Saturday, 23 May 2015

Vaguely reading and writing-related technology – Jess Vallance

Last month, book blogger and all-round teen marvel LucyPowrie asked me to take part in a Google Hangout as part of her UKYA Day. Sure, I said. No problem. What's a Google Hangout? 

Anyway, it turned out to be quite cool – video conferencing essentially. I do a LOT of conference calls and this was easily one of the least awkward ways of doing it. 

It occurs to me that there are probably lots of useful apps, websites and other tech stuff out there that I've never heard of, so really, what I’d like to do in this post is just ask everyone to tell me all about the useful things I don't know about. But that doesn't really seem in the spirit of blog-posting, so I’ll kick things off with a few tools I find quite handy.

1)      Pocket
This is great as an anti-procrastination tool. You set up an account, then you send any interesting links you find on the internet to your virtual ‘pocket’ so you can come back and read them when you’re waiting for a bus/in bed/not trying to write a book. 

Click on the link in your Twitter feed or wherever, then click Send to Pocket.

2)      Cold Turkey
Another one to help you avoid time-wasting. Cold Turkey lets you block yourself from certain websites for a set period of time.
List the offending sites, then choose how long you want to block them for. 

3)      Feedly
There are lots of blog aggregators out there, but I like this one best. It lets you add all the blogs you regularly read into one place, sorted by subject.
The numbers show you how many new blog posts since you last checked. 

4)      FreeAgent
Unlike the others in this list, this one isn't free but it is well worth the money if you’re self-employed. It lets you keep track of all of your income and outgoings, send invoices, upload bank statements and store your receipt scans in the right places. (NB this screen shot is from the company’s demo site, in case you’re all looking at it and thinking I’m loaded.)

5)      Spritz
This one’s more weird than useful, but I’m adding it just for interest’s sake. 

It’s a bit of technology that aims to help you increase your reading speed by showing you one word at a time at a set rate – the idea being that by keeping your eyes looking in one spot rather than scrolling down a page, you can take in words more quickly. 

It’s quite hard to explain but try it out on the website. I predict that most people here will hate it as it completely ruins the natural rhythm of the text and makes you read every single word, which I don’t think we’d normally do. 

Set your WPM speed, then the words will appear one by one. 

OK, that’s all I've got. Now tell me yours. 

Twitter @jessvallance1

Friday, 22 May 2015

The death of (my) imagination - by Nicola Morgan

I don't know what I'm asking for here or why I'm burdening you with my trivial writer's angst. No one's dying, though something is dead. Perhaps it's just a silly scream in the dark and I should deal with it silently. All I really ask is that if you think there's no such thing as writer's block you do one or both of two things: think again or say nothing. You don't know.

My imagination has died. "Use it or lose it" is the brain's well known way of functioning. And not functioning. Well, some time ago I stopped using my imagination and filled my writing brain with non-fiction; and now I've lost it. I used, years ago, to write fiction and non-fiction happily in tandem, bobbing from one to the other constructively and profitably. But a few years ago the non-fiction took over. It took over because I loved doing it, because it was (for me) easier, because it was successful, because it was bringing me in royalties, because it led to lots of wellpaid events (generating more non-fiction writing as I prepared myriad handouts and presentations and blogposts), because it gave me self-esteem and reputation, my niche, self-actualisation.

I thought that was enough for Heartsong. I should never have forgotten that for me it wasn't. Imagination was the lifeblood of my heartsong and I'd accidentally left the tourniquet on too long.

So, when I tried to write fiction, without which I don't feel whole, I found that the fiction muscle, my imagination, was dead.

At first, I thought, as you are thinking, that it was temporary. Dormant, not dead. All I had to do was all those things we know about, the things you're all wanting to say in support:

  1. Just do it - apply butt to seat and fingers to keyboard and write
  2. Give yourself time - don't worry
  3. Get outside and walk
  4. Stop thinking about it - it will come back
  5. Try a new environment
  6. Try another new environment
  7. Do some creative napping
  8. Listen to your dreams
  9. Read lots of fiction
  10. Read poetry
  11. Allow yourself to write rubbish
  12. Make yourself write rubbish
  13. Set yourself targets; don't set yourself targets
  14. Read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
I did them all to one degree or another. In fact, Writing Down the Bones nailed the problem in such a way that it created a new block by identifying the block: "If all of you does not believe that the elephant and the ant are one at the moment you write it, it will sound false. If all of you does believe it, there are some who might consider you crazy; but it's better to be crazy than false. But how do you make your mind believe it and write [it]?"

And that is the problem. I don't believe. Because of that dead imagination.

You see I'm trying to write a novel in which the central idea - invisibility - is a physical impossibility. You need your imagination to write or to read about it. And when I come to write it, to create it, all the time I'm thinking, "Don't be stupid: that can't happen." There's a disconnect between what I know stories do - the suspension of disbelief - and my ability to suspend disbelief for long enough to create belief.

I can't make anyone else believe it because I don't believe in it - what I'm trying to write or my ability to write it - any more. 

I don't expect an answer. And I don't want to sound self-pitying. As I say, no one died. There are really only two answers: give up or carry on trying to force life into a dead thing, charging up those chest paddles.

Or give my imagination a name: maybe Lazarus. No, I never believed that story either. Actually, I probably did once, before.

[Edited to add: funnily, someone crashed into me as I was walking along the street just now and he looked completely shocked and confused, as though I had been temporarily invisible and he was trying to work out how that could be. Then he just carried on walking as though he was thinking, "Yeah, so, she was invisible. So what? Get over it."]

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Being paid and a writer's confidence.

Many years ago, a friend of mine, an artist, got into a prestigious London Art College to do postgraduate work. One of the first things said to her was 'you are going to have to charge more for your paintings if you want to be taken seriously.' So she put up the price and demand increased. It made her feel rather odd. They were the same paintings, but people seemed to value them more just because they were more expensive. Was money so important?

I have found this whole subject very difficult. The only source of funding for my book 'Girl with a White Dog' published March 2014 was from my wonderful family and, in the last two years before my mother's death last May, my carer's allowance of £58.00. Just going up to London to the wonderful Wiener Library would, for example cost me over half what I earned as a carer.  I spent lots of money on research books. My husband believed in me and encouraged me to use our family money from his earnings to go to Germany for a weekend to visit Dachau. Then my book was published, and because I believed passionately in the issues it discussed, I did lots of free talks about them locally and accepted some invitations to travel up to London to discuss them (and hopefully sell the book), but none of the invitations involved offers of payment, and I was too embarrassed to ask. It seemed like I was exploiting the sufferings of the Holocaust to ask for payment.  I was asked to go to a particularly interesting event, but when I asked on what terms (too vaguely and without explicitly mentioning payment) they emailed back (I worried that the words showed that they were hurt),  'we just thought you'd be interested'. I was too embarrassed to say I couldn't afford it.

For some reason for which I am very grateful, my worries about my seemingly incessant spending of money I hadn't earned back came to a head at the Federation of Children's Books Groups Conference this year. I was feeling bad about spending yet more of our family money to go away to it and when talking to three friends from twitter, Zoe of @playingbythebook @minervamoan and @chaletfan I unexpectedly burst into tears. They were wonderful. I told them that I kept being asked to do free things by good people who had v little budgets, and I didn't know how to say 'no'.

They were wonderful. They made me practice saying 'yes, I would love to come. I charge the standard rates.'

Then, barely quarter of an hour later, whilst @chaletfan was standing nearby, a teacher approached me, asked me if I did school visits and I said 'yes, but I would have to be paid,' she said 'of course!"

I have very recently joined the Society of Authors. I think it will pay for itself over and over again just by going me the courage to refer to their rates.

This week I was asked at v short notice to go to talk to a local group of retired women for an hour about my books. I have done lots of similar ones for free. I said 'I am afraid I have no transport,' - they said 'we will pick you up and bring you home.' I said 'I have just decided to start charging' they said 'no problem, we have a budget - how much do you charge?' I said 'I am not sure if you could afford the Society of Authors' Rates' and they said 'we can pay up to £60.00' I said 'O.K.'

The night before I could not sleep. How could I dare to charge such a huge amount for an hour? If they normally paid speakers then they would see that I was not worth the payment. My confidence was at rock bottom. I wanted to ring them and say I would do it for free. My husband said 'Anne - you have no idea how interesting the writing process and business is for people who don't know about it, and  you are very good at talking about it.' He also reminded me that I HAD been paid before for speaking: my friend, a writer and Creative Writing lecturer at a local university, had invited me soon after 'Girl with a White Dog' was published last year, to speak to her students and had paid me as visiting speaker - Edinburgh Literary Festival had paid me last summer for being interviewed with Dawn McNiff about our debut books 'Girl with a White Dog' and 'Little Celeste'. Edinburgh Literary Festival had paid us for speaking, and had ALSO paid for accommodation and travel expenses. I had had lovely feedback, but  9 months between paid gigs is a long time.

So the day came and I packed 5 bags of books and manuscripts and proof copies and a box and a notice board  with pictures of Nazi children's books and white German shepherds and I spread them all out on  tables in front of about 30 women.

Then I spoke. It went so well. I found that my husband was right - just telling them about the process of getting published was interesting for them. They were so lovely. They thanked me over and over again for coming at such short notice and apologised for not being able to pay me more. I even sold some books! Then they drove me home and said it was a fascinating talk and they were so happy that I had come.

So what is the point of this post? I want to tell other writers not to be embarrassed to charge and urge them to apply to join The Society of Authors to give them confidence. I want to thank the Edinburgh Literary Festival and @Heidi_Colthup for inviting me to talk and for paying me last year, and  @playingbythebook, @chaletfan, @minervamoan for being so kind this year and telling me that I shouldn't be embarrassed to charge for talks. Thanks Joanne Harris (@joannechocolat on twitter) for that wonderful blog post, a link to which I will put at the end.

None of the ladies I spoke to yesterday are active on twitter or will be following my blog, but they have no idea how much they have helped my confidence. I have to honour a couple of re-arranged free events, but after that I will no longer feel arrogant or greedy for asking to be paid. I owe it to my family. I will try to charge the standard rates so as not to undercut other authors.

And please, if you are someone who invites speakers - please read Joanne's Harris blog on festivals. She is right.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Not an Issue? - Joan Lennon

My first YA novel is teetering on the brink of becoming A REAL BOOK, but for me, as for all writers (I'm guessing), the story and everyone in it have been real from the very beginning.  
Silver Skin is a scifi/historical fiction inspired by the Stone Age village of Skara Brae on Orkney.  There are 3 main characters: Rab, from the far future, and Cait and Voy from the Stone Age.  When it was (wisely) suggested that Rab was coming across as too young, I didn't/couldn't write a different, older character.  I just aged Rab.  I imagined what he would have experienced in the x number of years that would pass to get him to the right age.  He's still Rab, just older.  How could he be anyone else?

Why am I telling you this?  Because, as Silver Skin's publication date approaches, I'm becoming aware of "issues" ... 

For example, I'm officially white, though in reality I'm pinky-yellow with occasional unfortunate flushes of beetroot.  Does this mean I can/should/must only write about pinky-yellow people with the occasional unfortunate beetrooty sidekick?  This is a legitimate question and we won't be finding the definitive answer to it any time soon.*  But the situation I find myself in isn't one I consciously sought.  I blame my characters.  I blame the story.  

Rab is black.  (He's also male, which I'm not, but that's another hornets' nest altogether).  He could have been any colour under the sun because he is from the far future. when "human colouring and characteristics had been jumbled together for so long that any couple could produce a child of any appearance.  Nobody stuck out because everybody looked different."  But he walked into my brain black and I saw no good reason to bleach him.  

Cait is taller and paler-haired than the people she lives with.  

Voy, the Old Woman, has arthritis-crippled hands.  

The bulk of the story is set in Neolithic Orkney, at the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age, which was a time of major climate change.  Rab's future world has been shaped by climate change too.

But this is not a book about being black, or about having a tall blonde heroine, or about disability, or about climate change.  Those things are just in there, because they have to be, for this story to be this story.

Or am I being naive?  Is every book about the issues?  As writers and as readers, what do you think?  

* I've pulled up just a few of the excellent ABBA posts on the issue of issues for you to re-visit:

(publication date 16 June 2015)

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Power of A Book - Lucy Coats

Sometimes you discover a book and immediately know it will be a part of your life forever. Twenty years ago or so, I discovered the OUTLANDER series by Diana Gabaldon (kind of uncategorisable, but think time-travel, history, Jacobites, the best love story ever but also so much more) and have been hooked ever since. They're not children's books, but an older and more mature teen (16+) could quite well read them. I've heard it said that they are so popular because they portray the human heart and human condition in all its pain and glory, and wouldn't disagree.
A trio of characters from the TV show (with added book fan)
Gabaldon (known to her readers as Herself) wrote the first book as an experiment, to see if she could. Her main character, Jamie Fraser, was inspired by a time-travelling Scotsman in an episode of Dr Who. There are now eight (extremely fat) books, with a ninth being written. The first has just been made into a very successful TV series, (now being shown in the UK on Amazon Prime) - an incredibly difficult thing to pull off in the face of millions of rabid fans who can quote from the books verbatim and have strong ideas about how the characters should be portrayed.

And talking of fans, the power of this one book series brought people from all over the world together in a very literal sense this weekend. I have just returned from the 2nd Outlandish Gathering in Crieff, where over 200 lovers of the books from 14 countries spent a weekend having fun and raising money for charity at the same time. In my desire to help a good cause, I (allergic-to-exercise-woman) even took part in a Highland Games and channelled my inner Artemis in the archery competition. (Let's not mention the extreme aching after five tug-of-war bouts.)

All this happened because of the power of a story. That's pretty darned amazing in my book!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Going quiet - Linda Strachan

It occurred to me recently that writers are to be found all over the place these days.

Spending time on social media, attending conferences, book signings and festivals.

Writers are blogging, tweeting, working on their own websites, writing guest blogs and chatting on facebook.

We travel to schools to meet our readers, teach creative writing,  attend all manner of book-related events,

...many of them delightful and interesting.

But it was reading one writer's post on Facebook about GOING QUIET for a while because of a deadline, that made me stop and think about it.  All this activity takes up a lot of time and energy.

Exactly how much time (that could or perhaps should be devoted to our craft) do we spend on talking about what we do, and writing about our working and personal lives.

 Yes, there are some of us lucky enough to have sheds or hideaways to escape to but we still have to make time go in there and shut the door on the world.

Let's face it procrastination has always been part of a writer's life for most of us, especially if there is not a looming deadline, and sometimes even when there is!

So,  I have a question for you....

How much more writing do you think you would do if there was suddenly no internet at all, no blogs or social media, if you were forced to stay close to home, with only snail-mail and the telephone as contact with those outside the family?

Would you be more or less productive?

Or is it an essential part of your life that powers your creative thought process?

Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children.

Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me . 
She is Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

Her best selling series Hamish McHaggis is illustrated by Sally J. Collins

blog:  Bookwords 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Big Words or Little Words? Vocabulary in Children's Books by Emma Barnes

I was at the Headingley LitFest during a question-time on children's books. A children's writer in the audience asked the Sunday Times book critic Nicolette Jones whether it was OK to have long words in a children's book – or should he keep it simple?

I can't remember exactly what Nicolette said to this but it was something along the lines of “it depends”. Which is the only sensible answer to give, really. It depends on the book. It depends on what the writer is trying to do.

It's not actually something I've heard children's writers discuss much: vocabulary. Unless you are writing for a reading scheme, say, we write what we write, as the muse directs (or so we like to think)! But shortly afterwards I came across two different perspectives on the subject, from two of my favourite children's writers.

The first was Judith Kerr. In her memoir, Judith's Kerr's Creatures, she explained that, inspired by Dr Seuss of Green Eggs and Ham fame, she deliberately limited the words used in Mog the Forgetful Cat.

I determined that, like Dr Seuss, I would use a vocabulary of no more than 250 words in the book about Mog, and I have done this with all my picture books since, with the exception of Mog in the Dark, which...has a vocabulary of only just over fifty. I also determined never, ever to put something in the text that the child could already tell from the pictures. Why should they struggle to read something they already knew?”
(Judith Kerr's Creatures, p86)

If Judith Kerr says it's so, it must be so – because Mog is one of the most brilliant picture books of our times. And the interesting thing about Mog is that it is not a book children typically use to learn to read. It is a picture book their parents read with them (my guess is that for many Mog fans, by the time they are learning to read themselves they will know Mog's story by heart.) So it's not just that Judith Kerr created a good “easy to read” book for beginner readers – it's rather that she created one of the most loved of all picture books, regardless of word count. She was able to create a great story which happened to use very simple language.

Another of my favourite writers took a different approach.  Eric Thompson created the Magic Roundabout (both books and TV scripts). His family recalled:

Once a lady wrote to him complaining that he used too many long words in The Magic Roundabout and how were children meant to understand them? He got out the Oxford English Dictionary and wrote back using all the longest and most difficult words he could find, like 'palimpsest' and 'oxymoron' (which sounds rude but isn't). He also wrote a strongly worded letter to a mother who had smacked her little boy for calling his sister a 'mollusc'."

(Phyllida, Emma and Sophie Thompson, introduction to The Adventures of Dougal)

And he was right.  There is a huge joy for kids in the use of language, even if you don't actually understand the words. The elaborate names and spells that you get, say, in Harry Potter (the tradition of bizarre character names once seen in authors like Dickens now lives on mainly in children's books). Or in Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe Saga, where the characters not only have daft names, but spout Shakespeare and came out with gloriously incomprehensible remarks like: “It is a sign of genius to reconcile the seemingly disparate”. (I used this remark as a child on my own parents, undeterred by the fact that 1) I didn't know what it meant and 2) I couldn't pronounce “disparate”.)

Intriguingly, both Judith Kerr and Eric Thompson seem to have been reacting against rather joyless adult views about what's suitable for children. In Kerr's case this was the "long and not particularly interesting stories with a lot of complicated words 'to enrich your child's vocabulary''' that she found at the local library (Judith Kerr's Creatures p68). In Thompson's case, it was the claim children could not enjoy anything they could not understand. Their responses, though in different directions, led to stories that have been loved by adults and children alike.

As a writer, I used to love big words. Maybe this is why Sam and the Griswalds – a madcap story of the adventures of five crazy kids, aimed at 8-12s – has a similar difficulty score on the Accelerated Reader scheme to The Lord of the Rings. (Making it the perfect book for the highly literate eleven year old who still wants to read about football or kids falling in rivers.)

More recently, though, I've changed tack, and my writing style has become simpler and more straightforward. It's true I have dropped the age range, but I think it's more to do with the fact that I've become interested in the story, first and foremost, and I haven't wanted big words and funny names to get in the way. I suspect I'm part of a wider trend – I think language in children's books, especially in the Young Adult section, is generally simpler in part because so many books are now written in the first person by a child/teenage protagonist.

I've sometimes found it awkward in schools, where children are encouraged to believe Big Words Are Better. “Why do you use “said” so much?” a group of primary school pupils asked me. “We're always told to find a more interesting word instead.”

I explained my choice of "said" was not because I didn't know any alternatives. And I read them a passage from my book, substituting different words – remarked, whispered, groaned etc. It soon started to sound daft. Furthermore (I said) a lot of the times people simply are “saying” and so it's by far the most accurate word to use. In addition, if I want people to focus on what's said, rather than being reminded that they are reading a book, then “said” is the nearest thing to invisible on the page.

They got it. But their teachers looked mournful. It wasn't that they disagreed (they said) but if they taught that way their pupils wouldn't pass their tests.  The official view was that long words were good, the more fancy adjectives the better, and always find something else to use instead of that  humble “said”.

Never mind. There are fashions in everything.

Besides there really is no right or wrong on this one.  (Or is there?  Do comment.)

It just depends....

Emma's Wild Thing series for 8+ about the naughtiest little sister ever is published by Scholastic.
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.  It is a story of wolves, magic and snowy woods...
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite