Tuesday, 14 July 2020

The end before the beginning... by Lynne Benton

I hope Kelly will forgive me for piggybacking on to her blog of Saturday 11th July about people refusing to read prologues.  Reading her blog, and the varied and fascinating comments afterwards, gave me the idea for what my blog should be about today!

Some people, it appears, always (or frequently) turn to the end of a book to see how it turns out BEFORE they start reading it!!!  I had a dear friend who used to do this and it drove me nuts – so to discover that she was not alone, and that some others do it too as a matter of course was quite horrifying!  Do they not realise (or care) that the writer has spent many hours/days/weeks carefully crafting the story in order to mystify the reader and possibly lead them up the wrong path before the final reveal at the end which explains the whole thing?  Surely the writer’s efforts have all been in vain if the reader turns to the reveal first – they will read the book with foreknowledge of what will happen in the end.  I know one comment on Kelly’s post pointed out that once our books have been published we have no say in how the reader approaches them, which of course is true, but that’s not the point.  Why would anyone want to read the end of a book before the beginning?  Do they hate surprises on principle?  Or is it just a habit?  And if so, how and why did they pick up this habit?

Like many others, I read everything in a book, including introductions, acknowledgements and prologues – though I do prefer to read the acknowledgements after I’ve read the book (I’m always slightly afraid it will give away some of the plot!)  This applies too to the blurb on the back cover, which again I tend to leave until after I’ve finished the book.  So often it tells me too much about the book, which I would prefer to find out for myself.  But saving things to read till after you’ve read the book is quite different from reading the end before you get there!

Reading most crime novels would be completely spoilt if you read the end first.  The whole fun of reading such books is to try to work out whodunnit and why.  If you knew that before you started reading, it would destroy most of the pleasure in doing your own detective work.  There are, of course, a few books which turn this idea on its head and tell us who the murderer is first, but there's still going to be some sort of shock ending which you don't want revealed too early. It's no surprise that anyone going to see Agatha Christie's play "The Mousetrap" is asked at the end not to reveal the identity of the murderer to anyone else once they leave the theatre.  So why would you want to know the end of a crime novel first?

This reminds me of two incidents which I shall never forget.

The first was over fifty years ago, when a friend and I went to the cinema to see the latest Big Film (which I won’t name, for those who still may not have seen it), and at the last minute her (then) boyfriend decided to come with us.  My friend and I loved the film, and during the interval we both sniffled and dried our tears and looked forward to the second half.  Then her idiot boyfriend said, “He dies at the end, you know!” and couldn’t understand why we both rounded on him and berated him for having told us the ending.  (He seemed quite surprised at our reaction - he said in injured tones, “Oh, I just thought you’d like to know!”  I said he was an idiot – he was also, very soon afterwards, my friend’s ex-boyfriend!)

The other incident was several years ago at a Literature Festival.  At the beginning of the week I’d gone to hear a well-known author talk about her latest book, which I was in the middle of reading.  (It turned out to have a major surprise ending, but of course the author hadn’t given it away in her talk, and for obvious reasons I won’t mention which author or which book it was.)  However, later that same week, at another event at the same Literature Festival, I went to hear a famous actor talking about recording audio books, and in answer to one question he decided to pontificate about one book he’d recently recorded, adding the name of the author and the title of the book – the same  book its author had talked about three days before, and which many in this audience had bought but not yet had a chance to read.  And then, unforgivably, he gave away the surprise ending!  In my memory there was a shocked gasp from the audience, but that may only have been me!  By that stage I’d almost finished the book and had just about guessed the twist for myself, so it wasn’t entirely spoilt for me, but that doesn’t excuse the cavalier way he ruined it for so many of his audience.  Had he not checked that the author had appeared there earlier in the week and would doubtless be selling her latest book?  It wasn’t as if it was necessary to name either the book or the author – he could have said, “in one book I read recently…” but no.  It was all about him and how clever he was, and I’ve never forgiven him for spoiling the book for so many readers!

I’ve just realised that because I’ve been so careful not to reveal the titles of the aforementioned film or book, I can’t illustrate this blog with pictures of either, so I can only use the cover of "The Mousetrap".  However, I still think it’s important to read a story in the right order, and leave the ending, whether it's a great surprise or not, where it’s suppose to be - at the end.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Rereading Lord Peter by Sheena Wilkinson

I have written on here before on the pleasures of rereading, but surely if any topic is good for revisiting, it’s this one.


For many people lockdown has been a great opportunity to read all those worthy tomes they never quite got round to, but for others – myself included – the combination of anxiety, closed bookshops and the need for reassurance or escape has encouraged rereading of old favourites, especially comfort reads. I have been very specific in my reading needs during this crisis. Classic children’s books are often my go-to comfort reads but for some reason they aren’t calling me right now, maybe because I reread the Abbey, the Chalet School, the  Marlows, Noel Streatfeild  and a lot of pony books back in autumn 2019, when I thought things were bad in the world. I’d have kept at least the Chalet School for now if I’d known…

I want something fairly serious and not too escapist but I don’t want to have my withers wrung too much. I certainly don’t want anything about pandemics. A series is always welcome, especially one where you love the characters, so my top coronacompanions have been Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, in the golden age detective series by Dorothy L. Sayers.  And as I read through their adventures I’m struck by how, no matter how well you know a text, every reading brings something new. 

I’ve read these books many times since I first encountered them in my twenties, but not recently, as evidenced by the boarding card from Mallorca in 2004 which fell out of Gaudy Night. I am not the same person I was sixteen years ago. I have been published and changed career. I have seen the deaths of a parent, some friends, a beloved horse and two cats (named Peter and Harriet, in tribute.) The world I’m reading from has changed too. 


Reading the books in 2020 I am struck as never before by just how dated they are; this has generally charmed me when it’s a matter of quaint details and authentic settings – the workings of a 1930s women’s college (Gaudy Night); the atmosphere of a post-war gentleman’s club (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club); the intricacies of bell-ringing (The Nine Tailors). This time, however, I’m much more alert to the casual snobbery, and even anti-Semitic and racist attitudes of the text. I’m writing a novel set in the 1930s at the moment, and rereading these books is a reminder of how important it is to write with historical accuracy but also with sensitivity. If I have been able to overlook these attitudes in past readings, what does that say about my white, middle-class privilege? 


It’s also the first time I have read the books since I was published myself so I am much more aware of the nuts and bolts of the storytelling and Sayers’ craft. It’s reminded me that I don’t think I could ever have the ingenuity to write detective fiction, but I do have a mystery in my work in progress, which I hope will baffle the reader as satisfyingly as Sayers baffles hers. 

When I first read about Peter and Harriet’s love story I thought how unromantically old they were to fall in love and marry (45 and 30ish); now, having fallen in love myself in middle age, some years older even than Peter, I am delighted to have that rare thing, the middle-aged love story, and I approach it very differently from how I did in 2004 or indeed 1994, when I was callow, confident and essentially unhurt by the world – the opposite of Harriet Vane. 

It's hard to explain the charm of rereading -- especially detective fiction where you know perfectly well whodunnit and why -- to those who don't indulge, but I know that every time I read an old friend like the Wimsey books I bring something new to the text, and the text gives something new back to me. 



Sunday, 12 July 2020

Why do a Creative Writing degree? by Vanessa Harbour

Unusually, I am going to start this blog post with a caveat for clarity and openness. I need to declare that I am a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. My English degree had
creative writing modules embedded within it. My Masters is an MA in Writing for Children and I have a practice-led doctorate which included writing a novel, in my case a piece of young adult fiction. As you can imagine this piece is coming from a certain perspective and the views voiced are very much my own.

University of Winchester Campus

We all know that you don’t need a degree to become a writer. There is no argument about that. You can pick up a pen and a piece of paper then write. With a whole load of tenacity and potentially a good dollop of luck, you could get published.

Doing a Creative Writing degree should not be about getting published. No course I know of will make any promises about getting published at the end of it. What a Creative Writing degree is about is finding out who you are as a writer. It gives you a chance to experiment – something you won’t necessarily do at home on your own. It challenges you and allows you to hone your craft. 

When I first started studying I had a very set idea as to what sort of writer I thought I was. It very definitely wasn’t a children’s writer. That idea had never entered my head, don’t ask me why not as I had children, but it hadn’t. During my undergraduate degree, I had some modules with Judy Waite
and Andrew Melrose. They both encouraged me to have a go at writing for children and young adults. When I did, it felt like coming home. My voice felt natural and the stories flowed. I never looked back. That is what a Creative Writing degree can do, it can challenge you to try different things. Take you outside of your comfort zone. Allowing you to find a new voice.

PhD graduation with Prof Andrew Melrose

Those that teach on Creative Writing degrees are well aware of the reality of being a writer. Most are writers too. They ensure the students are aware of this reality and prepare them for it. A Creative Writing degree is not all about writing the next bestseller. It is about showing them what can be done with writing. The different careers and opportunities that have writing embedded within. It is about employability as much as being a writer. Some students go onto to have very successful careers as writers. 

For example, our students go on to work in the following areas, not limited to but including publishing (all areas); teaching (primary, secondary, further and higher); PR and Advertising; all aspects of Media e.g. TV Script editor, documentary maker, video game writer, web design and content creators; the charity sector and so on... There is so much more. People often ask me 'aren't you limited by doing a Creative Writing degree?' So far I don't believe my students have experienced that. I have heard of organisations who target CW students because they think outside the box, forgive the cliche. My students will often hear me say, you are only limited by your imagination.
A CW degree is all about what you do with it.

I should add, there is no point doing a Creative Writing degree unless you are passionate about writing and reading. It is not a soft option, but then those of us that are writers know that that is the life of a writer. To be a writer of any sort you need passion and tenacity, you need to read – a lot - and you need resilience.

I have written this blog post because I find myself defending Creative Writing degrees regularly so I thought I would just put my point of view in a blog post. I am sure many of you will disagree and you are welcome to. As I said, this is purely my perspective. I would just ask that if someone you care about says they want to do a Creative Writing degree think twice before dismissing it.   

Dr Vanessa Harbour

Saturday, 11 July 2020

This Be The Prologue: when family and literary values collide - Kelly McCaughrain

In a year of disturbing news, I’m going to share with you possibly the most disturbing thing I’ve heard. Maybe ever.

Having joined a book club for the first time in my whole life - and when I say ‘joined’, I mean ‘created’, ‘forced my family members into’ and ‘run like a dictator who gets to choose all the books’ (there are reasons I’ve never been in a book club before) – we had our first official meeting last month. It went surprisingly well. We had actual discussion about the actual book, instead of just drinking wine and chatting about how awful lockdown is (we met outdoors in a socially distant fashion). There was debate. There was dissention. There was pretty good Millionaire’s Shortbread.

And then it happened. 

Me: I think you were supposed to suspect that she was the murderer right from the start though.

Cousin: Why?

Me: Well, it was kind of set up in the prologue.

Cousin: Oh, I never read prologues.

I interrogated her for a further five minutes, sure there must be some mistake, but no, apparently it’s true. She NEVER READS PROLOGUES. Just skips them. Just turns the page and starts at chapter 1 like they don’t even exist.

Me: But… but… but… WHY?!

Cousin: Because they always give the plot away and I don’t want to know.

I then discovered that her ten year old son does exactly the same, for the same reasons! So maybe it's genetic.
I ranted a bit about prologues being part of the book, put there for good reasons by hardworking authors who know what they’re doing thank you very much. They set up an atmosphere. They introduce a theme. They hook the reader in. They do LOADS of stuff.

They also, to be fair, often give away the plot.

I’ve read loads of debates around whether or not you should use prologues, especially in YA, along the lines of ‘They’ve gone out of fashion, You can use them but only if they’re absolutely necessary, Agents hate them, They’re hard to do well, They’re information dumps, They can provide useful background, Reveal action the MC isn’t involved in, They can be set in the past or future or from another character’s POV, They foreshadow future events, Introduce the antagonist, Set up a paradox etc etc etc.

I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘What if readers just don’t bother reading them?’ But it’s the only argument that would make me seriously wary about ever using one.

It blows my mind that you’d skip a single word in a book. I’m not a skim reader. Even for the boring bits. I read the reviews at the start and the acknowledgements at the end. The idea of skipping a part of the story…? I mean what if you got right to the end and the entire book didn’t make any sense because you hadn’t read the prologue!!!
Although, that would never happen, would it? Which suggests that maybe they’re not actually that necessary at all. We’re told all the time, ‘if you can cut it, cut it’, so why do we use them?

So what do you think? To prologue or not to prologue? Do you write them? Do you read them? Would you be in a book club (or even a family) with someone who skips them?

Sorry Cuz, it's been great but we're done now

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page


Friday, 10 July 2020

Yes I'll do social media, but does it work for non-fiction? - Moira Butterfield

I have a new book out this week but I might not hear about it much in my own country…Not yet.

Here it is! 
Children’s non-fiction gets no media reviewing in the UK (though I'm aware here's precious little for anyone). As a genre it’s only begun to get bookshop support in the UK over the last five years. Before that time we were shoved down in the darkest far corner of the kid’s book area, and we were never offered royalties.

Things have changed. We’ve got more respect. However, we still get the minimum of publicity. I’ve never actually heard of a non-fiction book launch unless it’s a book that’s first and foremost a picture book.

Currently this seems more likely than a non-fiction book launch event!
(from the new book. Illustration by Studio Fago). 
There’s a good reason why publishers don’t direct their UK efforts towards us, I think. Colour-illustrated non-fiction sells big around the world. We can launch with first-year print runs for ten countries or more and that’s how the authors, illustrators and publishers make money. Sales in the UK are not the major source so expending publicity department power on a big UK launch isn’t economically sensible. We tend to ‘slow burn’ in the UK, with sales building over time. Non-fiction awards help with that, plus word-of-mouth - especially teacher-generated book selections.

It often feels as though we're more likely to get big book sales here than in the UK 
Having said that all authors are being asked to make more effort on social media, as publishers have decided that this could help them to sell more in lockdown times and in the months afterwards. They're asking how many followers we have. For the reasons I've mentioned I don't see how that's a particularly relevant question for non-fiction. I stand to be corrected, however, if someone thinks I'm underestimating the effect of social media on 'international' non-fiction.

I'm up for doing anything to help so I’ll be doing YouTube movies (once I get a haircut) and trying to get to grips with my website so that I can update it properly with activity pages. I’m also doing my best on Instagram and Twitter. However, to be honest we non-fiction authors can’t conjure a vast UK following out of thin air – and as our sales are elsewhere it does feel rather like we’re ‘barking in the dark’ on these platforms. I hope that publishing departments take that into account if they decide to look at our follower numbers. Things will change over time, I hope, but we non-fiction authors being featured in bookshops are frankly early pioneers when it comes to publicity. 

So now you will have got the picture that writing non-fiction isn’t going to get anyone on TV, but we do have a couple of big hidden advantages - buoyant foreign sales and the fact that UK celebrities generally haven’t bothered to stick their noses in to take our cake slice for themselves (a couple have got involved but I doubt they’ll do it much once they see the size of the UK slice).

So look out for my book and I hope you buy it for all the primary school children in your life, to help them get inspired about the future...But, despite my best efforts, don’t expect to see it trending on social media any time soon!

(Am I wrong about the effect of social media on children's non-fiction? Please tell me if you think I am. We're all trying to learn what to do for the best.) 

Moira Butterfield’s new book, A Trip to the Future (Big Picture Press), aims to inspire kids to think creatively about science and about inventions they would like (or dislike) in the future world. It encourages them to imagine the future based on today’s science developments, and it’s excitingly illustrated by Fago Studio.

The endpaper of the future!
Moira Butterfield
Twitter @moiraworld
Instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor 

Thursday, 9 July 2020

A personal history of ignorance - Anne Rooney

Formation of the Moon, giant impact hypothesis; image from NASA

"There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know."
Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of State for Defence, 2002

Lockdown learning must have revealed a lot of known and unknown unknowns to beleagured parents. How we deal with the questions we can't immediately answer is important — perhaps more important than those we can answer.

When I was little, I knew that if I wanted to ask something like 'why does a magnet pick up metal but not leaves?' or 'why is there skin on custard?', I should ask my dad. I was lucky; he was a scientist. If I wanted to ask why I had to drink a cup of tea, I knew my mum's answer was going to be that I would be a social pariah if I didn't learn to drink tea. *wave to your local social pariah*. Some questions had no real answer 'Because I said so.' 'Because that's how things are.' And a few allowed some scope for experimentation. 'Why don't we eat ants like anteaters?' 'You are free to eat ants and find out.' (Even crystallised with sugar in a hot oven, British ants are not worth eating.)

To factual questions, the answer was sometimes 'I don't know.' We had a set of encylcopaedias in which many things could be looked up, but obviously only the things that encyclopaedists expected people to want to look up. I don't recall there being an entry on the untastiness of British ants. We had a library, but it was not close enough to go to without a car, so was a Saturdays-only venue for exploration. Unless the question arose on Saturday morning, it would have been forgotten by the time we got to the library. The library wasn't really an ignorance-sink until I was at secondary school and had a decent school library on hand.

Some questions don't have a definite answer. My mum believed in God; my father didn't. That quickly revealed that there are questions that even knowledgeable grown-ups disagree about. I didn't twig then that actually there is an answer but the answer can't be determined with objective certainty. The notion of grades of unanswerability lay ahead of me. But the existence of God fell into a group of questions where different people gave different answers. Then there are questions that no one could even suggest an answer for, such as 'why does 'cat' mean cat and not dog?' And then there were questions that people just refused to answer, such as 'why do we have to go to the family planning clinic? what happens there?' (I had to sit in the car with my father and brother during these visits; my mum couldn't drive and there was no other way to get there.)

On reflection, eating ants was a critical point. It showed that ignorance is an opportunity rather than a limitation. I could find out for myself. This wasn't the same as those experiments where you find out whether wood or stones float or sink. The person directing the enquiry knows the answer. You know they know the answer. What's more, they know why wood floats, and you know they aren't going to tell you. (That reminds me, I promised to show MB a floating stone. Must do that this morning.) You can't look up why we don't eat ants. And I'm sure in a famine people would eat ants. In case you are wondering, not only are they rather lacking in taste, you have to expend a great deal of effort to catch and cook enough ants to find out. There's probably an energy deficit in ant consumption here.

Despite all these obvious gaps in my knowledge, I grew up and went to university. The person who interviewed me said he had never seen such a bad entrance paper in two of the categories. This was a bit of a blow, as I still thought not knowing things was bad. School exams suggest that. But he said that he could see I had potential as I'd done very well in the one that he thought mattered, so I could come anyway. (I know, that wouldn't happen now. This was the early, uncoordinated, version of trying to address equality of opportunity. I do now wonder why they bothered even setting the papers that didn't matter. Perhaps views on which mattered varied.) Here, ignorance was not just the opportunity to eat ants but to find out stuff. A gap that could be filled, and there would be pleasure, discovery and achievement in the filling it. Another turning point came with my PhD supervisor, who once said, "You don't need to know everything. You need to know the people who do know things." You need to know who to ask. A PhD itself is an exercise in finding a gap in knowledge and filling it. The gap is the most important bit. We need ignorance or we can't do any original research.

By the time my children were growing up, things had moved on a bit. We could get to libraries and by the time they were at school there was Yahoo to look up answers to many things. But the idea that all questions are answerable with certainty is dangerous. (As we now see every day in the viciousness of twitter.) I encouraged them to think about questions that can't be easily answered. My older daughter's favourite book at six was the DK introduction to philosophy. I remember telling her in Waitrose I would buy biscuits if she could prove the biscuits existed. (She got biscuits; I wasn't very rigorous as long as she made a good attempt.)

Their primary school was excellent. It valued knowledge and ignorance. When the Iraq war was imminent, the older one went into school and asked about it. Not convinced she was getting a good answer, the next day she took in maps she had printed out and asked each teacher separately to show her where Iraq was. Few knew. Some teachers were annoyed; they didn't like their ignorance being found out. The good ones investigated with her (or actually knew where Iraq was).

And so to now. MB asks me where the Moon came from. I explain to her. We make an Earth and a Theia out of play-do and make them collide. We tear Theia and a chunk of Earth into pieces and then form the Moon out of the bits. She asks if Theia was hot or cold. I don't know. I ask a friend on Facebook with a PhD in astrophysics. We agree that as a rocky planet it should be cold. But as a very early planet it was probably geologically active and so should be hot. Hot or cold? The question heads off from a six-year-old in East Anglia to be asked around the astrophysics world. You don't need to know everything; you just need to know the people who do. Or you need to know the people who know who to ask. If I didn't know Helen, I could have asked on Twitter, with the right hashtags. Someone would know (though then we have the issue of assessing the reliability of the source, which is another matter). The point is not whether she will get an answer, but that the ignorance is productive itself. 

In the late 19th century, the professor of physics in Munich, Philipp von Jolly, told Max Planck not to become a physicist because all physics was known; there were no opportunities for discovery. Planck went on to reinvent physics with quantum theory. What could von Jolly's ignorant certainty have cost physics? Never underestimate the unknown unknowns. Any parents alarmed at the ignorance home learning has revealed — that ignorance is possibly the best bit. It's food for the enquiring mind. Children are excited by questions grown-ups can't answer. You should be excited by questions you can't answer.

Last night, less than ten hours after staging the formation of the Moon in play-do, MB had a message from school saying she had to attend a Teams class meeting and present some of her home learning. 'But I haven't done any!' she wailed. How do I answer that? I don't know.

Anne Rooney
Blog: The Shipwrecked Rhino: a wunderkammer
Latest book (as far as I know):
An Animal Park Keeper, HarperCollins, 2020