Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Never too Late by Claire Fayers

One of my biggest inspirations as I took my first steps into a full-time writing career was a woman I’d never heard of.

Adelaide Anne Procter was a poet and philanthropist who spent her life fighting for women's right and working with unemployed and homeless women. She was born in 1825, and was largely self-educated, reading voraciously. Her first poem was published when she was eighteen.

She was friends with Dickens and Thackeray, and she was Queen Victoria’s favourite poet. During her lifetime she was regarded as second only to Tennyson. Yet after her death she fell into obscurity.

I heard her name first in 2015. I was in that strange in-between stage of signing my first book contract and waiting for the book to come out, and as I waited I couldn’t help noticing that most of my fellow debut authors were decades younger than me. The whole book industry, in fact, seemed to be composed of young people. Every time I heard someone bemoan the fact that they felt past it at thirty, I’d flinch.

If people were past it at thirty, what did that make me? I should have worked harder earlier, written more books, submitted more query letters. Instead, I'd left it too late.

Then I spotted that Sandi Toksvig was speaking at the Hay Festival and, being a fan, I bought tickets. I've forgotten much of her talk now, but two things stood out. First, at the age of fifty, she was starting a political party because if you want things to change you have to do something yourself.

And then Adelaide Anne Procter. Specifically, an extract from one of her poems, The Ghost in the Picture Room. It's a long and somewhat odd ghost story about a runaway nun who returns to her convent as an old woman to find the Virgin Mary has kept her place there. Near the end, we read:

Have we not all, amid life’s petty strife,
Some pure ideal of a noble life
That once seemed possible? Did we not hear
The flutter of its wings, and feel it near,
And just within our reach? It was. And yet
We lost it in this daily jar and fret,
And now live idle in a vague regret;
But still our place is kept, and it will wait,
Ready for us to fill it, soon or late.
No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been.

I went home and looked up all I could about Adelaide Procter. Her poems can be an acquired taste, but her life was inspirational. She never made it to old age, or even middle age: she died of tuberculosis in 1864 at the age of 38, most likely contracting the disease through her work with the poor. It would have been her birthday this month and I think she'd like to know that her life and her words are remembered.

To all older writers, to everyone who wishes they’d started sooner and achieved more: we always may be what we might have been. There will be more chances. There is still time.

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates series and Mirror Magic. Website www.clairefayers.com Twitter @clairefayers

Monday, 15 October 2018

Back to Basics, thank goodness - Rowena House

The morphing of Book Two continues apace. From its first iteration as a first person present 12+ adventure set in Paris, with a girl protagonist, it’s now told from a male point-of-view, third person past, a psychological romance set in central France. Still wartime. Still evolving. Zero words written since the last ABBA blog. And that’s fab.

Fab because it’s freeing. Creative. Fun. Energizing.

Going to sleep, I stand in my protagonist’s stiff army boots, midpoint across an old stone bridge, watching the girl - still Manon - throwing sticks for her dog.

The bridge leads from a forest where his unit is camped into the shaded streets of a cobbled country town, with water-stressed plane trees and a shallow, slow river skirting around it. In my story, it is forever summertime.

As yet I don’t know the name of this town nor exactly where it is. Maybe, like the village in The Goose Road, the reader won’t ever know its name. But I will. I must.

The stones on the banks of the river are white, the water is green.
She’s an outsider. He even more so.
It is his problem that intrigues me most, although I am still asking fundamental questions about him, such as how his distress motivates him into action. Is the relationship he is (subconsciously) seeking to escape more important to him than his unfulfilled desire for Manon? Is there something concrete he wants as well? How determined is he to survive the war?

Broadly, I know what forces of antagonism push back against him, but the sequences of events are still fluid and evolving. For example, I had the set up in Act 1 nicely mapped out until a couple of days ago, when a better Inciting Incident popped into being while I was stuck in traffic on the A38. This incident has delicious possibilities for the ‘quest’ at the heart of Act 2 without destroying the essence of the ending in Act 3. So now I’m boiling everything down to the bone again to see what needs fleshing out.

Once that’s done, I’ll try nailing down the opening scene (which for some reason I still have to write first, despite all the mental plotting) and then play with a few later scenes (a night in the wilderness, perhaps) to understand the chemistry between my lovers.

I sort of know the progression of the big reveals as well. Slow. Painful. Shocking reveals. Sooner or later, however, I will need to test whether all these months of dreaming are actually heading towards a workable plot.

For this I have a ready-made American exercise, one I found online years ago. It’s a template for a one-line premise, the sort of thing one needs for an elevator pitch.

To my shame, I failed to take a note of the name of its originator, so if you recognize it, do let me know whose it is. I hate to steal other people’s ideas without giving them credit.

The example they used to illustrate an effective one-sentence premise came from Jaws: “When a man-eating shark menaces a small coastal town dependent on tourism, the cautious, outsider chief of police is forced to team up with a self-obsessed skipper to take on the creature man-to-man.”

Thus the premise line describes the central, character-based conflict that is the ‘spine’ of the plot. The template looks like this:

When Event A provokes the [two adjective] protagonist into action, s/he does B with deliberate intent in order to achieve their goal, until the major force of antagonism within the story forces them to do C, leading to a life-changing choice & final confrontation.

The aim of the exercise is - as far as I remember - to make writers think in terms of a one-sentence pitch from the get-go.

During the development edit of The Goose Road I found it very useful to focus my thinking in this way. The one-line premise became the grit around which I crystalized a binary, yes/no question which I addressed in pretty much every scene.

For The Goose Road this yes/no plot question was: Will Angelique save the farm? Every story event made it more or less likely she would succeed in this (universal) quest to save her home. Character questions then flowed from this plot question, including: What one thing could make Angelique fail in her quest? What single strength will get her through?

Even though I want Book Two to go into far greater depth than my debut in terms of characterization, I think that asking simple, clear questions like these of the plot will (eventually) be a jolly good thing.


PS I’ll be talking books and writing at Waterstones, Argyle St, Glasgow, at 6.30 on Friday Nov 2nd along with fellow debuts Liz Macwhirter and Tracey Mathais, then we'll be at Edinburgh Blackwell’s on the 3rd. Just finalising whether Saturday is a 2 pm or 2.30 pm start. Details on our Twitter feeds. Mine’s @HouseRowena.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Some Terrific Ts by Lynne Benton

J.R.R. TOLKIEN  John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE FRSL, born in 1892, was an English writer, poet and university professor who is best known as the author of classic fantasy works The Hobbit (1936), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-5), and The Simarillion (a collection of some of his earlier work, published posthumously in 1977).  As professors at Oxford both he and C.S.Lewis belonged to an informal literary discussion group called the Inklings.  He was always fascinated by language, and invented a whole new language (elvish) for The Lord of the Rings.  From 2001-3 this was filmed as a trilogy of live-action films, directed by Peter Jackson, and won several Oscars.  These were followed by three further films based on The Hobbit, from 2012 to 2014.  Tolkien died in 1973.

BARBARA EUPHAN TODD was an English children’s writer whose most famous character was the scarecrow Worzel Gummidge, who came to life.  The first of these books was Worzel Gummidge, or The Scarecrow of Scatterbrook, published in 1936.  She wrote nine further children’s books about Worzel, several of which were adapted for radio and television from the 50s until the late 80s.  She died in 1976.

P.L. TRAVERS Pamela Lyndon Travers, OBE, was born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899 in Australia, though she spent most of her career in England.  Her most famous character is the magical nanny Mary Poppins, about whom she wrote eight books, beginning with Mary Poppins in 1934.  Walt Disney was very keen to film the stories, and after 20 years and much persuasion she finally allowed him to do so, the result being the musical film Mary Poppins in 1964, starring Julie Andrews as the eponymous heroine.  The story of Travers herself and Disney’s attempts to persuade her to give him the film rights was filmed in 2013 as Saving Mr. Banks with Emma Thompson as P L Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. P L Travers died in 1996.

JILL TOMLINSON never intended to be a writer.  Born in 1931, she trained as an opera singer, and then decided to have a family while her voice matured. Sadly she then developed Multiple Sclerosis, so had to find another outlet for her energies.  She decided she wanted to write for children, but her first story, The Bus who went to Church, was rejected by sixteen publishers before it was accepted for a picture book.  However, she managed to continue writing through her increasingly debilitating illness, and several other picture books followed, her most popular being The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark (published in 1968).  Her animal stories have been best-selling children’s books for nearly four decades.  She died suddenly in 1986 at the age of 45.

JAMES THURBER was an American cartoonist, author,  humorist, journalist, playwright, and celebrated wit.  Born in 1894, he was best known for his cartoons and short stories for adults, but two of his children’s stories have stood the test of time: The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O.  He died in 1961.

GEOFFREY TREASE, born in 1909, was a prolific British writer who published 113 books, mainly for children, between 1934 and 1997, starting with Bows Against the Barons and ending with Cloak for a Spy in 1997. His work has been translated into 20 languages. He is best known for the children's novel Cue for Treason (1940).  He insisted on writing historically correct backgrounds, which he meticulously researched, believing that children’s literature should be a serious subject for study.  At the time this was a radical viewpoint.  He was also one of the first authors who deliberately set out to appeal to both boys and girls and to feature strong leading characters of both sexes.  He died in 1998.

MARK TWAIN, born in 1835, (real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens), was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer. His best-known books are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) which was modelled on his own childhood, and also introduced Huckleberry Finn as his friend.  Finn subsequently became more famous as the hero of the sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), often called "The Great American Novel".  Twain died in 1910.

SUE TOWNSEND, FRSL, was born in 1946 in Leicester.  She was an English writer and humorist whose work encompasses novels, plays and works of journalism. She was best known for creating the character Adrian Mole, and wrote a series of nine books with him as the central character, beginning with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 ¾.  In the 80s her Adrian Mole books sold more copies than any other work of fiction in Britain.  The earliest books tell the life of a teenage boy during the Thatcher years, but the sequence eventually depicts Adrian Mole in middle age.  She died in 2014.

Next month I'll be putting the Us and Vs together, since there aren't too many of either.

Visit my website: www.lynnebenton.com

Latest book: Danger at Hadrian's Wall published 2018 by Coppertree Press.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Singed Around The Edges by Sheena Wilkinson

I’m writing this from Carrickmacross, a small and attractive town in County Monaghan. I’m in the middle of two days of school and library visits in the county. Next week it’s Kilkenny and Dublin, and then begins a month of weekly travel to England and Scotland – Manchester, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Edinburgh… And I have a book to write by the end of March. 

Yes, I know.  I’ve done what I advise everyone else not to do – I have burnt myself out. 

I have been too busy, too over-committed, for too long. I have spent too much time queuing in airports and yawning in trains and dashing round in the car. A few weeks ago – probably not unrelated – I ended up with the kind of horrible virus I haven’t had since I was a child. Too sick to read? That’s not on! For the first time in my writing career I had to cancel events.  

I panic when I look at my diary for the next two months. I have written JUST SAY NO on the wall above my desk (on a post-it, not the actual wall; I haven’t lost the run of myself that much). I have scrawled WRITE AT HOME on all the days in my diary when I am not physically somewhere else – these are few and far between. I didn’t use to have to tell myself to do that. Especially as most of those days are weekends. 

I know other writers often feel like this. Recently, Claire Hennessy wrote a great article on the subject of writers with day jobs for The Irish Times and it was contributing to this article that made me think I needed to write about this honestly here on Awfully Big Blog Adventure. (here)

Tired and overburdened is how I felt when I had a day job. It wasn’t supposed to be like this now. I’ve had seven books published, won some awards, had some lovely gigs – RLF Writing Fellow, Arvon tutor, teaching creative writing in settings ranging from prisons to universities. I enjoy all those things, which is just as well as I need the gigs to pay the bills. I just thought I’d be living the dream a bit more. Because let me assure you – 90% of this travelling isn’t to meet readers who have bought or love my books; mostly I begin events by saying who I am. 

I’ll keep on doing these gigs, and I am grateful for every invitation. But I haven’t got the balance right. I have said yes too often, squeezed out my writing time, squeezed out time to just BE. 

I have just bought my 2019 diary and it’s started to fill up. But I’m making a before-the-new-year resolution: take more time to write. More time to think. More time to read. More time to be. 

Back to Carrickmacross. It’s lovely. I’m happy to be here and the library have put me up in a gorgeous hotel. The children I met today were delightful, engaged and polite, with some great questions. Of course, one was the inevitable Where do you get your ideas from? and as I answered I thought – though didn’t say aloud – Gosh, I might never have another idea again. I’m too tired for ideas. But then I drove to this little town and took a walk down the main street. And this post is illustrated with some of the quirky, intriguing things I saw. You might see the same on any street if you look.  Any one of these photos might spark an idea for a story.

look closely for the layers of history 

Maybe I’m not that burnt out. Just a bit singed around the edges. 

A reminder from the streets of Carrickmacross about what it's all about -- sharing stories 

Friday, 12 October 2018

Encouraging More Diverse Books - A Guide to Writing a Character With a Learning Disability

Encouraging More Diverse Books - A  Guide to Writing a Character With a Learning Disability.


Writing a character who has a learning disability can be quite intimidating, especially since people in the book industry naturally feel a responsibility not to misrepresent any type of disability and want to feel confident about ensuring the authenticity of their characters.  I hope in this blog to give a few small pointers to help other writers avoid the difficulties and stumbling blocks when writing a diverse book, having written a novel through the voice of a girl with Down syndrome. We need to pave the way for more inclusive books that do not portray characters with a learning disability in a negative way that will impact our understanding of that disability; after all diversity is one of the things that we all have in common.

 Children's books need to highlight the enormous diversity within each disability because any child should not be compared within the spectrum of that disability. We are all individuals with different needs and experiences and that is the same for any child with Down's syndrome or Autism, for example.

Someone with Down's syndrome will have certain physical characteristics in common such as a slant to the eyes and a smaller jaw, which makes their tongues seem slightly too big for their mouth, but they will still have their individual family characteristics and a wide range of abilities within that syndrome. Many people with Down syndrome will go on to hold down responsible jobs, take further education and get married.

Similarly there are hundreds of nuances within the autistic spectrum, so try to avoid typecasting your character.  Mark Haddon's character, Christopher, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night, illustrates this well. Christopher, who has Asperger’s, is portrayed with subtlety and refinement. He is a gifted fifteen year old mathematician who, Haddon says ‘sees the world in a surprising and revealing way.’ He is not just a boy with Asperger’s syndrome but a boy with a complex character who is not defined by his disability. 

 Make sure your character is simply part of the landscape and focus on their ability and not disability because people with a learning disability are people first. Make it about who they are, what they like or dislike - or what their hobbies are. They are fully rounded individuals and not just a channel to display their disability. As authors we need to bear in mind that it is not the child with a learning disability who prevents themselves being fully included in society; it is the barriers in society that do that.

My character Rosie in Rosie Loves Jack is a typical teenager consumed by her love for Jack and she has the same hopes and aspirations as anyone else. Rose doesn't see her Down's syndrome as a shortcoming and wants to be treated as the equal she is. I avoided stereotyping Rosie by dismissing her Down's syndrome as my starting point, which then meant I avoided any restricting boundaries. 

It is important to avoid using language that creates negative images. The words you use can impact on how a person with disabilities is made to feel. We are people first and foremost, so it is crucial to erase derogatory language from your text.
 Many people would say that the word ‘disabled’ immediately suggests that that person is limited, even though this is often not the case at all, yet it is still an accepted term. 

To help with correct terminology, The Book Trust has printed a list of terms that are preferable. People need to feel included - language is always evolving and it is necessary to keep up with the appropriate terms so as not to alienate those who are different.
 It is very easy to try and rectify your character’s disability by giving them special powers, or making them unrealistically good or bad. In general, this does nothing to help the reader understand disability and can even be detrimental to it. Children are children, disability or not they can be just as naughty or nice!

Billy D in Dead Ends is a perfect example of how to include a character with disabilities without falling into this trap. Billy has Down syndrome, but he is by no means a victim. He is manipulative, irritating and at times, unlikeable, as well as being funny, kind and loveable. Children should be able to see such characters reflecting themselves and the normal ups and downs in their lives.

As an author do not make assumptions about your character. Research is the basis for writing confidently and for ensuring that you are not misrepresenting your character and their disabilities. Research, research, research, even if like me, you have first -hand experience of the disability you are writing about. Mark Haddon famously said that he didn't research at all, but I would strongly advise you not to do that. If you have a grasp of the problems you will free yourself to write with authenticity without your characters becoming typecast, or restricting them in what they can achieve. 

These are just some of the stumbling blocks to to be aware of when writing about disability in children’s books. We have come a long way in the past few years with many new children’s books featuring children with a variety of disabilities, who are simply a part of the story. We still have a long way to go. Hopefully this small guide will give confidence to those who hesitate.  I couldn't put it better than C.S. Lewis to emphasise the importance of why writers need to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves because,  'We read to know we are not alone.' 
Mel Darbon

Thursday, 11 October 2018

So how are your book sales? - Kelly McCaughrain

The latest instalment in my series ‘Weird things people ask me since I wrote a book.’

This one is right up there with ‘so what are you working on now?’ in terms of making a writer reach for the nearest steak knife.

Just stop a second and think about what you’re actually asking here. What’s the subtext? as we writers say (we do this with your text messages too).

We know that what you mean is, how’s it going/are you ok/I’m interested in your life. The sane part of me gets that. But to the other 99% of me, what you’re actually asking is something along the lines of:

  • How good a writer are you anyway?
  • How much money do you make?
  • Was it worth spending two/five/ten years writing that book I skim read on the train?

If I came up to you at a party and asked how much you make or what your last employee evaluation said, or why you haven’t been promoted recently, you’d probably be like

But if you want to know, the answers are all and any of the following:

1. I don’t know. I don’t sell the books personally out of a suitcase in my car and I don’t have an app on my phone that bings every time someone buys one from a shop. (if you think Facebook is destroying your self-esteem, just wait till that app is invented).

2. I have practically zero control over that so you’re really asking the wrong person.

3. I don’t care. Obviously I care, but only because people keep looking at me like it’s important and I don’t want to let anyone down. But it’s not why I wrote the book and for me the journey basically ended the day it was published. Writing the book was great. Caring about sales figures can only ruin that for me.

4. I’m still celebrating/recovering from the mind-blowing fact that I even wrote a book. Is that not enough for you? I have to be a bestseller? I have to be working on the sequel?

5. I don’t want to know. I think at some point the publisher might send me some deets on this but honestly I’m not looking forward to that. It’s not that I had mega hopes for a debut romcom from a Belfast nobody, but whatever the figure, it will:

a) be meaningless to me because I have no idea what is a normal amount of books for a Belfast nobody to sell and

b) could always be more so it’s not like getting an A on your report or anything.  

So I can’t give you numbers but I can tell you that there’s an inevitable trajectory for pretty much all books. They’re on the shelves for a while, then they’re in the back store for a while, then they’re orderable for a while, then they go away. Thanks to eBooks, things don’t technically go out of print anymore, but they’ll stop producing hardcopies sooner or later. You might get one print run, maybe two, maybe more, but it doesn’t go on forever. There are books I loved as a child that I’ve recently bought on eBay because they’re long out of print.

Remember this? I loved this!

How do I sum all that up in casual conversation? I usually say, ‘Don’t know, don’t wanna know,’ and then reach for the wine.

I’m not saying sales figures are meaningless. They mean a lot if you’re a publisher or a marketing person. They can mean you do or don’t get another publishing contract. But since we’ve pretty much established that making a living by writing is out of the question these days, maybe writers should come up with other ways of measuring success (see my last post). If we focus on sales figures, we might miss other things that also mean a lot. Like messages from readers. I think those have been the absolute highlight for me, they can literally make my day, and they’re the only thing that make it feel like that journey does go on and those characters still live, which really means a lot to me.

And can we just bear in mind that this way of working is actually a pretty recent thing? Writers did not used to have Amazon rankings and Good Reads reviews and Twitter conversations about their books by which to judge their own success.

How on earth did they manage? Well, as the always brilliant Anne Enright says:

“When I started out, information was hard to acquire. It took a year before you knew how a book had been received. There was no other way to work, except blind. There is no shame in thinking strategically about the public aspects of the business – this is not an immoral, soiling, or unartistic thing to do – but this is not where the real work happens.”

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds. She has no idea how well it's selling.

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at weewideworld.blogspot.co.uk 


Wednesday, 10 October 2018

My secret creative helper. Moira Butterfield

I’ve been carrying inspiration round in my bag recently. It’s in the form of a conveniently small bright yellow book with the title Hegarty on Creativity – There are No Rules, published by Thames and Hudson.

It’s written by advertising guru John Hegarty and it gets to the nub of creative thinking very well, in a series of easily-digested pieces of advice. Opening it up at random and glancing at it is a great help to me when I find myself staring at a blank page. It reminds me what I’m doing and why. The book stresses that there are no rules for being creative, but there are helpful ways of thinking.

The author is incisive and practical but also passionate about creativity, and it shines through. I would buy it for any young person setting out on a creative career.

Conveniently bag-sized powerhouse of creative advice 

A few of the many practical thoughts from Mr Hegarty include:

Be fearless. That way you will get ideas that are fresh and brilliant, not following a formula.

A brainstorming session with other people is a waste of time for the truly creative person, because you will do your best thinking when you’re not trying too hard to think.

Get out more often. Look around you. The more interesting the inputs you are open to, the more interesting your output will be. That means staying alert to new ideas, places and people.

Read the best. See the best. Talent rubs off. Hegarty suggests that since more people visit art galleries and museums than football matches in the UK, that might be why our creative economy is doing well but we haven’t won the World Cup since 1966. For myself, I make a point of going out to bookshops and admiring those children’s books that others have created.

Cynicism is the death of creativity. Creativity is a positive force, a force for good, and it challenges us to change. It should encourage, enthuse and engage. Being cynical will infect your ability to create, so surround yourself with positivity and possibility. I think is is particularly good advice for anyone who has been in their profession a long time, when they might have seen a fair bit to be cynical about. It's important to keep the feeling under control. 

Good is the enemy of great. More often than not, coming up with a great idea means veering here and there on the way, and it’s all too easy to settle on something that feels OK but isn’t best. Take a step back from what feels good and think ‘but is it great?’. I have to think of this good advice regularly, as I tend to get very excited about plans for a new project and send material off too soon. With a little more time, project plans can become much better.  I'm a bit of a 'rarin' to go' character and need to reign it in sometimes. 

I write ever day and I’m always coming up with new ideas to illuminate the world for children. I earn my living this way, and it can be hard to feel enthused sometimes, so thanks to John Hegarty for being a cheerleader. I’ll keep this little yellow powerhouse in my bag.

Moira Butterfield's latest book is Welcome To Our World. A Celebration of Children Everywhere. Published by Nosy Crow. A new Lonely Planet City Trails book on Barcelona is published in October. 

Twitter: #moiraworld
Instagram. #moirabutterfieldauthor