, all of us. The authorities ignored our objections and our petitions and they closed it anyway. I hate changes.

The other day I was standing in the long queue at what is now my nearest Post Office. I was holding my manuscript together with covering letter, synopsis and sae, all carefully prepared, checked and placed in a large white envelope ready for weighing, stamping, posting and travelling off to Scary Editor. The queue was barely moving. An occasional shuffle was a highlight. Someone started chatting.

‘Did you know that exactly 100 years ago they built the first ever cinema in Leicester,’ said Chatty Lady. I didn’t know, but it made me remember that, when I was young, there used to be a cinema on the corner of our street. The Evington it was called. It had a grand facade outside and grubby, velvet seats inside but it was our ‘local’, a cheap, enjoyable night out with no parking problems or crowds to push through. It’s a care home now. I hate changes.

‘And what’s more,’ continued Chatty Lady. ‘In 1913 they built the De Montfort Hall.’ Now we were talking real nostalgia. All the live concert tours visited Leicester’s De Montfort Hall in the 1960s. I was a regular. I’ve sat within touching distance of Mick Jagger, Billy J. Kramer, Gene Pitney, Gerry and the Pacemakers, even the Beatles.

I queued all night to get a ticket to see the Beatles. Mum thought I was staying with a friend. Her Mum thought she was staying with me. We sang Beatles songs and chanted their names into the darkness – oh for the energy of youth. At dawn a huge plate glass window smashed under our combined weight but we stuck it out and got our prized tickets. I was on the front row of the balcony for that concert. I screamed. I cried. I almost passed out in the interval. It was the best concert I’ve ever been to.

Chatty Lady confided that she still goes to the ‘De Mont’ to see many of those same artists and I confessed that I do too. Their tours now bear names like The Silver Sixties. The music has come down in pitch and to be honest the stars aren’t quite so... well... sexy as they once were. But then I can’t get up and dance like I used to and waving my arms in the air hurts. I hate changes.

We were shuffling closer now and chatting gave way to anticipation. ‘Cashier number three please,’ said the automated voice and I waved goodbye to Chatty Lady. Cashier number three did not make eye contact. She took my precious envelope.

‘Please don’t hold it that way up... No, it’s not sealed because...’ Too late!

I do miss the Post Office on the corner of our street and I really hate changes, especially ones that have been imposed upon us from on high with a blatant disregard for local needs.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Inspired - The word of the day

With thanks to Sheelagh Gallagher: Lapidus chair and host

An entire day spent with Lapidus members is inspiring. I want to share the buzz but I fear it won’t translate. You’ll have to seek out your local Lapidus group if you want to be so inspired.

Wendy French began the day with promises that this year Lapidus would be focussing on support for local groups.

So what do local Lapidus groups do?

There was a common theme coming from each group representative.

We support each other

The sessions are enjoyable

We share news and feedback on current projects

We are inspired

London and the South East:

Wendy French talked about their meetings in the Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden. How can you fail to be inspired in such a location? Each session starts with news and the sharing of experiences and then it's down to the important things like coffee and writing. Up to 20 members go along and any writing can be contributed to a joint creative journal.


The Midlands group usually meet in Nottingham. Sheelagh Gallagher described a recent meeting which involved a story teller and the chance to transform your life story into a fairy tale. Can I compete on the inspirational scale with a Leicester based meeting in the Spring?

South West:

Sue Sims spoke of their bi-monthly meetings in the Pierian Centre in Bristol, another inspiring location. In January Sue ran a successful workshop on free-fall writing and they too are creating a joint journal. They have plans to set up a project working with the homeless.


Four people from Wales were so inspired by one of Victoria Field’s courses that they are now setting up a Lapidus Cymru group. Christina Evans described how they were brimming with ideas including an event at the Hay Festival and work in conjunction with the University of Glamorgan.


Lapidus in Scotland is the epitome of inspiration. Larry Butler told us how it began, pre-Lapidus days, with a Poetry Healing Project. Many successful projects, later they are now planning ‘Writing Your Self’ with special guest John Killick. They also have local group meetings which sometimes involve singing and singer/songwriters. Larry is a firm believer in the importance of song.

Hints to local groups

  • Larry’s message is to ‘act local’. Meet round a kitchen table every few weeks, write, tell stories, drink, eat, be inspired.
  • Sue’s advice is to avoid burn out, rotate the chair and share out responsibilities.

And then came lunch

Larry Butler led an after lunch session that began with candle-lit meditation, a communal song, an active game, and then a stream-of-consciousness writing entitled ‘What inspires us.’ The feedback contained as many answers as there were people in the room.

Please remember to send your inspiring thoughts to Sheelagh for the next Lapidus Journal


Anyone who is reading this please feel free to share your thoughts on ‘what inspires you’ in the Comments below.

In an adjoining room Steve Dearden was running a workshop on funding for projects. Jane Reece attended this session and told me a little bit about it.

"Steve's workshop allowed us to talk about our ideas for projects and how we might approach funders and make effective applications," she said. "He reminded us to take control of our work by really identifying what our dreams were and aiming towards seeking support for them rather than tailoring our dreams to what we anticipate the funder might fund."

Yet another inspiring workshop. Why couldn't I attend both sessions... at the same time?

Kate Thompson ended the day with a cautionary session on looking after ourselves when working with groups or individuals. She talked of using the Journal Writing Technique for self-supervision. There are three stages:

  • Writing/cathartic
  • Reflecting
  • Reading back and noticing what has been said

A well tried method is to write an unsent letter (one that is never ever sent).

After reading it through, respond to the following:

  • When I read this I notice...
  • I feel...
  • I am surprised...

We finished Kate's session with a metaphorical Black Box. What is left in the Black Box when the day’s programme is over? My Black Box contains a pledge to plan a meeting in Leicester for the Midlands local group... and I hope it will be inspirational. Any interested readers please contact me.

A date for Lapidus/prospective members:

AGM April 17th at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden.

Please send creative writing ideas for the day’s programme to Wendy French

Submissions for Lapidus Journal

Please send proposals to Sheelagh Gallagher

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

What is Lapidus?

There have been studies to show that it can boost the immune system. It has helped soldiers in war zones. It has eased the mental pain for refugees and abused partners. It has helped sufferers to cope with the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. There are no side-effects and it’s cheap and widely available. All you need is a pencil and paper. I’m talking about therapeutic writing.

Lapidus is an association that promotes the therapeutic benefits of both writing and reading. It provides valuable support not only to practitioners but also to writers, librarians, social workers, in fact any interested person.

I asked some Lapidus members what the association meant to them and thank them all for the following quotes:

“Lapidus for me is like Indra's net - the members are like jewels connected by the threads of language and every jewel reflects every other one.” Victoria Field

“...A community of people who believe in the transformational use of writing for a better self and world, creating inspirational spaces and ways in which to do that.” Jane Reece

“...A supportive group of people in sincere and joyous enquiry into an exciting fast developing field.” Gillie Bolton

“...The place where I find other people who believe in the therapeutic power of writing, where I meet my peer group of practitioners.” Kate Thompson

Lapidus has not only increased my enjoyment of writing and changed the direction of my career, it has also provided me with a lot of good friends. In fact, friendship is the common theme in all the quotes above, a warm community, a supportive group, jewels connected by a thread of language.

Lapidus runs a series of Networking Days as well as an Annual Conference and it was at one of these Conferences that I heard about a three-day course being run by Victoria Field in Truro in 2007. It was a long way to go. I’m not much of a traveller but I’m so glad I went. I wrote about the course on my website in an article called 'Wearing Two Hats' so I won’t enthuse about that here. Suffice it to say that those three days gave me the confidence to approach Writing School Leicester and launch the successful Leicester Jewish Voices project. I’m so very grateful to Lapidus and Victoria Field for that. I blogged about the Leicester Jewish Voices project last month.

By far the most precious thing that Lapidus has given to me is the skill to open my heart to my notebook. It’s a simple skill but it took a series of workshops to enable me to get the full benefit of this sort of writing. I can now write what I truly feel and I regularly surprise myself with what appears on the page. Who needs Valium?

This Saturday 23rd January 2010 there is a Networking Day in Nottingham. It’s called ‘Getting it Together’ and there may still be a few tickets left. If you’re interested and would like to go, please click on the Lapidus website for more information. If you’re interested and can’t go then I’ll be writing about the day on my blog next week so please visit me again.



Thursday, 14 January 2010

What a Character

The other day I was walking past a shop when I noticed a middle-aged version of my Mother in the window reflection. It all happened in a moment’s glance but the hurt lingered on. I was that reflection. Yes, I look older than I think I look but it’s more than that. The facial expression, my way of walking, everything visual is out of kilter with my perception of me. My friends know the visual aspect of my character better than I do, although they don't know my inner me. A character is made up of complicated layers. I have fears and hopes that others will never know about, but there’s also stuff in my mind that even I’m not aware of. I don’t really know my character very well, do I? I suspect that an editor would reject me as being one-dimensional.

I try to create well-rounded, three-dimensional characters in my writing. I indulge in people-watching. I make notes in my notebook. I jot down strange mannerisms, unusual items of clothing, snippets of speech, all useful in building up a character but they are only a tiny fraction of a complete 3D description. Looking through my old creative writing notes I am reminded of what Malcolm Bradbury said about the power to create and develop character being at the heart of all fictional writing. It was our first lesson. There is no story if there are no characters and I still have the exercise we did to help us to create juicy, well-rounded, three-dimensional ones. Maybe it will help me to better identify the character behind my window reflection.

It’s called ‘Interview your character’.
After name and age I'm supposed to ask my character what she looks like.
I guess I’m a bit shaky on that one.

What is my character’s personality?
Now I’m really struggling.

Best character trait?

Biggest fault?

Favourite food?
Not sure. Maybe chips, or cheese, or chocolate.

At last a question I can answer. Cats and dogs.

Cruelty and clotted cream.

Secret desires?
If I answered that then they wouldn’t be and I can't think of any anyway.

How am I doing? Not too well I suspect. The next lot are the more in-depth questions.

My character is cleaning out the cupboards. What does she find easy/hard to throw away?

My character is remembering her childhood bedroom. How is it decorated?
I can’t remember a thing about it.

What does my character have in her fridge?
Not sure. Butter, milk, maybe cheese.

My character has been invited out to dinner. What will she wear? What sort of restaurant would she go to?
What to wear? Trousers or skirt? Should we go Italian or Indian or maybe the pub? So far I can identify myself as indecisive with a bad memory.

Does my character keep her socks in pairs? Are they in a drawer or a cupboard?
That’s easy. They’re in a pile in the washing basket so I can add disorganised to my list of characteristics.

I’m afraid I haven’t discovered anything significant about the me that lurks behind my window reflection, and yet these questions work for fictional characters. If you’re a writer and you’ve never tried it then I urge you to do so. Any questions will do. The important thing is to talk to your character, sit them in a chair or take them down the garden and give them a good grilling.

It’s strange how you can do that with a fictional character but you can never map out a complete three-dimensional picture of a real person, not your best friend, your partner or even yourself. In other words, I don’t know that middle-age woman in the window reflection half as well as I know Kat who lives in my head and on my computer screen each time I add a daily 500 words to her life.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Pippa Goodhart: The Challenges of a Children's Writer

Pippa Goodhart is a successful children's writer with 72 books published and more in the pipeline. So what is her secret of success? She's always busy. When she's not writing, she's visiting schools, teaching writing students, supporting fellow writers... but most of all she never refuses a challenge.

Challenge: To take on somebody else's character

Giddy-Up Winnie is the latest in the highly popular series of Winnie the Witch stories. Pippa has been writing Winnie the Witch stories for several years.

'The original Winnie stories were mostly pictures with just a few words,' Pippa told me. 'The author didn't want to write longer stories and so I was asked by the publisher if I would do it. It was difficult for a start, getting to know characters that somebody else had created, but I've become very fond of Winnie. She's a child in an adult body, lots of fun. Korky Paul has continued as illustrator and writing things for him to illustrate is lots of fun too.'

Pippa doesn't have her name on the front cover of the Winnie the Witch books. I asked her how she felt about that. She shrugged and told me with a smile,

'I've made sure that every book is dedicated to a member of the Goodhart family and in Winnie and the Ghost in the Post I've included a ghost writer with the initials P.G. In the story it stands for Post Ghost, but it's really Pippa Goodhart.'

Winnie and the Ghost in the Post can be found in the Mini Winnie book.

Challenge: To rescue a much-loved out-of-print book

Flow was Pippa's first novel published in 1994. She was sad when it went out of print, especially as she regularly uses it for school visits.

'I still have the very first draft, written by hand in the days before computers, which I use with children when I'm talking about the redrafting process. The original publishers had no plans to reprint so I contacted Barn Owl*. There is now a lovely new version with a new front cover.'

Pippa obtained a grant from the Arts Council to further develop the use of Flow in schools. The grant paid for local primary school teachers to create worksheets for use with the book and they are now available on Pippa's website, which was also set up with thanks to help from the Arts Council.

*Barn Owl Books specialised in 'replenishing carefully selected out-of-print titles. Sadly they are no longer operating as the grant funding has been withdrawn.

Challenge: To write an easy-reader book and get it shortlisted for an award

Pippa was a poor reader as a child and so she knows how important it is to have exciting books to read when you're struggling to make sense of a story. Barrington Stoke specialises in producing books for struggling readers. When they issued a challenge to write a funny, fast-paced story about global warming Pippa produced Connor's Eco Den which was shortlisted for a Blue Peter award.

'As well as Barrington Stoke, I've written many short reader books for the Oxford Reading Tree,' said Pippa. 'I sometimes get letters from children who have read one and say it's the best book ever. I know it's because it's been a break-through book for them.'

Challenge: To create a best-selling picture book in the style of a catalogue

'My children always loved looking at catalogues,' said Pippa. 'I wanted to create a picture book that included as many pictures and appealed to as broad an age range as possible.'

Over three quarters of a million copies of You Choose have been sold to date, not bad for a book that was initially turned down by nine publishers.

'It was a real treat, sitting with Nick Sharratt and discussing ideas while he sketched roughs.'

The book was taken up by Bookstart, a charity that aims to procide a free pack of books to every child in the UK to help give children a good start in life.

'So many children arrive in school not able to talk properly,' said Pippa. 'You Choose is the sort of book that encourages children to talk.'

If you like You Choose you'll love this:

Pippa is working with Nick Sharratt on Just Imagine which will be in a similar format to You Choose. It will take several years to complete all the illustrations, so the book won't be out until 2012. I'm ordering my copy now.

If you would like to contact Pippa Goodhart please visit her website at


Sunday, 3 January 2010

Help! I have a newly retired husband?

Suggestions in the comments box below, please.

Cups of tea appear beside my laptop at regular intervals, with a biscuit balanced on the saucer and his 'next new project' to be discussed. My husband has retired from work. It's not that he doesn't support my writing, it's just that he's there... all the time. I used to be able to stare at the window for an hour or more if an idea needed thinking through, or sit at the computer all day if the ideas were flowing. Now we have lunch at lunch time, a set routine to the day and he's trying out things in the kitchen. A few weeks ago it was the making of pastry. Every afternoon my cups of tea arrived with tarts of varying texture and colour placed on the saucer. By the end of the week he was moderately satisfied with his dough technique but issued threats that trials would begin again just as soon as I'd bought more flour. He's a determined man. This week he cleaned out the kitchen cupboards. Yes, yes, I can hear you all slapping your cheeks in envy and amazement but, no, it's not as wonderful as it sounds. I can't find a thing.

It was the right time for Rod to retire. He struggled through last year trying to get into work while he was on the Valcade chemotherapy treatment. When he was not well enough for work he lay around feeling guilty. Even he agrees that he's earned a well-deserved rest. At the moment he's halfway through a course of Melphalan taken at home in pill form. As I commented in an earlier post, thankfully he's tolerating it quite well. He's been out walking Josh the dog most days and that's my benchmark for his fitness level.

Which brings me to another problem linked with his retirement. I hardly ever walk the dog anymore. I'm becoming increasingly unfit and I've put on weight. I could go with him but this way I get a full hour's concentrated writing time. I do miss the people. Dog walking is good for writers. There are so many fascinating characters on the park. If you have a dog they always want to stop and chat and there's often a whole pageful of incidents and observations to jot down in my notebook when I get home.

Of course I still walk Josh when Rod is having a bad chemo day but as I no longer walk him regularly I'm out of the routine. It's a real ordeal to have to pull on all those layers of clothing and go out, especially on a cold winter's morning. Josh is a big dog. He pulls me along on the ice and he always prefers to walk across the muddiest fields on the park. But as soon as I'm out there on my favourite field, surrounded by frost covered trees and birdsong, I feel totally exhilerated... Yes, you're right. Tomorrow I'll go with him. The writing will just have to wait.