Call for submissions – flash fiction – change the ending

Change the ending – call for submissions 31st July

The idea
Change the ending is a collaborative creative writing project that will produce a collection of flash fiction stories about the future of local government, written by people who care about it.

Why it’s worth joining in?
We are interested in writing and reading new stories about all aspects of public life; stories that bypass the prevalent negative narratives – cuts, decline, incompetence, bureaucracy – and explore new ideas, possibilities, approaches and visions – all in 350 words. We need to change the ending and imagine the future we want to see, or the stories we tell about local government and the public sector will become the same old same old, we lose what’s good and everyone else loses interest.

We’ve got some senior managers, colleagues from the front line, some from public health and teaching, and a couple of wry observers looking from the outside in, who’ve already signed up to think and write creatively. The aim is to publish a limited edition paperback collection of around 40 stories, plus an e-book. This is an open call for anyone who’s interested in picking up a pen and joining us by 31st July.

What can you write about?
Stories can be about… well… anything related to the local government and public services
•They might be small tales, green shoots of positive change that point the way to a future we want to see.
•They could be snapshots that show why it’s important and why we care. They could highlight tricky dilemmas or big battles.
•They might be interesting, seriously challenging, funny, sad, curious, bizarre, true-ish, re-imagined or wildly imagined.
•And we hope all the stories will reflect public sector ethos and values in original quirky ways.
Creative writing is good for the soul and provides excellent brain food.

How it will work
•The idea is to be collaborative, to support and encourage each other as writers (giving feedback and ideas where people want that) and then share the stories with as many people and organisations as possible.
•Solace – the Society for Local Authority Chief Executives – is supporting the project and the collection will be launched at the Solace Annual Summit in Liverpool in October. The stories will be used to provoke a different type of debate about public services. The stories will also be published on the Shared Press website (under construction).
•Solace and Shared Press will curate the collection – all stories will be selected on the basis that they are ‘positive’ about local government and the public sector, but ‘critical’ stories will be considered for inclusion if they stimulate debate and demonstrably seek to ‘change the ending.’ Project lead is Dawn Reeves, former local authority Director and author of Hard Change, a successful ‘town hall thriller’ which seeks to ‘change the end’, published in 2013 by Shared Press (

If you’re in, email for info, top tips on flash fiction and t’s&c’s.

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    Quick blog post from me, prompted by a piece from the wonderful Sarah Dale (@creatingfocus) – on the difficult subject of doubt. Below is a flash fiction story that I wrote during a bout of the wobbles whilst editing my first novel Hard Change. Writing it helped steady my nerves. It reminded me that doubt is an essential part of creativity. If we were sure about everything, would there be anything new or different to say? Being open about doubt makes us human and engaging with it can open new doors.

    This is highly relevant as I and many brave friends (with an urge to write about public life and local government??!!) embark on a collective flash fiction project (more of which later.) Let me know what you think.

    Trusts’ lodger
    Doubt follows me around the flat. Humming like a faulty plug socket, always about to threaten a nasty shock. It’s clear we’ve become too close. The choice of cereal takes up the morning. Words run and hide whenever I pick up my pen. Umms and errs abound. Tension mounts when her boyfriend, Fear starts staying over. I ask my friends for advice.

    Disapproval turns her nose up and shakes her head in reproach – how could you get yourself into this situation? Contempt wants me to evict Doubt immediately. Apprehension isn’t too sure. Distraction suggests a trip to the seaside. I like the idea of a cone of chips on the pier but find myself in a quandary. Interest wants to know the basis of the tenancy, what did I say when Doubt first moved in? I struggle to remember. She popped round now and again but it was never meant to be permanent.

    When it all feels too much, I go to my parents for the weekend. Mum says I’ve got plenty of room and that I should try and understand why Doubt has turned up now? My dad encourages me to tell her how I feel. Being the child of Openness and Honesty is irritating. I know they’re right. It’s time to square up to the situation, so I ask her to meet me for a drink. The pub is quiet, the atmosphere relaxed. I opt for the house red and I start to wonder if there’s really a problem. Doubt is hesitant but loosens up when I remind her that I’ll always be there for her. I just need some time to remember who I am.

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      Happy World Book Day

      “South Riding” – a great novel about life and local governmentsouth riding

      In celebration of World Book day I’d like to convince you to pick up a novel about local government. I realise it’s a tough ask. If you work in the public sector you may not fancy another dose of harsh reality; and if you don’t you could be among the many mistaken souls who think local government is increasingly irrelevant or even boring.

      What also makes it difficult is that there aren’t many books about local government to choose from, and it’s clear many writers, and publishers, prefer the more well-trodden corridors of power in Whitehall, missing the significance and the sharp edges of what my recommended novelist called “world tragedy in embryo”.

      “South Riding” by Winifred Holtby is a bold, expansive story that draws you into the life of a whole community at a time of austerity. Local government is “the first line of defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies… poverty, sickness, ignorance and isolation”. The compelling plot includes a darkly motivated public-private scheme and a scandal centred on building on flood plains. It portrays the stark choices to be made about budget cuts and offers brave alternatives such as investing in infrastructure to create jobs, all wrapped up in a tale of dreams, love and death.

      And all this was written around 80 years ago, in the long shadow of the First World War. Published posthumously in 1936, the book is still totally relevant, and hasn’t been out of print since. There are great characters, especially the 70-year-old first female Alderman of the County Council (loosely based on Holtby’s mother), the idealistic early feminist teacher and the Machiavellian councillor.

      But the magic of the book, and the meat of it, is in the politics. It’s brave enough to show us the complex tangle of motivations behind the public decisions and their unforeseen consequences. Ultimately it has faith in the system to make positive change and its powerful human content, small triumphs and painful tragedies, lift it above any novel about game-playing in Westminster.

      The reasons I love this book are the reasons that also motivate me to write. As the first-time author of “Hard Change”, a gritty but optimistic town hall thriller, I used a murder as the driver for similar, but contemporary, dilemmas. Like Holtby, I wanted to use fiction to get underneath the surface of power and politics in its widest sense, and local government allows you to get up close and personal.

      I’m also aiming to follow in the footsteps of other great authors who have written about what’s important in difficult times. In the 1940s George Orwell wrote, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics…’ All issues are political issues. The idea that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” I feel the same now. Local government is constantly being undermined and it’s important to me that we generate more stories which explore and make sense of what’s happening, particularly as the range of narratives on offer in the mainstream at the moment is depressingly limited.
      I know these stories are there. Lots of people have said to me that in local government, “you don’t have to make it up,” but I think we do! There’s so much doom and gloom surrounding the future of local government, and I think we need to fashion some new endings.

      Using what I’ve learned from writing “Hard Change”, I’ve developed creative workshops that use story-telling techniques to explore leadership and challenge colleagues to reflect on the endings they want to see. The sessions are about thinking imaginatively and seeing the world differently, about exploring possible directions. Participants have found the sessions highly energising, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and alternative stories are emerging.

      I’m also keen to hear from other writers – anyone reading this who is interested in writing about public life. Let’s share and support each other to get more stories out there, so that when future World Book Days come around there’ll be a wealth of local government novels to choose from; books that build on the fantastic legacy of “South Riding” and that look to the future.

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        My year of living creatively

        2013-12-17 18.53.49

        On the 22nd December 2012 I received the proof copy of my thriller novel Hard Change and it’s safe to say things haven’t been the same since. Not having been through the process of writing and publishing a book before, I thought that the writing was the creative bit and that I’d have a year of being practical (didn’t sound that exciting), marketing the book (do I have to) and re-building my consultancy business after taking time out to write (a must do but daunting, especially having set my stall out as a writer I wasn’t exactly sure what that was now.)

        What’s happened throughout 2013 is that I’ve found myself becoming more creative in different ways, finding stimulating stories everywhere and encouraging others to let their imaginations run wild. This year I’ve been more creative because I’ve changed my view about what creativity is and who does it. Also I’ve learnt loads about creative processes, developed some of my own and tested and developed myself.

        So, what’s creative and what isn’t?
        Well… everything, it just depends on how you look at it. I’ve tried to bring creativity to every decision I’ve made this year and it’s really paid off. Thinking about a new website and logo, forced to me to not only to refresh the story I was telling about myself but to write a new one.

        I took a few creative leaps selling the book, getting myself out and about in random places like the Cardiff Millennium stadium – (thanks to LGComms) and Coventry City Council, Hounslow and Worcester. I found myself in interesting conversations with anyone and everyone about what I was doing, this included taxi drivers, football fans, eco-warriors and my amazing local MP Jeremy Corbyn who agreed to launch the book back in March. I was also shoved by my partner into an empty seat next to Ed Balls on the tube – very embarrassing but he was actually a real gent.

        I developed a creative thriller writing workshop for local government officers (not obvious I know) and dream come true, on the back of this, The Guardian asked me to write an article for them. That opportunity helped me think more widely about the use of stories in organisations and how I could help turn around some of the negative narratives about the public sector in the UK. This directly tapped into my novel and the idea of Hard Change, change is hard but possible. So on the road again, I went to York (thanks to SOLACE) and now there are creative leadership workshops which have been generated fantastic energy (more of that in 2014 and thanks to East Sussex, Calderdale and Ealing.)

        Who is creative?
        Everyone! Not only people who’ve been to art-college, drama school, architects and the like. I did Business Studies so I understand completely that people might think they aren’t creative, I thought that too. My writing came out of my urge to write about the world I know and from a different, gritty but positive perspective (which turned into a thriller). It certainly wasn’t a burning desire to be a writer.

        I’ve learnt that quiet reflection, the time to gather and play with your own thoughts and ideas, is a key component of being creative. That time isn’t something we always get or indeed want. I’m mainly an extrovert but learned to embrace my inner introvert. During the writing phase I surprised myself to find that I could sit quietly at my computer writing for months on end – (only going slightly mad) but I really valued it.

        This year I’ve learned that with short, focused bursts of quiet time (sometimes only ten minutes) and with a bit of structure, anyone can come up with something, a small gem or two. And it’s bound to be original in some way because we are all unique, there’s a magic mix of our personalities, our situations and world views, which makes every story different. The more we draw on and allow our own thoughts out, the better. In one of the workshops I did this year, I challenged (and supported) a room full of Chartered accountants to write their own thrillers in 45minutes. After flinching and looking highly dubious, they all did it and loved it.

        How to be creative?
        Experiment. This year has also been full experiments and adaptation of the cheap and cheerful variety. I’ve done a few things I wouldn’t normally do… including getting drunk in the afternoon with two old colleagues in a back street pub full of postal workers and bin men. It reminded me that in so many walks of life “you don’t have to make it up” and 4 beer-mats later I had the bones of a plot for book 2.

        And an example of something I’ve done that hasn’t worked this year and that turned out to be pretty expensive. I pressed the worldwide button on a book give-away website – why not I thought? It meant a massive postage bill and books disappearing into the far flung reaches of the Philippines, Romania and Chile.

        We are all creative in so many ways; in the way we make jokes, how we use language, through singing in the car, dancing around the living room, decorating our houses/ourselves. Creativity helps the way we work, how we problem solve, manage, innovate, care for others and live in the world. We just need to do it more often. This year I’ve been seeing stories everywhere, including on Jury Service, lots of material there (and the good stuff is not just about the cases I was sitting on.) Plus I’ve got some exciting stories from working in Nigeria which will definitely feature in book 3.

        How to develop your creative self?
        Be open to it, whatever it is. Being creative can be a rollercoaster – ups, downs, moments of terror and serious furious duck paddling legs under the water. In fact if you don’t feel uncomfortable at some point in a creative process, you’re probably missing the fun part. (Arrgghh did I really say that?) Or you might be missing the point – it has to feel different / awkward / risky and you have to experience that to get a new perspective.

        Of course I wouldn’t change anything about this year. I can’t even if I wanted to. But I’ve loved it. At one of the conferences I went to this year, a kind person on the next door stand stuck a glass of red wine in my hand said “here, you’re a writer now, got to look the part.” (It worked by the way; I sold about 25 books in an hour, mainly because it was the drinks reception.)

        My new friend was right, and that turned out to be the hardest thing. I had to see myself as a writer and accept that being creative is part of me. In the same way as it’s part of everyone. So I’m not a different person, I’m the same person only more so and being creative is about having the courage to be and express yourself.

        Big thanks to everyone who has helped make 2013 so creative. Here’s to more of the good stuff in 2014.

        P.s. I’m drinking a mince-pie caipirinha – a vodka based cocktail with real mince pie in it. Xmas magic!

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          A nightmare scenario in Detroit – could it happen here?

          FILE: Detroit Declares Bankruptcy

          I was delighted to be asked to take part in The Guardian Expert Panel discussion on the nightmare scenario of Detroit – bankrupt, services collapsing, no viable economy and crime levels like a dystopian horror novel. The question was whether a city in the UK could end up in the same sinking boat – and how to avoid it.

          Such an interesting debate. It made me think about how we write about poverty and deprivation, avoid stereotyping and/or create a self fulfilling prophecy of disaster. It also made me think about what alternative stories people and communities in Detroit might tell. Although we have better checks and balances in the UK to avoid the worst, there are plenty of examples of places where there is an over dependency on one industry and a toxic mix of under-investment. I feel it’s important that we don’t just say “this could never happen here” but we look the nightmare in the face and say “let’s make sure we act now to make sure it doesn’t.”

          Have a look at some of the comments below…

          Expert round-up: what lessons can be learned from Detroit’s bankruptcy? Read our panel’s views on what happened in Detroit, and how UK councils’ can avoid something similar occurring Sarah Marsh, Wednesday 14 August 2013 10.01 BST

          Tony Travers is director of the London School of Economics’ London research centre
          Detroit says nothing at all about the limits of localism: In Britain, we have surely reached the very limit of centralism. The core of Whitehall has so many powers it cannot realistically use them effectively. Cities and city regions offer a good basis for a step towards devolution, which would allow (modest) risk-taking by their leaders. City leadership has already worked well in Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds. The London model, with partial devolution, has prospered. Why not allow more experimentation and locally-determined investment.

          Alex Nurse is research associate at the University of Liverpool
          Cities that pin their hopes on one industry might be setting themselves up for a fall: The key is to diversify. While big companies are key to this, smaller companies have a role that shouldn’t be overlooked.
          There are many things preventing UK cities from “doing a Detroit”, particularly around budgeting: The scale and scope of what US cities are expected to fund is very different to our own. However, the basic ingredients [for a similar situation] are there — Liverpool, for example, has seen a similar level of population decline over the last 50 years (about 47%).

          Dawn Reeves is a former local government director and author of Hard Change
          The issues in Detroit were known for decades: People saw and lived the reality of a disaster as it happened and even then action – at a significant enough scale – wasn’t taken. There needs to be an honest assessment of the underlying structural issues and weaknesses in the economy that is shared locally and nationally and a willingness to consider the worst case scenarios. If this doesn’t happen then the solutions offered may not be on an appropriate scale for the challenges.
          Some authorities have done impressive work on scenario planning: Looking at what could happen has driven a bigger response to economic decline and faster action on critical issues in a joined-up way.

          Giles Roca is head of strategy at Westminster city council
          Detroit is a clear failure of leadership rather than a failure of localism: It needs to be seen in the wider context of the failures of other economies and countries at the national level. Indeed some of the issues facing Greece, Portugal and Ireland are remarkably similar to Detroit.
          There are some lessons for us and other countries: We can learn about the failure to provide clear, strong political leadership, the failure to diversify a stagnant economy based around a single industry and a failure to understand wider trends and where the market is moving.

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            The not very glamorous but successful book tour – how i did it

            Like many writers I love the writing bit and sometimes find doing my own marketing and promotion a distraction from my new novel. But what I’ve found on my not very glamorous but successful mini-book tour, is that there are parts of the book selling process that are fun, really stimulating and enrich the writing process.

            In attempting to sell Hard Change, I’ve researched how to promote books on-line and benefitted from the wealth of information and advice that’s out there. Thanks especially to Joanna Penn @thecreativepenn and @JaneFriedman, showing me the long game. But while I’m (painfully) slowly building up my author platform and getting my on-line sales act together, I decided to take action, use my other skills and experience, interests and networks, get out there and meet people – and that’s the bit I love. Here are 3 key lessons I’ve learned so far and how it’s working.

            Think about what do you do in your day job (or life outside work) that you might build on or twist to provide some new interest /angle?
            I’m a professional facilitator and design a range of workshops to help people tackle whatever problems they are facing. I thought about some of the issues at the top of the list of my potential readers and designed a workshop around it. I tested the workshop and found a few takers who loved the session, tweeted about it and bought some books.

            What characters are in your book and where might people who recognise those characters hang out?
            My novel is a political thriller mainly set in local government and the public sector in the UK. I thought about the conferences I used to go to, when I worked in that world, looked at what was happening and got myself along to them. It felt like a leap but has generated fantastic interest in the book and got me an article in The Guardian – see:

            When you get where your readers are, enjoy it and listen to your readers stories – they are gold dust!
            So far on my mini-tour (3 conferences and 3 workshops so far – with another 2 to come) the highlight has been seeing old colleagues, lots of whom have pitched in a bought a book. I’ve made new friends (who’ve likewise bought books) and learned loads including new stories that are inspiring me to crack on and write book 2! Will be interesting to see my sales figures for the month but I’ve sold an average of 25 books a day on my “tour” and fitted it around the day job. Ok it might not be J.K. Rowling –but it feels like a great start and there’s some momentum!

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              The not very glamorous but successful book tour!

              2013-07-11 14.18.13

              Me at the CIPFA conference

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                In case you missed the Guardian article – retelling the local government story as a thriller

                Murder at the town hall: retelling the story of local government as a thriller
                An ex-council director turned thriller writer explains how to turn around gloomy and cynical narratives about local government
                Dawn Reeves Guardian Professional, Thursday 4 July 2013 14.00 BST

                Could local government staff learn from Alfred Hitchcock to create a thrilling tale around local government. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

                Someone will be murdered today at the Local Government Association conference in Manchester. It could happen in a narrow service corridor behind the catering area or in an unlit car park underneath the town hall.A chief executive may appear with strange blue marks on his hands or, to keep the city safe, a council leader could be forced to cross a line she’s never crossed before. I don’t know how it will end because that’s up to the participants – it will be their story.

                Encouraging our local government leaders to write their own town hall thriller might sound like an improbable conference session, but there is an urgent need to tell a different story about local government. As a former local government director, and someone who’s worked with and in the public sector for 18 years, I was infuriated by the way in which public services, and local government in particular, are constantly undermined.In a spirit of quiet protest, I decided to write the story from a different perspective. Local government and thriller may not go together in many people’s minds, but I found that creating a dark entertainment with murder at its heart was a good way of getting beneath the surface of what happens in a town hall. A murder sharpens the focus on decision-making, and the most critical aspects of work suddenly crystallise – the political gets personal.

                In my novel, Hard Change, local government officers are heroes as well as villains. The story examines whether they and their colleagues in the police and public health can act collectively to prevent another death. I think it’s important to tell stories in creative ways that change perceptions and shine new light on our experiences. Having written the novel, I thought about how possible and practical it might be to change the local government story. This led me to develop a workshop, which I’ve taken back into councils to continue the dialogue about how to turn around gloomy, cynical or antagonistic narratives. The workshop focuses on how to construct a good story and how to get different messages out in a way that really connects with people.
                Using creative techniques also helps to work out the story we want to tell: whether it’s about the council itself or the local community.

                At the LGA conference, my workshop will encourage participants to write their own town hall thrillers. I’ve no doubt that some of the stories they produce will have heroes that we can identify with, not stereotypical views of bureaucrats who don’t care
                We need more stories about public services and local government – the more thoughtful, illuminating and the more they get under the skin the better.

                How to change the negative narrative about local government*It’s the way you tell stories that counts. Use creative techniques to construct a good story and maximise the impact. This approach can get your message out there in a way that connects and is remembered positively.

                *Work out your organisation’s story – what do you want it to become? What we choose to tell others and ourselves makes a difference. Visions or corporate mission statements rarely resonate, but developing a few clear stories that illustrate where the organisation is going, with you in a leading role, can be inspirational.

                *Avoid getting stuck in a “problem” narrative. Damaging and lazy stereotypes in the media can mean that the council can be seen as the problem. Clarifying and communicating your preferred story and your intentions in creative ways has real power to shift to a more positive focus.

                *Your point of view is critical – add interpretation and meaning to change perceptions. Communicating correct information is vital, but it’s not the end of the story. An interesting and illustrative story from your point of view isn’t spin; it’s legitimate and critical. It’s all about meaning, perception and whose interpretation gets adopted. Why not yours?

                *Motivations matter – reminders that local government is about public good, not profit-making, are important. Showing why people do what they do in local government is a major differentiator. It’s what makes local government increasingly trusted.

                Dig out the story that illustrates who does what and why, then spread the word!

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                  Thrillers – never too close to home

                  How do you feel about reading a dark tail of your own world? Is the grim reality too much? The not very gory but hyper real details of what can happen in your own office; organisation or neighbourhood can be an uncomfortable read – or worse, a complete turn off? Although I love reading fiction with strong workplace stories, I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I wondered how much people might really want a local council/ local politics bus-mans holiday? Or if it might be too painful to spend even more time “at work” when you live it every day?

                  Of course it depends on how you tell it and if you can offer something different. The challenge for me was to look at my working world out of the corner of an eye, to shine a light in the murky corners of an organisation that no-one wants to see and to weave a web of connections that offers new meaning. I also had to focus on characters that could drive the story and that readers who know this world, would understand if not like. I also put my familiar workplace characters in new situations and different roles including both heroes and villains.

                  It worked for me as a writer and a reader. I loved writing it and I’m chuffed to say that the response to Hard Change from people who live and work in the world of Councils and local politics has been fantastic. Readers love it when the detail is right and there is real empathy for their world. And they love it even more when they are surprised, taken in new directions or given hope.

                  The feedback on the concept of a town hall thriller – and how you can tell a different story about local politics – has also been very encouraging. That the Guardian newspaper picked it up and published my article showed that there’s something interesting in the idea. That the book works for readers who work in the public sector is a great sign for the future and a second novel in that world.
                  Guardian Article

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                    Creative story-telling – you don’t need to make it up

                    2013-05-22 08.35.48I’ve had great feedback about Hard Change from people working in the public sector – particularly local government. It was part of my motivation, to prove it’s possible to write a hopeful, thought provoking and nuanced story about good people working in the worst circumstances… dealing with a murder. The characters in the novel are not the people you normally see in thrillers; these are people in suits dealing in different ways with life and death situations in their city and their families.

                    I met some of these people at the Cardiff LG Communications conference yesterday. They wanted heroes to identify with, not stereotypical views of bureaucrats who don’t care, people who will fight for good change. And they knew plenty about villains. One said “I remember the time 5 of my councillors were in prison;” another participant offered a story about a Planning Officer who’d been shot. There were real life stories of bravery and violence in the face of corruption, Trading standards officers saving lives from toxic chemicals and environment officers demonstrating how their work stopped an old lady from losing everything in a flood. The stories are all there, it’s a rich mix of what’s important in life and we need more of them. I hope Hard Change contributes to a different picture of public service and that some of the people I met yesterday go on to write their own thrillers.

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