Wednesday, 1 October 2014


Ooops! I'm dashing on to today's ABBA page, half out of breath! 

A rare and unexpected holiday has shoved the Things That Need Doing Right Now into a complex squidge of pages, people to contact and panic. 

So this post - sorry! - is just about my computer's current post-it note.
Maybe a month ago,Nick Green - thank you, Nick! - mentioned a second book by Dorothea Brande. As I have always been curious about how artists and writers work, I investigated.

Brande, an American editor, was the author of "Becoming A Writer". Originally published in 1934, her first book gained extra popularity when the novelist John Braine claimed in his foreword to the 1983 edition that Brande's advice cured his writer's block. Maybe that was the moment when the whole modern genre of "writing about writing" toddled to its feet and started walking and talking?

What is the essence of this second book? Basically - in "Wake Up and Live"  - Brande suggests that whenever we think and act in negative ways, we use up too much of the energy we could be putting into our art, our writing and living. Whenever we feel low or lack confidence, we slide into a constant cycle of giving time and attention to all those things that we can't do, all the failures and frets and fears.

We worry about all we haven't done or all that others seem to be succeeding at - and this was way before Facebook and Twitter! - and end up sapping the energy that we should be spending on the work itself. The book as a whole isn't one I'd recommend, but this particular point made sense to me. 

Brande also went on to say that before going into an important interview, an awkward meeting or a scary party, people are advised to pause, present their best self and enter the room acting as if they have confidence. Yes, ACTING as they can do it.
So that's what you, the writer or artist, do. You go to your work acting as if you were the person you'd like to be, imagining you are your best version of yourself, giving your energy to the positive side of yourself.

Each morning, now the holiday laundry is done, I'm going to approach my work in progress, take a moment to push away all that sad energy-draining stuff and try imagining myself as the writer I might be.

This is how Brande puts it:  

Eight words that might help. Eight words that inspire me more than the usual daily litany of self-doubt. The words are perfect for my desk right now.

Penny Dolan

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The strange things children’s writers do – Lari Don

Yesterday, I helped dress a dragon in a car park.
The dragonmobile, at Pirniehall Primary in Edinburgh

But it’s not the strangest thing I’ve done as a children’s writer.

I've recce'd a castle, going in undercover as a tourist, to discover the best way to steal their most famous artefact.

I've interviewed a vet about how to heal a fairy’s dislocated wing, and a boat builder about how to fit a centaur on a rowing boat.

I've lost half a dozen journalists in a maze. (I guided them out again eventually. Most of them.)

I've told Celtic legends on an iron age hillfort, fairytales in an inner city woodland, and Viking myths in a cave.

And all of these things have been an integral part of my job as a children’s writer. Because writing is not just sitting at a keyboard and tapping out chapters.

The research (chatting to vets about fairy injuries and sneaking about castles) is often as much fun as the writing. And the promotion (dragon dressing and outdoor storytelling) is almost as important as the sitting at my desk imagining.

I suspect that as a children’s writer, you have to be just as imaginative in your research methods and your promotion ideas as you do in your cliffhangers and your characterisations.

But I can’t take credit for the dragon in the carpark. I did create a shiny friendly blue dragon, as one of the main characters in my Fabled Beast series. However, I had moved onto creating other characters in other stories, when my publishers decided to give the Fabled Beasts Chronicles new covers, and announced that they were going to promote the covers with a dragonflight tour.

Then the very talented marketing executive at Floris Books designed a dragon costume for her own car. And she’ll be spending most of the next fortnight driving me round beautiful bits of Scotland and the north of England (yesterday Edinburgh, today Perth, then Aberdeenshire and Penrith, as we get more confident and stretch our wings!) in a car which we dress up as a dragon in the carpark of various primary schools, then invite the children out to ooh and aah at our shiny blue dragon and her shimmering flames, before I go inside to chat with the pupils about cliff-hangers and quests.

So, this week, I’ve already learnt how to put a dragon’s jaws on at speed. And I’ve discovered that if the engine hasn’t cooled down yet, those flames coming down from the bonnet are actually warm!
Very brave Forthview Primary pupils sitting on dragon's flames!

So, yes, I do strange things. But I have fun! And I hope that my enjoyment comes across in my books, and in my author events.

I don’t think the adventures I create would be nearly as interesting without the odd conversations I have while I’m researching them, or the weird things I do to promote them.

So – what do you think? Should I just be sensible and stay indoors writing? Or is a little bit of weird now and then an effective way to make books, reading and writing more exciting for children?

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 

Monday, 29 September 2014

A Box of Delights - Anna Wilson

The village I live in has no pub, no shop - no focal point at all. Days can go by without me seeing any of my neighbours, which can make working at home rather lonely. I was musing over this with a friend one day and we came up with the romantic idea of turning the village phone box into a mini library in an effort to bring people together. Little did I know that it would take a whole year to get the project off the ground.

BT are keen to get rid of the responsibility of maintaining the old-fashioned red phone boxes, as they are costly to keep smart, and of course so few people use the phones these days, that the cost of keeping the lines open is a waste of money as well. I discovered that it was possible to 'adopt' a kiosk for the princely sum of £1. BT would then come and take the phone out, leaving me free to put up shelves and fill them with books.

Sounds easy, right? Well . . .

First I had to contact BT through their website to ask for a contract. I had to do this before I could send my £1 anywhere. For weeks I tried filling in the appropriate page on the website, only to have it crash every time. I asked other friends to try via their laptops and iPads, and they all had the same problem. I ended up Tweeting 'Trying to contact @BritishTelecom to adopt a kiosk, but website keeps crashing'. Funnily enough, I received a response within the day asking me to DM my request. Public shaming gets you fast results.

It turned out that was only the start of a set of hurdles I had to conquer. To get the contract signed and approved, I was told I had to have the signature of someone on the village committee, as the committee is a registered charity. Fine, I thought, I know a few people I can ask. However, at first no one was willing to do this, as they were worried about Public Liability Insurance in the event of anyone using the box having an accident, and the village fund could not cover the cost of this insurance. I also began to receive negative comments from some neighbours who thought that a phone box full of books would be set on fire or used as a urinal.

I was told to contact the local Parish Council to get permission to use the box as a library before anyone would sign the contract, which, to complicate matters further, is in the next-door village because our village doesn't have a church. By this stage, I felt as if I were lost in the corridors of the Circumlocution Office.

Finally I got the contract through and, with the help of my friendlier neighbours, was able to spend last weekend cleaning the box, putting up shelves and attaching stickers to the windows saying 'Village Library'. An invitation went out to everyone in the village to come along at 6pm on Sunday to have a glass of wine and fill the box with books.

And they did! It was a joyful evening, in which I discovered that our village boasts four other authors, one of whom is a naturalist who is now helping my son with his various wildlife projects. There were many conversations about people's favourite books, what people are reading in their various book clubs and which titles they would recommend. So in the end, a love of books has overcome negativity and red tape, and I have made some new friends in the process. (Sometimes it is worth battling the Parish Councils of this world, however circumlocutory they may be . . .)

(It wasn't until this photo was taken that we realised we were Team Turquoise . . .)

Sunday, 28 September 2014

"Competing for their attention" - Clémentine Beauvais

I know I am, in many ways, in support of what in Britain would be qualified as ‘traditionalist’ educational practices in terms of literacy (and in France as ‘normal’ ones), namely the learning of poetry by heart, the imposition of reading lists, etc. However, where I differ from the French view on literacy, and perhaps from many educators in English-speaking countries too, is that I am opposed to the common hierarchy between arts or media which puts reading at the top. I don’t think there’s any reason, once literacy skills have been acquired of course (and it’s not an easy task), to enforce the notion that books are ‘better’ intrinsically than films, video games, TV series, and other visual or musical art forms and media. But they are, certainly, different ways of looking at the world. 

This is partly why I’m getting increasingly uneasy with the common claim, in author interviews, that ‘we’ authors ‘now’ have to ‘compete’ with ‘films, video games, TV series’ in order for our books to be read. I used to say this as well, and of course I understand that in the most basic sense of ‘competition’ (=available time), it is true: children and young adults ‘now’ have immediate access to a wide range of such other media, and while they’re watching films or playing games they’re not reading our books. So, in terms of time, yes, we have to ‘compete’. We also have to ‘compete’ with one another, as authors, I guess. We have to ‘compete’ with funny YouTube videos, too, but that doesn’t keep me awake at night.
No, this claim bothers me because I do not see and do not want to see other creative people and other works of art as ‘competition’. Films and video games are not our enemies. They are works that ambition to set in motion creative processes, to stimulate the imagination, to increase empathy, to entice viewers and players to take part in the elaboration of complex worlds, and that can do so in different ways and just as well as books. They are not ‘competitors’. If anything, we complement one another; we provide different ways of encouraging creative, thoughtful, witty, etc. visions of the world. 
Saying we’re in competition with them is the equivalent of saying that all these different works of art and ways of looking at the world are interchangeable. ‘Yes! I win! She’s reading my book instead of watching a film!’. To me, this is like saying, ‘Hurrah! She’s reading my book instead of talking to her grandmother!’. Both are hugely beneficial activities. They’re not the same, but they all contribute to growth, maturation, creativity and learning, in their own original ways. 
If we try to 'compete' with films or video games through similar narrative strategies, we risk making it sound like literature does not have its own specificities; like it's just a matter of being 'more entertaining' than 'other media'. This would impoverish greatly what we can do with verbal narrative, with words, which are what makes our medium unique. 
And there's worse. While we’re busy saying that other branches of the creative world are ‘competitors’, we’re not talking about those branches of the culture industry which are actually busy ‘competing’ with us - in the sense that they're waging a war on the creative spirit and critical thinking of children by promising them, for instance, that the acquisition of a toy or product or game will bring happiness; by flattening the beautiful diversity of existence into easily-packaged, formulaic tales that will generate addiction and therefore money-spending; by constructing consent for the world as it is and driving reflection out of it. That's what keeps me awake at night, to be honest.
I'm being wilfully provocative here, but let me tell you what I see as competition. 10 million iPhones 6 sold in one weekend: that’s competition. Cultural products that are only created so as to sell spin-offs and merchandise: that’s competition. Little girls being made to worry about their looks and having to spend time investigating diets and make-up techniques: that’s competition. Little boys having to be interested in porn and war rather than in creative pursuits: that’s competition. Adverts selling children and young adults a unified, unimaginative version of world where “possession = happiness”: that’s competition.
Thank goodness there are people who create enticing, challenging, thought-provoking, original pieces of work in all the arts and media; and a school system which is starting to recognise this when it encourages high-level visual literacy, film and video game analysis, encounters with media and art forms from different cultures, etc. The real competitors are the messages we receive daily (and especially children) that discourage such imaginative pursuits and critical reflection by giving easy answers to complex questions. 


Clémentine Beauvais writes books in both French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes for all ages, and the latter humour and adventure stories with Hodder and Bloomsbury. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Grammar Nazis - Lily Hyde

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Lviv Publisher’s Forum, talking about the Ukrainian translation of my novel Dream Land. This annual forum in the West Ukrainian city of Lviv fills libraries, universities, coffee houses and theatres with a bewildering array of readings, discussions, concerts and lectures. Highlights for me were an all-night poetry slam, a Crimean Tatar-Ukrainian jazz fusion performance, meeting Lviv publishers Stary Lev, and a session with authors Oksana Zabuzhko from Ukraine and Katerina Tuckova from the Czech Republic held in a fabulous, faded Baroque theatre than could have been a Hammer horror film set. 

In-between, there was time to wander the cobbled streets with their glorious central-European architecture. Over the last hundred years Lviv has changed its name four times as it has belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, the Soviet Union and Ukraine. It’s seen its fair share of 20th century horrors, and has a largely undeserved reputation for extreme nationalism. In fact, it feels like a city that is confident and at ease with its identity: consciously cultured; literary; tolerant; polyglot; central-European. 

This is a sign I noticed on a Lviv trolleybus window. Printed by the nationalist political party Svoboda, it is instructions in public transport etiquette: how to buy a ticket, ask the driver to stop and so on in polite, correct Ukrainian. “This may be a case when the term ‘grammar Nazi’ isn’t exactly an exaggeration,” a non-Ukrainian friend commented when he saw it. 

It made me think about the line between being proud of one’s language and heritage, and wanting to impose it on those from other heritages. Much of the publisher’s forum was about cultural exchange and translation, a celebration of how literature can bridge national divides. But this year, for the first time in 23 years, Russian publishers were not invited to attend.

The decision roused much furious debate and anxious soul-searching in literary circles. Russian and Russian-language books, publishers and bookshops have dominated the Ukrainian literary market for 23 years. A recent spate of openly anti-Ukrainian literature from mainstream Russian publishers undoubtedly influenced the forum decision. But when does pride and protectionism become chauvinism and censorship? Does wanting to protect one’s own language, and encouraging people to speak it correctly and beautifully, make someone a ‘Nazi’?


Friday, 26 September 2014

Single-tasking by Cavan Scott

When I was a kid I loved The Generation Game  and knew all the words to Life Is The Name of the Game off by heart. Still do in fact, as my daughters will testify after they've stopped cringing with embarrassment every time I sing it.

Here's a little reminder for you:

My favourite game was Spinning Plates, you know, the one where you have to keep crockery whizzing around on long poles. It always looked so easy when the expert did it, but as soon as Brucie sent in the contestants? Well, they were anything but a smashing success!

As a full-time writer, I feel like I'm always spinning plates. With so many projects on the go I often feel like one of those poor Generation Gamers, running from pillar to post to stop everything from crashing around my ears.

I've always prided myself of being a good multi-tasker. It goes back to being a magazine editor. Every day was a juggling act. But recently, I've asked myself if multi-tasking is such a good idea. It all comes from reading The Power of Less by Leo Babauta, a handy little time-management book. One concept really spoke to me - that of single-tasking.

It's something I've been trying this month. It basically involves cutting out all distractions and focusing on one thing at a time.

Usually, when I'm working on something, I have my email on, my messenger app running, twitter in the corner and a 1001 other distractions in the background. It doesn't mean I'm always checking them, but the fact they're even there can be enough to put me off what I'm doing. They're all bonging away at me, or flashing their icons, letting me know that messages are waiting.

And once I know there's a message there, I'm doomed. Even if I'm not checking my email, I'll want to check my email. If I'm leaving messenger alone, I'm wondering who's messaged. My mind isn't on the task at hand any more. After all, the message might be THE MOST IMPORTANT MESSAGE IN THE WORLD!!!!!

Ahem, sorry.

So, I've turned all the notifications off and am trying to only check emails at least once an hour, ideally even less like that. If I can, I tell myself I'm not going to check my messages for an entire morning - although I get jumpy after a couple of hours.

Some days it's got so difficult not to have a quick look that I've turned the modem off in the kitchen to stop me just firing up the app for a second. If I want to look I have to get up and wander downstairs to plug it back in again, enough time to tell myself off!

And it's worked. I'm in the middle of a hellishly busy period and I'm getting through it, task by task, all by only spinning one plate at a time.

Of course another challenge awaits today. I have a self-imposed deadline of 5pm for a task and so I'm going to post this and then not check back to see if there are any comments until after I'm done.

Am I going to manage it? Well, if you leave a comment and I reply before 5pm, I give you permission to slap me around the head with a wet kipper the next time we bump into each other.

See you at 5:01!


Cavan Scott is the author of over 60 books and audio dramas including the Sunday Times Bestseller, Who-ology: The Official Doctor Who Miscellany, co-written with Mark Wright.

He's written for Doctor WhoSkylandersJudge Dredd, Angry Birds, Adventure Tim and Warhammer 40,000 among others. He also writes Roger the Dodger and Bananaman for The Beano as well as books for reluctant readers of all ages.

Cavan's website
Cavan's facebook fanpage
Cavan's twitterings

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Tamsyn Murray

I'm sure you don't need me to remind you that 2014 is the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. There are reminders everywhere, and rightly so, triggering people to contemplate all kinds of things in relation to the war, which is moving outside of living memory for the first time. One of the most striking reminders is at the Tower of London, where they have an evolving installation of ceramic poppies in the moat called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, a poppy for every British soldier who died in the war.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the Tower of London last week, to celebrate the launch of the Historic Royal Palaces Learning Team's Why Remember schools' campaign. This campaign asks three simple questions:
  • Why should we remember?
  • Why is 100 years significant?
  • How do you want to remember?
The idea is that we encourage children and their parents, teachers and support staff, everyone to remember WWI in a way that means something to them, rather than being told about what happened from books. By thinking about and answering the questions, they are doing more than just learning about history, they're making it part of their own experience. And it dawned on me that this generation of learners will engage with the war in a way other generations haven't: I read WWI poetry at school but I didn't understand it, couldn't visualise some of what the soldiers went through, maybe didn't even care what happened because I was young and it all seemed like an impossible thing anyway. But 2014 feels different. As I sat and listened to primary school aged pupils reading their perspective on the questions above, I realised that perhaps more than most recent generations, they understood the responsibility to remember. Someone pointed out that we need to look back on the mistakes of the past so we can learn from them and that was especially poignant when you consider WWI was meant to be 'the war to end war'.

Another thing the day brought home to me was the sheer number of soldiers who died. 888, 246 is a pretty hard number to visualise but when you start to think that every poppy planted in the moat represents a person, it gets easier. Standing on Tower Hill, gazing out at the sea of red, I began to consider the sons and husbands and fathers and uncles who went off to war and never came home as real people, rather than a number or statistics. I also learned that the Tower keeps a Roll of Honour - a list of Commonwealth military fatalities from WWI - that is read out at the close of every day. The Last Post is played at the end, another way of remembering, and simply watching some of the videos of this simple roll call made the hairs on my arms stand up.

So here are my answers to the questions above:
  • We should remember because these were real people, giving their lives for the freedom of others, regardless of whether it was right or wrong.
  • 100 years is significant because there is no one alive now who was there - it's our job to keep the stories of those who lived then going. 100 years is a milestone that helps us to share these stories.
  • I want to remember by helping to plant the poppies and by keeping in my mind that every single one of them represents someone's son.
How about you? What are your answers?