Saturday, 15 May 2021

On rhino hides and marmite toast - by Rowena House


Implausibly, the time allocated to writing this month’s ABBA post got gobbled up at the last minute with actual writing of actual words for the work-in-progress. Glory be! Not, I should add, actual words for Chapter Three, completing which has been my writing target since Noah first spotted a cloud in the sky, and which this month I spiked in its entirety (sob).

            No, the new words were extra layers added to Chapters One and Two.

            Yup. The two chapters supposedly put to bed weeks ago. Nay, months ago in the case of Chapter One. Eye roll emoji.

            Other highlights of my not-writing-this-post week included two online excursions into the world of books: first to explore Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (thank you, Cardiff Book Festival) and second, craft tips for hooking readers (hat tip, Arvon masterclasses and this week’s splendid tutor, JP Flintoff).

            Mr Flintoff gets the credit for there being a post here at all today.

            His advice (which I can’t remember how it links to hooking a reader but noted it down anyway) ran along familiar lines, the gist being: don’t be afraid to write something average. If you write often enough, even a first draft won’t be that bad.

            Trust your first instincts, he said, and get on with it.

            This advice is hardly new. [See ‘get it writ, then get it right’ and its permutations.] Nor is it advice I can take to heart for long, being a committed procrastinator/perfectionist. But it did pull me out of the doldrums whence I’d been dragged by a comment about my first three draft chapters on which, as mentioned a gazillion times, I’ve been working for a ridiculous length of time.

            Turns out the wound-proof rhino hide is thinning as the years go by.

            Or maybe it’s morphed into dragon hide: hard as tempered steel, except for a crack or two in tender spots. And this ‘critique’ had found a v. tender spot.

            Basically, I was told my opening places were generic.

            Generic!!! [Insert choice expletive.] I’d spent months scouring online archives for details about the place for Chapter Two. It’s Beth’s home, for pity sake. A real place. She left it to a female relative in her will. (Well done, her.) She wouldn’t describe it. She knows it inside out. A description would be totally out of character.

            Reluctantly, I conceded (to myself) the castle in Chapter One is a wee bit generic, the place in question having been closed down due to Covid19 and on the to-do list to visit. But, hey, what’s a pandemic between friends? Anyhow...

            Smarting, I gave up writing for a week in order to sulk. And to return to the comfort of research. In bed. With books all around me, eating marmite toast, with the dog chewing toilet rolls next to me and shedding black fur all over my borrowed white Egyptian cotton duvet cover.

            It was lovely.

            I didn’t take down a single note all week. I just read and sulked. And read some more until real life demanded I get up and do stuff. (Yay for early dawns and a lazy morning before nine am.)

            Bit by bit, fresh words arrived that might (just might) make Beth’s place more specific without being out of character.

            And that paragraph in Chapter Three which had been worth saving might (just might) fit into Chapter One. At a pinch.

            And a simple device of framing the chapter headings with their exact time and place might, just might, pin the whole thing down for a picky reader.

            Or any reader.

            And thus the story got the tiniest bit better and the tiniest bit longer.

            So that’s it, this month’s average words. I’m going into the garden next because the sun is shining and it’s May, one of the most beautiful months of the year here in Devon. It’ll nearly be the longest day when I’m blogging again.

            Scary, huh, the way time slips away.


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Friday, 14 May 2021


 In common with all/most/many other writers, I love notebooks!  Any notebooks.  I use them for so many things, but again, like many others I suspect, I’m very fussy about the right sort of notebooks.

Some years ago a friend (not a fellow-writer) was on holiday in France with her family, and looked for a present to bring home for me.  She went into a stationery shop and bought me two of those beautiful notebooks you can only get in France. 

Her family said, "What a funny present!  Why did you buy her those?"  To which my friend replied, "Because I know she'll love them!"  (She was right - I did!)  She is definitely the right sort of friend!

My favourite variety of notebook has always been A5 size, spiral-bound, lines 8mm apart, ideally hard-backed (though I can be flexible on that, as can the notebook).  The big advantage of spiral-bound books is that they stay open when you want them to, and you can leave them open at the page you need, or fold them back and they stay there. I have found that sometimes books with narrow lines, 5mm apart, have their uses too.  So I have a pretty good collection, including some that are so beautiful that I’m still waiting for the perfect occasion to use them!

However, since the advent of Zoom webinars, of which I currently have at least two a week, I now find non-spiral-bound notebooks more useful for note-taking (the spiral binding tends to get in the way if you’re writing quickly on the left hand page)  But they must be hardback, so I don’t need to put something else behind it to provide a solid backing, they must lie flat when open, and essentially they need a built-in ribbon bookmark, so I can easily find where I got to after the previous webinar.  For this purpose I definitely need 8mm lines – when taking notes in a hurry my handwriting is too untidy to fit on narrower ones.  And because I follow two slightly different courses, I need a different notebook for each one – at the moment one book is blue and one is red, both fitting my exacting requirements.

But I am now reaching the end of both of these, and will very shortly need replacements.  Which was why, last week, I decided that time had come to go shopping for them!  This in itself felt amazing – going shopping, in real shops, for notebooks?  What’s not to like?

I started in my favourite shop for these things, a large store which sells everything, including, usually, a huge selection of perfect notebooks – only to find that at the moment their stock is greatly diminished, for obvious reasons, so they didn’t have their usual range.  And of those that were there, most seemed to have narrow lines, so no good for note-taking.  Some didn’t even have lines at all, but little dots in box formation, and I couldn’t work out what those would be for – maybe someone here can enlighten me?

Then I remembered my favourite card shop, an independent one which also happens to sell the most beautiful notebooks – maybe on this occasion I might treat myself?  Unfortunately I discovered it has closed down – again, for obvious reasons, but I couldn’t help a sinking of the heart at this discovery.

On down through the town, to discover that another shop I like, a small shop in a Danish chain which sells all sorts of unusual things, was, rather surprisingly, still open.  I went in and found one notebook that wasn’t quite what I needed at the moment, but not far off.  At least the lines were the right distance apart.  Then, as I walked round the shop, I found two more – one reduced to 50p so too good to leave behind – as well as a small notebook with a built-in electronic calculator on the front cover!  How useful is that?  So I came out with four notebooks, even if none of them was exactly right.

Next to the big, well-known nationwide stationery store, where I discovered that narrow lines seem to be the thing these days, so I had to dismiss most of their notebooks at once.  However, on a different shelf I found two which actually fulfilled all my requirements, one reddish which can replace the red one, and one blueish to replace the blue one.  Hooray!  So I bought them.

Now I had six new notebooks!

Of course, on my way home I passed another favourite stationery shop, and was sorely tempted to go in, just to see what they had to offer…  However, there was a big sign outside saying “Limited number of customers allowed in the shop at once - Please wait for a member of staff to let you in”.

So, since there was no member of staff in sight, I decided (with some reluctance) that maybe I should just go home.  Maybe I’ve got enough notebooks – at least for the time being.

Until I need another one, of course.

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Thursday, 13 May 2021

The Girl Who Ate Books Sheena Wilkinson

I'm on the move. I don't know exactly when -- it depends on when my house sells, but it's the first time I've moved in nearly 20 years and there seem, despite many clear outs over the years, to be rather more books than there used to be. 

Half my library has gone on in advance to my fiancé's house, where I'll be moving to, which means my  house now contains only six bookcases. (Down from 17 three years ago.) I'm being quite ruthless -- some pony books etc have found new homes through various enthusiasts' groups, and the local charity shops are getting an influx, but there are some books that it's hard to justify keeping, and moving sixty miles, but that I can't in all conscience expect anyone else to want.

Part of my library in its new home -- the posh part.

For a start, there are the books I have eaten. No photo -- it's too disgusting. But yes, gentle reader, there was a time when it would have been literally, and not merely metaphorically true to say that I devoured books. Many of my childhood favourites have neat little strips torn from the bottoms of the pages. I'd forgotten that I used to chew these strips, but when I found the torn pages it came back to me, like Proust's madeleine, the taste of those bits of paper. The difference in taste between an old book and a new, between an Armada paperback and a Puffin. What a revolting child I must have been. I can't expect anyone to want a half-eaten book. 

some old friends (not eaten)

I also illustrated my books. Or defaced, as some would say. I don't remember much about Heidi, and I wouldn't have said it was an especial favourite, but here it is with my drawings showing that I knew the story well. I can't expect anyone to pay for that.

I don't think Heidi spent all her time sitting at people's feet, but there seems to be a theme here...

And then that old Golden Book. The cover is coming off; I've no interest in the stories, but how can I get rid fo something with this dedication? I don't know who 1920s Sheena was, but I feel I should keep her book (even though she didn't). 

As for these three old Ladybirds -- there was a time when I knew no story so tragic as Ned the Lonely Donkey. How can I not cherish him?

And after all, the house I'm moving to is bigger than mine. Luckily. 

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Could you be any meaner?

So I finally read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, which it’s taken me far too long to get around to, and I really enjoyed it. 

As an introduction to fanfiction, Fangirl is excellent. The main character is shy bookworm Cath who, along with dealing with love, family and going off to college with a twin who wants them to start living separate lives, also writes a fan fiction series based on the bestselling Simon Snow books (which is basically Harry Potter with different names).

The mad thing is, fans of Fangirl got so hooked on the extracts of Cath’s ‘fan fiction’ Rowell ended up turning them into a trilogy of novels, which I’m also now enjoying. 

I’ve always been aware of fanfiction, and the teens in my writing group LOVE it, but I hadn’t really read much so, intrigued, I went online to Archive Of Our Own to have a look.

It was a revelation.

I thought fanfic was all written by teens but apparently not. There are writers of all ages on there. And, OK, there’s some very adult content (you can filter it out), but there’s also absolutely everything else you can think of, and the thing that amazed me is the number of ‘hits’ and ‘likes’ some of the stories have. Some of the Harry Potter fanfics have tens of thousands of hits. And they’re not short stories, some of them are twice the length of the average novel and more. I found one Harry Potter that had 350 chapters and over a million words. Another had over 2 million hits and 45,000 ‘Likes’ (or ‘Kudos’ as they’re called on Archive).The numbers are actually staggering. And we thought kids didn't read.

Imagine having tens of thousands of readers! Most kidslit authors (or adult authors) would be ecstatic to think ten thousand people had read their work. I don’t think sales figures often approach that unless you’re quite well known. If you want to reach readers maybe fanfic is the way to go! As long as you don’t mind not making any money obvs. 

The other thing I noticed is that, obviously there’s a huge range in quality in fanfic. I read some that was very good and I enjoyed it so I wouldn’t be sniffy about it. But there’s also a lot that isn’t great and one common problem I noticed (beyond basic writing craft problems) was this:

I think people write fan fiction because they read or watch something and fall in love with the characters. Like deeply, obsessively in love. And they don’t want to let them go. So they write their own spin off stories and alternative versions. But the trouble with being that in love with your characters is that you can’t bear to let anything bad happen to them. 

Too many fanfics are just cosy wish-fulfilment scenes where everyone gets a happy ending and nothing too traumatic happens. It’s understandable; the writers just want to hang out with those characters again, they don’t want to make them suffer. But it doesn’t make for good fiction. 


So what I took away from that is: Be mean! Be horrible! Be downright cruel to your characters. And when you think you’re being cruel, be a bit worse. Whatever you’re writing right now, ask yourself this. Could you be a bit meaner?

So what do you reckon? Would you/have you ever written/read Fanfic? How would you feel if someone wrote Fanfic of your book? (I’d be freaking thrilled.)

Also, go read some Rainbow Rowell if you’re looking for a good page-turner!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,
Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

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

She also blogs at The Blank Page