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‘Sensory technicolour and surreal originality’: Live Literature with Rees-Jones, Rees and Robinson – our correspondent Jeni Mills reports

March 14th marked the fifth event in the Live Literature calendar, a collaborative project by the University of Bolton and Bolton Central Library to host live readings for the public that showcase the talents of a host of writers. Somewhat fittingly for National Women’s Month, the evening spotlighted the (so far) all-female Pavillion Poetry series published by the University of Liverpool Press.

dery rees-jones

Beginning the evening was the series editor Deryn Rees-Jones, author of four collections of poetry, including the highly acclaimed Burying the Wren. After opening with the hauntingly beautiful prose piece ‘Siren’, she guided the audience through a menagerie of bird imagery in ‘Collared Doves’ and her two-act piece, ‘A Courtship: Great Crested Grebes and Bowerbirds’, all deftly rendered in sensory technicolour. She finished with ‘IM’, an artful sequence of “disappointed sonnets” taken from her most recent collection, What It’s Like To Be Alive: Selected Poems.


Tasked with following this was Eleanor Rees, lecturer in Creative Writing at Liverpool Hope University and author of Andraste’s Hair, a collection shortlisted for both the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Glen Dimplex New Writer’s Award. Her confident rendition of the rarely-performed, sensual whimsy that is ‘Becoming Miniature’ was more than up to the task. We were then treated to ‘Bidie’s Tomb’ and ‘St. Seiriol’s Well’, unpublished litanies borne of her current

Eleanor Reespreoccupation with writing about minor holy sites, before being regaled with 2015’s eponymous offering of ‘Blood Child’, an epic about a “red-ice-storm-creature” in search of its mother, punctuated by a harrowing, bloody refrain.

Notable for their innocuous titles, such as ‘Past’ and ‘Romance’, the poems performed by Ruby Robinson displayed both a skilful command of semantics and a surreal originality of syntax. Delivered with a quiet geniality that endeared her to the rapt audience, the touching piece simply titled

Forward Prizes  2016‘Apology’ was characteristic of the warmth and honesty present in Every Little Sound: her debut publication which landed her on the 2016 shortlist for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection.

Complementing the line-up of published authors was a special guest performance by home-grown talent, the University of Bolton’s own Adam Foley. Exhibiting a knack for intense imagery bested only by the scope of his uniquely comical observations, Foley’s recital of ‘The Universal Sign For I Don’t Want To Talk To You’ and ‘Just For a Moment’ was, typically, delivered in accordance with the audience’s preference.

The final instalment in this series of Live Literature will take place at Bolton Central Library on the 25th of April, featuring performances by flash fiction author David Gaffney and self-proclaimed “poety type” Joey Connolly.


Jeni Mills is a third-year English and Creative Writing student at the University of Bolton.

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Live Literature with Ian Duhig and A J Ashworth


Ian Duhig reads from his poems

I think it’s fair to say we were completely spoiled with the two readers who came to Bolton to perform as part of February’s Live Literature series: Ian Duhig and A J Ashworth.

We laughed, learned, marvelled and were moved by both Ian’s poems – taking in everything from blind road-makers to Franza Kafka, alternative wedding vows to the Holy Grail – and Andrea’s tender yet unnerving short stories, uncovering the terror and surprise that lurks just beneath the surface of our apparently ‘ordinary’ lives.

Live Literature takes place each month during the University of Bolton’s Autumn and Spring semesters. Each entirely FREE event is run in conjunction with the lovely people at Bolton Central Library and Museum Services.


Poet Ruby Robinson, who will be reading on 14 March from her new T.S. Eliot Prize-shortlisted collection, Every Little Sound

This month sees a special Live Literature event, featuring poets who are part of the Pavilion Poetry imprint at Liverpool University Press. Come along to Bolton Central Library on Le Mans Crescent for 6.30pm on Tuesday 14 March, to see T.S. Eliot Prize-shortlisted poets including Deryn Rees-Jones, Eleanor Rees and Ruby Robinson. Not to be missed.

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The Fears of (not) Writing

Our latest lovely guest post from a recent graduate, Krysta Waddington, shows clearly how the trials we face as students won’t leave us alone once we finish our undergraduate degrees…This ‘writing’ thing, this mucking about with words – once it gets to you, you’re stuck. Sorry about that, Krysta…

You can read the full blog here: The ramblings of a writer, bookworm, mother & so on…

The Fears of Writing

For quite some months now I have had a character tormenting my every hour. She mostly keeps me up during the night. She finds waking me up at around 2am is most beneficial to her. It seems to be the hour in which my mind is able to outline and sketch her journey. The trouble is, she doesn’t seem to know how much I love my sleep, and I do love it – dearly. This has been happening for quite some time. I find my subconscious saves me most days – whilst in the midst of conversation, knowing how important and polite it is to make eye contact when someone is talking… but what does that matter when I’m not listening? I don’t mean to be rude but this character doesn’t care. She wants her story written and I am not delivering. And when I’m not delivering I write a blog to rid some of the guilt for not writing! I’m quite aware that I need to write it soon, but first I need to eliminate the fear that is withholding me from putting pen to paper. The fear of disappointing my character, and myself.

I know my character, she is strong, sassy and independent. I know the obstacles she needs to overcome and what the outcome of her journey needs to be. The finer details, the ones that matter, the small steps that develop my character are the ones that keep me from doing what I so clearly need to do.

To help me – inspire me even, I have opened each notebook I own and asked myself how I started the stories I have written so far. I came to discover that I am the most disorganised writer in the history of writers. With each story, it seems I randomly start writing something/anything. From that something, I develop a character, and by the fourth or fifth draft I have a completely different story (I’m not saying that this approach is wrong but for this particular character it won’t work.) There are no sticky notes, plans, sketches or timelines. I carelessly throw myself into a story not knowing exactly where it is going. It was then that I realised that not only do I do this as a writer, but as a person. Planning seems to scare me, the possibility of a plan failing causes disappointment and the fear of disappointment prevents me from planning.

As a result of this I can be quite impulsive and stubborn. If I decide I want to do something, I know I have to do it before I change my mind and therefor become quite stubborn with reasoning. It’s a trait my mother both loves and fears. Especially if I tell her I’ve decided to move house…again. ‘She’s moving again, the bloody gypsy!’ She knows once I decide to move I won’t budge, she also knows she has to drive the hire van.

I think I’m making myself sound far more exciting than I actually am. I can assure you that I am actually quite boring; depending on your definition of that word.

Anyway, this impulsive attitude and approach to writing obviously isn’t working for me at the moment. So… I bought sticky notes! And I am going to use them! The very thought of them being stuck around my bedroom (my writing place) and making it look messy fills me with dread but I am going to do it! I will even post pictures to my next blog to prove that I am changing my writing ways! I truly hope that this new approach helps to eliminate my fear of failing my character, with more planning and organisation I am determined to do her proud. Time will tell.

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Something to Boast About

What follows is a post from one of our current students, Jodie Boast, about how structured reading can help the creativity flow, giving us ideas, inspiration and clues as to narrative design. The post can be seen in all its full glory here: https://somethingtoboastabout.com/2016/10/14/a-small-good-thing-review/

(Spoiler Alert!)

Throughout my writing journey, I have found that Raymond Carver is one of my favourite authors. His writing and short stories are usually uplifting and quite entertaining. They have meaning and are very easy to read.

This particular reading: A Small Good Thing– was a brilliant, yet sad, read. I had recently had some bad news regarding some distant friends and this story really was emotionally touching for me. I thought it was brilliantly thought out and the contrast between the family at the beginning to the way the sit and eat together- but not as you imagined at first… I was really happy I came across this short story for my ‘Writing Fiction Workshop’ module. It really establishes a brilliant narrative- which gave me inspiration to creative a narrative structure for my own story.

The short story is a very simple structure- the plot is very basic: mother buys cake, boy gets hit by car, a phone call is made followed by them all dining together. I liked how the story really took a different turn on the effect of someone’s child being gone. I liked how the author, Carver, really portrayed other characters to be part of the crime. As the ‘driver put the car into gear and drove away’, (pg 309) we don’t actually know who the driver was. Carver presents other characters as the driver or hints that they could be. Was it the baker? The person who actually initiates the notion that bad things happen in life, and sometimes people have their own things going on. The baker didn’t know what had happened, as he continues to ‘haunt’ and pester the family about the ‘Scotty’ cake that they didn’t pick up for their dead child’s birthday. This suggest that before we know he didn’t know himself, that he could have been the driver- however we learn that he isn’t when he comforts the parents at the end.

After close reading, I soon came up with the idea that maybe the doctor was the killer. As the child has clearly entered a coma, the doctor refuses to call him that. He tells the parents that it cannot be a coma and that he will wake up. He is very persistent in telling them this and not telling them much about what is going on with their son. He conducts numerous tests on their son, but he still keeps them in the dark. This suggests that he was the one who ran the child over, and assumed he would be okay, which would surprise him when he is in hospital, unable to wake up.

I feel that Carver really gained an emotional response with this piece reflecting on the feelings of both the mother and father. The writer even focuses on the baker and how he reacts to the people not picking up the phone to how he reacts when he finds out about their child. I really think Carver used emotive language to draw you in, so you cannot put it down.

Overall, this is a brilliant short story with a very emotional feel. I was sad and intrigued when reading it, but it was good to get closure for the mother. Would definitely recommend this short, quick, interesting short story… or anything by Raymond Carver!

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Plot – and how to do it…

What follows is a guest post from Alan Brenik one of our recent graduates, about his current writing and the problems causes. It was originally posted here: http://www.alanbrenik.com/2016/11/something-something-plot.html

We’re delighted to say that Alan is now working at Carcanet Press, in Manchester, as a direct result of his studies at The University of Bolton!



As a child I believed in luck. I’d skip over cracks in the pavement; hunt through the local streets and parks for discarded pennies; even descend into a panic if I saw one magpie instead of two. I knew that luck was real, and that it had to be appeased. Courted.

I suspect this was just my way of seeing meaning in life’s complex blend of cause and effect, my method of coping with the seemingly random chaos. After all, life’s a pretty scary place to live without luck on your side.

And I still do it today, to some extent. I imagine we all do. How easy is it to see the hand of bad luck in our daily lives? When things don’t go our way, we sit up, take notice; and when things are on the rise, how careful are we not to “jinx” it? We mistrust so-called good luck for the same reason we’re inclined to believe in bad luck: because we know that at its root, life is conflict, and at some point soon, if we keep breathing, that’s exactly what we’re going to encounter.

So what does this have to do with plot?

Coincidence in real life is fine. We note the effect, the relevance, and we chalk it up to life, or luck (good or bad). But when it comes to storytelling, no matter how much the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief, they are always aware on some level that there is an architect behind events, pulling strings and leading them on.

Coincidence in fiction is fine as well, when it’s to the detriment of the plot. We trust bad luck. But coincidence used to resolve the plot, or assist characters in doing so, immediately smacks of convenience. As a reader, I rebel against it and against the author in turn. It shatters my suspension of disbelief and mule-kicks me out of the narrative. Now perhaps that’s just me, but nothing draws my attention to the constructed nature of fiction more than a convenient plot.

Fiction, just like life, is built on conflict, and when that conflict is tritely resolved, or a character’s struggle (physical or emotional) is side-stepped or circumvented, I feel cheated. Now that’s not to say I don’t understand this pitfall from a writer’s perspective. Plot is difficult, especially when writing a novel; tying up all those threads while marrying them to one or more characters’ “inner” journeys can be headache-inducing. But in my opinion the effort is well worth it.

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but what’s this philosopher’s stone of a solution you’re skirting around?

The answer: I don’t have one. Like all things concerned with writing, there’s as many approaches as there are writers. However, here’s one method that’s worked for me: reverse engineering. Even when I don’t construct a narrative in this way, I find it can often be a useful tool to help diagnose any problems or roadblocks in a plot.

For an Urban Fantasy novel I wrote last year, I knew my protagonist from the outset. I understood the kind of person he was; I knew those benchmark moments in his past that defined him; I could list his proclivities and idiosyncrasies; but perhaps most importantly in terms of my plot, I knew the kind of person I wanted him to become. I knew the emotional journey, the inner change, that I wanted him to undergo as a result of the novel, and once I knew that the rest was relatively simple.

So the question becomes how does my character get from A to B? Once I know the ending, I find it so much easier to work backwards. And here are three questions that I use as a framework when doing this:

  • What needs to happen to get to this point? If the climax of your story takes place in a hospital for example, how do all the characters involved get there and why? If the villain is defeated with a magical bedpan say, the same questions apply. It should make sense to the reader (at least in retrospect), even if the chain of events leading up to this point are complex. And this goes for every scene.
  • At the same time as asking what needs to happen, you need to ask what would my character/s do, what choices would they make, at every turn? As much as the physical events need to have a logic, so do your characters’ actions – this can be a broken or flawed logic, of course, but the choices a character makes should reflect the person they are and the person you have led the reader to understand them to be. The danger here is that you end up with a boring, linear plot that reads like a checklist to explain the finale – but don’t be afraid to embrace a circuitous route; let yourself have fun getting there.
  • This does lead on to the final question, though: is everything driving the storyforward? If your plot deviates for 400 pages without getting any closer to the resolution, but it follows a logical progression – change it. If, however, those 400 pages are necessary for your character/s to change and evolve emotionally to fit your ending, well that’s not a deviation at all. That’s driving the story forward. Still, my policy is one of economy… rather than force the reader to slog through sentence after sentence to explain a character’s development, I find it’s better (albeit more difficult) to find that one act, that one image that says it all. Hit that beat and move forward. Your novel will be the stronger for it.

I understand this approach won’t be for everyone, but it has worked for me. And thinking back, maybe the actual lesson (if there is one) to take away from all this is to question your story. Interrogate it. If something is on the page – a chapter, a scene, a sentence, a word – what is it doing to tell your story? Would something else work better? And if it’s doing nothing, adding nothing, then cut it. Be brutal, be honest.

I’ve been told that writing is nothing more than choosing the right words in the right order. It sounds maddeningly simple when put like that. Still, I’ve found that when it comes to constructing a narrative, luck is a poor substitute for hard work and careful thought.


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The quality of our teaching


The recent Sunday Times league tables for universities ranked the quality of teaching in Creative Writing at The University of Bolton as the best in the country. The programme here also boasts the highest ranking in terms of student experience.

Why? If you’re already studying here, or you’ve left in the last few years, you’ll already know. If you’re thinking of studying here in the future, or are just interested to find out more, take a look at this: https://theconversation.com/why-the-teaching-of-creative-writing-matters-67659


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Live Literature, Tues. 8th November

The Creative Writing and English programmes at The University of Bolton and Bolton Central Library are pleased to present the second in their autumn series of poetry and fiction performances as part of the ‘Live Literature’ series.

Vona Groarke and Jenn Ashworth


Vona Groarke has published seven collections of poetry with Gallery Press, the latest being ‘Selected Poems’, (2016). Her book-length essay on art frames, ‘Four Sides Full’, is due this month. Vona is the current Editor of ‘Poetry Ireland Review’ and selector for the Poetry Book Society. She also teaches in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.


ashworthJenn Ashworth’s first novel, ‘A Kind of Intimacy’, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, ‘Cold Light’ (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Jenn’s other novels include ‘The Friday Gospels’ and ‘Fell’. She currently teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.


Tuesday, 8th November 2016, 6.30pm-8.00pm

Bolton Central Library, Le Mans Cres, Bolton BL1 1SE

Admission is free, and light refreshments will be served.