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Children's fiction Education Prose Readings Skelton Yawngrave

Taking Magnificent Grace into schools

A90BE577-EF30-4610-BF72-71E75A1761B4They say it is good to leave your comfort zone, and recently I have been doing that and found myself loving it. For Skelton Yawngrave was invited to several schools to talk about Magnificent Grace during the week of World Book Day.  Instead of an immaculately-dressed skeleton man, however, the children got his alter ego: me.  Creating an alter ego is one of the things I talk about with the children — and they love the idea. 

On 28th Feb I was in Bolney Primary School meeting some strong writers. The glamorous head teacher there happens to be my wife, and we asked the children add the imaginary to something they were familiar with. My example was of adding a skeleton to a swimming pool.  In one child’s story the protagonist was riding into the nearby woods, on a bicycle that sank and sagged as it had transformed (with hallucinatory clarity) into a machine made of confectionaries. Children seem to add magic naturally.

The 3rd March saw me at Downs Junior school in Brighton, with my minder for the day Dawn Daniel. I am really indebted to Dawn who helped me to reach out to children readers as I was writing the book. My assembly included a reading of the first chapter, to which the children (thankfully) listened with rapt attention. Dawn and I then went to four classes to talk about themes of prejudice and unfairness and importance of editing.

6th March was World Book Day itself. Through relentless rain I dragged a  wheeled suitcase full of books to Preston Park station. Getting off at Balcombe I forded the running muddy stream that was the tarmac path. I received a warm welcome and a cup of tea at Balcombe School, and was told that the children had been playing indoors because of the deluge.

I spent the afternoon with two year groups in one class room, reading from the story, and talking about everything from talking dogs to racism. After trundling to Balcombe station I waited for a half an hour as it poured more. A mother and two kids were on the platform, and one of them produced his copy of Magnificent Grace which he had bought at school and began avidly reading it. A moment that was worth the whole trip. D00928AA-C84A-4068-AE52-56FD96813589

Friday 7th March was Balfour School, luckily just a few flaps of a seagull’s wing away from my house. Two readings and Q&A sessions in the gym. Full of brainy children and a warm and friendly welcome from the staff.

Then in the afternoon, I returned to Downs to sign a few more books, and offer my thanks again to Emma the English subject leader there.  As I was walking home, I passed two children from Balfour, who said hello to me and told me my book was brilliant.  Another wonderful moment.

By the end of the week I had signed so many books as Skelton Yawngrave, that I am beginning to prefer his signature to my own.

Categories
a writer's life Children's fiction Prose Publishing Skelton Yawngrave

Magnificent Grace — now in paperback!

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Magnificent Grace paperback now available here

Few moments in life are like popping open a box of books you happen to have written.  More accurately I should say written by my alter ego Skelton Yawngrave III. Skelton was wildly pleased with himself. Though cheerful, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Properly armed with my 322 page book, I am particularly looking forward to continuing my school visits.  I was very excited and encouraged by the children’s response at two schools in Sussex, St Giles school in Horsted Keynes, and Bolney School, in Bolney. I have forthcoming visits to St Marks school next week, and Balcome School.

I’ve been really enjoying representing Skelton, and reading sections of the book. In my visits so far I have discussed unfairness and justice, prejudice and tolerance. We have looking hard at the editing process. The children were fascinated to hear how many drafts the book went through, and that I employed professional editor Charlotte Norman to review and copy edit the text.    

I discuss the use of a pseudonym, and ask children what identity they might choose, and what sort of writing they might do. This often elicits interesting answers as the children suddenly discover they might have their own alter ego waiting to express itself. One child, however, said he would write about polar exploration and his pen name would be I.C. Waters which made me laugh.

I early video YouTube experiments with a talking skeleton and visualisations of the characters by my mother Margaret Hamlin to show how I began to develop the characters. My mother’s pictures get oohs! of amazement when I produce them — which gives me a bit of a Romesh Ranganathan’s mother moment.

Having made a living as a writer for at least twenty five years, and having poems and prose published from the age of 22, this is the first time I have self-published a story. In 2020 I find this carries little stigma any more. In a time when many publishers and agents are so risk averse the idea of just getting on with it is very refreshing. I have never been much good at waiting for permission before I start something creative, so doing it this way fits unapologetically with who I am. I can tell you that whenever a child enthuses about Magnificent Grace, it is an absolute vindication.

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a writer's life Art Blowing my own trumpet Book Launch Children's fiction Fiction Prose

Magnificent Grace, by Skelton Yawngrave

If you happen to know a child of 9-12 who likes reading, and want a tale set in the run up to Halloween and Guy Fawkes night… then I have a full length story (a.k.a. my kindle experiment) for them. It’s creepy, funny, magical and dystopian and is about trying to bring together a divided populace.

Grace is a heroine for a troubled age. The story was complete before I came to know about Greta Thunberg. Grace would love Greta.

It can be found here on Amazon. It’s on kindle at the moment — at a snip — turning into a paperback soon now looks likely.

The cover painting is by the splendid young artist Ellie Francesca Watson. Ellie happens to be the daughter of Carl, one of my oldest and best pals, which makes it doubly nice for both of us. Also I would like to thank Charlotte Norman who edited the manuscript and helped me recognise, and then eliminate, some bad habits in my prose style. What I learned from her was enormously useful, and I have carried these learnings into my short horror fictions.

Thanks are also due to my chum Tracey Middleton who, tired of my whining early this year, put a rocket up my derrière to get this done.

Being married to a headteacher is a wonderful boon too, and Lorraine’s patience, encouragement and knowledgeable guidance has been invaluable. Our friends in education Rosie Taylor and Dawn Daniel have given me essential feedback and the opportunity to go into schools and try it out on real life children.

Several years ago, my mum painted pictures of some of the characters, and this was extremely useful in focusing my ideas.

I decided to publish this story under a pseudonym. It has had an unexpected psychological boon. I struggle to promote myself, but I adore Skelton Yawngrave, however, who is a character in the book as well as its author, and I would do anything to help him.

So this is my kindle experiment. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Categories
Fiction Guernsey Guernsey Literature Prose Short Stories

Supernatural Tales 41, Autumn 2019

As a horror and weird fiction newbie, I’m delighted to have my first story The Inheritor in Supernatural Tales, edited tirelessly by David Longhorn. My tale is set in Guernsey, and draws on my childhood experiences of living in my Grandparent’s haunted 16th century granite cottage.

The story concerns the return of an exile, a burial and a the return to a haunted house (see above). You’ll be pleased to learn it all ends horrifically. I preface The Inheritor with a quote by Victor Hugo, who lived on the island.

‘Houses resemble those who dwell in them, and can, as it were, die…  These weird looking abodes are not rare in the Channel Islands; all agricultural and seafaring classes have a strong faith in the active agency of Satan.’

Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea

The table of contents has some heavy hitting horror and weird fiction writers. Chuffed to be among them.

  • That the Sea Shall Be Calm by David Surface
  • Pertrichor by Sam Dawson
  • Old Habits by Stephen Cashmore
  • The Sea Man by James Machin
  • Sorrow is the Mother of the World by Jeremy Schiliewe
  • The Inheritor by Peter Kenny
  • No Passage Landward by Steve Duffy.

You can buy your copy of Supernatural Tales here.

Categories
a writer's life Blowing my own trumpet Horror Poetry Prose

The Dream Home

Very happy to have a new dark tale in the Autumn 2019 94th edition of the literary magazine The Frogmore Papers, edited by Jeremy Page. There are two other stories in this edition: A Citadel by Natalya Lowndes, and A Few Brief Words by Andrew Blair. I found both had a lovely balance of humour and pathos. A Citadel is an evocative portrait of the narrator’s Uncle Julius a lonely, hard-drinking British ex-pat in Moscow. A Few Brief Words, takes the form of a speech given at a funeral for a curmudgeonly writer who idolised Arthur Miller.

My own story The Dream Home is about insomnia, and is based on a technique I used in the past to fall asleep. The idea is when you go to bed, to imagine your perfect house. Night after night I would do this, adding to the house I was building in my imagination, and then I would nod off. In this story, there is naturally something lurking in the dream home. Like others of my recent stories, I set it in a place I have lived in. When I first moved to Brighton over fourteen years ago now, I lived in a Twitten called Camden Terrace very close to the railway station. I often lay awake listening to the rough sleepers gathered in the underpass of Trafalgar Street, and could hear them shouting and sometimes singing.

This issue of The Frogmore Press as ever has some fine poetry in it. Two poems have leapt out at me right away. One by my pal Stephen Bone, called Curry which is spicy in every sense, and another by Laura Chalar called The Nineties Revisited. This simply written poem about a lost time and lost love that got me right away. Here are its closing lines…

“Bring back

your gorgeous life and mine–never
to be merged, I’m afraid (too late for that),

but for the humbler treats of coffee
and a talk. You may of course choose to

remain silent, but I’ve always been curious–
how on earth could you fail to gauge

the depth of that love? Come back, will you? Can you?
We’re so young. A bright century is about to come in.”

Categories
a writer's life Autobiographical Blowing my own trumpet Horror Prose

What You Look For

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895. The Munch Museum.

My short story What You Look For has just been published in Horla.

The story is loosely based on a house I shared as a student in Leamington Spa — with what I hope is a horrific twist. I did once see what I think of as a ghost, which appeared as I describe in this story, although the figure I saw was a woman.

After I finished this story I realise what I may have written was really an allegory for the onset of the panic attacks which started in my early twenties. I experienced debilitating attacks for at least ten years. I had what I thought of as ‘seasons in Hell’, where for stretches of two or three months I might experience as many as five or six attacks in a day.

In my early thirties I finally got help from a systemic therapist in Richmond, Surrey. She had a crumbling spine, and was in agony and spent the sessions lying on her couch. I felt a bit sheepish. She had a real problem. I was just a panicky mess. However, and somewhat miraculously, she fixed me in one session.

‘What makes it stop?’ she asked.

In all the years of attacks on planes, tubes, walking down the road, in the comfort of my own rooms, I had never asked myself this question. I was an expert at what started the terrible plunge into panic, but not on what ended it.

By focusing on what I felt like at the end of a panic attack, I was able to fast forward through the attack, and reach the end unscathed. While I have had the occasional moment of panic since that first consultation, it has never dominated my life again.

I went once more to her, and she told me never to come back again. She died a few months later. To my shame I can’t remember her name, but she gave me the single best piece of advice I was ever given.

I hope you enjoy the story.

Categories
a writer's life Blowing my own trumpet Prose

‘The Dark Fish’ in Horla

In my last post I mentioned I had been reading short story collections lately, and particularly the strange tales of Robert Aickman. This prompted me to exhume some of my own short stories from the cobwebby Kenny Vaults. One of these was a story called The Dark Fish. I wrote the first version of this in my mid twenties, and it interested the editor of a magazine called Panurge, who suggested changes. After three lots of changes, it was rejected. After this, and a couple of other rejections, it lay dormant in dusty hard copy for years.

Time, however, is the best editor. When I found my MS last week, a few editorial fixes suggested themselves.  These made, I was pleased with the results.

I had recently discovered Horla, the Home of Intelligent Horror, and when I sent it to its editor, Matthew Rees to my delight the story was immediately accepted. I have often experienced long time-lags between having written something, and it finding publication, but 32 years is my best yet.

The story concerns an astrologer, and was grounded in my own experience. For having graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Literature, I returned to London and seizing up the nearest copy of the Evening Standard was aghast to discover the absence of a ‘philosopher wanted’ column in the jobs section.

After a few months lifting and carrying boxes containing electric keyboards and cash registers in the Casio warehouse near Brent Cross, I began casting horoscopes in my spare time. I then left the warehouse to go full time as an astrologer. Briefly things went okay. I had taught myself how to cast and interpret horoscopes in my teens, and found a stream of people asking for my services. Soon my work took a darker turn. I found I was asked to do horoscopes for people who were recently bereaved. More strangely, I discovered that people were investing me with powers and wisdom I did not have.  I am pleased, looking back, that I had enough self-awareness at the time not to pretend I had the answers. I got out of the business of astrology sharpish. For more about my brief career as an astrologer and my feelings about astrology itself read this.

Alongside the story, I discovered the Rotring pen drawing below.

So, thanks again Horla — and please read the story here if you fancy ten minutes of weirdness then investigate the Horla site for yourself.

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Categories
a writer's life Genius Prose Publishing Reading

A lost friend, agent hunting, and new collections of short stories

My friend Janet Summerton died on October 1st at the age of 79.  I was heavily involved in her care during her last two months, and that of her husband Ken who survives her. Janet was a lateral thinking champion of the crafts and craft makers – and a benign influence on a generation of arts managers in the UK.  There are plans to celebrate her life and work next year. My own relationship with her, however, started when I  was her lodger in my twenties. For the next thirty years she was a wise and affectionate aunt-like figure to me. What I learned from her is immeasurable, introducing me right away to the idea of having a portfolio career and, perhaps most helpfully, she stopped me being a genius.

* * *

Shortly after Janet died I attended a long-booked Writers & Artists ‘How to hook an agent’ day course for writers of Children’s and YA fiction, at Bloomsbury Publishing up in Bedford Square. The agents I heard from were Davinia Andrew-Lynch, Julia Churchill, and Ben Illis, all of whom were generous with their advice, and refreshingly normal and human. Lurking in Bloomsbury’s maze-like offices I kept imagining all the celebrated writers who must have visited there. My fellow attendees were a fascinating lot too, some had flown in from other countries. In the afternoon we all had ten minutes face-to-face with an agent. Pitching is part of what I have done for a living for the last twenty years or so, so the fact I made such an arse of myself was disappointing. Despite this, Ben Illis the agent I spoke to gave me excellent advice. I am acting on it.

* * *

I have been reading short stories recently, after buying two collections from writer friends, both published by Cultured Llama.

In Jeremy Page’s London Calling and Other Stories. I particularly enjoyed the novela-length title story London Calling. Its protagonist, a University drop-out called Eustace Tutt, is brilliantly drawn, and was for me like meeting someone from my own past.    Sadly, my past did not feature sharing a squat with two German girls with a propensity for nudity.  Jeremy’s stories are funny, touching and very human. I devoured the collection.

Unusual Places  by Louise Tondeur‘s style is fascinating, she has an alien’s eye for detail, and observations are made without the expected filters and hierarchies of importance. Louise is writing a crime novel at the moment, and I can’t help thinking the engaging oddness of her characters and description would make her foray into crime something to be greatly anticipated.

My other ‘discovery’ is Robert Aickman, a writer of what he called ‘strange Stories’, who died in 1981. I bought a new collection of his called Compulsory Games full of hauntingly weird stories. The story called No Time Is Passing, is one of the most disturbing and brilliant things I have ever read. It concerns a man who goes out into his back garden in West London and discovers a river at the end of it.  I found myself in the middle of the night worrying if I was going mad. I had been obsessing about the story lying awake and wide-eyed for hours. The way Aickman nudges up the weird every few sentences is just incredible. Dreamlike is a word that is overused continually, but Aickman’s stories are properly nightmarish, while rarely resorting to horror tropes.

Categories
Children's fiction Fiction Prose Writing

Learning from children for ‘The Second Kind of Darkness’

So I am now in the ‘seeking representation’, (agent-beguiling) stage for my children’s story (age 9-12) called The Second Kind of Darkness (more about it here). After donning my imaginary pith helmet, I selected an agent to target. Mostly this was done on gut feel having seen her in the new Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook and liking her profile on the website.

The reality is that there are bazillions of people out there writing children’s books, and only a tiny percentage will be taken. So statistically it seems unlikely that the book will emerge into the world.  I can’t stop, however, feeling weirdly and uncharacteristically positive. I think The Second Kind of Darkness is the best thing I have ever written.

As it is a children’s story, trying it out on children seemed a good idea.  Fortunately my wife is a headteacher, and one of our teacher friends Dawn Daniel has been an enormous help. Dawn has fixed it for me on several occasions to read early versions to children in class. (Note: arriving at this version took ten years of bloody-minded rewrites.)

To begin with I found this a bit nerve-racking too, and my already sky high respect for today’s teachers climbed even further.

I found children quickly let you know what’s working – and what isn’t. I was soon reminded how smart ten year old children are, being hawkish about detail and continuity. Some of their questions were surprisingly technical too, such as the use of  first and third person narrators. I came to see the children’s feedback as a kind of highly useful collaboration.

Just before the summer break Dawn read the opening chapters of this final version of the story to her class. I was delighted to hear the majority of the class were engaged and keen to read on. If children are loving it, at least that’s a hopeful start.

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Fibula, the six legged cat, colour sketch by my mother Margaret Hamlin

 

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a writer's life Novels Poetry Prose Theatre

Stick or bust?

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Skelton Yawngrave, by Margaret Hamlin

When is it sensible to give up? Persistence we are told is a characteristic of success. Against this idea, I always think about sunk costs. An agency pal once explained to me there’s no sense pouring money into a project because you’ve already poured lots of money into it. Likewise, there comes a moment to cut your losses on an artistic project, and not pour any more time into it.

I have been writing a novel aimed at a 10-12 year old readership for almost ten years. Having set it aside for four years, I recently had a moment of clarity about how I could fix the problems that had previously stumped me. While I have felt that this story contains my best writing, it also didn’t all hang together. But at the beginning of the year, I bought myself some time and have decided to try again. Because I believe in the project, there can only be one answer – once more unto the breach it is then.

grey
Grace Brown, by Margaret Hamlin

This time, at least, I’ve a new weapon: the writing software Scrivener. My friend Catherine Pope told me about its ages ago, and I finally got around to buying it. It has been a revelation.  And thanks to Scrivener, moving blocks of text, reordering chapters, keeping tabs on the story flow, characters and so on, in a 60k text is all far, far easier. Something that would have taken me hours to sort out, can now be done in seconds. And the new (eighth) draft of the novel (now called The second kind of darkness) is becoming streamlined into something that seems to me to be much improved.

When I first started working on this, almost ten years ago now, I asked my mother Margaret Hamlin to quickly visualise some of the characters I’d created. One of them, Skelton Yawngrave, is above, and the girl is Grace Brown, the story’s heroine, is the smaller image. It’s nice to be back in their company.

* * *

Since attending the T.S.Eliot awards I sent off for several shortlisted books. The first one I received was Rachael Boast’s Void Studies and I have enjoyed dipping into her delicate, dreamlike work. Often the poem’s meanings are tantalisingly out of reach, but like dreams, convey a strange significance.  Coincidentally, while reading landscape-1448893172-trumpsleep Void Studies I’ve been going through one of those phases where I remember my dreams on waking. I’ve noticed again how dreams touch on things I’ve tried to sweep under the carpet. Reading Void Studies during the unfolding catastrophe of Donald Trump’s presidency, makes me think about Donald Trump’s dreamlife. Is all that gold compensating for slate grey dreams? What monsters must live there.

What is the relevance of a book like Void Studies in Trump world? None. But that is the exactly the point. A subtle and delicate work like Void Studies is an example of a culture that must be protected from the jackboot of ignorance that figures like Trump represent.

* * *

And while I’m on the subconscious, having decided to relentlessly focus on prose I found myself writing a series of 13 short poems this week. On Thursday morning I wrote eight eight-line poems in an hour. I have never written eight poems in a week before, let alone eight in an hour. It seems there’s nothing like deciding that under no circumstances will you think about something to make the opposite happen.

* * *

All being well, my play A Glass of Nothing will be having a five-night run in the Surgeons Hall during the Edinburgh Festival, in August. More about that later in the year.