Where did you find out about that?

As you may know, quite a few of my classes are organised by the WEA.  ‘Who are they?’ people tend to ask, when I tell them who I work for.

‘Workers’ Educational Association,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ they say.  ‘Where’s your college?’

‘There’s no campus,’ I say.  ‘Classes are organised within the community, by volunteers who run the local branch.  There could be some taking place just around the corner from where you live.’


weaI’ve taught in community centres, out-of-hours schools, village halls, church and chapel halls, library meeting rooms and pub-lounges.  These are all places where people pass through and might see the posters, even if they don’t sign up.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, Saturday I went to the WEA Area Meeting, where delegates from four of the local branches gathered to exchange news and share ideas.  Publicity was one of the items on the agenda, and despite the fact that this year there have been some popular courses put on, there was still a general feeling that the WEA needs a higher public profile.

pitmen_paintersThis is an organisation with a one hundred and thirteen year pedigree: that’s created a healthy alumni and alumnae.  Yet apart from the wonderful, Pitman Painters play by Lee Hall, there’s not much mention of WEA in the national or local press.

Some branches post on social media, and most put up posters and leaflets.  Finding spaces for paper publicity is tricky.  Many of the places with ‘What’s On’ displays are managed by commercial organisations, and often that limits the room left for others.

Our local newspaper used to produce a supplement that contained all of the adult education courses on offer in the county.  That’s how I came to sign up for my first creative writing class.  I remember that I browsed the list, and then took out the page I was tempted by, folded it to the relevant section and kept it on the side for a couple of days as I psyched myself up to phone and enrol.

What I’m wondering is, how can we do that with social media?  The posts on twitter and face-book move rapidly down the page, it’s no wonder that people using it for publicity put out so much duplication.

Is this chatter the best way to attract the attention of a tentative first-timer?





A cracking literate yarn sets me thinking

I’ve just finished novel three of Philip Pulman’s Sally Lockhart stories.  Roller-coaster rides, all of them.

the RubyInTheSmokeLovely period detail and a feisty female lead character, who doesn’t wait around to get rescued, or fall into hysterics so that she can show-case other characters.  Okay, so in Edwardian England she’s slightly improbable, but this is a thriller, and that’s the way they work.  Outlandish conspiracies, truly wicked villains and lots of violence are requisites.

This is the sort of stuff I love, and have loved for decades. I think I started with Enid Blyton’s ‘Five’ books.

The only thing I can’t quite decide with the Sally books, is what age-group they’re aimed at.  By which I certainly don’t mean to say it should have a restricted readership, any more than Pulman’s, Dark Materials trilogy should (if you haven’t you should – and you need to read all three to get the full effect).

The ruby -sally-lockhart-mystery-collection-philip-pullman-4-books-[3]-30312-pThe thing is, I keep seeing Sally Lockhart referred to as written for children.  I’m not sure if that’s just because in the first book Sally is sixteen years old.  I’ve seen reviews that compare the books to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, but the only similarity I see is that both series are, to use an old phrase, ‘action-packed’.  So are the James Bond books.  I worked my way through all of them when I was sixteen or seventeen.

I’m not saying that a twelve-year old wouldn’t enjoy the Sally Stories, rather that it seems a shame these books seem to have been marketed as suitable for children.  There are books that are definitely children’s, and that’s how it should be.

Content-wise though, I’m not sure if there’s an issue when it comes to these.  I know that children read adult books, but how much adult content is allowable in stories for children?

While not explicit, in book two, there is a sex-scene.  By book three, Sally is in her early twenties, and thinking as an adult.  Shouldn’t this then come under the Young Adult (YA) category?  I wonder where most bookshops and libraries shelve it.

The%20Ruby%20in%20the%20Smoke%20Jacket%20CoverNow that publicity is such a large part of the writing process, I suppose labels are vital.  And writers shouldn’t complain too loudly, after all, with so many books getting published each one must work hard to sell itself, and on the other side of that argument, it means the odds for any of us to get in print must be improving.

So I also wonder what each of these book covers suggests to you about the content.  Is it the book we judge by the cover, or the person reading it?

Taking a field trip

On Friday morning we went to Dursley, to hear a new author, Steve Weddle, talk aboutDursley writing group how he published his novel, It Starts with a Kiss. He’d been invited to talk by a local writing group who meet once-a-week to set themselves writing tasks and read-out homework.

What a nice idea, for the author and the group.  For the group, to have the chance to discuss the nuts and bolts of writing and getting published with someone who has only just achieved that has got to be encouraging and enlightening.

How many literary festivals dare to include first time novelists?  I know, they have to use the big names to attract most of us in, but sometimes, when I read through the lists of speakers, it seems like it’s all about celebrity now.  Interesting as those usually are, there’s a marked difference in the experience of being in a cosy gathering like the one at Dursley, and sitting in the Gods at the local theatre looking down at a stage.

The content too was much more writing specific than some of the festival talks I’ve been to.  Of course, ‘gossip’ content is often a result of audience participation.  If a writer is known to mix amongst the rich and famous there will always be an element of the audience who want to know, ‘but what was it really like to work with them?’

So much for the audience, how about the author?  While I do see that we’re all scribbling away with dreams of selling our work, I’m not so sure that means we’d all be comfortable participating in celebrity interviews.

Everything I read tells me that the price of success for authors these days is a willingness to promote your writing.  So whether you’re a spotlight person or not, if you’re looking to be published you might think about getting started with an audience you can make eye-contact with.  I’m not sure where you’d find a group better able to appreciate and applaud your success than one made up of writers-looking-to-get-published.

So, if you’re reading this, Sue, thanks again for inviting us along.



The guided-reading-group.

‘How does it work then?’ I was asked the other day.  ‘Do you all read at the same time, aloud?’

It was a timely question.  I’m hoping to start a guided-reading-group in a new area in September, and I’ve been wondering not just where to advertise, but how to do it.  Publicity not being my strong-suit, my usual system has been to describe the book that the course is based on, and hope to tempt or intrigue people who either already love the book, or have thought they might like to read it one day.  That blurb goes out in the WEA brochures, on it’s web-site, and here on my blog.  More locally, WEA branch volunteers and I put up posters.

I’m blushing here.  This demonstrates an abysmal failing in creativity and imagination.  I’ve been drifting along, putting in minimal time and thought to what is one of the keys to a successful course, recruitment.

In the past I concentrated on where to place publicity.  That’s been useful.  I’ve learned the value of visibility, and these days I’ve usually got cards, posters, fliers and brochures in pockets and bags, ready to hand around.  But let’s be brutally truthful, I had become complacent, even thinking of myself as efficient.

So, as I was explaining the format to my questioner, ‘The reading all happens at home, between classes,’ I was also thinking about how effective my publicity really was.

‘So then what do you do?’ he said, hitting the vital nail on the head.

Bee swarm

Bee swarm

‘Well,’ I said, ‘we discuss what we’ve read, and I bring along some questions that I think might add to the discussion, and some extra information that might affect the way we think about the writing, usually as a short presentation.  Then we compare our ideas about that.  I might give some background about the author, or consider how the book was written, or what was happening at the time, and how we think the book fits in with modern ideas and other stories.’  I paused.

How do you describe something that is meant to flex around the divergent interests of each group?

I’ve been guiding reading-groups for ten years now.  The class I started with was based on an anthology of short stories. I’ve delivered it to several groups since then.  It provides a lovely cross-section of writers and styles, and of story-writing principles and practices.

I can’t predict what will delight, interest, entertain, confuse, shock or repel a reader.  Each group takes each discussion in a new direction.  Some of the stories are difficult reads that raise questions about the functions of writing and reading.

Each reader brings a new slant to my understanding of what a story is saying and how it works.  Did they like it?  Why?  If not, why not?  Can I persuade them to read it differently, show them something intriguing about it?

Together we explore the how and why of each text.  For readers, it adds a new dimension to the way they think about books and writers.  For writers, it provides a better understanding of the endless flexibility of fiction.

Do we risk losing sight of the story when we start investigating it?  Shouldn’t reading be about losing yourself?  Shouldn’t it be just about the words on the page?

I would answer yes, in varying degrees, to all three questions.  Because, can’t reading sometimes also be about the spaces between the words, too?  And if they’re there, isn’t it good to be able to explore their possibilities in company of some other interested and curious readers?