Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Emilia Report on Gender Equality for Authors - Lucy Coats

Equality is important. That is why I urge you to read The Emilia Report, an investigation by Danuta Kean and Isobel de Vasconcellos into the gender gap for authors, which was published yesterday. In the introduction, playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, creator of the eponymous play Emilia, (which 'celebrates not only a great woman writer but every woman and marginalised community that has been given the silent treatment'says this:
The findings of the Emilia Report are important because they show why it is vital to listen to those outside a tiny group of white men. That the idea of women’s writing being unimaginative and “domestic” is a lie and that our creations have as much to say about the human condition as those of men.
I entirely agree, and I find it extraordinary that in 2019 we should still have to be having this conversation. But have it we must. Danuta Kean, who was commissioned to do this research to coincide with the opening of Lloyd Malcolm's new play about Emilia Bassana, Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady', has this to say:
It may seem that the struggles of a 17th Century woman to be taken seriously as a poet are incomparable to modern women who have benefitted from three waves of feminism, 40 years of equality legislation, universal suffrage and advances in science that have freed them from the tyranny of their bodies, but, though the landscape of their lives may be different, the structures that inhibit their path to recognition and success are not.
Kean and her co-author focused on ten writers, five male, five female, in different genres and the coverage they received in national newspapers for their work. I think women who write are mostly aware, if only in a tenuous way, of the fact that coverage of male writers is greater than that of female writers. This report breaks down the actual figures and percentages with targeted research, as well as things like personal references (women are far more likely to have their age, marital status and family referenced than men, forinstance), and it does not make for encouraging reading.

As a female children's and young adult writer with 40+ published books under my belt, I have got used to questions and comments like:

'Still writing then?
'Of course, writing is only a hobby, isn't it?'
'Writing's not really like a proper job, is it?'
'Oh, but you just write for children. don't you?'
'When are you going to write a grown-up book, then'

...and many more. I have got less tolerant of these quips now, but I used to just laugh them off, buying into the 'Imposter Syndrome' so many women suffer from, where our brains give us the fear message that, however successful we are, someone will find out that we are really frauds and don't deserve the reputation and achievements we have worked so hard for to be recognised or acknowledged. Even though what we do is an essential part of opening and informing young minds, children's writers know all about being less valued than our adult counterparts, especially where newspaper coverage is concerned. This is, in part, why this report rings so true. Adult women writers suffer many of the same problems, and Rowan Coleman aptly describes this in the report.
'For a woman, so often her writing is treated like it's a hobby, it is a nice thing to do on the side. That attitude is deeply embedded in our culture.'
That 'pram in the hallway' attitude, first promoted by by the notoriously sexist Kingsley Amis has to change. That's why I hope you will read this report, and disseminate it widely. Change has to start somewhere, and it is only by openly addressing and shining a light on inequality in publishing that we will ever begin to change it.

Read the full Emilia Report

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Monday, 18 March 2019

They're out to get you - by Lu Hersey

Orwell would probably appreciate the irony...

A pit stop at a motorway service station with a friend the other day got me thinking about advertising and how it’s targeted. On the back of the doors in the women’s toilets were ads for a charity that supplies tampons and basic sanitary items to vulnerable women in refugee camps and other dangerous places. I drive a fair bit, so see this particular ad quite often.

As we bought ourselves a coffee before continuing the journey, my friend started telling me about the ads on the back of the doors in the men’s toilets. They were for flatulence control pants called My Shreddies. Seriously. There’s an entire range of pants and jeans for men that help stop farts polluting the atmosphere.

Interesting that advertising can be targeted so very differently depending on who you are, even in this very basic gender divide – and it’s so clever. But once advertisers start using algorithms to target you online, it gets really up close and personal.

You'll probably have encountered all the age related advertising that comes up on social media platforms. If you’re anything over 45, whether you like it or not, ads will pop up telling you how to pay for your funeral in advance (supposedly this gives you peace of mind – mostly it makes me wonder if they know something I don’t) along with ads about Alzheimer’s care and denture fixadents.

Because of the stuff I write, I choose to get social media updates on a wide range of folklore, faerie, magic and similar topics, and often scan through weird and wonderful blog posts out of curiosity. One I read recently, by a writer who identified as queer, non-binary, was about their interaction with a beautiful blue deity they had come to regard as a fallen angel. Interesting as that might be, I was completely distracted by an ad that popped up on the page about special (blue) plasters for bunion sufferers. Poor writer, I thought – putting their heartfelt beliefs out there and having their reader distracted by ads for bunion plasters.

Then I started wondering who the advertisers were targeting. Had the writer previously searched for bunion cures? Or was it me, who despite lying about my age on social media still get the care home and funeral ads, and therefore might be an elderly bunion sufferer? Or are people interested in blue deities also more likely to prefer blue plasters? 

When researching this post, I asked writers in SCBWI and a couple of other facebook groups for their targeted ad experiences - and got some amazing responses. It seems writer research leads to us receiving quite extraordinary ads. One writer was plagued by wheelie bin ads (presumably you can never have enough wheelie bins), another offered a waste disposal unit, complete with trucks ready and waiting to assist him with his sanitation needs (he hadn’t any but was quite flattered), special silent hunting trousers for a vegetarian writer heavily into conservation, and ads for expensive shaving equipment for a woman with three daughters and a husband who writes a blog called The Bearded Stranger….and so the list went on. Some ads were so mysterious, no one was entirely sure what they were for…

What on earth are these? 
But of course there’s a more serious side to targeted advertising. It’s alarming how advertisers can find out more about you – even if it’s simply from your location. The annoying 'help other shoppers know what to expect at Morrisons' kind of thing that pop up on your mobile seem relatively harmless, but all your online shopping and google searches help advertisers narrow down your age and your interests.

When this is targeted at young people, it’s very disturbing – in a world where everything is about appearance, teens constantly see ads for lip plumping, boob jobs and diet pills coming up on Instagram and other social media sites, which can exacerbate problems with anxiety and depression. On a bigger scale, the news has been full of the targeted attempts to influence the outcomes of elections and referendums.

A final thing (just to make you really paranoid) –  there are rumours that the microphone on your phone transmits randomly and intermittently direct to google. One writer had a conversation with a friend about how she had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor and found it more comfortable. She was then suddenly targeted on social media sites with ads for floor beds. Another admired some guinea pigs in a Pets At Home store and was mysteriously targeted with ads from a guinea pig rescue centre. So is it true? Are they listening? 

Even worse - can they see you? A friend told me that you can be seen through the camera on your laptop, whether you’re using it or not. This might just be a conspiracy theory, but apparently ALL techies who work in the industry stick tape over the laptop lens unless they're actually using the camera. 

So beware - Big Brother really could be watching you…

NB. Massive thanks to all the writers that shared their online advertising experiences with me! You know who you are... and obviously so do the advertisers. :) 

Lu Hersey

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The End! by Tracy Darnton

Like many of us, I’ve been talking about writing as part of WBD school visits. One of the tips I gave to students entering the short story competition I’m judging, was not to neglect their ending. We hear so much about the importance of a killer first line, that elusive hook to grab attention. But what readers take away from the ending affects how they feel about the story as a whole. 

What do you like? Neatly-tied up resolution? Ambiguity? A warm glow? Shock? A twist? A perfect or imperfect cadence?

You probably don’t like feeling confused or short-changed that the story promised something it didn’t deliver, or that the story has petered out.

I’ve just re-read The Go-Between by L.P.Hartley which has one of the most famous opening lines of all: 
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So far so good, but how I go away at the end of the process feeling about The Go-Between is more determined by how L.P.Hartley winds up his story. I’m busy; I’ve invested my time and effort into reading the devilishly small print of the whole book. Does it deliver for me in exploring memory, the boundaries of adulthood and class? Does it leave me still thinking about the characters and themes? Did the hint of some terrible life event in the prologue pay off? Was I satisfied?

A common tip on a short story is to cover the last paragraph or two and see if the story is improved. Finishing a novel is inevitably more complex. Where to end it? If you’re finishing on a big action moment, it’s tough to tie everything up without it seeming contrived and interrupting the pace and tone of a big reveal. A time jump, or epilogue, may provide that resolution - One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus or Sunflowers in February by Phyllida Shrimpton are good examples.

Epilogues certainly seem to be enjoying a revival though I confess sometimes I’d rather leave the characters exactly where we left them and not know what came to pass. Another balancing act for the author to navigate – and something I had mixed feelings about in The Go-Between. (Spoiler alert – did I really want to see Marion as an old lady and know the fate of every character?)

And if you can tie up your story beautifully, and have a killer last line too, then you really have nailed it. The Great Gatsby provides a masterclass in both concluding with

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Consider books you’ve read recently. Did they end at the right place? Did they have a killer last line?

Or did they just fi

The End

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies, shortlisted for The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019. She has an MA in Writing for Young People. You can follow her on Twitter @TracyDarnton

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Learning from Children by Claire Fayers

I don’t have children or close family with kids so most of the year I’m trapped in a world of adult conversation where I rely on friends’ children to keep me on my toes. This time of year is a special treat for me – the chance to visit schools and talk to hundreds of children in the space of a few weeks. This year, the schools have been especially welcoming. I walked into several to see displays like this one.

I will often start my sessions with some improvised story-telling. We decide where the story is going to happen, I pull a couple of children out to role-play the characters and then we see how long we can keep the story going.

It can be a little risky. You never quite know what's going to happen. One child might freeze with stage-fright and refuse to speak. Another will talk without pause and you have to cut in to give other people a chance. You may need to prompt with questions to get the story moving. (You're in a spaceship - what do you see?) The main challenge is to keep the story, and the group, under control with 20+ children yelling ideas at you. 

As usual this March, the results were weird and wonderful. A group of aliens on the moon found a robot covered in coloured buttons; a psychopath stalked a girl on a deserted beach and as he was about to kill her she vanished; a boy received a giant parcel containing Big Ben.

A bit of exaggerated acting helps, especially if you're bad at it. 

The children will usually join in - the dancing moon robots of Shrewsbury were a sight to behold.

I love the chaotic creativity that can happen when there are no rules, no need to worry about writing anything down or getting the words right. Children come up with the most fantastic ideas and will throw anything into a story to see what happens. 

A teacher asked me if I ever use any of the children’s ideas. My answer was no. They are not my ideas, not my stories to tell. But I really hope the children will write them. And I hope I can channel their creativity next time I'm working on a new draft.

Finally, the questions

Every session has to end with a Q&A, and improvised storytelling is good practice for this as you have to make up your answers very quickly. 

As well as the usual questions (‘How old are you?’, ‘How much do you earn?’) I had two interested ones I'd never been asked before:

How do you end a story?
Why do you write about children?

I'd be interested to know other people's answer to those.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Apostrophes. Dontcha just love ’em? By Rowena House

Having spent every spare minute this week glued to Twitter - enthralled and appalled by the Brexit mayhem - I’ve been reminded just how many people seem to think the plural of MP is MP’s.

Now it might be that technology bears its share of the blame. Certainly, my phone has taken to autocorrecting “its” into “it’s” every time.

Particularly irksome is a short, sneaky delay before Samsung’s gremlin imposes its will on my punctuation. The error slips past, and my social media feed is forever befouled. The solution: proof read every tweet, post & comment.

Which brings me to a story.

The story of The Wizards’ Rabbits’ Apostrophes.

First off, let me acknowledge unconditionally and absolutely that this story was inspired by proof-reading expert, Catriona Tippin, whose advice on every aspect of this topic in SCBWI’s Words and Pictures has been invaluable for years. In particular, I relied on her superb article, here:


Catriona, thank you very much.

I also acknowledge the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett as my inspiration for the setting and style of the wizards’ rabbits’ tale - and hope that in law such fan fiction/blatant plagiarism is OK given it’s done purely for educational purposes.

You see, I wrote the story for colleagues faced with the daunting prospect of umpteen thousand words of academic assignments to proof read.

It’s meant to be a fun way to make the point that every apostrophe in every assignment ought to be double checked because they’re devious little devils, slithering either side of an “s”, running away for “its” and hiding in contractions like “it’s” which aren’t allowed in academic writing.

I’ll do the correction exercise alongside them to test myself, and also to demonstrate that even though I’ve been a professional wordsmith for decades, and set the bloomin’ task, Murphy’s Law suggests that I’m bound to misplace at least one or two of the buggers.

[Typing this post, several “apostrophe’s” have appeared as if by magic, and I’m starting to wonder if my tech is Hubris, given a past tendency to sneer about other people’s errors: ‘Oh, look who got that wrong. Tut, tut.’ Hopefully, that’s a thing of the past now; life is way too stressful the sweat the small stuff.]

Anyhow, here is the story - with all the apostrophes removed. It’s not a sparking story. It’s not meant for kids, either. But if anyone fancies having a go at correcting it, I’ll post what I think is the right version in the comments section in a couple of days.

Please let me know if I make mistakes. Like I say, Murphy’s Law and all that…



Tuesday last, the wizards of Untold University held an open day to which their young male relatives were invited, females being banned from its hallowed precincts. Among the exhibits were rabbits, kept by the wizards in lieu of lawnmowers, but which the denizens of Lank-Moorpuck endlessly asked to see being magicked out of the wizards hats whenever one of them was spotted sidling along The Lashup in search of refreshment in its seedier establishments.

Knowing that these performances were demanded to annoy the wizards, rather than from any fondness for magic, Untold Universitys finest had determined to distribute their rabbits among their nephews in order to prevent any further interruptions to the serious business of drinking.

On the appointed day the Master of Impossible Feats, Silas Graves, wasted no time. The moment his nephew, Nigel, stepped over the threshold, Silas thrust two white rabbits into the boys reluctant hands, and then scuttled out of the building. The two bemused creatures were now the magicians nephews pets.

Seeing Silas striding towards The Goblin Arms, with a bag of dwarfs gold dangling from his belt, identical twin wizards Cornelius and Corinthian Trump stuffed their shared rabbit into the trouser pocket of their sisters son, Humphry, then hurried after Silas. The wizards nephews rabbit looked nervous.

On the far side of the quad, Obadiah Ringworm was livid: the Trump brothers reputation for boozing was legendary, and Lashup Old Peculiar in dangerously short supply due to the brewerys draymens strike. Obadiah grabbed both his nephews by their ears, forced them under threat of being turned into skunks into selecting a rabbit each, then he snatched up his hat and staff and ran full pelt into town. Ringworms nephews rabbits looked at each other - and winked.

Now, over the years, the wizards, being careless, had spilt a great many spells in the universitys halls, and in the quad and on its lawns. The wizards nephews rabbits had, in consequence, dined on magical grass since birth, growing both in intelligence and guile. They had no intention whatsoever of being handed over willy-nilly to a bunch of spotty-faced, indolent, catapult-wielding urchins, thereby forfeiting the pleasures of The Lashup, whose byways and back gardens housed far fairer fluffy tails than the booze-sodden wizards could ever have imagined in their misogynistic lives. To a rabbit, they bared their teeth, bit the nephews down to the bone and legged it.

@HouseRowena on Twitter

Website: rowenahouse.com


Thursday, 14 March 2019

Finding a Title by Lynne Benton

It should be easy, shouldn’t it?  You’ve spent weeks/months/years writing your magnum opus, so why haven’t you come up with your title ages ago?

Except it doesn’t necessarily work like that.

This blog was going to be called Choosing a Title.  However, I realised that Choosing implies having half a dozen titles to hand, all equally suitable, from which to choose.  Whereas Finding implies having to dig around in the dark until you find the perfect title, of which there is only one.  

Sometimes I find the title comes to me at the same time as the idea for the book.  But more often I’ve finished the book and still have no idea what to call it.  So I make a list of vaguely appropriate titles.  Some are obviously hopeless, but I write them all down anyway, in the hope that one of them will ignite a spark which will go on to be the ideal one.  Then I may talk to writer friends, especially those in a similar situation, and we brainstorm a few possible titles for both of us.  Somehow it's often easier to come up with good titles for other people's books than it is for your own! 

Of course we all know that titles should be catchy, original, intriguing, relevant to the book and suitable for the genre of book you’re writing.  No pressure then!  There is also a big difference between writing a book for adults, when you can use enigmatic or ambiguous titles, and writing for children, especially younger children, who usually like to have a good idea of what the book is about before they pick it up.  Books called things like James and the Giant Peach or The Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Dog give them a good idea of what to expect in the story. 

Older children and young adults, on the other hand, don’t necessarily need or want such specific information in the title.

Titles also go in fashions: sometimes publishers want punchy one-word titles (Jelly, 

Sorceress)  while at other times they seem to want longer titles (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen).

 Sometimes all you need is the name of the central character (Jack Fortune, Peter Rabbit), 

or their first name together with the name of a place (Anne of Green Gables, Stig of the Dump)

There are also plenty of books in which the title tells us something about the central character, such as The Centurion’s Son, The Warrior King, The Demon Headmaster.

 Sometimes the title describes some object or landmark important to the story, eg. The Willow Man, The Glass-Spinner, The Secret Garden.

For children’s books it often works well to have the character’s name followed by “and the…”, eg Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, and of course Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  The idea of featuring the main character's name in every title works particularly well if you are planning to write a series, as with all 7 of the Harry Potter books,  Richmal Crompton’s 10 William books, and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books (all 21 of them!)  

I read somewhere that there are a few key words which, if part of the title, will always tempt a child to pick up the book.  The words I remember are Secret, Mystery and Treasure.  I’m sure there are many more (probably including Adventure – no matter what you think of her nowadays, Enid Blyton got a lot of things right, didn’t she?)

It all needs a great deal of thought, but unfortunately, even if you have thought long and hard and come up with the perfect title for your book, it’s always possible that your publisher may not like it at all, which is very frustrating.  Even worse is if they wish their own choice on you, which you absolutely hate!  Then all you can do is argue your case, and hope that eventually they will agree with you.  Although you can’t always judge a book by its cover, you really want to have it judged it by its great title. 


Wednesday, 13 March 2019


March always marks the anniversary of when I started contributing to ABBA, which more or less coincides with my decision to leave a full-time teaching job to try to make it as a freelance writer. So it often finds me in reflective mood, especially on here. This month being five years since my first ABBA post, I thought I’d do a FIVE THINGS I’VE LEARNED IN FIVE YEARS post.

Some of these things would have terrified and discouraged me had I known them in 2014, some would have delighted me. I’ll let you decide which is which.

1.    You will work as hard as you ever did in teaching, and you will earn a great deal less, but you will be much happier. You will be able to go for walks most mornings and feel you're living more intensely in the physical world as well as in your fictional ones. 

Today's walk 

2.    You will continue to publish books, often to great acclaim, but you will also have disappointments – the ones that don’t sell much, and the one that hasn’t (yet!) sold at all.  You will discover that historical fiction is your favourite genre. 

You will continue to publish books

3.    You will think you know all about your characters and then a question from a thirteen year old will make you realise that someone else knows them better, and the buzz from that is wonderful. 

Thanks to the readers who have helped me get to know my own characters better

4.    You will travel, not far, but to places you hadn’t visited or in some cases heard of in 2014 – places like Gladstone’s Library, whose very existence makes the world feel a better place. 

Gladstone's Library, one of my new favourite places 

5.    Every month you will be convinced that the well is dry, and you can’t think of a thing to write about for ABBA. Every month you manage to come up with some old nonsense. Every month you will feel grateful to be part of such a lovely community of writers and readers.