Thursday, 31 July 2008

Bathtime parable – Nick Green

Mr E. Blackadder Esq. once described saving French aristocrats from the guillotine as being ‘about as difficult as putting on a hat.’ I can now say with confidence that being a writer is about as difficult as taking off a t-shirt.
Last night I was getting my three-year-old son Oscar ready for his bath. Lately he’s got it into his head that he will do everything, thank you very much, and does not need any help taking off his shirt. All attempts to assist, even the most surreptitious, blind-sided fingertip grip on the seam of his sleeve, to make it easier for him to extricate his arm, is met with screams of apoplectic fury. The only thing to do is stand back and offer the occasion word of advice, and even these don’t go down well. It’s best if you’re not in a hurry, and don’t have, say, broad beans boiling dry on the stove (but that’s another story).
Poor Oscar. He just could not get that t-shirt off. He’d hoist it over his head, dragging it across his face as it changed from pink to crimson, only for it to slip back again. He’d yank on one arm till the stitches popped, but he but couldn’t achieve that crucial elbow-past-the-seam watershed, beyond which, as we smug grown-ups know, t-shirt removal is a formality. At times, both of the above were happening at once, and he was straitjacketed, blundering around the bathroom as if he could somehow outrun his shirt, bashing into things like Winnie the Pooh in the heffalump trap. All the while raging, screaming, sobbing and wailing like a soul in purgatory, while I, his father, stood by and watched.
Oh, it might sound funny now. But let me tell you I was near to tears. Desperate to intervene, I knew that if I did I would simply spark off World War Three-year-old. Oscar, meanwhile, just would not admit defeat. I have never seen such determination. I thought of a bear, in a trap, resolved to gnaw its own limbs off before it gives up. In another minute, he might have bared his milk teeth and done it. But then, finally, he got the t-shirt over his head. Squealing, he twisted it behind his back. One last epic effort, and he shook the short sleeves off his arms, and he was out. Then he slumped down on the bathroom floor and cried.
Oh dear, I thought, swallowing the lump in my throat. It looks as if he’s going to be a writer.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Researching in Iceland - Marie-Louise Jensen

I like to know the places I write about. I want to be able to describe the smells, the sounds, the birds, the plants – all the details that only come alive when I really know a place. So when I decided to write two novels set during the settlement of Iceland, I just had to go. It cost me a whole year’s book advance – hardly cost efficient. But then I was also fulfilling a lifelong dream.
I studied the Icelandic sagas at university and had always longed to go to the sites – the spot where Njal and his family lived and Gunnar’s farm. They are all real places that can be visited. Even Eirik the Red’s farm has been found and a reconstruction built nearby. There, with the help of a couple of burly Icelanders dressed as Vikings, you can go back in time too.
There is a wonderfully atmospheric museum in Reykjavik where the foundations of a farmhouse from around the year 870 have been excavated. And in the Culture House early extant manuscripts of the Icelandic sagas are preserved in dimly-lit glass cases.
Outside Akueyri, a medieval market is held every July, where blacksmiths and fortune tellers ply their trade and visitors can watch cloth dyes being prepared from plants and whistles being whittled from bones.
And then there were the quieter moments that were just as significant. The broad daylight that lasts all night and the sight of the sun setting at 11.30 at night. The ice that formed on our tents at night when the temperature dropped from a benign 18 degrees during the day to bone-chilling below zero at night. The sparkle of the snow-capped mountains and glaciers in the summer sunshine. The lucky sighting of a gyrfalcon guarding her nest high up a rocky larva formation. Not to mention whales, dolphins, penguins and… well, you’d have to spend six weeks there yourself to really experience the wonders. Perhaps you can find as good an excuse as I did.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Research - why bother? Lynn Huggins - Cooper

Many of my stories are set in the past. One Boy’s War (Frances Lincoln, 2008) and Walking with Witches (Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2008) have both entailed hundreds of hours of deeply satisfying research.
With the former book, set during WW1, this included trawling through original journals, war records and secondary sources of historical records. I also visited Belgium and France to trace the steps of the boy soldier and see his resting place in a small war cemetery on farmland. With the latter, set in the 1650s, I spent weeks reading contemporary accounts of life in Newcastle as well as harrowing accounts of witch trials and executions. I found that library staff and local historians alike were generous in the extreme when they knew what I was looking for; they were keen to see the stories come to fruition. But is all this research really necessary? The books are only made up, right? Wrong actually. The stories may be fiction, but the settings – and many of the characters – were real people. I feel I would be doing them (and myself) a disservice to neglect my research, as it is the facts we bring to our stories that help to give them the ring of truth. Some of my favourite books are historic fiction, and I have learned a great deal from them in both terms of history and storytelling. If a reader is reading a story set in the past, and the facts underpinning the story are inaccurate, the world constructed by the author crumbles and the reader is yanked out of the story.
Readers offer us a great compliment when they choose to read our books and enter our worlds. They will suspend their disbelief only for as long as our stories captivate them. Methodical research helps to create a multi-faceted, believable story – and it’s fun! I even surround myself with objects that relate to my chosen time period to help me. For Walking with Witches, I have a fragment of a Seventeenth Century signet ring, for example – and somehow, holding this helps me to connect with my story. I’ve read a lot of manuscripts and books about the period, and the treatment of witches – or those accused of being witches. I’ve enjoyed it so much, and it’s given me so many ideas, I think I feel another book coming on...

Monday, 28 July 2008

Finding My Inner 8 year-old—More Bogies, Farts (and a Rat) - Lucy Coats

I am a 47 year-old woman (or is it 48?—I never can remember, being well on the way to senility). I am unlikely ever to have been an 8 year-old boy, at least not to my knowledge. However, like Lynn Huggins (see Bogies, Farts and Poo blog below), since I have started writing a series of books with an 8 year-old male hero called Shazzam Smith, I have found my head filled with a kind of sniggering glee at the thought of farting, snot, slime, pooey pants and all things vile and disgusting. My teenage children are horrified at the sight of me howling with laughter as my jet-propelled dandie dinmont terrier parps his way round the kitchen (looking terribly surprised and embarrassed as he does so). Apparently I am something called ‘sad’—though I feel quite the reverse. In my current mood, I’d make them both apple-pie beds if we didn’t have duvets.

Added to this, normally I am like any sensible woman. I hate rats. In my former middle-aged existence, anyone who owned a rat was slightly odd, bordering on insane. They bite (don’t they?), they like eating disgusting stuff and are dirty—I mean, look at most of the rat population in Ratatouille. But Shazzam has a white rat called Pocket (that’s where the rat lives, see?). So now I’m forced to admit, having done some research, that rats are clean, intelligent, loving and really rather nice. My 8 year-old boy self really really really wants to own one. And secretly, I wouldn’t mind either, apart from that long pink tail which looks like a worm. I’m still iffy on worms, I’m afraid. Although that may have to change.

Yesterday I did a nose-picking experiment. My 47/48 year-old self was horrified and disgusted and wanted a tissue and a lot of soap right away. My inner 8 year-old giggled and chanted, ‘Pick it, lick it, roll it and flick it!” I think this is what actors call ‘method’, and I have to tell you that so far I am enjoying being a grubby delinquent more than I can say. I have no doubt that I shall be snortling at the ‘s’ word soon. (For those without kids, that’s What Parents Never Do because they’re too old and it’s revolting!) How my husband takes this remains to be seen. Perhaps his inner 8 year-old will emerge too, and we can chortly evilly together as we make mud pies to throw over the wall at passing cars. Then the children would almost certainly leave home in disgust. This will save a lot on food and fuel, great in this new world of credit crunchery, however much I would miss their lofty teenage pronouncements.

I may have second novelitis (see previous post), but this new departure into younger fiction is giving me a new lease of writing life. Long live ye bogies! Hooray for poo!

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Fauns with Umbrellas - Katherine Langrish

“Why do you write for children?”
Each time I’m asked this, I probably come up with a different answer, and sometimes I’m tempted to be a little sharp – to answer, “Why not?” or “Children are human too, you know!” Actually, I write for children because that’s the way stories come to me.
C.S. Lewis claimed to write for children ‘because a children’s story was the best art form for something he had to say’. People who dislike Lewis for his didacticism feel their hackles rising suspiciously when they read this – Ha; proof of his propaganda campaign to infiltrate innocent minds with pernicious reactionary Christian ideology – and Lewis probably believed it when he wrote it; but I think he was kidding himself. To me the statement sounds not only a little pretentious, but suspiciously like something he came up with after he’d written his books.
I don’t honestly believe anyone chooses a genre because they decide in advance that it’s the best art form for something they wish to say. (Unless they’re in advertising.) Rather, you get grabbed by an idea. Often, for me, a picture of something happening. Lewis himself said that ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ started with a picture in his head of a faun with an umbrella walking through a snowy forest.
Well, if you’re being haunted (and I mean haunted: possessed) by an umbrella-carrying faun in a snowy wood, what are you going to do with it? You’re probably going to write a children’s story, because it’s going to take superhuman ingenuity to work it into a novel for adults. It’s not even very likely to become part of an adult fantasy. The comically domestic detail about the umbrella says that. Fauns in adult fantasy are going to be sexier. They’re going to riot through those woods in a wild, dangerous Dionysiac revel: and they’re not going to want umbrellas.
No: the material imposes the form. Fauns with umbrellas will insist on you writing a children’s fantasy for them. Other things may then find their way into that story; your moral outlook, world picture, concerns, loves and hates. No author is free of these, and one can only hope to find sympathetic readers who understand or at least make allowances. But throw away that umbrella, and you’ve thrown away the book.
Or to put it another way, writing is like this: you let down your shimmering little hook into the deep pool where stories come from, and something bites. You pull it up (if you're lucky). But look what happens! The fish talks! It opens its whiskery, blubbery mouth and speaks to you! And to me it says:
This is a fairytale...

Friday, 25 July 2008

Rubbish Monsters - Charlie Butler

A little while ago I saw this video on the excellent BoingBoing website, about a New York artist who creates sculptures out of bin bags. He tapes them to the subway gratings that are a feature of the city’s sidewalks, and when a subway train passes beneath, the rising air inflates his creations, so that passers-by are startled to see a horned monster, a Nessie, a giraffe - anything – rise eerily before them, then settle just as mysteriously into inanimate rubbish once again.
My initial thought on viewing this was of a scene in my favourite* Diana Wynne Jones book, Fire and Hemlock, in which a giant assembles itself from the rubbish lying about the streets of Bristol and chases our heroine and hero. That combination of the mundane and the scary is particularly potent, I think: the more ordinary and familiar something is, the more frightening it has the potential to be. I think I first noticed this when I read Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle as a child. It’s not generally seen as a scary book, but the chapter in which the children devise an audience for their home dramatics out of old coats, umbrellas, walking sticks and the like, and then accidentally bring their creations (the “Ugly-Wuglies”) to life, still has the power to frighten. I believe I was thinking of that episode when, in The Lurkers, I created a demonic child from the contents of an airing cupboard: a boy with cotton soft, pine-fresh hands, a clothes-peg grin, and a scar made from the stitching of an inside-out pillow case. To my mind that was more unsettling than finding, say, a goblin magicked in from some other world entirely, and, going by what readers have told me, they agree.
Alan Garner sums up this preference for the ordinary very well:

If we are in Eldorado and we find a mandrake, then OK, so it’s a mandrake: in Eldorado anything goes. But, by force of imagination, compel the reader to believe that there is a mandrake in a garden in Mayfield Road, Ulverston, Lancashire, then when you pull up that mandrake it is really going to scream; and possibly the reader will, too.

I suppose, in fact, that’s why I write fantasies set in this world, rather than in some other land that wears its magicality on its sleeve. Magic in our own world is less easy to spot; but one my jobs as a writer is to show that it’s there nevertheless, woven into every fibre of the universe.

*But then I have so many favourite DWJ books! Drowned Ammet, for example. The way she does gods in that one is... well, perhaps the subject for another post.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Books To Keep - Susan Price

I took a load of books to a charity shop recently, and that started me thinking about the books I'd never, ever part with.

Rudyard Kipling's First and Second Jungle Books, and The Just-So Stories. My father read these when he was a boy, and loved them, so he bought them for my seventh Christmas. I loved them too, and came to know them almost by heart. Kipling taught me such new words as 'insatiable' and 'replied' - and his love of chanting, rhythmic language appeared later in my own books, The Ghost Drum, for instance.

Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales. 'Far out in the sea the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest of cornflowers, and as clear as the clearest glass; but it is very deep, deeper than any anchor chain can reach...' (M. R. James' translation). I was about nine when I found this on our bookshelves, and it had me at 'Far'. The Dauntless Tin Soldier, The Tinder Box, The Nightingale - I loved them all. Later, as a teenager, I realised that many of Andersen's tales were his re-tellings of traditional stories - The Seven Swans is one. As I was becoming fascinated by folklore, the book took on a new interest for me.

Scandinavian Mythology by H. R. Ellis-Davidson. My mother promised to buy me, for my fifteenth birthday, whatever I wanted, and I chose this. (I was a strange child). Mum had the vapours when she saw the price: One pound and fifteen shillings (1-75p). And this for a large format, hard-backed book with photographs on almost every page, many coloured.

But she kept her word, as she always did, and I still use this book for reference. I didn't know, when I chose it, that Ellis-Davidson was an acknowledged expert on her subject. The book outraged my aunt with its photo of 'Windeby Girl' - a partially preserved, naked bog-body. How could my parents allow me to look at such things? 'Windeby Girl' has since been discovered to be a boy. My aunt would have had conniptions.

It was a story from this book, King Olaf's Warnings, which became the germ and inspiration of my first collection of traditional stories, The Carpenter.

K. M. Briggs' Dictionary of British Folk-Tales. I found these paperbacks in a Birmingham bookshop, priced at thirty quid each. I couldn't afford them, but asked myself, was I ever likely to find them again? (This was in the olden days, before the internet). I rushed with them to the pay-desk, where the assistant exclaimed, "Oh thank goodness! We ordered those by mistake and thought we'd never get rid of them!"

Those books have more than paid me back, not only in material, but in entertainment. I've lost track of the number of stories I've retold from them, and the number of ideas they've given me. They were worth every penny - as books generally are!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Right to Play, and to Be In One - by John Dougherty

I was going to write a frivolous little piece about something-or-other today, but then I read this in the Telegraph - not my usual paper of choice, but it was there and I'm a textoholic (in the sense of finding myself compelled to read text, rather than having to send them...).

Anyway, for anyone who can't be bothered to follow the link, the gist is that a new campaign group, Action for Children's Arts - including such luminaries from the world of kidlit as Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen and Dame Jacqueline Wilson - is arguing that the UK government is failing to ensure certain rights of children (as enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) are met. These include the right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. ACA has produced a manifesto, which is worth a look.

There's some - to my mind - obvious stuff the government could do straight away that would help. Getting rid of those useless SATS things would be a start, as would giving teachers and schools a bit more responsibility for deciding what to teach and how to teach it. However, that aside, there's one thing that could be done immediately which would increase children's participation in cultural life and the arts: Bring Back the School Play.

Some of you will say, 'I didn't know it had gone away,' and it may be that your kids are the lucky ones. But when I was a lad (cue: extract from Dvorak's New World Symphony), every year we had at least 2 proper public performances - usually a nativity and a concert. And we spent hours on these; coming up to Christmas the focus was on making sure the play went well, and all the other stuff had to be fitted in around it. 

During my own teaching career, though, I was aware of a decline in the amount of time that sometimes went into school plays, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better. I know of one school round here that, a few years back, cancelled the Year 6 Christmas play on the grounds that the children needed to concentrate on their SATS; whether it's since been reinstated I have no idea.

I'm not going to spend time here expounding the reasons being in a school play can be good for children; it just can, okay? What I am going to say is that the school play has suffered because it's not one of the government's official measures: no school is going to get marked down by Ofsted for not doing one, whereas they will if they miss out on Literacy or Numeracy Hour during the week of inspection, even if it's the last school week before Christmas. And no school is going to slip down the league tables if their plays are a bit rubbish.

It's no good blaming the schools - which the DCSF is likely to do, given half a chance, based on previous form. If you measure people on narrow targets, and punish them for failing to achieve them, who can blame them if they aim for those and let the rest go hang? But if culture and the arts are important - and they are - the place we give them must be bigger than the little corner that's left after all the targety stuff is fitted in.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Teenage Dreams Anne Cassidy

When I was a teenager I had one overriding desire and that was to be older. When I was twelve I wanted to be fifteen like the cool girls in school who wore stockings under their white knee length socks and plucked their eyebrows until they were thin lines that tapered away to nothing. These girls swore and chewed gum aggressively and pointed their chests out wherever they walked. I so wanted a chest like that. These girls were my heroes.

When I was fifteen I wanted to be like the seventeen year olds in the sixth form who got picked up outside school by boys in cars. These girls had secret smiles that suggested knowledge that I didn't have. Knowledge of the opposite sex, gained in the back seats of those very cars. I watched them in the dining room or walking across the playground. Their very walk was sensual and suggestive and I felt sore to my throat at the life they were having that I had to wait for.

When I was seventeen I envied the older girl who was in work, who was 'courting' her boyfriend or possibly engaged. She had stepped out of the back of a car and into the arms of a wage earner, a boy in a sheepskin jacket or suit. She was allowed to stay over at his house. She had her own money, a wage slip, a P45, a tube season ticket and luncheon vouchers. She could afford a wash and set each Saturday and a drawer full of unopened packets of tights. I wanted to be that girl.

When I write books for teenagers it doesn't take long for me to pull up those emotions from my memory. That craving to be something that you are not. Isn't that often a theme in much of the adult fiction that we read? People often talk about teens as though they are a different species. They are not though. They are just experiencing the big Themes of Life. They are just becoming adults.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

A life more interesting?? - Linda Strachan

I SO wish I had spent my youth doing daring deeds like skydiving, bungee jumping or even had a gap year deep sea diving in the Philippines.I wish I’d had a quirky job, been a grape peeler for an emperor or excavated tombs in Egypt for a famous archaeologist - I would love to have been a blacksmith and been able to make elegant but deadly swords, but with my luck I would probably have been offered the job of sticking feathers onto arrows!

Why, you may ask, am I so consumed with having had a fascinating life?It’s not that I want to do anything other than write, I love it, but I am trying to write a short biography for my upcoming, first teenage novel, Spider, and I am suddenly overcome with a sense of my own boringness!

My previous attempts to make my past life sound interesting might have been fun and jolly for the young cuddly readers of my Hamish McHaggis stories, but I really want something with a little more street cred for this book and most of my previous life seems just too ordinary.

Now if I’d had a few exciting or weird jobs it would be so much easier to write a pithy and amusing little biography- like the ones I read in other writer’s books! They all seem to have done such interesting things
A friend said - 'you’re a writer, make it up!'

So I sit and scribble and score out and try again, but for some reason I can think of all sorts of exciting things for my characters to do but none of them seem right for me. I keep worrying that someone will ask me technical details about how to catch a fire-eating dragon, or extract a marble from an angry camel’s nose.

So, if you see me doing something really bizarre it may not be because I am tremendously brave or quirky… just looking to do something that I can put in my bio!

Susan Price: Writing With A Cat

My cat does an excellent impression of a car alarm, usually when I have to remove him from his favourite sleeping place, my computer chair. He retaliates by striding up and down the landing outside my work-room, going, 'Waaaa! Waaaa! Waaaa!' in a shrill, rasping, repeated wail which bores through my concentration in seconds. Throwing things at him distracts him only for a moment. Closing the door means louder wails and scratched paintwork. Shutting him in the yard means that he batters the patio doors with both paws, rattling them in their frames, still howling, until you'd swear looters were breaking in. He's a large and determined cat.

The only thing that shuts him up is allowing him to jump onto my lap. (Sometimes he's too idle to jump and waves his front paws at me, demanding to be picked up). Once on my lap, he settles comfortably, front paws folded under, assumes a smug expression, and vibrates gently with contentment. He watches the screen as I work, ears pricking with interest as it shifts and flickers. Happily, he's never shown any interest in getting closer to it, though once, when I printed off a book proposal, which showered from the printer onto the floor, he sprang from my lap and killed all the pages. (Critics! They're everywhere).

Working with a cat on my lap means having to type round a pair of hot, silky little ears, and occasionally having a thick, furry tail wafted across my face, or coiled round my neck like a boa. It means having to stop and wait while the cat stands up, turns himself round two or three times, and then drapes himself across my legs like a heavy, furry scarf. But he's quiet - apart from some snoring - for hours, so it's worth it.
The next time I'm asked one of those questions - 'Do you write by hand or computer? Pen or pencil? Blue ink or black?' - I'm going to say, 'Personally, I always write with a cat.'

Friday, 18 July 2008

Where's the Story? by Penny Dolan

Like many other children’s authors, I do school visits to keep food in the cupboard. A wolf at the door? He’d probably get eaten!

However, I can’t help worrying, during writing workshops, about many children’s relationship with writing, especially stories. Here’s two examples that happen when I’m talking to a class about writing in a general low-key way. We've already chatted about cats, or the strange noises the school boiler makes, and suchlike. Ready?

Me: “I wonder…. What was the last story you wrote? Can you remember the last thing you enjoyed writing?”
Helpful Child. “ I think we did one once about . . about . . about . . .”
Butter-inners: “A magic key.” “No, we didn’t!” “Yes, we did!” etcetera
Scornful mutters about how that was in Mrs Smith’s class. Mrs Smith’s class was at least two years ago. Nothing since.

Me, a bit later. “ I wonder what you think is important when you’re doing writing?
Sweet eager child, swiftly. “Knowing where to put the full stops.”
Helpful child. “And capital letters. And those – erm erm – exclamation marks.”
Others: “Speech marks.” “Doing Planning.” “Handwriting.”
Enjoyment? The sense of making something? A good read? Low down on the list, if at all.

Now I am aware (remember, this is primary school!) they “do” persuasive writing, the adapt-a-traditional tale, the rewrite-a-myth, the account, the recount, the report, the letter, the diary, the extended story writing, the poetry models, writing-in-role as a character met during the study of a short extract from a book not fully read, and the rest. Plus, in the brief pause, before we move on, at least one adult has re-assured me about the range of writing their children do, quite firmly.

However, I can’t help worrying what this easily-markable writing diet is like for the children - though not quite so easily markable this very week, it seems. Why do primary children have this haziness about when they last enjoyed writing? Why doesn’t the experience matter to them? Where do they find their own voice in their writing, learn that writing is a kind of speaking, a kind of thinking?

Of course, lots of good teachers do encourage children. There’s Roz Wilson & Co promoting “The Big Write”, plus candle and music. There’s Pie Corbett promoting traditional tale-telling as a precursor to writing. There’s plenty of enthusiasts and encouragers, struggling to find space and time for writing. But, but, but . . . (sigh!)

I recall Anne Fine, talking at a long ago conference, saying she learned to write at school, during the first hour of Monday morning. The class teacher, faced with children, register, dinner money to collect, count & total in old money (plus the effects of a weekend’s liquid consolation, perhaps) would chalk a weekly writing task up on the blackboard – and the young Anne knew she had the freedom of an hour in which to muse, daydream and write her new story. Each week. Each month. Each term.

Not just once, long ago, back in Mrs Smith’s class. Not ideal. But something to ponder. End of rant.

Second Novel Syndrome - Sally Nicholls

When I finished my first novel, I was sure Book Two was going to be easier. After all, I’d written one book. Now I now knew how it was done, I would avoid making all the mistakes I’d made with Book One by the simple tactic of ... er ... not making them this time. Simple. Right?
Wrong. My first problem came when I tried to decide what Book Two was going to be about. Every idea I tried seemed flat and dull when compared with the sparkling prose of Book One. I had to remind myself that Ways to Live Forever had been polished and repolished until it shone, and that early drafts hadn’t looked nearly so pretty.
Ways to Live Forever had two major advantages that none of my new ideas did – it had an unusual structure, and it made people cry. How was I supposed to beat that? I also had a horrible feeling that – like a band which puts all its good records into its first album – I’d used up all my good ideas. With Book One I could put in whatever I wanted. With Book Two it had to be as good as Ways to Live Forever, and yet be completely original.
Then there was motivation. I wrote Ways to Live Forever on a masters programme, where every week kind people put smiley faces in my margins, asked what was going to happen next and gently corrected me when I came in with more random ideas. Now, suddenly, I had no one – and I was expected to work this out for myself?
It didn’t help that while I was trying to write Book Two, Book One was going through the excitement of a publishing auction beyond my wildest dreams. My agent kept forwarding me emails from publishers saying how Ways to Live Forever had made them cry, how such-and-such in America loved it, how they were really looking forward to Book Two – I was writing Book Two, right? Did I know when it would be finished?
So what happened? Well, I eventually found a story that I liked, although I was three chapters in before it came alive. It was a great help that I found this before I had a publisher for Book One, as I think if I’d waited until I had a book deal, the pressure would have been much worse. I also joined a children’s writer’s critique group at, which at least made me feel like there were people out there who wanted to know what happened next.
I found a job which gave me two writing days every week, and began enforcing a 2000-words-a-week rule. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake, as I ended up with a lot of guilt and many bad words rather than a few chapters I was really happy with. But at least I had something. I had a book, which grew, and which was handed in a few days after its deadline. Hurrah! Scholastic even seem keen to buy Book Three, which suggests that they liked it.
And Book Three is going to be easier, I’m sure of it. After all, I’ve learnt from my mistakes now. Book Three is going to be simple. Right?

On Being Real - Charlie Butler

I put this up as a comment on another post yesterday, but I’ve moved it into a post all of its own as I’d be interested to see what other people think about the question – the question being, “What is a real writer?”
A writer of adult novels annoyed me recently in an email discussion by defining a Real Writer as someone whose main source of income is writing. Which lets out Shakespeare (who probably made more money as a property dealer and shareholder), to say nothing of Chaucer, Spenser, Milton (civil servants all), and the many writers from Sir Philip Sidney to Jane Austen who lived on a private income. Then there are those such as Emily Dickinson, barely published in her life, so therefore doubly unreal! The list could easily be extended, but such definitions are testicular in all but fertility: whether we define Real as “financially sustainable” or “commercially published”, the main purpose of these shibboleths is usually to prop up the shaky egos of those who apply them. Using the ‘main income’ test in the case of children’s writers is particularly perverse, given that the average writing income of children’s writers in the UK is (from memory) under £6,000. As for publication, all published writers were unpublished writers once: they were none the less Real for that.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Amy Winehouse and My Teen Book - Anne Cassidy

I don't get writer's block. Every now and then I get a case of Deflating Writer though. Sitting at my computer I seem to flop in my chair, all my storytelling energy gone. This is when I need some music.

A year ago my husband got me to listen to Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. Ever since then it's been my record of choice whenever I'm alone and in need of some emotional Viagra.

It's raw and quite brilliant. As I listen to it I experience a range of feelings. I felt sensuous, moody, angry, frustrated, exalted, busted. I feel the passion in Winehouse's voice and the power of her lyrics about how messy and sad and avaricious love can be. I sing along to her racy words and become involved with the lovers in the songs. Never mind about real life and what has happened to those people. I hook onto the fiction and the feel the hair on the back of my neck stir when I swoon along to Love is a Losing Game. Yes it is. Or it can be.

It reminds me of when I wrote my first teen novel in the late eighties. Then I really was writing about my own teenage years and I deliberately bought records from that period (late sixties) to listen to. Perhaps the main ones were Smokey Robinson and Miracles and also The Four Tops. I even named my main character 'Brenda' after a Four Tops song. That music brought back my teens and all the longing and disappointment of teen love affairs. That first book is forever associated with that music for me.

When the Amy Winehouse CD is finished I am bolstered up and back to my computer. I need my emotions fired up to write well about my teens for whom love and life is often a difficult road. This music will be associated with the book I wrote during 2007/8 while listening to it. A book about jealousy and violence in a relationship. It's called Just Jealous.

Blogging timewasting - N M Browne

I have a confession to make: I am a procrastinator and a time waster and there is no twelve step programme to help me.

I waste a lot of time reading blogs and I mean a lot of time. I love the clever ones with multiple links,the erudite ones and the guilt inducing ones that demand I lend support to obscure causes. I adore the witty ones and the bitchy ones, but most of all I like the ones that read like a private diary, that let you in to a secret life.

In these every day blogs the personality and circumstances of the blogger leak out like smoothie from a dodgy carton in my fridge, ( messy but tasty) I take particular delight in the ones by famous writers who don't talk at all about their intriguing work, but how many times they've made it to the gym, what they are having for supper and whether the bin men came on time. Oh, and word counts I love those word count thingies -especially when they don't move for weeks.

At first I was disappointed that really creative people lived such ordinary,lives. Where are the adventures? Then it occurred to me that they didn't have any. Those who live in their imaginations don't need to actually climb mountains, sail single handedly round the world, become experts at martial arts or learn the secrets of the genome - they can just pretend - which, while it is a whole lot cheaper and less exhausting, also makes less interesting copy.

Now although I don't claim the towering imagination of my literary heroes and heroines, I do at least lead an ordinary life and am really very boring. I'm beginning to think that's OK. It may even be a good sign. Take note all would-be writers:it is not necessary to be personally very interesting in order to write.It is not even necessary to do anything very interesting at all, ever, you can make it all up.

To all the other writers out there (who ought to be working right now) I just want to say. It is OK. You read my mindless blatherings and I'll read yours - a kind of mutually supportive timewasting. (You know it makes sense)

However, for readers I have a different and much sterner message and that is - 'Forget the blogs! Read the books! They are much more interesting - full of adventure, passion and stuff!' I'll do you a deal: you read a book and I'll get off the net and write one.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Writing with bite – Nick Green

My favourite scene in the film JAWS doesn’t involve the shark at all. It’s the scene in which Brody, Hooper and Quint are talking in the boat’s cabin. The highlight of their drunken chat is when the macho Quint and the nerdy Hooper are comparing their scars. The irony is that they are surprisingly evenly matched. At first it looks as if Brody can’t join in (Brody with his water phobia is unlikely to have many shark bites to date). But then he tentatively exposes a scar on his torso, only to change his mind and hide it. This fleeting gesture tells a whole story in itself. The scar is (we presume) a gunshot wound from his former life as a city cop, which is what sent him out here to Amity in the first place, in search of a quiet life (oh, the irony). It reminds us that there are sharks on land too, and that Brody is at least equal to his shipmates – in fact he probably outdoes them as a survivor (an important plot point). But crucially, unlike them, he won’t brag about his scar, because he is also a family man and thus values his life more. For him, life and death are a serious business. In short, that single two-second gesture confirms him finally as the hero of the whole piece, the valiant everyman who will slay the monster in the end. The others just don’t have the gravitas.

Moments like this can make up for all the dodgy special effects in the world. It’s something that film directors – and all writers – would do well to remember.

Why Historical Fiction Needs a New Name - by Marie-Louise Jensen

Ask a class of secondary children how many of them read fantasy and you are likely to get a good show of hands. Ditto thrillers, spy stories, and tales set in the here and now. But if you ask if anyone reads historical fiction, you’ll get very few hands, if any. Why?
Well, possibly because the kids don’t understand the concept of ‘historical fiction’ without a few examples. Certainly if you mention Michelle Paver, you’ll get more hands. (“Oh, is that historical fiction?”) But more likely, I think, because they think historical books will be boring or difficult. My theory is that in a child’s mind there is a direct and logical link: historical = history = school subject. The logical assumption (perhaps not on a conscious level) is that if you don’t enjoy history as it’s taught in schools, or if you find it hard, you won’t enjoy historical books. Or even if you don’t mind history, why would you do a school subject in your free time?
And yet what is historical fiction really? It’s a story, like any other, just set in the past. Yes, of course there are all sorts of definitions. I’ve written essays on the subject on more than one occasion. But they aren’t really important. What’s important is getting young readers enthusiastic about reading stories of all kinds – to get them to see it as an advantage that authors have all of the past ages of the world to roam through as settings for those stories. So let’s throw away the word ‘historical’ and call them adventures, thrillers, romances, mysteries, or whatever else seems appropriate.
Romantic adventure, anyone?

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

In Translators We Trust - John Dougherty

Hurrah! My first foreign translation! No longer am I a single-language author; now Italian children too can read Jack Slater, Monster Investigator - or as they'll know it, Jack l'Acchiappamostri.

I'm happy for about 30 seconds before my brain switches to Paranoid And Precious mode and the question occurs to me: How do I know they've done it right? Quickly, I flick through the story in both languages, comparing passages for similar-looking words. The Italian edition says 'dormire' roughly where the original uses the word 'sleep', which seems right; I know the French equivalent is 'dormir', after all. The phrase 'Two timid-looking pyjama-clad figures' is rendered, 'Due figurine in pigiama, dall'aria timida'. I am reassured. For about 30 seconds.

Then I think, Hang on, the bits I think I can figure out are probably the easy bits anyway. What about the rest?  I have no idea whether words like 'spostarlo' and 'spazio' translate as my words, the words I used in my story. Or even as words I'd normally use in polite company.  And for that matter, maybe the words that look right to me, well, just aren't. Maybe 'figurine' has something to do with action figures, or technical pictures in a textbook - as in 'See figure 8 for a graph on how paranoid the same author can be made by translations into different Indo-European languages'. How do I know 'pigiama' means 'pyjamas' and not something to do with pigs? Perhaps the whole thing actually translates as 'It was due to diagrams in pigskin, singing an aria out of time'.

I know, I think: the title. If at least the title's right, that's a good sign, surely. And doesn't Google have a handy translation tool? I find it, set it up to translate from Italian to English, and eagerly type in 'Jack l'Acchiappamostri'. 

The translation comes up almost immediately: 'Jack the Acciappamostri'. Humph. Wait, though; doesn't 'Acciappamostri' look like a compound word? If I separate the two parts, I bet 'mostri' will turn out to be 'monster'. And so it proves. Google's helpful language tool translates 'Jack l'Acciappa mostri' as 'Jack the monster Acciappa'.

There's only one thing to do: make friends with an Italian. 

Thankfully, before the town is full of bewildered Italians fleeing a deranged children's author, I remember that I'm going to see my friend Concetta in London at the weekend. I can wait till the weekend. Who needs fingernails, anyway? And she puts my mind at rest: it's fine. The lovely Francesca Fiore has done a sterling job (yes, the translator is credited - a fine idea, to my mind, as it means there's someone to blame if it does all go horribly wrong).

Now, I know some of you will be thinking at this point that I am utterly barmy, and that of course a professional translator will do a good job. But I do have reason to worry. You see, when I was a teenager, I once got about half-way through an English translation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It started out fine, but became more and more impenetrable as I progressed. I finally gave up when the bold Captain Nemo told his men to put on their diving suits because they were about to leave the submarine to walk on the sea-bed. At least, I presume that was the gist of what Verne was getting at, but this particular translator rendered it as:

"We will now put on our dresses and go for a walk."

Bogies, Farts and Poo! by Lynn Huggins - Cooper

I really look quite refined, to the casual observer. I have a lovely home in the country; I wear Barbours and have been known to attend WI meetings and enthuse about jam and crochet. But how do I make a living? Well, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time writing about bogies, farts and poo! I'd like to say I only discovered a penchant for poop when I started writing as 'B. Strange' in the Too Ghoul for School' series - it would be a good cover story, as I was asked to write about terrors in a toilet. But I soon found I was waaay too into it; I had stories about Dump Demons suffocating children with stinking gas and ghoulish goings-on in the toilets that according to my characters saved anyone from suffering from constipation...sigh. I have to accept it. I might look and sound like Margot Leadbetter on the outside, but I am worked from the inside, like a darlek, by a tiny monster. Mine is, I think, a scatological 10 year old.

But you know, I don't think the 10 year old lives alone in there. I'm currently writing Walking with Witches, a supernatural story about young teens, and the heroine of that story lives inside me too. She's a little more sophisticated than the farty 10 year old, but she still likes a joke. Then there's my older teenage protagonist who is currently wrestling with her sense of self...she's in there too. The point is, they are all me. If I didn't still keenly remember the person I was then, I couldn't write for children and young people now. So if you want to write stories for children, spend some time with the child inside. Mine's in there, alive and well - and lurking with a whoopee cushion and fart powder - you have been warned!

Working Hours - Katherine Langrish

“How many hours a day do you spend writing?” my brother asked a few days ago. I wasn’t really thinking, so I said that I start about about nine in the morning after the family has left for work and school. Then I write, with short breaks, till around four in the afternoon.
“Blimey,” said my brother, “is that all?”
“No, no – wait – I didn’t mean that at all! I work all the time. Every waking minute!”
Actually I didn’t say that, but I wish I had. It’s a lot closer to the truth than the neat nine-to-four office-hours answer I’d given him before. He’d asked about writing, and in terms of sitting in front of a keyboard, my answer was accurate. But what nobody except writers themselves know (and those unfortunate enough to have to live with them) is that sitting down in front of a computer and typing the words is only the tip of the iceberg.
For example, there’s research. The book I’m writing right now is set in the twelfth century, and during the last year I’ve read scores of histories, chronicles, and source material connected with that period. That all takes hours of my so-called free time.
But the fact of the matter is that writers don’t have free time.
Writing a book is like being abducted by aliens. Your life gets spun off into a different dimension. You eat, sleep and dream the book. Your characters keep you awake at night. You fall asleep thinking about them and wake up in the morning thinking about them. You feel guilty doing anything but writing; and you feel guilty about all the other things you’re not doing. Weeds take over the garden. The dog doesn’t get walked. The ironing and washing piles up and up. The breakfast dishes stay on the table till teatime. You forget to pick the kids up from school. It’s terrible, exhausting, obsessive, fascinating…
Unfortunately, I can’t imagine living any other way...

Monday, 14 July 2008

Second Novelitis by Lucy Coats

My first teenage novel (and 14th published book) came easily enough. I wrote it by the seat of my pants, in what I have come to realise is a state of normal ‘writer’s schizophrenia’ (voices in the head telling me what to do, arguing with me, having temper tantrums, sulking loudly when I won’t write the way they want—that sort of thing).

Then it happened. Exactly two weeks after I’d finished Hootcat Hill and put myself out to grass for a nice long rest (ie catching up on the very neglected housework, garden, mending and more of the massively mundane but practical things writers forget about while writing), the Next Big Idea struck, totally unexpectedly. Marvellous! I thought, a little surprised, but grateful to the Muse anyway. Scribble, scribble, tap tap etc. I even told people—family, editor, agent—that I was writing something. Oh tempting of hubris! Oh bad mistake! About 10,000 words in, second novelitis came crashing down on me.

Never before have I come to a complete full stop. I sort of know where I’m going, but not how to get there or indeed if I ever will, and it’s terrifying. Maybe it’s because I decided to be organised this time (an alien concept to me), make lists, write down research sources so I wouldn’t have to spend hours tracking down a vital piece of information like I did last time. I even went on an Arvon writer’s course to try and get going again. It worked for a bit—but I destroyed half the novel, and now have a large, scary file marked ‘Bits to be Used Later (If There Is a Later)’.

It’s not that I’m not writing other stuff. I am. But the unadorned and horrible truth is that the voices for this second novel have disappeared—for now. I hope they come back, because I miss them, need them, am less without them. But until they do, I have a secret fear that I may have joined the ranks of the dreaded ‘one novel wonders’. Perhaps I should threaten them with Charlie Butler's Naughty Drawer, that might work…I’ll keep you posted.

Unblockery - Charlie Butler

Does this sound at all familiar?
The two boys looked at each, their faces flushed with excitement.
“I feel we may be teetering on the very edge of a mystery,” said Jack.
“Me too,” agreed Jimmy.
“About to fall in, given the merest breath of wind.”
"Exactly. That’s just how I feel about it.”
“The locked cupboard, the one-eyed Frenchman, that passage from the violin concerto, the glow-in-the-dark yo-yo – they point to only one thing."
Jimmy studied a piece of chewing gum on the ground by his foot. It was the same colour as his laces.
“What’s that, then?”

It's a common predicament. Your characters are in a difficult spot, waiting for you to help them along. You’ve already come quite a distance, and so far you’ve ushered them on their journey happily enough; but suddenly the road ahead is littered with fallen trees. You get out the heavy lifting gear to clear the path, but the engine stutters, then fails. The cursor winks insolently. All is still.
Oh dear – just when you were within sight of journey’s end, too! What’s to be done about it?
My own approach is to pretend that I’m not making the story up at all, but remembering a story that’s already been told to me. If I can trick my brain into thinking the book already exists, even as a memory, it’s often prepared to put some effort into excavating it.
If that fails, more drastic measures may be required. For example, you might take your manuscript out into the long grass of your unmown lawn. (If you have no lawn, a wayside verge will do nicely.) Leave it flapping in the breeze like a wounded impala, and stalk it, sloooowly. When you get within a metre of it – pounce! It will be so frightened that it will beg to tell you its secrets. At the very least you’ll have got some much-needed fresh air.
Alternatively, take a tip from Super Nanny, and put your manuscript in the Naughty Drawer. Let it know you’ve got a life beyond attending to its every whim. Be careful to have glittering, laughter-filled telephone conversations in its hearing, and mention how your “other projects” are just bounding along. Then, after two weeks, take your tearful and shame-faced manuscript from its drawer of disgrace. Don’t scold – it’s been through enough already. Just say matter-of-factly: “Perhaps you’d like to do some work with me today?”
Its gratitude will be unspoken, but just watch the words fly onto the page...

Thursday, 10 July 2008

My Dream Library - Anne Cassidy

My dream library should look like a beautiful department store (John Lewis). It should have space and style. It should be light and airy and have lots of people round who are waiting for my custom. May I help you? A smart woman would ask. I'm here for the latest Alexander McCall Smith book which was published a few days ago I would say. Let me show you the way, she would say and guide me to a shelf of a dozen or so copies of this book. We bought lots because we knew there would be a high demand! she would say. Have a nice day!

And I would have a nice day because in this beautiful library there would be a choice of book groups running that I could dip in and out of according to the book chosen. There would be a coffee bar where I would see fellow bibliophiles and chat while eating home made cakes. Big leather sofas on which I could sit and read books. There would be visual stuff too, a theatre group performing scenes from a book; wide screen TVs where I could watch biographies of writers and films of the books; Real Writers giving readings or surgeries on writing. Illustrators giving masterclasses on their work.

The librarians would choose a WRITER OF THE DAY to promote and it could never be the same one twice in a period of five years. That writer would have his/her books laid out flat on the table and there would be pics and info about them dotted round.

There might even be a small bookshop for people to buy the books. In short it would be an Eldorado of all things bookish. Anyway, sigh, I'm off to change my library books...