Friday, 28 April 2017

What degrees do you need to have to be a writer? - Clémentine Beauvais

That's one question I often get asked by French teenagers. It's not entirely surprising: the French education system, French society in general, and the French middle-class in particular, is absolutely obsessed with diplomas, qualifications, school rankings and fine distinctions between different types of degrees that determine your worth in the eye of the rest of your social sphere.

the complete mindf*** of the French higher education system (source) - graph already far outdated as it changes roughly every Tuesday
I generally reply that you don't need any degrees at all, that many authors don't have a baccalauréat (A-Level equivalent), that many haven't been to university, that plenty have seemingly entirely unconnected degrees - business, physics, geography, sports science - and that the Most Important Thing is that you enjoy writing and probably that you encounter stories in many different media, including through books.

Except, of course, high school students are not stupid, and they can see very well that the vast majority of children's authors they encounter have another, 'main' job which is very likely to just so happen to be one of the following:

- teacher
- librarian
- school librarian
- university lecturer
- book seller
- kindergarten teacher
- some other teaching thing
- more library-related stuff
- special needs educator
- some education-related stuff to do with books
- some book-related thing that has something to do with education

etc. Some, to be fair, are editors, freelance editors, publicists, or journalists...

I'm exaggerating, of course, but the situation is indeed comical: at book fairs, 'we' writers mostly talk about our books and our... students. Put two writers together and they'll doubtlessly talk about their teaching. 

So I like to rephrase that question. You don't need any degrees to be a writer, but most writers you meet are very likely to have very similar degrees and indeed quite similar professions. 

And then we think about it together. Why might it be that writers are so attracted to teaching? Or is it that teachers become attracted to writing? Or are both correlated with something else? What might that be? Does doing literary studies help you become a better writer? Or do you do literary studies because you're already interested in all things literary? Are all teachers frustrated writers? Are all librarians frustrated writers? Are all writers frustrated librarians?

Is your teacher secretly a writer?

(All gazes turn to the teacher, who generally vehemently rejects the accusation.)

Turns out diplomas don't matter, but you can still sneak in a lot of interesting sociological reflection. Including, if you want to push it as far as that with a dynamic group, why those 'other jobs' that writers do are so often, well, extremely middle-class (it's particularly striking in the French children's literature landscape, I think, though the term 'middle-class' has no easy equivalent in French). Cue reflection on what the writer-teacher-librarian association might, well, teach us about the social and cultural politics of writing and publishing today.

Then the question is answered by more questions being raised.

So I feel like I've done my teaching duty, and put my degrees to good use.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

A Bright New View - Lynn Huggins-Cooper

I have taken action. Drastic action. I am excited and terrified in roughly equal measures. I am both a writer and a textiles artist. Until today, I have worked as both, based in my study at home, looking out on woodland.

These woods.

Rather lovely, aren't they? The thing is, the woods call to me constantly, and it's rather distracting. The sounds, sights and smells permeate my writing - when I get any done.

And then there's all the gorgeous materials in my study...or as I think I need to call it now, my studio. Who could ignore these gorgeous colours?

It's fine when I am writing about crafts. In fact, I have been commissioned to write a new series of heritage craft books, which is very exciting. But when I have fiction to write, it is a little more difficult. I pause, and catch sight of new silk bundles, or my carding machine, or some rose fibre...and hours later, my writing is still neglected.

So, that drastic action I mentioned? I have signed the papers today for a writing cubby in the centre of Newcastle. It has a very different view, but no less charming.

I can see The Theatre Royal, Newcastle Central Library - very fitting, for a writer - and Grey Street, voted one of the most beautiful streets in the country at one point. 

More important than the view, though, is the fact that my new writing room is part of a performing arts hub. People there are creating and devising new work all of the time. Stories are being crafted, spun, sifted and polished. Creative energy fizzes in the air. I love it. I can't wait to add my ingredients to that creative 'stew,' and the stories are scratching to be let out. 

But what if they refuse to emerge? I feel as though I am on the edge of a sheer drop - and not just because my new space is on the sixth floor! What happens if I fall? I can't let myself be held back by a fear of failure though; where's the thrill in that? So I am taking a leap into the future, with my eyes on the horizon. I have faith that my words will hold me up, like a crystal net - and who knows? I may even learn to fly.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Day Off! by Eloise Williams

Sometimes life is so full of Twitters and Twotters, and bings and bongs, and Skypes, emails, Facebook notifications, website updates, emojis, Gifs, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The sun goes down and I haven’t managed to do anything but online business all day.


Today I decided to have a day off. Shock! Horror!

Of course, I didn’t have a whole day off! I’m an author. I’m self-employed. My world would collapse if I wasn’t constantly available. Right?



After a good few hours of twitting, twotting and general online catching up, I went outside.

YES! The real outside! You know it? It’s still there! Hurrah!

As a writer, I’m largely influenced by place and atmosphere. I’m certain some people can, and probably have, written fabulous novels where the main protagonist sits in front of a computer all day, but it’s not for me.

‘Gaslight’, my second novel, was influenced by Cardiff, the city where I spent a lot of my childhood.

The Victorian architecture, the history on every street, the hustle and bustle and shove and pull of the place. I took a few people on a mini-tour of Victorian Cardiff last weekend to tell them a bit about why I wrote the book.

Yes – I’ve now been outside twice.




And today I went out to be influenced by where I live again. Partly for story writing purposes and partly because I am starting to look like some kind of wan, pasty-faced, undead creature.


And it was so worth it! I love writing about Pembrokeshire and it has been a while.  I can feel myself returning to it and I think you can probably see why!


Don’t get me wrong, I love the online stuff too. But there’s a balance to be struck isn’t there?

I need to prioritise what I like to call 'real' life sometimes and tear myself away from the endless wonders of the internet.
So, in future, when I say ‘I left my phone at home’, it isn’t an excuse…. I really did! Honestly!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Why do you blog? by Tracy Alexander

It’s publicity.

I started blogging in 2009 to create some presence as a newly published author. I fashioned a website with the usual pages – about me, school visits, books, contact, and ‘the blog’. And so the ramblings began. It would appear that I was quite conscientious for a few months, posting regularly, finding visuals to entertain. Thereafter, random would be the word. And random described the content too – occasionally writerly, sometimes personal, anecdotes from the family, pics of birthday cakes, book and school events, holidays . . . whatever came to mind. It dawned on me some way down the line that I should have had a theme. Oh well, too late.

Hardly anyone ever looked at my website. I used to check the data but it was dispiriting and then I forgot how to do it. I never knew who I was writing for. Or who my (few) visitors were. My books were for ages 7-11 and I suspected my blog readers were teachers from schools I’d visited, librarians and my friends. My interest dwindled. The blog seemed pointless.

When my two YA novels arrived in their oh-so-happening jackets my enthusiasm for an online personality was renewed. I made a new site because, from a scan of the 27 pages that occupied, I decided I didn’t appear edgy enough to write thrillers. I had also been reincarnated so was born. But my heart wasn’t in it. It’s a largely empty embarrassment.

And now I only blog on ABBA. Being part of an interesting and lively multi-author channel with a loyal audience is great and I can see the point. (And it's a commitment.) Good.

And yet . . . all those posts from 2009 . . .

I haven’t been a diary writer since my early twenties. Decades exist only in my memory or through photographic evidence. But the eight years since I began writing are documented and, for me, compelling reading. In that way that authors show themselves in their work without meaning to, regardless of the topic my life is charted through my posts. Passing comments, dotted about to give flavour, assume a new significance as I look back. My children start off small, dependent, comic and then move out of focus. We see that I have no idea my dad is going to die.  The early forays into the public eye are fraught. The joy of being published morphs into a journey of highs and lows. The gaps speak too. Of months where writing seemed an indulgence life couldn’t afford. I would have forgotten the clay mummy ‘clummy’ without my blog. I would have forgotten Charlie’s picture of Bee - the girl in the Tribe gang - given to me at the Appledore Book Festival. Brian Moses, walking with his iguana, would also be lost to me. I would not be, as I write, reliving my role as narrator at the Babar concert – unable to read the music being played, desperate not to miss my cue.

I may not have furthered my career, but I’ve captured a period of my life where my children became adults and I became a writer.
Maybe all that time I was writing to myself . . .

Tracy Alexander

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Shakespeare Stressed/Unstressed by Steve Gladwin

One of the great joys of being a 23rd of the month blogger is that I always get to do Shakespeare’s birthday. The fact that this date may well be inaccurate is neither here nor there because if you have any interest in writing or literature, or have been variously bullied, persuaded or cajoled into studying it, Shakespeare is an ever present.

More or less everything has been written, dreamed or conjectured about Shakespeare. There may be one or two plot quantum leaps to make still, for example a confused Will turning up as potential velociraptor fodder in the latest installment in the Jurassic Park franchise, or even being an occasional guest blogger here on ABBA, (oh go on someone!) By and large however we’ve pretty much exhausted the possibilities with The Bard.

One thing Shakespeare would almost certainly not have had the benefit of is counselling and it’s that somewhat odd idea that is the subject of this blog. Before we proceed though I have an apology to make.

A year ago I expressed my excitement and enthusiasm about the appointment of Emma Rice, the former director and performer in Kneehigh and Theare Alibi as the new director of the Globe Theatre. Sadly Emma’s tenure did not work out and she is already set to leave in 2018. I do hope I didn’t put the mockers on this stage of her career and wish her all the best in finding somewhere new for her extraordinary talents.

One thing Emma Rice or any theatre director would have easy recourse to in this day and age, is a whole range of therapeutic help which sits outside medicine and more often than not deals with the problems of the mind as much as the body. Should we wish we can choose between Reiki and Alexander Technique, Reflexology and Indian Head Massage, Sports Massage and Hypnotherapy. Just imagine if any of this had been around in the time of Shakespeare and Burbage. Instead of relying on the gorging powers of the humble leech or close examination of stool samples, the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men would instead learn how to align their chakras or correct their posture. Foot massage would be a way of helping poisons to pass more easily through their systems and Big Margaret in Cheapside would be someone you paid to deal with shin splints rather than more earthy diversions. You can only imagine how much fun the people of Elizabeth and James the First’s London would have with such a fund of new alternatives to occupy them.

One of my greatest bugbears about Shakespearian knowledge or scholarship is not the argument that someone else wrote some or all of his works, (just read the plays and see a theatrical as well as a written craftsman at work and try to imagine Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere writing in the voice of the poor or country folk), but the idea of this thing called authentic Shakespeare performance.

This mistaken notion comes because people see the results of the quarto or folio editions as representing how the plays themselves were written. This is clearly not the case and indeed the editions were put together by Heminges and Condell as a collection to celebrate the work of their friend and fellow actor, rather than a fair representation of what the actual rehearsal scripts looked like. It’s accepted now that these were likely a right mess with scrawls, doodles, mistakes and possibly the equivalent of Tudor phone numbers and ‘Dick was here’ type graffiti. They would not have been a solid whole but a mismatched collection of parts for a single actor which would later have to be reassembled in retrospect as an article you could actually sell to the public. Most significantly, and far more like a latter day shooting script, more or less everything was subject to change either by the cancelling or addition of new material or by the improvisation of the actor in the role. After all, actors in a live bear pit like the Globe or the Curtain would rarely be able or inclined to stick to the words as written.

But what about Will Shakespeare himself, the man charged with the task of producing the words and parts? It always makes me laugh when people talk about the beautiful language which he, (no doubt) composed and this mistaken belief of how eloquently and slowly it must have been spoken to the groundlings. The truth is that until the nineteenth century the theatre was a place of raucous noise and disruption where anyone not enough on their game was seen as prime pickings for the wit of hecklers and well-aimed rotten fruit. Our cerebral view of Shakespeare’s theatre simply didn’t exist until people invented it as a way of preserving performance practice that never was in aspic. The real thing was far more interesting.

Meantime our Will is upstairs sweating it out with a scene or soliloquy and he’s promised the actors the next act in time for the first run through and just where is it going to come from? He is early on in his career, the time of Titus and the early Henrys, when he is still slightly star struck in the wake of bright Kit Marlowe.

Obviously our boy’s going to do alright, but just in case he struggles, we’re going to give him a leg-up courtesy of a bunch of helpful twenty first century children’s writers. The members of this particular self-help group come from the Charney retreat of 2015.

Here you go then Will. A few suggestions for looking after yourself as a writer. The often unfunny editions are sadly mine own.

Drink lots of water.
Keep getting up from your desk/quill/candle.
Unfollow anyone who’s having more success than you. (Or nearest equivalent)
Don’t spend too much time in self-congratulation.
Make sure you have a really good friend. (Rules out most critics).
Get a dog, which is perfect writer’s assistant.
Have a writing location without a computer. (Not difficult in your case!)
Practice Mindfulness
Put together a nice writing critique group. (Maybe not the lads downstairs)
Use an egg timer.
Do some gardening.
Practice your breathing and meditation. (Beats leeches anytime!)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. (Erm!)
Have a hot bath. (Preferably with a hot companion)
Have friends who aren’t writers.
Avoid the ‘if I can just’.
Invite your unpublished self-round to tea.
Don’t eat chocolate etc.
Eat plenty of chocolate etc.
Listen to audio books. (Or Burbage reciting his lines)
Bathe in the power of fan love. (but look out for the obvious stalkers!)
Write light as well as dark.
Write in notebooks in pencil.
Listen to the right music. (Say John Dowland’s Twenty Golden Lute Greats)
Rest when you need it.
Lead a more balanced life.
Pick things each day that make you happy. (Molly from the dairy say)
Know that you’re not alone. (Kit Marlowe and Tom Kydd have struggled there before you but you didn’t get tortured or stabbed in the eye).
Build a shed.
Use a footrest. (A suitably willing small child may do for this)
Have writer friends, (but not Robert Greene!)
Eat four squares of chocolate. (There’s a bit of a theme developing here!)
Exercise the friend muscle
Be where you are.
Review your day.
Practice alignment.
Tell yourself you are not just a writer. (maybe trying for a spot on the Elizabethan X-Factor?).
Say ‘no’ and don’t feel bad.
Read comfort books.
Be happy.
Eat dark chocolate. (See what I mean?)
Use comments feature in Word. (Alternatively treat yourself to a new quill).

To that I’d like to add a couple of additions.
Leave town at the first sign the plague hits.
Don’t do that special performance of Richard the Second.

There you go our Will. You’ll be fine.

Oh sorry - almost forgot.

Happy Birthday mate.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed being a fly in the attic at Will Shakespeare’s first therapy session as much as I have. Apologies to all my friends at Charney 2015 for making merry with their genuinely useful advice. Comments or complaints on a parchment please to –

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The View from Here - By Dan Metcalf

I live in a fairly standard 2.5 bedroom house. My sons' double bedroom is at the front of the house as well as our boxroom/office/spare bedroom. My wife and I have a bedroom at the rear and one day we were having a very lazy Sunday lie-in (and, might I add, very rare). Cups of tea from a proper teapot, a sneaky biscuit, an erudite prize-winning novel for my wife and a comic book for me. My eldest son, then four, barrels in to the room and demands breakfast, which is when we reluctantly give up and get up, donning dressing gowns and rubbing the sleep from our eyes.

It was a spring day; out of our bedroom window, we could see the blossom on a tree floating down, the leaves blowing in the breeze and over our garden fence, the meadow beyond was shining in the sun. My youngest son, then three, charges in and repeats the call for breakfast.

“Ah, look!” calls my wife. “Fifi is on the roof!” 

She points. Our neighbour's cat is balanced precariously on the roof of another neighbour's garage. We all say 'ahh' and call over to her to be careful. I look over and see that my youngest son has left the room. I hear the thump thump thump on the stairs and see him return with a small stool in hand, which usually lives in the kitchen. He places it down near the window and stands on it. He looks out and smiles.

“Oh! A garden!” he announces.

It had completely passed my by that not only was he not able to see the feline high-wire act we were watching due to his height, but he had never been able to see out of that window. He had never peeked over to see our back garden from above. The sight was new and strange to him, and novel.

As grown ups (a title I begrudgingly accept) we often forget how a child thinks, or how they view the world. But as a children's writer, it is something I am mindful of. Is the story written from a point of view that the child reader will recognize? Would my character really see things in the same light, that I, a beardy writer who is thirty years their senior, does?

The old saying says that you should walk in someone's shoes to get a better appreciation of their situation, but as children's writers, maybe we should be kneeling down, and viewing the world from their own, unique, perspective.

Dan :¬)

Dan Metcalf is a writer for children. You can find out more about him, his books and subscribe to his email newsletter on his website:

Friday, 21 April 2017

I love the pictures in picture books! by Anne Booth

One of the things I most enjoy about being an author is writing picture books and working with the illustrators. I’ve always been passionate about picture books, and when I did an MA in the History and development of Children’s Literature I chose to do my dissertation on the depiction on mothering in the books of Shirley Hughes. That was back in 1993-95, so there would be even more books by Shirley Hughes to write about if I were to do it now! 

You can tell how much I still love Shirley Hughes by the Mothering Sunday present I was given this year by my children - (aged 17, 19 and 20!) The card has an illustration by Anita Jeram, the pencil case has Helen Oxenbury's illustrations to Michael Rosen's 'We're going on a Bear Hunt'! And then there is the may be argued somewhat essential for illustrators and writers alike.

Anyway, it is a dream come true to actually have written some picture books myself, and so much fun to share them with children in schools - but when I do share my picture books I always give the children lots of love from the illustrators and make sure we always look carefully at, and talk about, how wonderful the pictures are.

I absolutely love how Rosalind Beardshaw imagined Betty, ‘The Fairest Fairy’, for example.

I was delighted when a mum sent me a picture of her little girl, pointing out how much she looked like Rosalind’s depiction of Clara, The Christmas Fairy.

Sam Usher did such a lovely job of illustrating ‘Refuge’ - so much so that the illustrations for ‘Refuge’ earned him a nomination for the prestigious Greenaway award.

My most recent book is ‘I want a Friend’ , illustrated by Amy Proud. We are working together on a series of three books for Lion Publishing. They are each set in the same nursery, and everyone working on it wanted, and was delighted with, the diversity in her illustrations. You can tell Amy has been a teaching assistant and she really captures nursery school life.

I will also have a Christmas book out in 2018, illustrated by Ruth Hearson. It’s about a shy angel called Jenny, and the  illustrations I have seen so far are adorable.

And I have just signed up for two illustration courses myself - a day at the House of Illustration in June - and a week in July. I think ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ and even if I turn out not to be good enough to be an illustrator myself, (I would so love if I were!) I will have lots of fun and end up knowing that much more about how illustrators work and that can only help my writing.