Friday, 30 January 2015

The ideal conditions for writing a book? Lari Don

Every time someone asks me how the new novel is going, I say the writing’s going fine, apart from all the things that get in the way. If only I could get a clear run at it, I say, I could have this book written in a month.

But I never get a clear run at it. And things always get in the way.

a week in which I did not get a lot of writing done, due to life happening
What gets in the way? School holidays. Leaking roof at the back of the house. Exam leave. Orthodontist appointments. Leaking roof at the front of the house. Promoting other books. And that’s just this month.

So I write in the gaps. In the moments of peace and quiet in the hurly burly of life. At night. Early in the morning. At bus stops. In staff rooms.

And I say, if only I could get a clear run at it… And I dream of the ideal conditions for writing a book.

Then I remember that I have never written a novel under ‘ideal conditions’. That every book I have written has been scribbled down around dentist’s appointments and ballet exams and minor household disasters. And that every book but the very first one has been written around author visits and promotional events.

So despite never writing under my vision of ideal conditions to write - long stretches of peace and quiet to think and to gaze at lovely scenery, while supportive but not intrusive people quietly provide healthy meals at regular intervals then clear up afterwards – despite that, I have already written six novels. (And more than a dozen other kids’ books.)

So perhaps I’m already writing under ideal conditions for making up stories. After all, what is currently getting in the way of my writing? Events (the roof!) and people (my wonderful family).

And what are my stories about? Events (the plot) and people (the characters).

So perhaps I need to be surrounded by, distracted by and infuriated by the messy and noisy business of being a human being, in order to be able to write.

Perhaps ideal conditions of peace and quiet and calmness would be far too sterile to inspire me.

Now, I must go and text the roofer, and while I’m waiting for him to get back to me, I’m sure I can write another few lines of that fight scene…

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Unknown Unknown – Anna Wilson

At Christmas I was browsing in a bookshop for ideas for a present for my husband, and I came across a pamphlet entitled The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth. I, of course, read it before I gave it to my husband – what is the point of buying books for people for Christmas if you can’t enjoy reading them yourself before wrapping them?

Forsyth’s essay is based on the premise famously set by Donald Rumsfeld, the American Secretary of Defense during George W Bush’s administration. He stated that:

“There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say that 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.”

Forsyth goes on to say that this applies perfectly to reading:

“I know that I’ve read Great Expectations: it’s a known known. I know that I haven’t read War and Peace: it is a known unknown to me [. . .] But there are also books that I’ve never heard of; and, because I’ve never heard of them, I’ve no idea that I haven’t read them.”

It was while running workshops in schools last week that I saw that writing, too, is an unknown unknown, because writing is, of course, an exploration, a foray into the unknown: an expedition without a map. We write stories we had no idea existed until we come to write them.

This is particularly true, I feel, when working with children who believe they are not natural storytellers. This might be because they have not had much success in writing stories in school, or because they don’t enjoy writing, or perhaps because they feel hindered by language barriers, for example. They panic at the sight of the blank page: this is where workshops can be so beneficial in unlocking stories, in demystifying the unknown unknown.

Last week I was leading workshops with children of all ages, nationalities and language abilities in schools in Istanbul. We were exploring such ideas as “how to build a character” and “how to get started on a story”. The children all came with a blank sheet of paper, knowing nothing about how they would spend the next 40 minutes. As I waited for everyone to settle down, some children told me that they were not good at stories and that they had no ideas. I told them not to worry and assured them that with a couple of prompts, they would soon be fizzing with stories. But really, I too had no idea what would happen. Maybe the children would go away with their paper still blank. Maybe they would be paralyzed by nerves or fear or a simple lack of vocabulary, as many of them had English as a second, third or even fourth language.

We started one workshop by looking at a collection of random objects I had brought with me, which included, amongst other things, a badger’s skull, a necklace, a set of old keys, an asthma inhaler and an iPhone box. I encouraged the children to choose a couple of objects and think who might own them, what they might do with them, where they might have found them or from whom they might have received them. Within minutes I had children telling me stories about evil mermaids who used the inhaler to make humans breathe underwater so that they could be lured to the mermaids’ cave; people who were drawn into an iPhone app and transported to another world; an old professor who collected skulls and who discovered that one skull, when he touched it, allowed him to travel in time. Soon the children were scribbling away, either having a go at forming sentences or making mind-maps or drawing comic strips of their stories.

Not one single child knew they had those ideas in them before they came to the workshop, just as I have never truly known how any of my books is going to work out until I sit down to write it. I have encountered characters that have reared up from the darkest corners of my imagination and often wondered, ‘Where did you spring from?’ and have found ways of resolving plots that I did not have in mind when I first sat down to write.

Writing is a series of unknown unknowns; it is, as Joseph Conrad says about a blank space on a map, “a white patch for a boy [girl] to dream gloriously over”.

The blank page can of course instill fear, and conjures up that dreaded phrase, “writer’s block”, but for as long as I can see it as that “white patch”, it will continue to hold sway with its magic over me.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Child Poets - Clementine Beauvais

‘The ink was in the baby, he was bound to write a tale
So he wrote the first of stories with his little fingernail’

Nathalia Crane was nine years old when, in 1924, she wrote ‘The First Story’ and many other poems, published in a collection called The Janitor’s Boy. She was one of many child poets in the 1920s, which saw a spate of precocious poetry and prose in the UK and the US. In the 19th century already, a cult of poetic precocity in children had erupted with the rediscovered works of Marjory (/Marjorie) Fleming, a little Scottish girl who wrote everyday from the age of six and conveniently died before she was nine, in 1811 - embodying forever the vision of glorious, pure and doomed childhood genius for the Victorians (this is a great article on the subject)

a rather haunting sketch of Marjorie Fleming by (?)Isa Keith
I’m currently looking at those works by child poets and at the adult discourse which developed around them, and it’s fascinating to see the extent to which such works were simply not allowed to be on their own: they were relentlessly explained, explored, excused, by the adults who read, published and critiqued them (another great article).
We get, of course, the usual amount of ‘how cute they are!’, and the associated Romantic claims that they were ‘close to nature’, ‘close to God’, ‘close to universal truth’. Not coincidentally, references to classics of children’s literature recur when critics analyse those poems: they talk of Alice in Wonderland and Rudyard Kipling, and James Matthew Barrie prefaced a novel by nine-year-old Daisy Ashford. This was around the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature, at a time when children and childhood already had cult status; the verbal abilities of the precocious poets gave hope that their word might be interpreted, and ‘teach’ adults about the beyondness to which childhood supposedly had access.
But those poets were also thought of as dramatically unstructured and lacking technical skill. In 1926, an academic reviews ‘some child poets’ and gives Marjorie Fleming the kind of review anyone would cringe to see written about oneself:
‘An affectionate little soul, with a real joy in nature, and a strangely precocious taste for books, she found her surroundings prosy, though her heart expressed itself in bursts of pitifully inadequate song.’
He goes on to expose Marjorie Fleming’s ‘limitations’ by indicating that she often invents words to make up for a lack of rime (heaven forbid!) and:
‘Another shift which she found useful was the introduction of a purely irrelevant line:
At supper when his brother sat
I have not got a rhyme for that.’
Purely irrelevant indeed. Thankfully, George Shelton Hubbell reassures us that young Shelley was also a ‘juvenile blunderer’ in matters of poetry.
A strong concern of much of the general audience at the time was whether the children were actually writing those poems, or if adults were sneakily doing so. A passionate correspondence developed in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1919, concerning little Hilda Conkling, who dictated poems to her mother:
‘Dear Poetry: Could you not give your readers more explicit information as to just how those poems of Hilda Conkling’s are done: To what extent does her mother select, rearrange and give form? Is it all actually improvised as given?… What a delightful little genius!… (E. Sapir.)’
‘I do not change words in Hilda’s poems,’ replied her mother, ‘nor alter her word-order; I write down the lines as rhythm dictates. She has made many poems which I have had to lose because I could not be certain of accurate transcription.’
The ‘accurate transcription’ of childly thoughts, the ‘authenticity’ of the child’s poetry needed to be ascertained at all costs, to the extent that Nathalia Crane, perhaps the most controversial of all child poets, was asked to produce a poem in the same room as a journalist. 
Nathalia Crane was quite unique in that her poetry got published in a newspaper without the editor’s knowledge that it was a child’s. The editor, Edmund Leamy, wrote an afterword to her collection, in 1924, in which he talked about his astonishment when he discovered the ‘imposture’:

My surprise is excusable. So many times I had received “poems” from youngsters who were careful to give their ages in addition to their names; so often I had received visits from doting parents or relatives requesting publication of verses by their children or sisters or cousins that I never dreamed any child would ever submit any work from his or her pen without adding the words “Aged — years”. But little Nathalia was the exception — and there was nothing in her poems that I received to indicate her age. The poems bought were accepted on their merits and on their merits alone.

‘On their merits alone’, with no ‘child-loving’ bias (to quote Kincaid’s famous study); this was, therefore, proper poetry. Yet it made adults feel relentlessly uncomfortable. Her poetry was more structured, more sexualised and more aware of the constraints of the adult world than other child poets, and adults didn’t know how to tackle it. Louis Untermeyer, in 1936, prefacing Crane’s new collection ‘Swear by the night’ (she was 22 by then), talks about the uncanny feeling he had when the poet was a little girl: 
‘She was ten and a half years old and she puzzled me. She puzzled me as a person even before she puzzled me as a poet. … There was even then a queerness about her, an almost too pronounced childishness coupled with a curious vocabulary.’
The blending of categories is always troublesome, the difficulty to draw lines between adulthood and childhood always a problem. Adults then, but still now, find it difficult to make sense of moments when the presence to the world of children is felt literally, fully, rather than wrapped in layers of symbols.
Nathalia Crane died in 1998 and I’ll leave you with one of her early poems, because it’s fair, after contributing myself to obscuring the works of those child poets with my own, to let her have the last words. I think the work might still be under copyright, so I'll only put the first stanza here; click to redirect to her collection on the Internet Archive.



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

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

“Our job is memory” - Lily Hyde

The title is from this fascinating article from the NewYorker, which gave me much food for (rambling) thoughts about words and reality, libraries and the Internet, memories and memorials.

In it, the writer attacks the myth that what’s online stays online forever. Instead, she says, the Internet is intrinsically ephemeral. Unlike books, the Internet cannot be catalogued because it lacks the dimension of time; online, it’s always today. Academic and legal footnotes and references to books and documents (those painstaking page numbers, edition, publish date) have been replaced by web links. But what happens when those links no longer exist? The evidence disappears, the original source vanishes; anything could be true. 

Anyone who says we no longer need libraries because ‘it’s all online’ should read this article. It isn’t all online. Some of it might have been, yesterday, but that’s no guarantee that it will be today. Or it might look like what was there yesterday is still there today, but in fact it could have been completely rewritten since yesterday, and you’d never know.    

Funnily enough, I spent most of yesterday hunting for an online article about some Russian legislation, adopted in October last year, that retroactively legalises pro-Russian authorities in Crimea from February 2014 when Crimea, according to Russian law, was legally part of Ukraine. From a legal point of view, Russia rewrote history with that bit of legislation. 

The article, as far as I can see, is no longer on the Internet. It disappeared, and history is rewritten. 

I know, history is always rewritten, that’s what history is; a constant interrogation of the evidence from yesterday, viewed through the inescapable prism of today. But what if the evidence from yesterday no longer exists? What if it’s been written over, or just disappeared?

Two years ago I visited the museum of political history in St Petersburg. It used to be called the museum of the revolution (there you go, history rewritten). It’s full of fascinating exhibits, but the one that struck me most was a catalogue of exhibits that weren’t there.

It was a fat, handwritten ledger, open on a page listing all the documents and artefacts relating to Trotsky which had been removed in the late 1920s, when Trotsky was ‘rewritten’ as an enemy of the people. The museum staff had got rid of the historical evidence, yet they had kept a carefully catalogued record of the evidence that no longer existed. I really wonder why they did that. Despite orders to rewrite the past did they too believe, like the Internet librarians, that ‘our job is memory’?

Is that really what a library is – a repository of memory? As someone who uses libraries all the time as a reader and as a writer (just got my PLR statement, hurrah!) I started to wonder, do we write books, fact and fiction, because at least part of our job is memory? 

Libraries are repositories of facts and interpretations of facts to make versions of history, but they are also a storehouse for imaginary worlds and other people’s memories. We write things down so as not to forget them. We record them and we transform them through language, through fancy, through characters, into (in the best books) something unforgettable. 

Do we write (do we read) to remember, or to be remembered?

This is my last post for ABBA, for the moment anyway. Its been a privilege to contribute alongside such wonderful fellow writers, and a huge thank you to the administrators who keep it running. If you’re interested, you can follow my blog, updated mostly about Ukraine and Crimea affairs these days. Thanks for reading!             

Monday, 26 January 2015

Stockpiling Books... Yes, I'm Guilty! by Savita Kalhan

Wycombe Library 1970

Ever since I was very young, I’ve loved books with a passion, though back then I couldn’t afford to buy them. Luckily there was a brilliant library that fed my needs (I’ve blogged about my wonderful library, Wycombe Library, here My Library and Me ).

The Cottage Bookshop in Penn

Later, when I was doing my A levels, I discovered the most amazing second hand bookshop in Penn, The Cottage Bookshop, (which I’ve blogged about here The Cottage Bookshop ) and bought my first books. I found a very old hardback copy of Our Mutual Friend in there once. I suspect the fact that it was the first proper book I owned had something to do with why I loved studying it for A Level English.

I returned many times to that bookshop and to the library, until the day finally arrived when I could actually afford to buy full priced books. Then I went to live in the Middle East and had to take a ton of books with me as there was only one bookshop in the city where I lived, and it sold a ridiculously limited number of books.

So began the stockpiling.

My work room - in the summer!
It’s continued over the years. I had to buy new bookcases every year until they lined most of the walls downstairs, and then the walls upstairs. A friend once joked that she was sure the bookcases were propping up the house. That’s an indication of how bad the stockpiling had become.

My book alley
In 2013 we had major work done on the house. In the planning of the loft conversion, I cut the proposed bathroom in half and created a book alley. I designed the book shelves so that the available space would take as many books as possible, and, fortunately, they can take a lot! There are still lots of bookcases with lots of books dotted around the house, and my new work room at the bottom of the garden houses all the children’s books, teen/YA books, and research books.

So the stockpiling never stopped.

Kindle and ebooks helped a little bit, but not that much. Like many people I still like to have real books in my house. I got out of the habit of using the library when I was living abroad, but I do use it a lot now, so that helps as at least those books don’t need permanent shelf space in my house.

The problem is that I love buying books – even though I know I don’t have the time to read as many as I buy (which probably makes me a hoarder!). When I was on Twitter the other day, a book blogger tweeted about her plan to read 20 books and 20 ebooks before allowing herself to buy any more books. So that’s what I’m going to do. Yes, I do have that many that I haven’t read yet...

My #TBR20
Here’s the hashtag if you’re interested, and if you like, you can post a picture of your 20 books #TBR20. I won’t be putting a time limit on when I should read my twenty books by, although one of the bloggers doing the #TBR20 is planning to have them all read by Easter! The fact that I’ve banned myself from any book purchases until these are read will be enough of an incentive, if I need one.

There is one place you are allowed to go where you can read other books without having to buy them, where stockpiling books is their business, and if they don’t happen to have a copy of the book you want they even order it in for you. My library is my saviour and I have to admit that I’m there once a week, returning books and borrowing more books. So my #TBR20 may take a while to get through at this rate, but at least it’s curbing my stockpiling, if only temporarily.

I can’t be the only stockpiler out there, can I??


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sorry, Do I Know You? - Tamsyn Murray

Author photos. We all have them - hi-res, 300 DPI, colour for preference, smile optional - for a whole range of things. It's one of the first things a new author is asked when they sign the contract: 'Have you got a photo we can use...?' So you might scurry around your hard drive or your camera, looking for something vaguely professional looking. Maybe you'll actually find one. Perhaps you're the kind of person who has an author photo taken every year, so you have a selection that you can send off. but I think it's more likely you won't even have one. Or if you do have one, it's from ten years ago,when the world of publishing seemed so bright and shiny. None of this matters to the harsh world of editors and Sales People. They're probably just after something bright and energetic to put on the AI sheet.

Dorian wondered why the school bookings weren't coming in like they used to...
At a party I attended recently, some of my fellow writers started discussing author photos. Did it matter if you didn't look exactly like the photo any more? Should it be a recent picture? How old can a picture be? Do I look better now or then? If you use your best photo are you just setting yourself up for disappointment when people meet you and discover you are not the suave\attractive\young version they expected?

I got very lucky with my photos - I happened to have had some taken in 2008 (well before I got my first book deal) and I happened to have paid for the copyright to use them where and when I wanted to. Without planning to, I ended up with a selection of pictures I could use on my website, on Twitter - anywhere, really. And those photos have stood me in good stead because I have used them a lot. The trouble is that they are seven years old and I've...well, I've changed a bit since then. The example mentioned at the party I went to cited a photo that was thirty years out of date. So my question to you is: Does it really matter if your author photo is old? How often should you get a new one? As authors, are we getting unfairly judged by our covers?

Tamsyn Murray's new book, Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius is out on 1st March 2015 (Usborne)

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Spring of Ideas - Liz Kessler

A while ago, I wrote a blog about the Seasons of Writing. It was an idea that my good friend Jen Alexander shared with me, and I’ve loved it and referred to it on countless occasions ever since. The idea is that the process of writing a book is very much like the calendar of seasons in a year.

Well, if that’s the case, it is definitely spring right now.

I’m at the very start of working on a new book. It’s an idea that has been patiently waiting underground for quite a few years, and its time has now come. Just as I’m beginning to see snowdrops appearing in the countryside, and tiny shoots starting to come through the ground in my own garden, my new story is beginning to show its head. Little tiny shoots coming up, one by one, all pretty and fresh and exciting.

For over a decade, writing has been my job, and there are times when I’m very aware of that. I make myself sit at my desk for a certain length of time; I set targets that involve writing a set number of words; I organize events, I attend book festivals, I do publicity, I write emails, blogs, articles; I reply to lovely letters from readers. All of these things are wonderful, and all make me feel glad that this is how I make my living. But a lot of the time, my job doesn’t feel especially creative.

But it does now.

A couple of months ago, I attended a writers’ retreat that I run with my author buddy Elen Caldecott. Four days where eighteen children’s authors come together to share thoughts, ideas, inspiration and workshops all about writing and creativity, set in beautiful countryside.

(I made a kind of slideshow of my photos while I was there. You can watch it here if you want to see why it’s such a lovely place.)

This was the fourth time we’ve run this retreat, and I have to say I think it was the best yet – especially in terms of creativity. But the point of this blog is to share what was, for me, the best thing to come out of this year’s retreat. And that was that my new book started to open up – yes, like a beautiful new crocus slowly unfurling its petals.

Part of the way that this happened was to do with my surroundings. Each morning of the retreat, I got up early and went out for a walk with my camera. The mornings were so quiet and the light was so soft, as a mist gradually lifted from the fields and trees. Something about the mornings felt right for my book, and started leading me towards the background mood and setting.

Then one evening, another writer buddy, Kelly McKain, and I had a wonderful couple of hours sharing music and downloading each other’s favourite songs. So on the final morning when I went out for my walk, I took my headphones and listened to these new songs at the same time – and the most amazing thing happened. As I walked, and watched the mist and the dew, and listened to the songs, I started almost seeing my book begin to take shape in front of me. I almost heard my characters singing lines from the songs as I listened to them. Almost felt their moods and their emotions, as I felt the mist rising on a storyline that was starting to take shape after five years of waiting in the shadows.

And it’s carried on like that for the months following the retreat. I’ve added more tunes and now have a playlist of about thirty songs. I play them when I walk the dog, trudging along a muddy coast path and hearing the characters singing the words. I play them in my study, writing away in my lovely new notebook, as I try to capture the feelings, the moods, the words and the moments in the same way as I saw them out on the cliff path.

I have written about fifteen books, and I can honestly say that I have never experienced anything quite like the process that is taking place with this book. It feels so creative, and such a journey of exploration. It’s intense, emotional, exciting and kind of magical. It reminds me that, after all, this isn’t just my job. It is my passion; it is one of the things that is at the heart of who I am, how I see the world and how I live my life.

The book is due to be delivered in September this year. I have two books coming out before then and a busy year ahead – but for now, I’m enjoying taking the time to nurture these seedlings of ideas that are popping up every day. 

So yes, this is work, and yes, sometimes it’s hard. But right here, right now, it feels like a privilege that I get to do such a magical, wonderful, creative thing and call it my day job. I hope that over the coming months, I can do my characters justice. I look forward to the rest of the spring, and am hoping for a summer filled with bright colours, delightful scents and a beautiful, blossoming story.

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