Thursday, 30 October 2014

The not-writing bits of a writer’s day - Lari Don

I love writing, but I can’t do it for long.

I do it in quick bursts (30 or 40 minutes is usually enough) then I need a break, partly to recover emotionally from the fight or chase or argument I’ve just written, partly to get up from the chair and keyboard to give my body a change of posture, and partly to give my brain time to consider solutions to the questions and problems that particular burst of writing has thrown up.

So on the rare and wonderful days when I have all day to write, I don’t spend all day writing. I do a variety of things to take a break, at least once an hour. And over the years, I’ve discovered things which REALLY don’t work as breaks from writing:

Logging on to my email or twitter or facebook or even lovely blogs like this, because I get involved in conversations then feel rude if I break them off to get back to writing, and anyway it doesn’t give me a break from the screen and keyboard.

Reading a novel, because if the novel is any good, 10 minutes isn’t enough, and I risk getting sucked into that world, forgetting the time, forgetting the book I’m trying to write…

Doing a bit of housework, which usually annoys me more than it relaxes or inspires me, so I do as little housework as possible (this is a life rule, not just a writing day one!)

So this month, I made a new resolution (why make them in January? October can be a new start too) and I’m trying to find other things to give me a quick mental and physical break, then send me back into the story refreshed and possibly even inspired. And so far, these have worked:
 
Reading poetry, short stories or collections of art and photos. Much less likely to suck me in than a novel, and also a chance to widen my reading. So I’ve started a shelf of books specifically chosen for glancing at for 10 minutes (and yes, that is a book of Joan Lennon’s poetry…)

Stitching or sewing something. I’ve dug out a cushion cover I started to design decades ago, and now I’m working on it in very small sections. Working with wool is so different from working with words, that it seems like the perfect break.

Baking bread or cooking. It’s not housework, but it still makes me feel domestically useful, and kneading bread is particularly satisfying.

Going for a run. This is the best way to clear my head, and to deal with the dangers of a sitting down job. But it only works once a day, and only when I can be bothered! 

Sight reading a few of my daughter’s scales / exercises / pieces on the piano. (Not particularly well, but with a bit of verve!)

I’m sure if did all of these (run, bake, sew, play music, read poetry…) in one day, I’d probably not write any words of my own at all. But having all of those options certainly beats hanging socks between chapters…



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. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A Dog Isn't Just For Christmas . . . by Anna Wilson

I have written quite a few books which include canine characters and thus often find myself asked to do strange things in the name of publicity. I have judged dog competitions, judged short story competitions about dogs, been to visit a veterinary surgery with a reader, taken my own dog to an event to publicise my books and "meet" my readers. However, by far and away the strangest event I was invited to was one sponsored by the Kennel Club called "Bark and Read".


In schools where there are a number of children who have difficulty reading aloud, specially trained dogs from the Pets As Therapy scheme can be sent in at lunchtime to sit and listen to children read. I was asked to attend such a session at Vallis First School in Frome in Somerset, near where I live. I took some of my books and was asked to read some of my stories to the visiting dog, Percy, a Clumber Spaniel. Percy was adorably gentle and quiet and sat and listened attentively as I read about my fictional dogs having adventures, getting into scrapes, and solving mysteries. When I finished, Percy patted an electronic button which announced I had done a "Good Job!" The children, who were extremely shy at meeting me, relaxed when they saw Percy listening to me read and were soon clamouring to have a go themselves. The teacher explained to me afterwards that the children in the group all had learning difficulties or were suffering with tricky home lives, and that this time with Percy once a week was giving them a quiet space in which to practise reading aloud and enjoying stories without worrying if they were making mistakes or reading books that were "too babyish" for them, etc.



Recently my sister mentioned that my nephew was not enjoying reading aloud and was becoming quite anxious when asked to do so at school. His teachers had suggested he practise at home, but he was reluctant to do that too. I told her about the Bark and Read scheme as my sister has two lovely Labradors who I thought might be good listeners. She immediately jumped at the idea of her son reading to the pets. And it has worked! My nephew now asks if he can read aloud to Scooby and Teasel, the Labs (and the cat, Wormy, not to be outdone, has slinked his way in on the act as well).





I would highly recommend this approach to anyone who has a child struggling with reading. I have a feeling that any pet would enjoy a good book. I know our tortoise is not averse to a bit of bedtime storytelling. So if you have a reluctant reader and can get your hands on a willing pet, put the two together and you might just see something magical happen.

If you are interested in the Bark and Read Scheme or Read2Dogs with Pets As Therapy, visit these websites:

Anna Wilson

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Memories of then, and writing now - Clémentine Beauvais

Today, three stories, followed by a few thoughts...

Story 1. The hole.
In my parents’ building in Paris, where I spent most of my childhood, there’s a hole in the wall near the ground - a hole big enough for a child to crawl through, and as a child I would always do so instead of using the door. Most of the time I’d already wriggled through the hole before my parents had found their keys - and I’d open the glass door from the inside, extremely dusty but very conscious of my power.
As time went by, I somehow stopped crawling through the hole. 
One day, when I got home from school, I realised I’d forgotten my keys. No problem, I thought, I can just go through the hole. But of course when I tried I couldn’t - it was too narrow for my shoulders.
It didn’t make me sad. But for some time afterwards, when I thought about it, I confusedly wondered - was it really because I’d grown too big for it that I couldn’t go through the hole anymore, or was it because I’d stopped going through the hole that I’d grown too big for it?

Story 2. The spatula.


As a child I was constantly, voraciously hungry. I would actually dream that I was eating roast chicken with cream, or Nutella crêpes or cheese. Only pride would prevent me from crying if I had any reason to believe that another child, or indeed adult, had been given more food than me. I couldn’t focus on anything if there was a vending machine in sight, especially if it sold Kinder Bueno, my favourite chocolate bar and an absolute torture, as I was always divided between the desire to eat each chunk in one go and the temptation to open them up like little boxes and lick the cream inside.
I had a friend whose mum made excellent cakes every day. I often stayed with them on holiday, and my friend and I would prowl like vulture around the kitchen table as her mum finished scraping the dough out of the mixing bowl and into the cake dish with a spoon. Then we’d fight furiously over the remnants of dough in the bowl, with fingers, tongues and chins.
One day, her mum bought a silicon spatula. I’d never seen a silicon spatula before. 
We watched in horror as the ruthlessly efficient implement left barely a trail of cake dough in the mixing bowl. Every day after that, we swallowed back tears, and I clearly remember my head spinning with frustrated desire, as increasingly spotless mixing bowls ended up in the sink to be washed. We prayed and implored my friend’s mum to leave us at least a tiny bit, but she was under the impression that it was less useful to us raw than baked. 
We devised the perfect crime: we pushed the spatula all the way to the bottom of the cutlery drawer and it fell behind it, and behind the freezer beneath the drawer, with a satisfying CLACK, joining dozens of lost spoons, scissors and other expatriates from the overfilled drawer.
For the next few days the wooden spoon returned and with it the minutes of bowl-licking. Then they bought another spatula.

Story 3. The castle.
My mother was pregnant with my sister; I was five and a half years old. We had an absolutely tiny flat in Paris and my parents were looking for a less absolutely tiny flat. I knew how much they wanted to spend on it, and I ‘helped’ by looking at ads in the windows of estate agencies.
Suddenly I spotted an ad for a castle, a castle, for sale at a much lower price than the one my parents were ready to put into the new flat. It had turrets, an immense garden, a forest.
I listened, without understanding, as my mother explained that they didn’t want a castle, because they wanted to live in Paris. I pointed out that the ad said that it was only half and hour from Paris. My mother laughed and said no, Clementine, listen, we’re not buying a castle. We’re buying a flat in Paris.
I remember thinking, distinctly and with real alarm, feeling that this realisation would have an enormous impact on my future life: my parents are mad. I live with people who are mad.

***

I have three silicon spatulas now, and when I finally get a permanent job I will likely buy a small house or a flat. Not a castle.
It was ‘us’ children versus ‘them’ adults once upon a time, and now it’s the opposite. They’re really not like us, are they? I’m just not that hungry anymore. Sure, the memory of that hunger prevents me from getting too annoyed at them when they steal bits of mozzarella from the salads before they get to the table (arrghh!!!), or when they fly into a tantrum for an ice cream. 
And I think it’s amazing that I once wanted a castle. Amazingly mad.
Don't you think? 
It would be possible to write children's stories from all those intense memories, and to write them as if we truly believed that castles should indeed be bought and that cakes should preferably be eaten raw. But would it be true? Would it be honest? We don't... do that anymore. 
Would they be our stories now, these nostalgic recollections?
How do we write for children, having changed so much? 

Do we want to sound, when we write, like we're imagining that we can still go through the hole? That would leave our whole bodies behind, and what made them grow...

_____________________________________

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.  

Monday, 27 October 2014

Geopolitics: Lily Hyde

(Due to unforeseen circumstances, Lily was unable to post this month. So I've re-posted something she wrote in July. I've done this because I found this a very moving and resonant piece, and I'm glad to be able to give it another airing. Sue Purkiss)

This time last year I wrote a cheerful ABBA post from high in the Carpathian mountains in west Ukraine. I’d been listening to sad and fascinating family stories that are not just stories, from the woman who is and is not Lesya, and thinking I should write them down somehow. 

They were not just stories, although they felt like it to me a year ago. This now is not exactly a story either. 


I went to the village market early, down by the bridge where the icy river rushes along its bed of pale pebbles. The bridge was still in the shade, the sun not yet clear of the pine-green, copper-green mountains. 
The woman who sells there glass jars of bilberries sat as always in her faded apron, her daughter at her side – and this morning the woman was weeping and wailing, her salty tears running down into the jars. The little girl fiddled with the apron strings with fingers berry-stained blue, and said sternly, stop crying, Mama. Stop it. 
There was no need to ask why she was crying. But in the Russian she learned at school, peppered with words from Ukrainian, Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian, the woman told me anyway. 
Yesterday she was out on the polyana, the high Carpathian mountain pasture where the village sheep flocks wander all summer. She looked up from the bilberry bushes and watched the animals feeding on the steep slopes, like a handful of white and brown beads scattering from a broken string. 
This was what her great-grandfather saw each summer, here on these same mountains, before he was taken off to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914 and never came back. This is what her grandfather saw, before he was mobilised in 1938 by the Czechoslovak army, and what, via Hungarian, German and Soviet armies, he at last came home to. 
This is what she grew up with, this woman I’ll call Lesya. Her husband grew up with it; their daughter will grow up with it, maybe, although this traditional way of life is dying out at last and anyway Lesya wants something better for their daughter: Europe, travel, civilization, not smelly sheep on high pastures and a hard struggle for existence that hasn’t changed for centuries. 
That doesn’t stop Lesya thinking it’s the most beautiful and precious thing in the world; it is her world, her country, these sheep strung out over the green mountainside, the crystal air flush with their bleating and their ringing collar bells.    
She watched the sheep, and then she turned back to picking bilberries because her husband’s pay as a mobilised soldier in the Ukrainian army isn’t much. As well as jar-fulls at the market she can sell berries by the kilo to traders, who haul them off in refrigerated lorries to far-away Kyiv, maybe even to where her husband is now in further-away east Ukraine, a world she’s never seen though it is part of her country too, apparently. 
You already know how the rest of this story goes. While Lesya was picking bilberries, her husband was killed yesterday in that far-off East Ukraine war. She came home in the evening down the familiar paths to the village, when the news was already old. Early this morning she walked to market to sell those berries she was picking at the time her husband died, because what else can she do? 
And I bought them, because what else could I do? I bought the glass jar they were in too, for much more money than it is worth. I hold it in my hands now, full of tears stained berry blue, as I listen to that stern little girl’s voice saying, stop crying, stop it. 

www.lilyhyde.com
                        

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Future Golden Age of British Comics - Cavan Scott

Recently, I was interviewed for the paper about the importance of comics in child literacy. It's a subject that has received a lot of coverage of late, from Neill Cameron's wonderful series of articles on the subject to the creation of the UK's first Comics Laureate.

One question that never got into the article was 'what happened to the mainstream UK comic scene?' The answer is that it's still there, but it's changed, maybe forever.

I know what the interviewer meant. Back when I was a kid, newsagents were filled with titles such as Whizzer and Chips, Buster, Beezer, Whoopie and, my personal favourite, Nutty. Then in the '90s they started to disappear, replaced by magazines that had seriously reduced comic content. Most of the titles on the shelf were linked to toy or TV brands and were largely made up of puzzles or fact-files.

And then free gifts started appearing on the covers. Once, a free gift was a special event. Now, hardly an issue goes by without a free gift or a bag. That's how kids - and parents - choose which comic they're going to buy.

And so, here we are with only The Beano surviving from the hay-day of British humour comics. And we gnash our teeth and shake fists at WH Smith's kids' section. What happened to all those comics? Why did the nasty publishers stop printing them?

Well, probably because the readers stopped reading them. When I talk about this in public, parents often say how dreadful it is that such comics have all but disappeared, but the cold fact is that if people had carried on buying them, they would probably still be here. Publishers didn't publish comics out of the goodness of their hearts, they published them because they were businesses. And producing comics ain't cheap!

Perhaps parents and teachers and librarians at the time dismissed our traditional humour papers as disposable pap with no real merit. Thankfully, we live in a time where we've started to recognise the benefits comics can bring, especially for reluctant readers.

And that's not to knock the kids' magazines of today. There's a lot of really good stuff out there. Magazines full of inventive and stimulating content that stretches the imagination in different ways. And I would never dismiss the power of a recognisable toy or TV or game brand in getting kids to pick up books or magazines and read. I'd be a hypocrite if I did, as it's how I largely earn my living.

But I miss humour comics. Really, really miss them. And it's more than just nostalgia. Though school visits and the like, I see first hand the effect they can have on kids, how children engage with them, reading for readings sake, unaware that it's helping their literacy as they giggle and laugh.

Can I see a return to those heady pre-90s days? Maybe not, but if we want British comics to have a future, we need to support British comics. Buying the likes of the Beano and The Pheonix or making sure that librarians and schools know their worth. If they succeed, then publishers will want to mirror that success and you never know, a second golden age of British Comics may be upon us.

What do you think? Wishful thinking or a possible future? Let me know in the comments section below...

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Scene-itis by Tamsyn Murray

I'm at London Screenwriters' Festival this weekend. One of the things I like best about studying screenwriting is the way it makes me think about book writing. For example, in a session about non-linear stories yesterday, I realised that the next YA book I write will probably start in an unconventional place for a novel. During a panel event about attracting a killer cast to your screenplay, I was reminded by casting director Lucy Bevan that 'What comes from the heart goes to the heart.' Which is a timely reminder to write what you love and not to worry about chasing the market. And during Charlie Brooker's session, I remembered that my primary objective in writing, whatever I'm writing, is to entertain.

My real light bulb moment of the day was at the end, however, in a session with screenwriter David Reynolds (who has worked on the Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, The Emperor's New Groove amongst many many other things). David was talking about collaboration in comedy writing, and the way that writing funny things with someone else can help gauge how good a joke is: if you both laugh, it's a humour litmus test. And he went on to say that when you see the same jokes over and over, they start to appear flat and unfunny. Almost straight away, my light-bulb flashed, because when looking over my first Cassidy Bond book recently (published March 2015), I had a sudden cold uneasiness that the writing was not funny. Worse than that, it was flat and whiny. So when David explained that it was possible to get over-exposed to your own brand of humour, it was as though someone really had switched on a light. Maybe it wasn't that my book was unfunny...

I went and chatted to him afterwards, to thank him for making me feel a little better. I told him I had a book coming out, a book that had taken longer than normal to reach publication stage and that I had been worried about it. He explained that I had the book version scene-it is, something that happens in scriptwriting when you see a scene over and over again until you can't see the merit in it. I said that I was sure my book had been funny once, that I was fairly sure I was still funny occasionally and I walked away feeling better about Cassidy.

So if you find yourself looking at your work with flat disinterested eyes, it doesn't mean you've lost your touch. Maybe you've just got scene-it is.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Only Disconnect - Liz Kessler

As writers, one of the things that lies at the heart of our intentions is connection. We write books that we want people to read. We share our thoughts, our fantasies, the products of our imagination, sometimes our biggest secrets and the deepest angst in our souls - and we put it all out there for the world to read about.

‘Only connect,’ said EM Forster, and, over a hundred years later, this is still what drives us. And I don’t think this desire is restricted to writers. We all want it. That’s why telephones were invented. It’s why the internet has pretty much taken over the world. It’s why Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc etc etc are as massively popular as they are. They allow us to reach out, communicate, share, meet, interact…connect.

So what happened? How did these means of connection suddenly become the very things that keep us isolated and disconnected?

Actually, it didn’t happen suddenly at all. It sneaked up on us so gradually that most of us don’t even realise that it has happened to us.

I used to live on a narrowboat on the canal. I remember the day BT put a line across the farmer’s field and I plugged a phone into it. Out there, on a boat on a canal in pretty much the middle of nowhere, I was connected. It was incredible. (Till the day the farmer ploughed his field and cut the line to shreds – but that’s a different story.)

Me on my beloved boat, Jester. Crikey, my hair was short back then.
I remember my first mobile phone. I remember the first time someone showed me how to send an email – and my awe at the notion that the recipient could read it from anywhere in the world moments later. It was all very new at that time, and I’m glad that I am part of a generation that still remembers a time before these things were taken for granted. I still am in awe of the internet and what we can do with it.

But sometimes I wish we could all take a couple of steps back.

Phones today can do SO much – and the problem is that, nowadays, we so often use them to separate ourselves from the world around us, rather than connect us to it.

A couple of examples.

I was catching a train yesterday. Whilst I waited for my train, I looked around. On the platform opposite there were about eight people. A few of them in pairs and a few on their own, waiting for the same train. EVERY SINGLE ONE of them was looking at their phone. Every one. Not talking to the person they were with. Not smiling at a stranger. Not noticing anyone or anything around them. Each of them was locked away on their own with their screen.

The night before that, I’d been to a Lady Gaga concert. (It was amazing, by the way. The woman is utterly bonkers but WOW – what a show she puts on!)

The best decision my partner and I made (other than to buy 'Early Entry' tickets and get a great spot!) was to leave our phones at home. We met a couple of guys on our way in and became instant friends. The four of us watched, listened, sang, danced and loved every minute of the concert. I took it all in. Gaga, the dancers, the crowds, the outfits, the music. I was there.

Around us, probably half the people I could see spent most of the evening holding out their phones to photograph and record the gig – presumably to then share it on some social networking site and say ‘Look, I was there!’

But were they? Were they really there?

Generic photo off the internet - as I didn't have my phone/camera to take a pic!
We’d been chatting with a young woman beside us before the show began. Once it started, she was one of those who brought her phone out. At one point, when Lady Gaga was behind us, the woman videoed her back. At another point, when Gaga was too far away to get a decent shot, she videoed the dark stage with the blurry figure at the edge of it. When Lady Gaga and the dancers were out of our sight completely, the young woman held her phone out at the big screen and videoed that! 

She wasn't the only one; far from it. All these people around us, so busy framing their shots, zooming in, zooming out, focussing, refocussing, they weren't even aware that in their haste to show they were there, they actually weren't there at all. They were watching an event via a tiny screen held up in the air that they could have watched for real if they put their phones away.

This isn’t a criticism of any of these people. Heck, I’ve done it myself. I’ve experienced something and started composing a Facebook status about it in my head before the moment is even over. I’ve half-watched a TV programme whilst on twitter and spent as much time reading tweets about it as taking in the programme itself. I’ve even sent a text to my partner from one end of the sofa to the other, asking for a cup of tea. (Only as a joke, I should point out.)

But I can’t help thinking that we have to start reversing things before it’s too late and we forget the art of human interaction altogether.

Last weekend, I was told about a site that I’d never heard of, but which apparently most people in their twenties already know about/use, called Tinder. The idea is that you log in to the app, tell it who you are looking for (gender, age group etc) and what kind of radius you are interested in, to a minimum of one kilometre, and the app does the rest. Any time someone fitting your wishlist comes into your specified zone, you get a notification. You check out their photos. If you like them, you give them a tick. If they like you, they give you a tick – then you can ‘chat’ and arrange to meet or whatever. (And I imagine that for many of the users, it’s the ‘or whatever’ that interests them.)

At the risk of sounding like the oldest fogiest old fogey in the room….

REALLY?????

What happened to looking around? To conversation? To gradually getting to know someone? I’m not against online dating. Not remotely. I’m not, in fact, against any of this, and like I said, I'm as guilty of iPhone overuse as the next person. But I'm concerned by the constant speeding up of everything, and the taking us out of our surroundings to make us look at a screen instead of the things and the people around us.

So here’s my challenge – and I make it for myself as much as for anyone reading this. It’s not a super-radical idea. It’s about taking small steps.

Each day, use your phone a tiny bit less than you used it the day before. Make one decision a day where you say, ‘No, I won’t take my phone out of my pocket, I’ll smile at a stranger instead.’ Or one occasion where you decide, ‘I will allow myself this experience without having to share it online afterwards’. Just one small decision a day. Before we know it, we’ll all be connecting up again.

On which note I’m off for walkies with my partner, to chat, look at the waves, feel the salty air in my face and throw some stones for the dog.

And no, I’m not taking my phone.

Here's one I took earlier. 


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