Thursday, 21 June 2018

What can we do? by Anne Booth.

First of all,  I believe that every single children's writer in this group has been looking on at the news these last days with horror and that the spectacle of babies and children being taken away from their parents at the American border is breaking their hearts. The fact that I know that, makes me very proud to be part of of this group and our profession and grateful to have a role within it. It is an honour to write for and about children, and I feel like doing our job helps us be in touch with what really matters. Meeting the children I write for, inspires me every time.

Last week I met this lovely boy who wrote me a letter to say he was my greatest fan! Every writer here will know how lovely such a letter is to receive. The school librarian really wanted me to meet him, and got permission from his mum for me to share his picture. He is 8, and he told me enthusiastically that he loves all the cute animals in the Lucy books. The children at the school are not from a privileged background, like so many prominent politicians doing horrible things. He is bright and open and tender and loving. He is wonderful. I felt so honoured that he took the trouble to write to me and it brought tears to my eyes that meeting me meant so much to him - he had no idea how lucky I was to meet him.   It cheers me up every time I think of him.

The whole school has a wonderful atmosphere and the children are happy and enthusiastic, and I think it is because the school really lives up to the words of the banner you can see in the photograph and supports the pupils but also the parents who love them. The wonderful school librarian is going to organise after school support classes for the parents - this is a community short on money but based on love, and books and reading play a large part. It gives me hope and it was an honour to go there for World Book Day, where they paid me properly. So I went back and did the launch of my latest book there as a thank you. I love being with these children and this school community.

So what on earth is  happening when children turn into hate-full adults? Everyone starts off gorgeous, made to give and receive love. The politicians who do such hateful things, the journalists who smear, the people spouting fear-filled hate online and in phone-ins, were once as innocent and open to love as the little babies and toddlers at the border of America and Mexico or as these children in the picture.  What went wrong and how can we put it right?

I'm sure it all comes down to love. I try to remind myself, when I feel panicked and overwhelmed by all the horrible things going on and my own inability to fix them, that maybe we can't all be politicians or  aid workers or teachers or a librarians or nurses or social workers or any number of other jobs, but what we can do  is do the jobs we love. As writers we can love writing  and hope that that love comes through and out the other side to our readers. Loving readers can take the form of making them laugh, giving them a wonderful world to escape to, as well as educating them or inspiring them. There are many different types of writers and many types of genres  and many different children each of whom may read a variety of books.

I don't know how to fix the world, and I can't spend all my days RT horrific news, although i do feel we do have to share it and make a noise. I am finding that it is so easy to despair, but that getting on with my job gives me peace, and I wish it for each of us today.

P.S. - for when we forget about how truly important our jobs are and why - and inspite of ourselves feel a bit depressed or self-doubting  when we don't win awards or sell millions - I thought this might make you smile and also inspire!

Video of the opening song at The Tomy Awards 2018

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

From A (around the houses) to Pineapple by Joan Lennon

I'm going to be a mother-in-law!  Not only that, the wedding's going to happen in Jakarta, where my oldest son and my daughter-in-law-to-be now live.

I've been lucky enough to visit them before, and each time I've gone, friends here have said to me, "What an inspiration it's going to be!  You'll get some great writing ideas!"  But the thing is, for me, inspiration doesn't work like that.  It's not an A to B sort of process.  It's more roundabout and eccentrically connected - more A to, I don't know, Pineapple, by way of a google map of Birmingham.  So when amazing, overwhelming, inspiring Indonesia does filter through to my writing, will you be able to tell?  Will I?

Is your road from inspiration to the words more straightforward, or do you, too, meander something chronic?  Let us know!

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

JM Barrie and An Awfully Big Blog Adventure - Lucy Coats

Before this blog existed, when it was just the germ of an idea, the first thing we needed was a name. So that was the question we asked each other. What should we call this new venture for the Scattered Author’s Society? There were many suggestions, some more whimsical than others, but then somebody suggested An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, a play on the words of Peter Pan: ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure’.

It therefore seems fitting to remember JM Barrie, the man who wrote those words, who died on 19th June, 1937, exactly 81 years ago today. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was published in 1906. However, that story of a ‘Betwixt-and-Between’ half-bird boy is much less well-known than Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, aka Peter and Wendy, first a 1904 play and then, in 1911, a novel, which has been in print in one form or another ever since. My own treasured copy of the former, with the original Rackham illustrations under onion skin paper, belonged to my grandmother as a child, and has been handed down through four generations now.

However old-fashioned the idea of children in nightgowns with nannies might seem to today's tech savvy kids, the story itself, with a boy who never wants to grow up, the ultimate pirate captain and crew, Lost Boys, a ticking crocodile and a dying fairy is still intriguing enough to stand the test of time.
However, some of the elements, such as the ‘native American’ princess Tiger Lily, and her tribe are now rightly regarded as dated stereotypes, and have thankfully been quietly excised from modern versions. Peter Pan has now appeared in the form of films (both of the story and spin offs), the perennial Christmas panto, a musical, and endless book adaptations, as well as TV programmes and associated productions such as the biopic Finding Neverland. The boy who never grew up remains perennially young. I wonder if JM Barrie himself would believe that his creation was still being talked about over a century after Peter first stepped out of a London window and flew down to Kensington Gardens to meet with old Solomon Caw and Queen Mab. I suppose that’s the true memorial every author really wants (if they are honest) — for their work to live on, and themselves through it. So, happy death day, JM Barrie — and thank you for letting us adapt Peter’s words as our name. You definitely live on in our hearts here at ABBA.

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

Monday, 18 June 2018

How do you confront a giant? - by Lu Hersey

What do you do if Amazon, online giant retailer with more power than most small countries, decides to remove some of your most treasured book reviews? It happened to me just over a year ago, when several of my reviews disappeared overnight. Worse, I had absolutely no idea why it happened and I couldn’t find any way to contest Amazon's decision.

This week there was a piece in the Bookseller on the subject. Apparently publishers and writers are becoming increasingly concerned about Amazon’s heavy-handed policy on removing book reviews, though unsurprisingly, most gave the Bookseller their comments anonymously. (I’m pretty nervous putting my name this post to be honest – hopefully Amazon won’t read it, as no writer can afford to alienate the largest bookseller on the planet...) 

One of the few brave enough to risk the wrath of the giant corporation in the article was HarperCollins’ commercial publisher, Kimberly Young. ‘Writing an honest review of a proof copy of a book is both an established practice and also a very modern tool,' she said. 'Reviews drive word of mouth and help readers find the right books for them. We know algorithms favour well reviewed books and I can’t see how the removal of reviews across so many titles on Amazon can benefit the consumer – it narrows the range and discoverability of books and is another step in Amazon supporting their own books at the expense of others.’

For me, the scariest thing is the way the company gets its information. Writer Kiltie Jackson wrote a blog post on the subject. She’s convinced her review of a fellow romance writer’s book was taken down because they were in the same online book club.

The bottom line seems to be Amazon mines data from social media sites and eliminates book reviews it judges are written by known contacts. As one publisher (anonymously) said, ‘ The fact that someone follows you on facebook or twitter does not reveal a conflict of interest for their reviews on Amazon and does give the book buyer a really good service.’

Most writers use sites such as Twitter and facebook as writer chat forums. It goes with the territory that we spend a lot of time on our own, and social media is a way of connecting. Like many writers, I haven’t met half of my facebook ‘friends’, and know only a tiny fraction of my followers on twitter. Which makes Amazon’s removal of reviews on the basis they’re written by known contacts incredibly harsh. People take the time and trouble to write a review of a book and give a star rating because (hopefully) they like the book, not because the writer is bribing them to do so. 

So what can the individual writer can do about it? There's no point in going on strike, because no one would notice - frankly we have to be pretty famous for anyone to notice if we die. How can we possibly confront such a powerful giant? 

If you're expecting me to give you the answer, sorry - it was a rhetorical question. But if anyone out there can find a solution, please let us know. They’ll be doing all writers a favour.

Lu Hersey

twitter: @LuWrites

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Book Launch Dilemmas by Tracy Darnton

My YA thriller The Truth About Lies is being published shortly. As a newbie novelist, I worked hard at maintaining suspense, hiding clues, keeping up the subplots and exploring the theme of memory. But it turns out I should also have been thinking ahead to the book launch.

My main comment these days on friends’ finished manuscripts is: ‘Yes it’s a masterpiece but what are you going to eat at the launch?’ Because you need to reference it somewhere in your book from the start. And not just any old food. Preferably food which is quirky, tasty, cheap and not at all greasy to avoid any damage to Waterstones’ stock. Wotsits and kebabs are out. Picture book writers have it much easier than YA authors. Their books are full of pineapples and sandwich tea parties and chocolate.

Memory, on the other hand, is a terrifically rich theme to write about but not visual enough as a good party theme. Brains generally do not appear on T-shirts, napkins, paper plates or indeed (aside from the obvious) food. I know because I have perused strange websites worldwide to no avail. I have finally sourced jellied brains, which I first saw in a jar of replacement body parts at the Wellcome Collection and, er, that’s it so far.

Very boring madeleines
I began to realise my error when I made a list of the food in the book. A noxious green punch with floating jelly eyeballs and a bowl of Monster Munch feature at the party at the pub and later a spag bol that makes someone ill. What was I thinking? No one wants to eat any of that, least of all me. The only sophisticated food reference is to a madeleine cake as a nod to a Proustian moment of remembering. But a) who has actually read Proust? and b) madeleine cakes are pale and boring and need to be dunked in a cup of tea (as even Proust knew).

So, as I was in Scotland at the time, I started planning the next book which I’m writing now. Smoked salmon (ready for delicate cocktail blinis), shortbread and Caramel Wafers have made their appearance along with repeated, yet subtle, references to those lovely chocolate marshmallowy tea cakes wrapped in foil, such as ‘My name’s Steve and I’m a Tunnock’s tea cakes addict’ (chapter 7).
Yummy Scottish treats
However, I was disturbed to hear from author Joanna Cannon at a recent Bath Festival event that she was fed Angel Delight by well-meaning booksellers for 18 months in homage to her book The Trouble with Goats and Sheep set in 1976. (For the young, dessert in the seventies was always synthetic weird blancmange and/or tinned peaches). She is having similar issues with Battenburg cake in relation to Three Things About Elsie.  I’m starting to wonder whether even with Tunnock’s tea cakes you can have too much of a good thing.

Sometimes a cover design can offer a solution. The Truth About Lies cover is marvellously striking but of a mosaic swimming pool. So other than chlorinated water, no major food stuff. My son helpfully suggested I give ‘bazuka that verruca’ samples away with the jellied brains. 

Plus, I now have something new to fret about: my editor made it very clear at the cover reveal that she will not be coming in a swimsuit. I confess I now worry whether anyone attending the launch will be disappointed if I’m not decked out in at least a frilly swimming hat, nose clips and goggles. But maybe that’s why they’re coming...

What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever seen at a launch or book event?
Tracy Darnton’s The Truth About Lies will be published by Stripes on 12th July 2018. 
Follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton #thetruthaboutlies

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Changing Genres, by Claire Fayers

This afternoon I will be in Cardiff, celebrating the launch of Mirror Magic, also know as The Book That Nearly Killed Me.

My first two books were fantasy adventures and they were easy to write. (If the plot starts to flag, just throw in another giant octopus.) But after my second book, my publisher wanted something new, and my agent mentioned she’d love to read a middle-grade take on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I, with more optimism than sense, declared that I was just the author to write it.

All went well for a while. I set about researching the Victorian period with gusto – mainly by watching costume dramas and reading gothic novels, but this was going to be a very alternative history. I sent in my first draft and sat back, reasonably satisfied.

Then I got a call from my editor.

“First question,” she said, “is this book supposed to be a mystery or an adventure?”

I hadn’t even considered it – or even considered that I ought to consider it. Weren’t they both the same thing?

“Does it make any difference?” I asked.

Yes, actually, it turned out, it made a huge difference. Because, while adventures can swing blithely from one crisis to the next, a mystery is an altogether different kettle of fiction. The plot must twist and turn, you must have clues, moments of danger, clues, a formidable villain, clues, red herrings and wrong avenues, clues… Did I mention clues?

“The pacing is a little erratic,” my editor said with monumental understatement. “You need to go back to the start and plan out how the information will unfold.”

That didn’t sound too hard. I made a spreadsheet. By chapter thirteen, for example, I decided my characters needed to have learned x,y, and z.

I added a kindly vicar to chapter thirteen. “Hello, characters,” he said. “By the way, x, y, and z.”

“Um, this is getting better,” my editor said after I proudly presented my second draft. “But now you need to remove the kindly vicar and plant clues so the readers can work out what’s going on for themselves. Your readers will enjoy feeling clever.”

I thought of all the times I’d gloated over working out a whodunnit, and I didn’t feel so clever any more. I cut the kindly vicar and planted clues the size of giant octopuses all over the first twelve chapters.

“It’s almost there,” my editor sighed, shuffling the tear-stained pages of draft three. “Now you just need to make it a little more subtle. Maybe a lot more subtle. And, by the way, the last four chapters of the book don’t make sense.”

Of course they didn’t, because I’d spent all my time planting clues in the first twelve chapters. I wondered if I could use my new-found knowledge of crime to murder my editor. Given the clumsiness of my plotting, though, I'd probably be found out immediately. I sat down to rewrite yet again.

I think we did four drafts altogether. Maybe five – or five and a half. The whole experience was like learning to play a new instrument. Thinking that because I could play the cello, the flute would be easy. Some adventure elements crept into the mystery, of course. Giant octopuses were out, but ghastly skeletons from the Unworld were a pretty good substitute. And, because I have to have at least one sarcastic character in every book (if it’s not written into my contract, it should be) I invented The Book – a magical tome with an erratic ability to see the future and a huge attitude problem.

I finished my last draft with a whole new appreciation of different genres and the difficulties that must be inherent in each one. And also a huge respect for my editor’s patience and persistence, her refusal to let me get away with sloppy plotting or clumsy clues.

Mirror Magic and I had a difficult relationship but I’m rather proud of my wayward offspring. I think if we met in the street we’d tip our hats, nod and smile knowingly, acknowledging that the journey was worth it in the end.

That’s the joy and challenge of writing. You’re always learning, always pushing yourself, always trying new things. My fourth book is well underway and it’s a bit of an oddity. After that, who knows? Romance? Thriller? A ghost story? Or maybe I’ll really push my limits and try a different age group. But today I’m raising my glass to Mirror Magic – the book that made me write better.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Place in historical fiction: some thoughts for Winchester Writers' Festival - by Rowena House

Tomorrow I’m talking about the magic of place in historical fiction at the Winchester Writers’ Festival.

It’s a big day for me as this festival helped me no end to achieve my ambition of becoming a published author, with notes I took from talks by such luminaries as Beverley Birch, Sarah Mussi and Lorna Fergusson still treasured possessions.

It was there I first heard about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Bath Spa MA in writing for young people – both of which remain key supports as I move on from my WW1 debut, The Goose Road – while the energy and comradeship of fellow wannabees kept me going when my resolve flagged.

Thus I owe a lot to Winchester, and want to pay that back a little by giving as good a presentation as I can. Where, then, to start?    

Since this is a writers’ conference, I’ll begin with the particular value of getting historical places ‘right’ from the novelist’s point of view.

Place, for me, is the third pillar of story: a solid, knowable anchorage in the storms of imagination. The first two pillars, plot and character, are grounded in place; it is where the story plays out and influences behaviour, thoughts, emotions and events.

Creating credible settings is a core skill for any writer, and also a tool of our trade: a mountain is an obstacle, a secret hideaway the protagonist’s haven from the villain.

For historical fiction, where authenticity is one of the few conventions in an otherwise sprawling genre, place offers additional benefits, too.

First, it is made of the same stuff as now: stone and earth, water and weather. Artefacts come and go, materials too (think of pewter and plastic) but hills and rivers, coasts and even settlements remain.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, human beings have, since time immemorial, shared a common anatomy, including the nervous system.

You and I experience heat and cold in the same way as Odysseus. Climbing over the Alps takes more effort than walking along the shore, just as it did in Hannibal’s time. Hunger gnaws the same way today as it did during ancient famines.

We cannot know the mentality of the past half as well – a fraction, even – as this shared physicality, this visceral, sensory awareness. When we describe a character’s subjective experience of place with apt, original and evocative language, we do so with veracity.

For people who don’t write historical fiction this veracity might seem trivial. But anyone who’s researched the past will know that almost everything about it is contested – from the partial, biased accounts of history’s ‘winners’ to who has the right to retell the stories of marginalised, misunderstood or forgotten ancestors.

Thus any certainties are to be cherished.
Tomorrow I’ll mostly be talking about realistic historic fiction, rather than fantasy or genres such as historical romance where accuracy about setting isn’t the point.

Yet even at the less literary end of things, place sets the tone. Open your story in a woodcutter’s hut in a Germanic forest and immediately we know we’re in the land of folklore.

Put a beautiful French chatelaine by a mullion window, and a reader will get pretty hacked off if she doesn’t end up in bed with the handsome knight who’s trotting past her castle on his way back from the Crusades.

In my own historical writing I’m persuaded by the argument that place is best seen (and felt, smelt, heard and tasted) through the protagonist.

In my first person narratives, place is therefore subjective, with world-building done through hints and snippets of salient detail, the sort of small things which would be noticed by that kind of person at that point in their lives, and in the particular state of mind the reader finds them.

There are, however, very good reasons for writing about place in other ways, too.

When looking for contemporary models of excellence in omniscient third person narration, I came across this amazing opening for Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate:

“The North is the dark place.

It is not safe to be buried on the north side of the church and the North Door is the way of the Dead.

The north of England is untamed. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.

The Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter – alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt.


Stand on the flat top of Pendle Hill and you can see everything of the county of Lancashire, and some say you can see other things too. This is a haunted place. The living and the dead come together on the hill.


There is still a tradition, or a superstition, that a girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptized; once in church and once in a black pool at the foot of the hill. The hill will know her then. She will be its trophy and its sacrifice. She must make her peace with her birth-right, whatever that means.”

Wow. I love it. No one could doubt for an instant from this description of place that a dark, witchy tale is about to unfold.

Compare it to the more traditional (and to me overly prosaic) third person opening to Robert Harris’s Fatherland:

“Thick cloud had pressed down on Berlin all night, and now it was lingering into what passed for the morning. On the city’s western outskirts, plumes of rain drifted across the surface of Lake Havel, like smoke.

Sky and water merged into a sheet of grey, broken only by the dark line of the opposite bank. Nothing stirred there. No lights showed.”

Personally, I think you have to trust that Harris’s story will get better – which it does.

Admittedly, I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s poetic prose in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I used to devour Thomas Hardy, too, and (mostly) remain wedded to literary historical fiction.

But, for me, Winterson demonstrates perfectly that poetry isn’t necessary to evoke an historic place exquisitely – and hook the reader from page one.


PS I’d like to thank fellow historical writer for young people, Ally Sherrick, author of Black Powder and The Buried Crown, for putting me in touch with Winchester when she couldn’t make this slot, and to Winchester for having me in her stead. Ta, Ally!