Sunday, 26 April 2015

I Love Books So Why Did I Hate English Literature? - Julie Sykes

It often surprises people to learn that I gave up English at 16. As someone who earns a living from writing, and a keen reader too, I'm expected to have at least an A ‘level in the subject.

The reason I don’t is simple. You couldn’t study English Language at my sixth form college. It was English Literature or nothing. I hated English Literature, so I opted for nothing.

Shakespeare left me cold. It still does. If I want to read in a foreign language then I’ll learn something useful like German.

At 16, Thomas Hardy and Steinbeck depressed me. Chaucer, Hemmingway, Gerald Manley Hopkins…no thanks!

There, I’ve said it. My guilty secret is out. Please don’t yell at me. I can’t help what I like and it’s not that.

I’m not alone either. A few months ago, Orli Vogt-Vincet (the 15 year old book blogger) wrote for the Guardian, ‘I Love books so why do I hate studying English GCSE?’ 

Orli argues that, ‘We need a bigger variety of fiction, modern and classic that have themes that can be translated and can be relevant to teenagers today...’ She also says, ‘we need books that bring up intense messages of modern themes: sexism, racism, homosexuality. It’s not even like these books don’t exist…’

I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve talked to other teenagers about the books they’ve read in school. Joe told me that his class spent a term studying Holes by Louis Sachar. He loved it the first time they read it. He’d quite enjoyed it the second time, too. But after a term spent re-reading, dissecting and analysing the text Joe confessed that he hated not just Holes but reading full stop!

Can you blame him?

Reading is an essential life skill. It’s something that can be taught.

Reading for pleasure, encouraging children to become lifelong readers can’t be. That takes encouragement, enthusiasm and above all passion.

It’s about time we listened to the young. Ask them what they want to read. What they’d like to see on the English Literature curriculum. It doesn’t matter if it's comics, magazines, fiction, non- fiction or the manual that comes with the PlayStation. If it has words then it counts as reading.

You’d never force an adult to read a book they’re not enjoying. Why then, if we want to encourage more children to read for pleasure, do we force books on them and then over analyse the content?

What my 13 year old self thought of 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Which Superhero Would YOU Be? by Tamsyn Murray

I don't know about you but I've never really thought of myself as a superhero. I'm more of 'quietly gets on with things' kind of operator rather than the type who single-handedly fights her nemesis and saves the world while looking awesome in skimpy tight clothes and snogging the love interest. And then I organised an inspirational LOVE Writing day at a fancy hotel in Hertfordshire and invited Miranda Dickinson and Julie Cohen along as guest speakers, and they taught me that there's a superhero inside me, inside all of us, struggling to get out.

The idea is simple and comes from this TED talk by Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy, who suggests that 'power posing' for a short amount of time before an important or stressful event can give us the right body language and self-assurance to do better. It can confer self-confidence and an aura of awesomeness. Miranda suggested we find a pose that worked for us - our Superhero Pose - so that we could invoke the power it gives in our everyday lives. And to help us on our way, Miranda made us practise our pose in front of each other.

As you can see, we looked pretty amazing. And the best part was that it actually worked - after thirty seconds of holding the pose of a strong, confident person, I actually felt stronger. So the next time I have something terrifying to say or do, I'm going remember how it felt to channel my inner Supergirl and tell myself I can conquer the fear to stand tall. Or was it Wonder woman? Or maybe just Superwoman? Whatever helps me to stand tall.

Who would you choose to copy in your Superhero pose and why? And don't forget to strike the pose as often as you need to. It's your key to feeling better about yourself and the thing you're about to do. Now...which superhero shall I be today..?

Friday, 24 April 2015

How the Light Gets In - Liz Kessler

In the past couple of months, I've had kidney failure, liver failure, an unnamed tropical disease, another disease that is hard to diagnose because the symptoms are very much like a cold; I've cracked a rib from sneezing too much, my blood pressure has gone so high that I have spontaneously combusted, oh, and I've gone blind from glancing at the solar eclipse.

Have you guessed yet that I might not really (as in, actually, in real life) have had all (or any) of these diseases? Well, no, as far as I know, I have simply had a cold, a prickly heat rash, a bit of anxiety and a lovely walk along the coast path during the solar eclipse.

The main thing I suffer from is too much imagination.

A good writer buddy and I used to call this "Writer's Brain Tumour". The thinking is that when a writer gets a headache – which to normal people is described as a headache – we 
immediately fear the worst and think we have a brain tumour. Since my partner had a – benign, thank God – brain tumour a couple of years ago, I tend not to call it this any more. Nowadays I call it (cue dramatic 'dum dum derrrrrrrrer' music)....

The curse of the writer.

While you chew on that thought, let's take a quick commercial break. I was pretty much brought up on an album called You Don't Have to be Jewish, which I have had a soft spot for ever since. There is a sketch called The Diamond, and if I ever use the word 'curse', I can't help thinking of it. It has the best pronunciation of this word ever in the world. I've managed to track down a video of the sketch. Do yourself a favour and watch this before you go any further.

OK, now that's out of the way, let's get back to the issue in hand. And also, can I briefly apologise if I've talked about this before. I probably have. It doesn't go away.

You see, as writers it is our job to spend our days delving into our imaginations, exploring in the realms of 'What if this?' and 'What about that?' and 'How about?' and 'Could this possibly...?' So it's no wonder we do that with our own lives – and often our own bodies – too.

Our day jobs involve us thinking about the least likely scenarios, not the every day events. We deal in the dramatic and our fare is the furthest reaches of our imaginations. How many of us have been told by editors and agents to 'raise the stakes'?

I've spent fifteen years working as a writer. That's fifteen years training my mind to raise the stakes. Luckily, I love to do it in my books. The feeling I get from exploring a story, an idea, a character – and yes, a highly unlikely scenario – is possibly as good for me as the adrenaline rush of scoring a goal is for a footballer. The issue is, how do we switch it off?

When children ask me for my top writing tips, one that I nearly always tell them is to carry a notebook around with you because you never know when you'll get an idea. 

I tell them that ideas are like butterflies and your notebook is a big net in which you can catch them safely and take them home with you so you can work on them later when you have more time.

At the heart of this advice is the fact that our stories and our imaginations don't clock on and off between nine and five. And therein lies the problem. 

If we're not writing, the imagination doesn't instantly switch off. It's like one of those cartoon characters who keeps running, even though the top of the cliff is way behind them. It takes a moment for them to realise they are pumping their legs in mid air – before they fall to the ground. 

So how do we get our imaginations to notice that we are approaching the edge of a cliff and calmly come back from the precipice until it is time to go to work again tomorrow?

It simply doesn't work like that.

Maybe we just have to accept, like Mrs Plotnick (have you watched the sketch yet?) that along with our beautiful gift, there's a curse. We can't change it, we can't get rid of it. Perhaps we can try to wrap it up and put it in a nice box on our desks at the end of the day and hope it won't follow us out of the office when we close the door behind us and get on with the rest of our lives. But it will probably follow us down the stairs – because it isn't just part of our job, it is part of ourselves.

Perhaps the only way to get rid of the curse is to change our language and call it something different. We're good at words - we've already established that – so it could work. 

Yes, I can sometimes (OK, often) exaggerate my physical symptoms and worry about what they might mean. Yes I do feel my blood pressure go up and my anxiety levels rise when my imagination is getting more involved in my backache/headache/slight feeling of tiredness than it should be. But I don't spend my entire life doing this. In reality, it is a small portion of the time – and a small price to pay for the opportunity to spend my days staring into space making up stories about mermaids and fairies and time travel and pirate dogs (and teenagers coming out as gay - subliminal ad for Read Me Like A Book. In all good bookshops from next month.) 

In other words, the curse is in fact part of the gift, and the best way to deal with it is to stop fighting against it and accept it as the imperfection that makes the gift perfect.

Or as Leonard Cohen puts it so beautifully:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

When did you come out? – Jess Vallance

I was with a group of friends the other day when one of them announced she was pregnant. 

After all the congratulations and the looking at the scan picture and all that business, the rest of us started to carefully analyse the previous three months – the time when she’d known she was knocked up but hadn’t wanted anyone else to know.  I said something about how I didn’t think I’d be able to keep a secret for all that time, especially not from people I saw every day. She pointed out that I hadn’t told anyone I was writing a book, which was true. 

I know it’s not really the same situation, but I suppose there are similarities. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a book because, to me, the whole writing a book/ looking for an agent/looking for a publisher episode is kind of like the trying for a baby part.  

It’s not something I’ve done myself but I can imagine that trying to get pregnant is quite a big deal, taking up quite a lot of mental and physical (ahem) energy. But even though people must be thinking about it all the time, most people don’t really announce that they’re trying for a baby, do they? I’m guessing it’s because at that stage, you don’t know if anything’s ever going to come of it and you don’t want people asking you about it all the time. Pretty much the exact reason I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a book. 

And I definitely wouldn’t have considered calling myself an author at that point. I know you don’t HAVE to be published to call yourself that, but to me it would’ve been like someone who likes a kick-about on a Sunday calling themselves a football player. 

Then I got a book contract, and I did tell some people about the book, but I still don’t talk about it much. Not in real life anyway. I still don’t use the word ‘author’. This is partly because I get a bit bored of this conversation: 

Me: I wrote a book.
Them: Blah blah JK Rowling.
Me: For teenagers.
Them: Oh! Blah blah vampires.
Me: No.  

But also because I suppose I now consider myself to be book-pregnant. Hopefully, if all goes according to plan, there will be a published book. But I still won’t fully believe it’s going to happen until my publication date (Birdy, out 2nd July, thanks for asking). 

All sorts of things could happen between now and July. My publisher might decide it was all a stupid mistake and find something better to publish instead (fair enough). Their whole office and everyone in it might be swept away by a tidal wave. I might be swept away by tidal wave. 

So, at the moment, I don’t really think of myself as an author. I just wrote this book-thing once and it may or may not go down well. When people ask me what I do for a living I do say ‘writer’ because that IS how I earn most of my money, but I tell them about the training and educational stuff I write, never the books (unless conversation is really drying up).

Maybe I will be more forthcoming once my book is published. Once the baby is born. (I’m getting bored of the pregnancy analogy now.) But even then I’m still not sure. 

Maybe I just want to avoid all those question that Clementine Beauvais covered a few months ago. Maybe it’s just that I want to wait until I’ve sold a certain number of books.  Or until writing books takes up more of my time than my other work (a time which is unlikely to come). Or until it’s my main source of income (as above). I don’t know really.

Anyway, I’m interested: When did you come out?
Twitter: @jessvallance1

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Walking while working - Nicola Morgan

Big apologies - I have reposted this from my own blog, mainly because I only realised last night that I have to do my ABBA post but also because it's VERY relevant to writers...

A few weeks ago, I joined the band of people who work while walking. I type and do almost all my desk work while walking on a treadmill. It has been eye-opening, body changing and inspiring. And unexpected in some ways. Here’s what happened and what it is like.

Over the last year, I’ve been reading a lot about the health dangers of being too sedentary and not doing enough exercise. And I am (was) very sedentary. My desk work and my workaholic personality kept me rooted to my chair for hours and hours on end. It didn’t feel good but I couldn’t stop.

About a year ago, I bought a Fitbit One, to inspire myself to walk more. Although this helped at first, somewhat, there were two problems for me: 1) I was still a workaholic and still needed/wanted to get a lot of work done so I was still staying at my desk too long and 2) I have an arthritic and cartilage-wrecked knee which has been getting worse and which doesn’t like the manic walking pace that I do, partly in my effort to get the damn walking done as fast as possible and partly because it’s just a Type A personality thing. Walking on roads is painful and walking on hills very. Cycling, too.

So, I decided to deal with this sedentariness properly.

I knew that a friend of mine, Vee Frier, used a treadmill set-up, so I got her advice. I am not sure if I have the same setup but it’s the same principle.

(Warning, my solution is not cheap. But it’s tax deductible!)

I ordered this special desk to go on my desk to make it the height for standing at; and a treadmill especially designed for the purpose, because it’s slim, fits under a desk and goes more slowly than a gym one. And has no incline.

The desk arrived first and as soon as I started working at it, I hated it. (Fear not: this has a happy outcome.) It was extremely painful and my knee reacted disastrously. In the nearly three weeks before the treadmill arrived, I thought I’d made an expensive mistake. I was already wondering if I’d be able to send the treadmill and the desk back.

The treadmill arrived and I switched it on. Hooray! It didn’t work! Excellent! I could send it back.

Then I realised I’d misread the instructions and put the magnetic safety doobry on the wrong bit. As soon as I rectified this, the machine sprang into life. Unfortunately, I was kneeling on it at the time, fiddling with things, and – trust me – this is not a position you want to be in when a treadmill springs into life or anywhere.

The second thing I discovered was that it was NOISY. Hooray! A reason to send it back!

However, I am not faint-hearted so I duly lugged it up to my garden office, with the help of Mr M (I’m as strong as he is but it’s always good to give him a task). And left it there over the weekend while I dreaded Monday.

Monday came and I hobbled up the garden to my fate.

And walked for 3 hours at 2mph. With no pain. Gently lulled by the swooshing noise in the background. While typing. And concentrating unusually well on my work. With ideas pouring from my brain and onto the keyboard.

I also realised I loved the desk thing, too. It’s quite big and also sturdy. I can have my keyboard, laptop, mouse, notebooks, and COFFEE.

Thus began my personal revolution. Three weeks later, my knee is bearing up, I’ve walked between 12k and 20k steps each day (whereas on some previous days I’d be doing fewer than 1k) and I’ve lost 4lbs (which could also be the sugar I’ve given up, though I ate very little of it before). I’ve discovered that 2.5mph is the ideal speed for me while typing and it’s a speed I can walk at without thinking about walking. It’s much slower than my outdoor walking pace, and I think this is why it’s good for my knee – it’s motion without so much flipping force.

More to the point, I LOVE walking while working. I’ve
always found walking a great way of loosening my creative brain and freeing up ideas but how very much more convenient it is to do that while actually at the screen!

It feels very good in every way.

It’s very easy to put it on its side out of the way if I actually want to sit down.

Btw, can you see the odd thing under the upper desk? With a red button on it? That’s the console, where you adjust the speed and things. And there’s a red cord, which you are supposed to clip to your belt, with a red magnet at the other end, attached to the console. *cough* I erm, don’t… This is so that if you faint and fall off, the treadmill will stop.

I’ve only fallen off once and that was because I tried to turn round and pick something up. (Don’t do this, really. Especially while holding coffee.) Several friends sent me videos of people breakdancing on treadmills. That’s a trick for the future…

I have found another advantage: all this walking makes me feel nice and warm so, though I’m using some electricity for the treadmill (500W at the most) I don’t need a heater any more. In fact, I’m working with the door open a lot of the time.

It's the best of every world. I'm often reluctant to recommend things, as I know everyone's different, but if you're thinking about doing this - do!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Having a Go

I think the thing I'm learning most about being a writer is that I just have to have a go at things, even if I'm frightened. In fact, the most frightening things often turn out to be the most worthwhile things.

Like writing in the first place. I spent decades not finishing work off, or not sending work off, for fear of being rejected. What was the result? Not feeling satisfied, not having many finished pieces, and being published.

Eventually I signed up, when my children were little, for a part time, once a week, evening M.A, in Creative writing at my local university. I was terrified - but it was so worthwhile, and after two years a I was so far into my novel for adults that I couldn't give it up. I went on to finish it, find an agent and then…nothing. After enquiring, a year after signing the contract, if my agent would finally send it off or was happy with the many changes she had asked me to do, I was told that the agent apologised for being so busy and..I was free to look for someone else.

And no other agent wanted it.

It felt like a dead end. All that trying to be brave and putting in the effort had led to nothing. had I just been deluding myself? I felt really low and…silly. Silly me, thinking I could be a writer.

But now I'm grateful. When I sent my children's work off and met my now agent, Anne Clark, I was really frightened. Would it all go wrong again? She liked my work - but so had my first agent. I knew what wouldn't work in a relationship. She asked me what I needed - I said regular communication - as I knew that months and months not hearing anything from my first agent had really eroded my self confidence. She in turn said she wanted directness and honesty - straightforwardness. She often rings and emails and I feel v valued by her - and she is someone I can talk to and have no fear of being honest with. All the people in her agency love her. Anne encouraged me and now in just over a year I will have three children's books published, and two more to come, and more being written. So being brave did pay off.

I still have lots more things I need to be brave about - personally and professionally. One is trying out illustration. At the moment I am doing exactly what I did with writing for decades - not doing enough, not finishing things, not feeling confident. And, guess what? This is a rubbish tactic. It is not making me feel good inside, and to be frank, at 50 I don't have decades left in which to procrastinate.

So I've just been a bit brave. My next book, 'Dog Ears' has an 11 year old narrator who writes lists and doodles. My publisher, Catnip, is very small and lovely and personal. Everyone I have to deal with is so kind. My agent is lovely. But it still made me feel sick with fear and I had to have lots of encouragement from my family , to say to Anne and Liz my editor and Pip the designer, that actually I had done some doodles that Anna the narrator might have done - and would they like to look at them.

They did! And because I had asked so late we couldn't really incorporate some of the larger ones into the text - but THEY LIKED THEM. Being rejected didn't feel so bad after all - because I could see why they couldn't use them and they hadn't laughed at me and said 'What? You thought THESE were worthy of being called illustrations? You FOOL!!" Instead, amazingly, and kindly, and encouragingly (Catnip are lovely) they are using my smaller illustrations as chapter headings. HOORAY!

And Anne my agent sent me an email saying 'Hooray! That's wonderful, Anne - you are now officially an illustrator!'

And THEN I went to Iona for a weekend illustration workshop with Jill Calder and saw how much I have to learn but absolutely loved the process.

And I know that I have already had illustrations rejected - and it was fine - and now I have some little ones included in my book - and that's indescribably WONDERFUL for me, and I know that I must now actually start drawing again, and need to do lots more work - and I will keep writing and feeling terrified and drawing and feeling scared to share anything I do.

But if I ever have the money I would like to enrol in an illustration course. I'm scared but I'm going to do it - because I've wasted too much of my life already, and I realise, for me, it's the only way things happen.

Monday, 20 April 2015

How do you say 'Alaspooryorick' in French? - Clementine Beauvais

One of the questions you always get when you write in two languages is whether you're 'going to translate your own books'. This is a very flattering question, as it implies that (1) everyone uncontroversially wants your books from the other country, and (2) you're de facto blessed with perfect translation skills.

Of course, (1) is painfully wrong: the UK has so far never wanted any of my French books, which are too everything and not enough anything, but I suspect are also by default unattractive because they don't come with world rights. And (2) highlights the eternal plight of professional translators, whom no one believes when they say that their skills set goes beyond just 'being fluent' in two languages.

I'm fascinated with translation and have been for a long time: in my young days as a Harry Potter fan, I would work hard to understand the translation choices of Jean-François Ménard, who changed in the French version a great quantity of names invented by Rowling. Hogwarts became Poudlard ('hog lice'), a funny and meaningful find that is also cleverly English-sounding to a French ear. 

'Tom Marvolo Riddle', who needed to work as an anagram, became 'Tom Elvis Jedusor'. Though it is a little bit hilarious, in retrospect, that Voldemort is called 'Elvis', the name's connotations weren't that strong for me as a child, and I very much admire the lovely 'Jedusor', which evokes a 'jeu du sort', a twist of fate. And 'sort' is also a magic spell... Can we say 'Jedusor' is actually better than 'Riddle'? I think so.

but the Hallows turned 'Relics'. Good choice?
Until now, paths hadn't crossed between my French books and my English series, but for the first time, this year, one of my British series is getting translated into French. I'm not translating it, for reason (2), but the French publisher, Hachette, is aware of my secret Gallic roots, so I'm allowed to okay the translations of the place and character names.

It's been quite a funny and interesting process. The Royal Babysitters series, illustrated by Becka Moor, are set in a magical and nonsensical world, but which in many ways corresponds closely to the 'real' world. Many of the place names - Francia, Daneland, Britland, etc - are relatively easy to translate into French (Francie, Danelandie, Brittonie). But what of the Independent Republic of Slough? Having a French city name there would make no sense, since it all happens in Britland. The translator decided to invent an imaginary city name.

We didn't have to change it to 'Les babysitters républicaines'
Similarly, the two heroines are called Holly and Anna Burnbright, which the translator first translated as 'Brillante' (Bright), but we felt after discussing it that the allusion to a poem should be kept. We're still working on it, but the suggestions involve cutting up bits of famous French nursery rhymes or fables. Not quite the same, yet faithful.

Alaspooryorick or Oroméoroméo?

'King Alaspooryorick', the villain, is a tricky one to translate. On the one hand, recognising the reference doesn't matter very much (if at all), but we might as well keep it; and it has to sound funny, which 'Alaspooryorick' or its French equivalent 'Hélaspauvreyorick' doesn't (at all). He could have been King 'Tobeornottobe' (roi Etrounepazettre), but again, it's not very funny. The translator came up with 'Oroméoroméo', which sounds very funny and is also a Shakespeare reference, arguably more famous to a French ear.

Of course, the reference is no longer to Hamlet, so the King being from 'Daneland' and having a special mermaid called Ophelia is no longer relevant. Does it matter? Frankly, not at all. 'Le roi Oroméoroméo' is just perfect for the role.

And what of the title? 'Les babysitters royales' would have sounded flat. We're going for an inversion of adjective and noun, 'Les royales babysitters', a rarer construction in French but which by the very fact of the inversion calls to mind the English language.

The Royal Babysitters is not by any stretch of the imagination a difficult book, but it's full of those little details that can make translation tricky - as many children's books are. Translators can't get away with footnotes in translations of children's books. And they have to be clever and good at languages, but they also have to be 'good at' children's literature.

Most often we don't notice the translation work, because it's well done, and because we might not speak the two languages in question, or simply because we don't stop to wonder what something or someone was called in the original language...

Toby Alone in the original French
I'd be curious to hear your stories of what got lost or found in the translations of your books, if you're able to read some of them, or if you've even contributed to them.


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.