Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Tale of Two Book Festivals: from Leeds to Edinburgh - by Emma Barnes

After speaking to 350 children at Edinburgh International Book Festival

It’s easy to get depressed in the worlds of children’s books: whether it’s the ongoing closure of public libraries, the fact that writers are earning less and less or the dismal statistic that over 1 in 4 British children don't own a single book.  But, if you haven’t abandoned me already, there ARE bright spots.  One of these positive trends is the amazing growth of literary festivals.

Big festivals are growing.  Small festivals are mushrooming. 

This summer I witnessed both ends of this spectrum, doing events at one of the newest festivals and  one of the most long established. 

Leeds Big Book End - Children's Programme

The Leeds Big Bookend has been set up by a bunch of enthusiastic and dynamic people in the city where I live, Leeds, who felt that with virtually everywhere else around us boasting a festival – Ilkley, Harrogate, Morley, Wakefield (I could go on) Leeds should have one too.  Entirely run by volunteers, it’s obviously been immensely hard work.

The children’s venue was rather tucked away above a health food shop…and yet inside the organizers had built a wonderful story-telling yurt, to which every child in the place immediately gravitated.  It was lovely.  And still small enough and intimate enough that I probably had chat with every child there.

Fellow author Kate Pankhurst in the yurt: Photo credit - Coronita Coronado

Then, at the end of August, I was off to one of the biggest and most well-established of festivals – the EdinburghInternational Book Festival (EIBF), where I was taking part in the Schools Gala Day.  The EIBF is a major event in the literary world, where probably the highlight of a packed children's programme this year was an appearance by Malala Yousafzai, introduced by JK Rowling.

Edinburgh is my original home town and I’ve been to the book festival there for years.  I remember sitting in small tents, sometimes with a handful of people, listening to the speakers organized by Scottish Book Trust.   Now the programme has grown hugely and the marquees in Charlotte Square are a hub bub of activity, with enormous queues, packed out events, famous faces passing in the crowd and a whole lot of people eating ice cream and sunning themselves on the grass  (well, Edinburgh weather permitting).

Of course, I’ve heard critics say that this growth in festivals only affects a few people – the book-buying public, and the families who encourage their children to read anyway.   In other words, festivals are the past-time of a literary elite.

Not so.  My own first event was for an audience of around 350 children who had traveled to the Festival with their schools – seven different primaries from across Scotland.  And in the afternoon, I did another school event in a local library – part of the Festival’s Outreach Programme, that takes writers and illustrators to meet children who most likely wouldn’t have the chance to come to the Festival.  And this year Edinburgh also ran a Writer in Residence scheme – enabling a writer to go in and work with children in a school over an extended period, creating their own picture books.

Questions prepared by the children at my EIBF outreach event

Edinburgh isn’t alone in this.  Many literary festivals run programmes of school visits, bringing together teachers, children, writers and illustrators.

When I was growing up, I never met an author or illustrator.  I was fascinated by books, but I never thought that writing them was something that living, breathing people did.  (I knew Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl were dead…I reckoned the rest probably were too.)

Now, many children are meeting authors, and that has a lot to do with book festivals.

Did I inspire any of the children I met this year?  I don’t know.  I know they laughed a lot.  I know they had lots of questions.  And I know when a bunch of those 350 children came up onto the stage and acted out their own story about my character, Wild Thing (where she and her sister visited Edinburgh Castle and accidentally set off the One O’clock Gun) they certainly inspired me.


Emma's new series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways) is out now from Scholastic. 
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Why I'm a Happy Hybrid, by Jenny Alexander

Today we have very welcome guest post from Jenny Alexander, who continues the discussion started by Nicola Morgan and Diana Kimpton on self-publishing.

In recent posts, Nicola Morgan wrote: ‘Why I don’t want to self-publish again’ and Diana Kimpton: ‘Why I’ve switched to self-publishing’ -  and both of them made points I completely agree with. I’m like the characters in the supermarket ad - ‘I like this one... but I also like this one!’ I’m just delighted that now we have a choice.

I’ve got two books in the publication process at the moment, one with a traditional publisher and one that I’m publishing myself.

The Binding will be published by A and C Black, in February 2015.

 I like this one because:

  • I’ve got a brilliant editor who loves the book – which is very affirming!
  • I haven’t had to do anything except some light edits and help in choosing the cover.
  • A team of top experts have taken care of all the design so I know it will be a top quality product.
  • I’ve been paid an advance and will receive royalties.
  • In an increasingly competitive market, there’s still kudos in being traditionally published.
  • I won’t be completely on my own with promoting and marketing.
  • My agent will be taking it to Frankfurt, seeking foreign deals.

Writing in the House of Dreams will be published by Five Lanes Press (ie me) on October 15th 2014.

I like this one because:
  • I’ve had complete creative control.
  • I’ve set my own publication date and chosen my own sales channels.
  • I know it will stay in print for as long as I want it to'
  • I’ll earn a far higher royalty on units sold'
  • It’s felt completely empowering to be able to give it a chance.
Before the self-publishing option was available, this child-of-my-heart book would have sat on my shelf, gathering dust. I know it’s of publishable quality because my agent was happy to represent it and the feedback we’ve had from publishers has been entirely positive, including such comments as ‘I found it gripping’ and ‘I read it in a single sitting,’ which is pretty good for a non-fiction book. The reason most of them gave for rejecting it was that the subject is ‘too niche for the market.’

Because it’s hard to get traditional publishers to take on books which don’t have mass-market appeal these days, experienced authors are increasingly turning to self-publishing for their hard-to-place and out-of-print books and therefore the self-publishing route is becoming more respectable.
Self-published authors can join professional societies such as the Society of Authors on the strength of their sales figures, and submit their books for literary prizes. Self-publishing is no longer always the second choice, and I won’t be looking for a traditional publisher for my second book about writing, When a Writer Isn’t Writing. Here’s a sneak preview of the cover.

I definitely hope to go on being traditionally published as well, but it feels a lot less difficult and soul-destroying trying to sustain a writing career in such a sales-driven market now that I know everything I write which is of publishable quality will be published, because I can do it myself.

Jenny's website is:

Monday, 15 September 2014

Cornwall - my latest obsession! by Miriam Halahmy

Mylor Bridge and creek

I have just spent a week in Cornwall with a friend and fellow writer, Jane Moss. I have only been to Cornwall once before, when the kids were young. I'd just lost my Dad and we were all very bereaved and all I remember is wall to wall mist and sunken lanes and no views. We stayed in St Just. The day we went to St Ives it rained. The journey was horrendous and I haven't been back since.

But I have fallen deeply, totally, completely utterly in love with Cornwall and now everything about Cornwall has to be read, watched on TV, flagged up on Facebook, etc, etc. Every book I have read this summer has been set in Cornwall - including the first four volumes of the Poldark saga and I think I'm just running out of steam. I read all twelve when I was a teenager and they are wonderful. But the absolutely best thing was I recognised all the places.

Jane Moss

My friend Jane lives in Mylor Bridge, on the damp, warm, sub-tropical south coast half and hour from Truro. My goodness - down at the creek is exactly like something out of a Daphne Du Maurier novel. We walked and walked and ate fish and chips and I swear the fish was still jumping on the plate it was so fresh. We went to Tressilick gardens which reminded me of the atmosphere of Singapore - my only experience of the sub-tropics. But then Jane made a wonderful discovery!

I very much wanted to go to Zennor where D.H. Lawrence had tried to set up some sort of writers' commune. Also to go back to the mining landscape I remembered from our last visit. We went down Geevor mine on the last day of mining ever in Cornwall. Zennor is on the craggy, heath covered, blustery north coast and we had proper overcast weather. I loved it. It was pouring by the time we reached the Tinners' Arms where Lawrence and co. used to drink. But in the tiny museum we saw a reference to poor, sick, consumptive Katherine Mansfield who came down with Murry, and only lasted a matter of weeks - what one earth was Murry thinking of, taking her to such a climate!! - and then they fled to Mylor Bridge!! Which of course makes perfect sense because its so much warmer!

Of course I fell in love with the north coast too but now Jane is on a mission to find where Mansfield stayed - probably round the corner from her lovely home.
And of course - I've added Mansfield to my post Cornwall reading list.

Travelling and reading have always gone hand in hand for most people. I took the train to Truro and it felt like I was going to the ends of the earth. I am working on a poem about that amazing journey.

When you find yourself in a landscape which is almost entirely new and which offers in a relatively small area such a wonderful range of experiences AND there is literature to almost drown yourself in - is it a wonder I have become an obsessive consumer of everything Cornwall??

Sunday, 14 September 2014

How Long is a Story? Anne Cassidy

I usually get asked this question when I’m teaching creative writing classes. It’s usually How long is a short story? And the general answer is that it’s as long as a piece of string. All very unsatisfactory when you’re trying to learn something.

I have thought about this and now have another answer, probably equally unsatisfying. It’s something I’ve learned slowly over the years and this answer will certainly come as no surprise to writers of fiction. A story is longer (bigger, wider, deeper) than the words on the page. I used to think this only worked for short stories so I drew a diagram of an iceberg in true primary school style with the tip above the water the rest below. But I now realise that this works for any story. A novel stretches out before the beginning of the book and goes on after it is finished. If you’ve engaged your audience they should wonder what happens to the characters (as I did, with rage, when I reached the end of THE LORD OF THE FLIES). This was the very reason that I wrote the sequel to Looking for JJ, FINDING JENNIFER JONES. People kept asking me what happened next. Now people ask me what happens after the end of FINDING JENNIFER JONES. I don’t know. It’s up to them to decide.

A short story does this beautifully. A snapshot of a moment in time; it spreads out further, deeper, wider into the past and into the future. I’m enjoying the fashion for really short stories. Here I’ve written a 100 word crime short story.  

A Bit of Education  
There was blood on the hammer. Dexy wiped it off. 
The old man lay face down on the kitchen floor.  On the table was a set of exercise books. Must do better. Must work harder. Dexy remembered his book from years before. It curled at the corners and was full of angry red writing. When he opened it the words seem to shout out at him.
This time he had been the one to do the shouting. He tore off a sheet of paper and wrote A* on it. He placed it on the teacher’s head. Then he left.

Hopefully the story it tells is longer than the words on the page.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Once upon a time... the end

In my past life, as a teacher, one of my most disliked tasks was marking. Not because I didn’t like reading my pupils’ work (though I often didn’t), but because having to assess a piece of writing against a set of increasingly arbitrary assessment objectives sometimes made me think it was all about jumping through hoops rather than the actual rules of good writing.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to judge a short story competition, I delighted in the fact that this time I was setting my own objectives, and they were pretty simple. Does this story work? Does it draw me in and keep me hooked? Do I feel confident in this writer’s hands?

I’ve won quite a few short story competitions, and it was flattering to be asked to judge this one. It was a fairly small, but very professionally-run competition, organised by a magazine. The magazine is Ireland-based, as am I, but attracted entries from all over the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The stories had been pre-shortlisted and were judged anonymously. Not knowing anything about a writer really makes you focus on what’s important in the story.

I’ve often read judges’ reports on competitions which say that the winner announced itself in the first few sentences, and I know agents and publishers often say that they can tell almost at once if a book is going to impress. This wasn’t my experience. Instead, though I found it easy to choose the winning story, several stories promised a great deal in the first paragraph, only to disappoint as the story went on. Some writers had put so much emphasis on that all-important hooking of the reader that they forgot to reel her in, and she was left dangling.

Several of the stories contained fantastic writing – really imaginative use of language. Heart-stopping moments. Intense character identification. Yet none of these stories was placed. Why? Because great use of language isn’t enough – a story has a job to do, and if it doesn’t do that, if it doesn’t take a character from A to B, it doesn’t matter how delightful its metaphors are. 

I write young adult fiction, and it’s normally a 70,000 word novel as opposed to a 2,000 word story. Yet I found the experience of assessing these stories really helped me to look dispassionately at my own work. Young adults, like short story judges, are hard to please. They aren’t fooled by metaphor-fur-coat and no story-knickers. They won’t keep going if a story doesn’t live up to early promise.

I enjoyed assessing these stories, and I’m looking forward to meeting the winners at the ceremony in November. But even more, I enjoyed being reminded of the nuts and bolts of good story-telling, and I hope my own readers stand to benefit from that.

Friday, 12 September 2014

In praise of Tove Jansson

Just over a month ago, it was the centenary of Tove Jansson's birth.  There were public celebrations in her home land of Finland, and an exhibition at the Finnish National Gallery dedicated to the paintings, illustrations, and writing of this extraordinary figure.

I believe this exhibition also included the original miniature Moomin house on loan from its home at the Moomin Museum Tampere.  This is a blue, five storey building which Jansson built with her  partner Tuulikki Pietilä in the 1970's.  It's about three metres high,
Moomin House, Tampere (Adele Pennington)

I haven't been to see it, but my cousin and fellow Moomin-fan Ann  - who lives in Norway - has. She describes how "Tove and Tuulikki built the house using materials they found washed up on the beach. The roof tiles, by the way, were made from cedar bark they found and cut into shape using nail scissors. Fish-scale pattern. And Moominpappa stands in his room which is  equipped with maritime clutter, looking out of his window through his telescope. The small shy people are in tiny rooms in the basement."

But Tove didn't build this wonderful house to put in a museum. She didn't build it to market her books, or as a wonderful photo opportunity for social media. This house is a labour of love, a work of art, an act of pure creation by someone who felt compelled to write, draw and make from an early age, and for whom imagined universes arrived so fully realised in her head, they could literally be translated into bricks and mortar.

That house, along with so much else - like the sculptures and montages of scenes from the books they made together and put in glass cases - is for me a beautiful representation of why in some ways, Tove Jansson was the ultimate children's writer.

She wasn't just a children's writer, of course, not by a long stretch - but she was one of the greatest artists to write children's books.

In a famous 1961 essay, “The Deceitful Writer of Children’s Books”, Jansson writes that she writes for children not because she is particularly interested in them, or because she wants to entertain or educate them, but much more because she needs to satisfy "the childishness in herself".

This is not emotional immaturity or arrested development, of course - but rather a profound connection as an adult with the intuitive world of childish make believe and play, and a sad awareness at its passing.

Born into a somewhat madcap household of artists, from an early age Jansson was drawing, writing and making, at a dizzyingly prolific rate. It was like a compulsion, and I think any writer would - at certain times - envy that inexhaustible drive to produce and create. She developed her craft in all disciplines over many years, but in the 1970's, was able to sit down and build a toy house for her Moomins just as she might have done as a child at the beginning of the century.

Moominland is the world through the eyes of a child, captured with the skill of an adult, a synthesis of pure-make believe and acute, uninhibited natural observation, a perfect marriage of pictures and words. And it is a world of mystery tinged with an ineluctable sadness.

"It was the end of August — the time when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden. Moomin Wood was full of glow-worms, and the sea was disturbed. There was expectation and a certain sadness in the air, and the harvest moon came up huge and yellow. Moomintroll had always liked those last weeks of summer most, but he didn’t really know why.” (Finn Family Moomintroll)

The Moomins are popular worldwide, very accessible stories with pictures for readers young and old, with a warm and human cast of family characters, but the Moominvalley with its Hattifatteners and the Groke is also a strange, and occasionally frightening place - just like growing up. The mysteries of the wild country beyond are never far away:

“The very last house stood all by itself under a dark green wall of fir-trees, and here the wild country really began. Snufkin walked faster and faster straight into the forest. Then the door of the last house opened a chink and a very old voice cried: ‘Where are you off to?’

‘I don’t know,’ Snufkin replied.

The door shut again and Snufkin entered his forest, with a hundred miles of silence ahead of him.”

The genius of Jansson is her ability to take children so simply and so naturally on exciting night journeys down mysterious paths, never to deny the human impulse to grow and to wander - even if gallons of milk, berries and buns will always be waiting in a warm Moominhouse on your return.

The elegant drawings and poetic prose of the Moomins tread the finest of paths between an enticing retreat of warmth, family eccentricity and humour - that we know cannot endure forever - and the mysterious unknowable forest beyond. It's a path every child must take one day, and who better to guide you down that road than a Moomin? Which other cast of creatures so gracefully demonstrate the wonder, mystery and sadness of growing up?

If it is childish to memorialise childhood with such imagination and feeling, whether through a miniature blue house or the pages of a book, then let's always try and write for the childishness in ourselves.

Most endings are also beginnings.

Piers Torday

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Thirteen Reasons - Cathy Butler

“If you write, why do you write?” a friend asked on Facebook yesterday.

It’s a good question, and of course there are many answers. I found some bubbling to the top of my brain almost immediately, but not all were very convincing. (“Because I have an important message for the world that it desperately needs to hear,” yes I’m looking at you. Nor, on reflection, do I really find the idea of wearing black polo-neck sweaters in a Greenwich Village loft apartment that attractive.)

Here are the ones that made the cut. Please note that no other reasons for writing are valid, aside from those given below. (But disagree, if you must, in the comments.)

  1. For the money [cue hollow laugh here]. Or at least for the ever-receding prospect of living by my pen mouse. It could happen – right?
  2. Because I have a story that seems to want telling, and it keeps hammering at my brainpan like a drunk trying to get into a late-night hostel.
  3. Because I like to see my name printed on the spines of books in bookshops. And in my house. And in other people’s houses. And on billboards, TV screens, cinema posters…
  4. A shed of one’s one.
  5. The technical aspects of writing a story are absorbing and satisfying, equally engaging of the heart, mind and spirit.
  6. Because I combine an inexhaustible interest in other human beings with a wish to spend large parts of every day out of their company.
  7. As a way to cheat death. I like to imagine that something of myself will survive me, and particularly that my descendants feel some personal connection beyond a name and dates.
  8. Like C. S. Lewis, I write the kinds of book I would like to read, and want to make sure there are more of them.
  9. Because there aren’t many jobs where strangers come up and tell you they admire you, and even ask for your autograph. Not that this happens to me very often, but it seems odd that writers should get this kind of treatment, when useful people like plumbers and brain surgeons generally don’t.
  10. It’s a habit – quite possibly a bad one.
  11. I’m rubbish at drawing and can’t dance, so writing (along with descant recorder) is my only outlet for self-expression.
  12. Because the profound satisfaction of having produced a successful story marginally outweighs the profound frustration involved in the production.
  13. Because it’s show business – for recluses.