Friday, 10 April 2015

The first person immediate: creating an ideal voice for a young adult novel

It dawned on me as I was teaching my second year Writing Novels for Young People group.  I’ve noticed that a first person narrative works well for young adults, especially when it is in the present tense, even though in other contexts I argue that a third person close narrative  allows us to experience the growth with a character. The first person narrator has already had the growth.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

For the love of grammar

The Grammar School

Yes, I went to a grammar school. It raised my expectations considerably and now I realise what an incredibly apt name it had. We had six lessons of English a week in our first year. There were two lessons on English literature, one on composition and three on grammar. In addition we learnt Latin and French through the Grammar Grind method. We thoroughly deconstructed language.

Grammar as a tool

The analysis is interesting and understanding how language works is very useful. I recognise a run-on sentence when I see one, though it is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t have the terminology.
I also really understand what my computer means when it says “fragment – consider revising”. It’s telling me I’ve produced a piece of writing that does not contain a finite verb.
What’s a finite verb? A verb that has a defined tense, voice, person and mood. Pardon? A verb that is working, if you prefer.

What grammar does

Grammar is the backbone of the language. It shows who is doing what to whom. Without grammar what does this string of words mean: broken chair window caretaker mend. There are several possibilities. Grammar sorts it out.

No hard and fast rules

Surprisingly there are not except in those languages where there is some sort of authority looking after it. How grammar works differs from language to language. In the end it is about clarity. Interestingly, English is allowed to be fluid and evolve. It has no authority insisting on certain qualities. The OED advises us about words and Fowler about how we string them together.  Both, however, bow to usage.
Many people still frown on split infinitives but we now tend to boldly split them. And many frown upon sentences starting with “and” or “but” yet sometimes it can be quite effective. We were always admonished for using “different to” – it should be different from – but this is being more widely accepted now. 

The misunderstood imperfect tense

This is what prompted me to write this article. We are beginning to lose the sense of difference between “He was sitting.” and “He sat.” The former is imperfect, the latter preterit (though often used in an imperfect sense). He was sitting when the next action came along. He sat there may be over a protracted amount of time but the action is over and done with. “He used to sit” or “he would sit” imply a habit, all three conveyed in many other languages by what we call the imperfect tense. The action is not yet over. It is “imperfect”.

Knowing when to break the rules

This depends a little on knowing what the rules are in the first place. Then it’s important to ask the question “Is my change really effective?” It often has less impact than you might think. A copy-editor will pick this up. If they’ve used “track changes” to edit it may be worth hiding those changes and only putting them back on when you think any passage has lost its impact and even then consider whether  you can still keep the impact but keep to the rules and just rephrase.       
If we all understand what the writer means, what does it matter, we might ask.
Well, firstly, American publishers expect correct grammar. We all want our work published both sides of the Atlantic, don’t we?   
Secondly, grammar brings clarity and we want our texts to be as clear as possible. As English is a widespread first language, though its usage differs considerably form continent to continent, and the first foreign language for many people, we need as much clarity as possible.
Worth getting to know grammar, then?    

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Newsletter 2015

Well we’re well into the new semester now at the University of Salford. The students are now into a routine and are sharing their work quite freely. They learn from each other. Often they’ll learn even more by looking at others’ work than they do by just looking at their own.
I’m busy preparing new lectures and updating ones I’ve delivered before. It’s great when the students come to the seminars having read the suggested material. It makes for some really interesting discussions.     
I am just about keeping up with my writing though I don’t manage my two hours / 2000 words every day. I look forward to when I retire when I shall be up to four hours a day and 3000 words. So, not really retirement but yet another career change, actually.  
I shall miss that interaction with my students, however.   

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The worst first draft ever

I recently finished the first draft of my latest novel. It was puzzlingly short. It was running at 49,000 words – just about long enough for a young adult novel but certainly much shorter than the other two in the cycle. The first one is published and started out at about 100,000 words but was edited back to 95,000 words. The second, as yet unpublished, is also about 100,000 words.
Normally a second draft will only involve putting a few extra bits and pieces. This time I’m putting in eight new chapters. I’m changing from a third person narrative to a first person. I’m bringing in a second point of view character and in fact he commands the opening chapters.    

Monday, 23 February 2015

Pushing Boundaries, Flying Higher

This is the title of a conference I’m organising on the 21 March at the University of Salford.  It’s all about the young adult novel. Does it push boundaries? Does it become ever more excellent?

Arguably the young adult novel has always existed as has the young adult, though neither were recognised or named until recently. As we moved into the 21st century there was an explosion in the number of young adult novels being read and written.

This conference explores the nature of this energetic novel form and asks writers, readers, academics, educationalists, those who work with young people and other interested parties the following questions of the young adult novel:
  • Who are its readers?
  • What is its nature?
  • Which are its themes?
  • What does it look like now?
  • How is it written?
  • Why does it exist?
  • Will it endure?
  • What will it look like in the future?
The conference is aimed at academics, writers, teachers, parents and school librarians.    
Keynote speakers are Melvin Burgess and Nicola Morgan.
There is still some more room for a few academic papers on the above themes or for session suitable for educationalists and writers. We do have content for the whole day but can look at parallel sessions. If you’re interested in offering any of these, contact me via the contact form on this blog.
If you’d just like to sign up for the conference, you can do so here.             

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Ministry of Stories and the Monster Supply Store

Occasionally I go and help out at the Ministry of Stories. The Ministry of Stories is in a secret location, hidden behind the Monster Supply Store, Hoxton, London. It may all sound a little odd for an academic but then when you remember that I write for children and young adults and that I do this as part of my job as a senior lecturer at the University of Salford and when you also remember that David Eggers kick-started the Ministry of Stories it all sounds a little more reasonable.
And thankfully, it remains whacky.


Just over a week ago a missive came from the Ministry. It was along the lines of “Help, we’ve over-ordered milk tooth chocolate and need to shift it fast. We’re selling it at £1.00 a bar. Please buy.”
Who could resist?
I ordered five bars and a curse to boot. By the time I’d paid postage I was looking at about £8.00.  My curse was simply “Bad luck!” Ah well.
The Monster Supply store sells good quality goods repackaged. The milk tooth chocolate is actually luxury milk chocolate full of roasted nut chips. “Banshee balls” are aniseeds balls. “Salt made from sneezing” is a mixture of sea salt and ground black pepper. “Cubed earwax” is clotted cream fudge.
When school groups visit the Ministry, children will spend a little in the shop. The main customers however, are supportive adults who use the mail order facility and some of the adult visitors who come to the store and the Ministry.

Magic and practicality

It does heighten the mystery for the children who visit: having to sneak  in through the back door of the shop. However, it was originally an accident. When Eggers obtained the funding and the first set premises, he was told by the planners that the area was meant to be for retail.  The inside of the building he’d found reminded him of a ship so he decided to front the writing school with a pirate supply store.

What the Ministry does

The aim is to improve literacy skills in children who lack confidence, particularly in the writing skills. We all have a story we can tell and the ability to write it. Different children will need different sorts of and amounts of scaffolding. The Ministry has some unique features in relation to this.


  • Mentors are carefully trained.
  • Often there are just two or three children to one mentor.
  • Mentors are carefully briefed before each session and debriefed afterwards. This can add up to an hour to each session – sometimes taking up on third of the total time.  This works very well and is worth the effort.
Most of the people who work for the shop and the Ministry are volunteers and are not paid. There are a few staff members, paid or by various grants. Writers and artists tend to offer their services for free. Creative practitioners have to be clear about why they do this but it is in the end always a good line on the CV.


I’ve not volunteered for a while and must get round to doing it again. I’m always glad to support. By the way, the milk tooth chocolate was delicious.   

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Newsletter January 2015

2015 has got off to a good start now. I’m coming to the end of huge marking load at the University of Salford. I have had to mark 44 scripts on my own module, two dissertations, and co-mark 60 on another module. Yet to come are eight MA assignments.  In addition I’ve had to moderate 40 scripts. That’s 308,000 words to read and comment on. I’ve written already about 10,000 in comments.

Next week lectures begin. I’m looking forward to that though there is always the slight worry on the first session that you may go to the wrong room and find either no students or a bunch of people you don’t know.

Oh, mind, no pressure by the way: I’m lecturing on writing autobiography on Tuesday. We use Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road. Jackie Kay is our new chancellor. Oh hum!                                 
Still writing remains the priority: I must put in that 2,000 words  / two hours a day even if I have to work late into the night to get the other things done. I must be able to say “I am a writer, therefore I write.”