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What I’m Up To Wednesday: How do you defeat your dragons?

On Saturday I took a break from my intense writing schedule and visited Norton and then Caldecote with some new stories.

In Caldecote, the theme was  ‘How do you defeat your dragons?’ and the storytelling tent was set out with some fantastic talking points, story excerpts and even a seven-headed dragon chalkboard for people to add their real-life dragons and how they can be beaten.

Louisa Freya is becoming an old favourite now, but I was also able to tell Thakane for the first time. This tale of the Bosotho people features in the book of folktales I’ve been writing, and is great fun to tell with lots of repetition and a rhythmic song. Between Louisa Freya’s seven-headed dragon, Thakane’s glow-in-the-dark dragon and the monster Zoblak, we came up with all sorts of ways to defeat our toothy adversaries.

I also had the chance to read a couple of stories from the new book, and to sign some copies of The First King Of England.

Now it’s back to the desk to finish the first draft of Very Important Project number two in my year of three books, preferably before the children finish school for the summer. Will I make it? Keep following me here to find out!

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Poetry Mondays: fun with first lines

As part of the writers’ retreat at Scargill, some of us got together to have a mini workshop, using lines from Brian Bilston’s very funny Index of First Lines to create our own poems.

This was my attempt. Why not click on the link above to see the original poem (and hilarious ensuing thread) on Twitter, and then have a go yourself?

Page 19 of a nonexistent book

Whither the hair tongs? I have seen them not,
and whence this irritating coffee pot
without its lid? Wherefore that single sock?
Wherewith this hand towel, whereunto this clock?
What has befallen this bedraggled blouse?
Why did we ever think of moving house?

What I’m Up To Wednesdays: Scargill House

I’m cutting it fine, but it’s still just about Wednesday, so time for a quick update! I spent the weekend on writers’ retreat at Scargill House in Yorkshire.

Retreat: (re-treat) to treat one’s self again. This was, I think, my fifth time at the ACW writers’ weekend – I’m losing count.

I tell a bedtime story to the group on both evenings of the weekend, but usually I get to relax for the rest of the programme. This time, however, Adrian Plass interviewed me about folktales as part of the Saturday morning sessions. It went by in a bit of a blur and I hope I said a few things that made sense: I do remember talking about the history of folktales, Cinderella in particular; whether or not there are only seven plots; and how I’ve chosen and retold the fifteen stories that are going into my new book.

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Storytelling at Scargill. Thanks for the photo, Lucy Mills!

The rest of the far-too-quick time was spent making new friends, talking to old ones, photographing owls, writing some bits and pieces for my book of Advent devotionals, making a small clay pot and enjoying the sunshine.

Now that I’m home, fighting Scargill withdrawal symptoms, it’s on with the Advent book – and fuelled by the weekend’s inspiration, I’m spending this week writing about God as creator and artist.

 

Poetry Monday: Path

I’m off to Scargill House in Yorkshire this week, for an annual writers’ retreat led by Adrian and Bridget Plass. This poem was written for them, and the metaphor in it is one they often use: a narrow path of grace between the mountains of law and the swamp of licence.

You can find this poem beautifully illustrated by Sharon Kulesa in Drawn From Words. Along with Mandy Baker Johnson, we put this little book together after a creative Lent challenge in 2016. You can see and buy the book here.

Path

On one side, the path of law, a trail
through thirsty rocks, where all who try shall fail
and lose their lives beneath the glowering eye
of desert sun. That way I surely die.

The other side’s inviting: not so harsh,
but leads to sinking sand and muddy marsh
and haunted castles, entered willingly,
then locked. Who takes that path is never free.

The night comes closer. I must make my choice.
But then, what blessed relief – the shepherd’s voice!
His torch is all that shows me to my place:
this narrow beam, the flickering path of grace.

What I’m Up To Wednesday: Fascinating facts

Welcome to another WIUTW! Yes, that’s two consecutive Wednesdays. Things are looking up.

This week I have mainly been editing my book of folktales about  adventuring girls, which I’m pleased to report has now been sent to the publisher. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s finished – there will still be further edits, and reviewing illustrations, and proofreading to do – but the bulk of the writing itself is done.

It’s been a fascinating journey, researching not just the folktales themselves, but enough background culture and colour to retell each in an authentic and entertaining way. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve learned what Lent is like in Greece, why the Basotho people wear blankets, and how to joust if you’re smaller than your opponent. I’ve dipped into the volcanology of Java, the history of the Algonquin people and the Confucian ideal of filial piety.

The trouble with doing all that research is that barely any of the interesting facts and figures I discover actually make it into the text of the book. If you were looking for the results of my studies, you could spot them in the backdrop of the stories, but they’re not supposed to stand out. That’s why, at the end of writing this book, I’m a fount of completely useless knowledge, and the only place to deposit it all is in this blog.

For example, did you know that Ahasuerus and Xerxes are exactly the same name, transliterated from Persian into Latin and Greek? You didn’t, did you? And you didn’t particularly want to know that either, did you?

It’s far too easy to get distracted when you need to research and you have the internet, especially with the way that Wikipedia gives you helpful links to other articles. For example, writing a story set by the Nile, I wanted to have a kingfisher flitting into the water. ‘Are there kingfishers by the Nile?’ I wondered. I don’t know what a writer would have done about that before Google, but within a few moments I knew that there are kingfishers by the Nile, but unlike our kingfishers here, they are black and white. They’re called pied kingfishers. Pied_kingfisher_(Ceryle_rudis_leucomelanurus)_femaleIn fact there are 114 different species of kingfisher across the world, and did you know that the laughing kookaburra is a kind of kingfisher?

Ten minutes and a video of a laughing kookaburra later, I decided not to put a kingfisher in the story after all.

Now imagine doing that across fourteen different stories from all over the world, and you’ll have a grasp of the amazing array of fascinating factoids that are currently taking up all the space in my brain. Now would be the moment to claim me for a pub quiz team. On the other hand, if you have any allergies to trivia, you might want to stay away from me for the next few weeks until it all settles down…and I start researching the next book.

 

Poetry Monday: Trees

I’m not sure how this poem is not yet included in my blog, given that it has now appeared in several other places on the internet. Time to put that right.

The poem grew from a remark made by Malcolm Guite on one of his retreat days at Otley hall; I forget the context, but “Trees are a way of thinking” stuck in my mind and became the first line of a poem.

The poem was then found on Facebook by Chris Upton, who set it to music, and I was lucky enough to attend a concert at which it was performed by Seraphim, an excellent all-female ensemble choir. (You can hear it performed here and access the sheet music from this page)

It gained another claim to fame earlier this year when I sent a copy to Dame Judi Dench after watching her beautiful documentary My Passion for Trees. She sent a lovely thank you note in reply, and I’d like to think that she read it (preferably out loud in that famous voice!) and has tucked the sheet music away somewhere.

Here is the poem:

Trees are a way of thinking, for every tree is given
an appetite for earth with an ambition to reach heaven,
a fingerprinted bark to wrap up memories in rings
of a hundred winters fading, followed by a hundred springs.

Trees are a way of praying, for every tree’s a church:
the cathedral of the willow and the steeple of the birch,
the summoning of seasons in the sacrifice of leaves
and stained-glass window winter skies through criss-cross branching eaves.

Trees are a way of hearing, for those with ears to hear,
about the hope locked into seeds, the blessing of the year.
Happy is nature’s poet when he has an eye that sees
for parables of roots and fruits, you can rely on trees.

What I’m Up To Wednesday: the BIPs

Oh, dear. Six months since I last blogged. What on earth have I been up to?

Well, since January, I have been writing full time for the first time ever. I haven’t booked any new appearances or visits since the beginning of 2018. I’ve even turned down my favourite, regular gigs (I miss you guys! Please ask me again next year!)  

So if I’ve been writing full time – why haven’t I been writing this blog?

What happened was that, after quite a bit of playing with ideas and sending things off and chatting to publishers at events like CRT,  three Big Important Projects (BIPs) came along at once, like buses. Most of the details of these are still cloaked in secrecy right now, (though if you follow this blog, I do intend to do a gradual reveal as each one gets closer to publication) but I can tell you that they consist of three books, two for children and one for adults, that none of them are due to appear until next year, and that one of them is nearly complete and has reached the headaches, coffee and editing stage.

At the same time as what I’ve started referring to as my ‘year of three books’, I’ve been doing smaller bits of writing too: I’ve penned a sonnet series to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, which you’ll hear more about in the Autumn, I’ve done a few small bits and pieces for Area 52, and I’ve been busy editing the new ACW Christmas anthology, which will be appearing this summer. Oh, and I’ve entered two poetry competitions – fingers crossed!

I’ve told a few  people about my three BIPs (hey, that could also stand for Books In Process). The ones who were writers laughed at me (fair enough) and the others said, “I don’t know where you find the time!”

And I said, “If you saw my house, you’d understand”.  

Seriously, I’m not doing anything else. Not performance work, not housework, not reading if it doesn’t count as research, not having a social life (that’s nothing new) and not blogging. But I intend to rectify at least that last one.

So I’m sorry I’ve been a silent recluse, but stick with me, because things are about to get wild around here, and you don’t want to miss it.

Tuesday, Reviews day: Livi Starling

One of the best things about being a member of the Association of Christian Writers is the opportunity to meet other writers and discover new books.  Recently I’ve been doing a bit of light reading penned by a new friend, and here is my review:

I’ve just finished reading two of the four Livi Starling books by Karen Ingerslev. Starring an eponymous 14 year old heroine, these are Christian books for teens – and British, which is so unusual and welcome for this genre!

The books are brilliantly written. For a start, they’re hilarious. The characters are all very appealing: stylistically, the books remind me a little of the Anastasia Krupnik series that I adored as a teen.  The author is so creative that even her whimsical, fictional reality TV shows or social media sites sound more fun (and sometimes, more possible) than the real ones they are parodying.

The Christianity in the books is handled perfectly – seen from the outside by the narrator, it’s detailed but not cringeworthy, and still very recognisable to a Christian from that church culture. It helps that the main Christian family depicted are delightfully eccentric, and that the author doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how weird and funny Christians can look and how oddly they can behave!  She also depicts Christians of many different flavours and experiences, rather than sticking to the bland or perfect image that some Christian YA writers fall prey to.

The storyline is gripping and relevant and completely unpredictable – I thought I knew where the first one was going, but I was wrong and loved being surprised by it!

Highly recommended for young teens. And adults, apparently – I now can’t wait to read the next two!

Tuesday, Reviews Day: Those Who Wait

I have been very fortunate recently to be part of the launch teams for a few great books.  One of these, which came out yesterday, is Tanya Marlow’s Those Who Wait.

Marlow

It’s a gorgeous book which explores, through the imagined thoughts and feelings of four Bible characters, all the spiritual learning and longing that comes with waiting for something.  From distant promises to urgent needs, the heartfelt desires of Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary are seen from the perspective of not-there-yet, which gives a new breath of life to stories whose endings can be a little too familiar.

I loved lots of things about this book.  I loved Tanya’s skillful drawing of the characters so that each of them has a distinct voice.  I loved her equally clever weaving of little common elements through all of the stories (I won’t give examples, because half the fun is in spotting them for yourself).  I loved the combination of creative, imaginative retelling with detailed historical notes at the end of the book.  I loved her prayers, her benedictions and her insightful, gentle questions after each chapter and section.  And, being an Anglican and a season-dweller, I absolutely adored that the characters correspond with the candles on an Advent wreath; this book will definitely be coming back down from the shelf in December for journaling and prayer.

Whether you are waiting for a bus, a miracle or the return of Jesus, this book is super.  Grab a copy now while it’s still at the introduction price.  Lots more details and a link to buy are here.

Poetry Mondays: A Good Book

Last week has been full of Bible storytelling, which has included reading, writing, performing and watching some really creative takes on Bible stories.  On Saturday 7th, I was in London for an ACW event, hearing Glen Scrivener talking about telling God’s story; yesterday I had another opportunity to watch the great Bob Hartman at work; in between, I met up with other creatives working on retellings and resources for the lectionary in Area 52.  That’s why this poem has come to the front of my mind.  It’s a performance poem I often use at the end of a training event, just to remind everyone how full of great stories the Bible really is.  See how many stories you can count and recognise!

A Good Book

What other book has
Wise men, starlight,
Sheep, a baby,
A cruel king, a great escape?
Some books, maybe.

What other book has
A donkey’s jawbone
A cockerel’s crow
A lions’ den, and two she-bears?
No book I know.

What other book has
A finger writing,
Dry bones walking,
Bushes burning,
A donkey talking,
A cloudy pillar,
A river of blood,
A wrestling angel,
An epic flood,
A still, small voice,
A beauty queen
And – toilet humour?
No book I’ve seen.

What other book has
God among us
Death and sadness
Resurrection
Joy and gladness
A heavenly Father,
Risen glory,
Life for ever​​
All a true story?

It doesn’t matter how far you look –
There’s only one.
Now that’s a Good Book.