Monday, 29 September 2008

Dianne Hofmeyr - Our Secret Selves

I wish I could remember the first book I ever bought… but I can’t.

I grew up in a village next to the sea on the far tip of Africa with a butcher, fishmonger, pharmacy, corner café, bucket and spade shop… but no bookshop. When a Library was finally opened in the village, the books were covered in evil-smelling plastic, toxic enough I’m sure, to kill any mockingbird. But what a collection! All those uncracked spines! All those irresistible titles! The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Catcher in the Rye. Enough to entice any deliciously lonely teenager.

Lewis Buzbee suggests in The Yellow Lighted Bookshop, 'The books of our childhood offer a vivid door to our own pasts, and not necessarily for the stories we read there but for the memories of where we were and who we were when we were reading them.'I was a latch-key teenager with long summer afternoons to fill. My place for ardent reading was the beach. Every afternoon, I’d fling off my school uniform and armed with a book, head off with a bag of apricots/figs/grapes and a bottle of olive oil and vinegar… not for sprinkling on the fruit but for spreading on my body. This was the early 60’s and those were the days when olive oil was bought in a medicinal bottle at the Pharmacy. (Warning: olive oil is best for cooking. I’ve since had every form of solar keratosis and basal cell carcinoma removed by slicing, freeze-burning and chemical peel. A single dose of sunburn can cause a melanoma!)
But we’re still in the early 60’s and sprawled out on my tummy on a towel, I’m being plunged into the icy wastes of Siberia, I’m riding the Purple Sage, chasing white stallions through the canyons of the scorching Senora Desert, hunting the Kenyan savannah, visiting Lee Chang’s grocery store and being trundled off by the Sultan to his harem in the Barbary States of North Africa. I’ve discovered Tolstoy, Zane Grey, Steinbeck, Carson McCullers and Anne Golon’s Angelique in no particular order and read them totally enthralled. The book that I hold in my hand has been written solely for me. I live, breathe and exist in this world. When I close the book and roll over, it’s in disbelief that I see the empty beach around me. The ‘me’ that I was, is not the ‘me’ that lay down on that towel.

John Irving has said that adolescence is a time when we begin to keep secrets from those we love - in that secret place, we begin to find ourselves and how we might make our way in the world with that self.
Those summers of 62, 63 and 64 I was another mysterious (perhaps even 'unhinged'?) person… living wildly and passionately and secretly, discovering more of the world than I knew existed, discovering as Barry Lopez puts it in Crow and Weasel, ‘Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories.’

Friday, 26 September 2008

Fuzzy Starts - Catherine Johnson

How do you start a story? How do you get the story, the one that sort of floats around and coalesces in your head, down on paper? I sort of imagine it’s a bit like the way they used to make candyfloss at fairs. You know what I mean, there’s a big drum of pink sugary stuff - my brain - and you get a long stick and make a gentle stirring motion, collecting the pink sugar into a just about solid, frothy, mass – a story.

Whatever it is I’m not so professional that I can sit myself down and say ‘I’m going to write about x’ and get up from my desk 40 or 50 thousand words later job done.

At the moment I’m at that funny, fuzzy, phase when the characters for something new are just pushing themselves into my head. Which is a big relief, it’s a hundred times better than the stage which says I’ll never have any good ideas again and go around writing ridiculous one liners on the computer or in notebooks about vague things I’d like to write about. These include ‘ Channelling The Shangri-Las,’ which I never have. ‘At the White Raven Inn’ which actually did somehow metamorphose into A Nest of Vipers’. And ‘Jewish Commandos and Jazz’ which has become next years’ (fingers crossed) book The Munro Inheritance.

So after the cryptic one-liners there’s the thinking stage. If I try and do this in a rational way, sit down with notebook, turn on computer, it never works. I have to do something else, pretend I don’t care, and then the characters start doing their things. I try out scenarios and family settings; think about what it is my character does, and how she lives.

Yesterday I managed to actually write something down, even though they’ve been stewing in my head for the past month or so. I’ve been too scared to in case it comes out wrong or bad. Or at least not half as good as the swimmy, slightly ecstatic feeling I get when I think about some scene or other that’s really good – in my head.

I find myself thinking about my protagonist best when I am walking, swimming is rubbish; I spend too long looking at the sky. I go to the Lido in London Fields Hackney it is heated and it’s quite Lancelot du Lac to swim up and down through fogs of steam. Knitting is good because you end up with a jumper and a story. But walking is best.

The only downside is that of course it’s still only all in my head and writing any of it down changes it, makes it into something else and in a way I lose control of it, the story grows into itself.

All those really interesting things you were going to stick in never make it, and that great scene when your heroine quotes Shakespeare on a soapbox in the market wearing a ball gown gets the chop. But hopefully, you come away with a great whoomph of almost solid story that, like candy floss, defies air.
Catherine Johnson

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Bookshops and Teenagers Anne Cassidy

In all the years that I've been going into bookshops I've only ever seen ONE teenager looking at books and going up to buy one. I've seen a variety of adults hovering around the teen bookshelves. I imagine these people to be parents/teachers/friends/interested professionals/other writers placing their books face out. None of them are teenagers.

I go into bookshops a lot. I go to see if my titles are there. I go to inspect covers and new books. I go to immerse myself in 'the business'. To feel, for a while, close to the point of sale where a young person - say a fourteen year old girl - might march in and head for the teen books.

I imagine her looking at the books displayed on the table, face up, in piles. She'll pause for a few moments but she'll be smart enough to know that there's good stuff on the shelves. She'll turn to them and look along. When she sees my books her eyebrows will raise slightly because there'll be a title there she hasn't read. Oh! she'll say, taking the book out and looking at the cover (Maybe it will be Careless or Forget me Not). She won't decide straight away but she'll hold the book in her hand while she moves along the shelves scanning the other titles. For one heart stopping moment I'll imagine her reaching for a book by another writer. She'll take it off the shelf and look at the cover and then read the blurb on the back. She might have to put my book under her arm or rest it on the shelf while she looks inside this new book (who's it by? Celia Rees? Mary Hooper? Catherine Johnson? Kevin Brooks?).

She'll have to decide. She'll pick up mine again and then it'll seem as though she's weighing them both up.

Which book will she go for?

She'll put them both back. She's only got six quid to last her till the weekend. She'll leave the shop empty handed.

Like I said I've only ever seen one teenager in a shop select and take a book up to the counter and pay for it.

And it wasn't even my book.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Susan Price: Amstrad and Beyond

At nineteen, using some of the vast profits from my second book, 'Twopence A Tub', I replaced my old cast-iron typewriter with a new, plastic one. It was baby-blue, I remember, and I could carry it in one hand. In truth it was a toy, intended for children, and I used to be asked how I could work on such a tiny thing. I never had problem with it (apart from the enraging task of changing ribbons, but that went with the territory in those days). It was an enormous relief not to have to practice weight-lifting every time I had to put it away.

I used the baby-blue for several years, but then decided to splash out on something for grown-ups. I bought a big, electric brute, but we never got on. Whenever I paused to think, it buzzed at me impatiently. I resented the buzzing. And I still had to change its ribbons.

It was about this time that a friend said to me, "Come upstairs and see my Amstrad..."

The Amstrad was an unlovely thing, but I was smitten as soon as saw how fast it printed off a page. At that time I wrote my books by hand, or pounded them out on a typewriter. The result was a heap of loose pages, full of crossings-out, rewrites, mistakes, notes to self. There would be mysterious signs - stars, arrows and loops - reminding me to hunt down the inserts written on yet other bits of paper. Before I could submit a book I had to turn this heap of jottings into a 'good copy'. It used to take me months.

I repeat, months. Just to copy out what I'd already written. Every single day, the first page I typed was so full of mistakes that it had to be redone. I would muddle the sequence of page-numbers and have to retype them. I had to estimate the word-number, which I hated almost as much as changing ribbons.

When I saw how you could skip about on the Amstrad's screen, changing words, shifting paragraphs, altering names, I was astounded. Find and replace! Spell-check! Word-count! A printer that didn't need a ribbon! I was ecstatic. And when I saw that it could print out a lengthy document in a morning, I had to have one.

But disillusionment always sets in. The first Amstrads never reminded you to save. Many a time I spent all day working on something, then switched off the machine and lost it all. I soon learned to save compulsively, every few words, a habit that's still with me.

The Amstrad printer could also be a trial. If you forgot to put the bale bar down (the bar that held the paper against the cylinder), the printer wouldn't work. It was easy to miss this small detail, and spend hours trouble-shooting, cajoling, phoning friends for help... Unlike modern computers, the Amstrad didn't tell you what was wrong, it didn't offer any hints or suggestions. The printer just sat there smugly, refusing to do the one thing it was made to do. It several times induced in me the kind of rage the early Plantagenet kings were famous for, when they rolled on the floor, foamed at the mouth and bit the rushes. If I'd had rushes, I would have bitten them.

You were also supposed to be able to leave the printer to do its thing, while you went and did something else, but in fact, you dared not leave it for a moment, because it used tractor-feed paper, and it always jammed. Even when you stood over it, watching, it frequently got out of sync and printed over the page perforations. Then there was nothing to do but stop the printer and start again.

Despite all this, I never, ever hankered to return to the typewriter, or pen and ink. I get quite irritated with writers who claim they could never sully their inspired creativity with vulgar technology, and that computers encourage sloppy writing. I think that's quite wrong. I think they encourage fierce editing rewriting and cutting, because they make it so easy. You don't have to retype and renumber pages because you decided to cut one out.

The solution to the Amstrad's drawbacks was to get a better computer, which I did, as soon as I could afford it. I'm writing this post on a laptop (much to my cat's indignation. He's sitting by me, glaring at the laptop, which is in his place. Occasionally he tries to climb on top of it). This light little laptop will check spelling, count words, print in different fonts and sizes, allow me to consult a thesaurus, and point out grammatical mistakes (though I never take any notice).

It connects to the internet, so if I need to check some fact, I log-on and Google. I can plug it into a printer which not only prints much faster than the Amstrad ever did, and never jams, but also faxes, scans and photo-copies. I don't even need to print very often, as I can submit my work by e-mail.

I can play music from the laptop's memory and load up my zen-stone for the gym. I can upload photographs from my digital camera and, minutes later, edit them on screen, and upload them to this blog. I can update my Tom-Tom, which guides me to schools on visits, and brings me home again.

I have more equipment and computer power on my lap than NASA used to put men on the moon. And I shall never have to change a typewriter ribbon again.

I remember my first, cast-iron typewriter with affection, but go back to it? You couldn't pay me enough.

On Prizes - Sally Nicholls

When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why the same book didn’t win every literary award in a year. That’s what a competition is about, isn’t it? Finding which book is the best?

In real life, of course, even the judges on a panel may not all agree which book is the best. Children’s awards are judged by anyone from children’s authors (Guardian’s Children Fiction Award) to booksellers (Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize) and often have a distinctive ‘feel’ to them - the Carnegie (judged by librarians) tends to favour more literary works, while the Smarties (judged by children) favoured strong storylines and plenty of humour.

But while certain books are favoured, others may be given less attention than they deserve. Novels for younger children tend to struggle when judged against books for teenagers, as teenage books often have more complex vocabulary and subject matter. Funny books may also be seen as less ‘important’ - which is why Michael Rosen recently set up the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to rectify this. Roald Dahl never won a prize in his lifetime that wasn’t judged by children, apparently. And when was the last time children’s non-fiction or poetry won anything?

Then there are the problems associated with choosing a shortlist. I know the judges for this year’s Booker were keen to have a ‘varied’ longlist, which is something that drives me crazy. If I’d written a romance, which the judges liked better than someone else’s comic or science fiction novel, but put those on the longlist instead, because another author had written a preferred romance, I’d be furious. Being shortlisted or longlisted for a prize can have a hugely positive effect on an author’s career. I can understand Richard and Judy wanting a varied book club, but surely the Booker longlist should simply contain the novels the judges think are worth reading?

Bring local children’s awards into the picture and the plot gets increasingly tangled. Local awards are a fantastic incentive to reading - give young people a shortlist of books and allow them to vote for the winner themselves. The problem comes when trying to reconcile two disparate aims - getting children reading and giving a prize to that elusive ‘best book’.

A friend told me about how her novel suddenly got onto all sorts of local shortlists when she started using a male main character. Appeals to boys, apparently. I judged presentations at a wonderful local award, which was obviously inspiring hundreds of keen and enthusiastic Year Six readers. But when I looked at the shortlist, the books were uniformly short and simply written - some clearly aimed at much younger readers. “It’s a long shortlist,” the organiser explained. “And we want kids of all abilities to be able to read the books.”

(I had a similar conversation with a teacher once about teaching books in schools, actually. “Ways to Live Forever is a great book to teach in schools,” she told me. “Oh yes?” I said, puffing up my chest. “Yes,” she said. “It’s short.”)

And I have sympathy with the organisers’ problem, remembering a ten-year-old friend struggling with David Almond’s ‘Heaven Eyes’ as a Smarties Prize judge. A wonderful book - for teenagers. Not one my ten-year-old friend got much out of reading. And surely ‘appeals to lots of different children’ is a good reason to give a book a prize?

The grown-up in me recognises all of these difficulties, and is incredibly grateful that we do have a range of prizes, celebrating all the different ways that different books can excel. It’s just the ten-year-old who crosses her arms, sulks, and wails, “Just give it to the best book!”

Monday, 22 September 2008

The Waiting Game by Penny Dolan

Often writing is about waiting: not the creative waiting while you gather ideas, but the dull administration level of waiting.

For example, the waiting for the arrival of publisher’s briefs. These are short descriptions of the age-range, format, word counts, style & content of books that publishers intend to put on their lists. Often there are no briefs for months. Then like buses, three or four arrive at the same time, all describing destinations where your story won’t go. You have some Harry the Toad stories? They want edgy teenage tales. You’ve created Velda the Vampire, a linguistically challenging tale of fright and fear? It’s the 5-7s this time, dear author. Even if you can adapt an earlier idea and send it in, do not imagine that’s the end of the waiting.

Then you must wait while consultants are consulted, and teams meet. You must wait while – maybe - the idea they “really liked” becomes the one they “really chose”. Then comes waiting for the contract, for the editing of the text, for the roughs and sketches and covers and proofs and money and eventually for the book itself. All this can take up to two years, or longer. Most times you don’t hear, and the waiting fades into a long silence. It’s a game you have to get used to.

However, it can also be quite a dangerous game, especially when you have submitted some real writing that you care about, maybe not written for a brief or a format. At such times, the small niggle that is “I wonder what happened about x?” shuffles from its hiding place behind your paper-trays. In weeks, it grows big enough to crouch in constant sight, blinking with annoyance, even when you try to hide it away again. The niggle cannot be ignored. It lurks by the phone. It peers around the computer screen. It starts a constant grumbling, whining commentary about your story, about publishers, about your writing, about everyone else’s much better writing and luckier chances. Like the frog, it sleeps on your pillow, waking you at night, but never becoming a smiling prince. Like the brass chronophage on the new clock in Cambridge, it devours every minute of your thoughts.

And this is that dangerous stage. This is when you can cease being a writer and becomes one who waits. The creativity goes, the will goes, the faith and hope and generosity goes and there is nothing but the ticking of time. You need to shut off that dreaded nagging sound, and get back to the page. A writer is someone who writes, not waits. I must remember that!

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Unhinged - N M Browne

The other day I found myself pontificating about hinged and unhinged thinking. As it happened I was at a party, drink in hand, spouting general gibberish as I am too inclined to do, but unusually and inadvertently I might have said something that is almost true.

I need to be unhinged to write or at least to write easily. I need to uncouple my brain from my rational, logical mind, from my inner critic, my sub conscious editor, the still small voice of reason that might say – ‘Come off it – who are you trying to kid? That doesn’t make sense!’

My unhinged self is happy with the impossible, the unplanned and the illogical. In response to the whinging of my hinged self she simply shrugs her implausibly broad, pale green shoulders and responds: `‘And your point is?’ and then she’s off with a flick of her iridescent, metal wings.

My unhinged self has infinite faith in the power of the story, in the capacity of my unconscious to work things out. She doesn’t much care what anyone else thinks: she plunges into the story world and believes wholeheartedly in everything she puts there. She is quite obviously certifiable, but remarkably productive when given her head. The problem is that as she lives in mine, I am not always able to free her, to unhinge my thinking and let her out.
It’s a pity really because she can write really fast...

Friday, 19 September 2008

Not the end of the world - Nick Green

“When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he wept salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer.”
The quote is from Sid Waddell, legendary darts commentator (he’s actually making a point about champion Eric Bristow, but that’s by the by). Every few years I have an inkling of how Alexander (and indeed Eric) might have felt. This is in no way to compare our achievements (for one thing, I have killed far fewer people than Alexander the Great). But the feeling must be very common: on approaching the end of a long creative project, we fear it will be our last. It’s all downhill from here.
I wrote my first ‘novel’ at the age of 18. When I say novel, I mean it was a novel-length piece of writing; it wasn’t anything you’d waste time actually reading. Obviously at the time I thought it was a masterpiece. Yet as I caressed its single-spaced pages I was wracked by sadness. I knew I’d never, ever, create anything so good again. My career as a writer had peaked too soon.
A year later, the first dreadful novel now under lock and key and armed guard, I wrote another. This one was a considerable improvement (it could hardly fail to be) and at the time I thought it perfect, flawless, my ‘magnificent octopus’ as Baldrick might say. And me only 20! My joy at writing the closing words could not help but be laced with a keening note of melancholy. I’d done it, but now I had nothing left to give. There were no more good ideas in the world, no characters so alive, no plots worth getting out of bed for.
Bafflingly, this novel too failed to get published. Eventually I realised why and locked it up with the first. (The only reason both typescripts remain unburned is to remind me how deluded it’s possible to be.) But youthful hubris, amusing though it is in hindsight, isn’t the point of this post. My point is that feeling, which is real enough. That feeling of finishing, and of being finished, and fearing this is the end of it all. Really, it’s just tiredness putting on airs. But it takes distance to realise that.
And I still suffer that feeling, regular as clockwork. It came when I wrote my fourth novel, which was my first for children, ‘The Century Spies’ (never published): ‘That’s the best thing I’ll ever do.’ It came when I took a detour into screenwriting with an appalling, unfilmable script. It came after The Cat Kin (published, finally!); it came after the sequel, Cat’s Paw: ‘I’ve had my last good idea.’ Now I’m learning to get used to it.
When I finish the first draft of my latest book – which I will do, I hope, before the year turns – I know what to expect. But this time I will just have some tea, find a good book to read, and wait patiently for the next good idea to come along.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Second Bath Festival of Children's Literature by Marie-Louise Jensen

One day to go till the festival begins. The programmes have been distributed, posters have gone up and lots of tickets have been sold. Many events are already sold out. There is a team of people working hard already – there has been all year - but on the surface, everything is quiet.
On Friday this week, the festival opens and if it’s anything like last year, the city of Bath will go wonderfully mad. Groups of parents and children rush from one venue to another clutching tickets and books to be signed. Excited queues form outside the venues and children stand patiently (or not) in long signing lines snaking back through the Guildhall and the Forum, waiting to meet their favourite author or illustrator. Last year authors such as Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz, Michelle Paver and Francesca Simon signed for several hours each, still making time to speak to each child individually. And many, many other authors delighted fans of all ages in events all over the city.
Bath will go book mad and it will feel as though every child in Bath is an avid reader. And I’m sure the events will inspire many children to become just that. I’ve noticed with my own children that even a modest bookshop author signing inspires them to read more. Last year’s festival had them talking, thinking and reading nothing but books for weeks and weeks.
It wasn’t just the children either. The parents had a great time too. And I saw lots of unaccompanied adults at events with no excuse at all, except the simple enjoyment of children’s fiction.
Behind the scenes is a huge schools’ programme, reaching many children whose families might not otherwise bring them to the public events. And a chance for us lesser-known authors to speak to children and – one can only hope – help more of them discover the joy of the world of books.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

My Writing Life - By Lynn Huggins-Cooper

I love my writing life. Friends say to me they don’t know how I can bear it. They think I must get lonely. A house in the middle of a field, staying home all day in my study, scribbling away...but I love it. It’s not that I don’t like people – I just like silence. When I enter the internal world of my current story, I don’t take kindly to interruptions. Other writers recognise this. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t manage to find a million-and-one other things to do instead of write when I am in procrastination mode. Filling the bird table becomes imperative. Jam making eats up a whole day with its sumptuous smells and sticky surfaces. Then there’s my craft room calling to me, because I have that new silver clay to work with...and all that’s as well as the usual smallholder tasks of animal husbandry, DIY and digging. Oh yes, and the family to be taken care of.

I do see friends, but they are (fortunately) used to me disappearing for weeks on end when I have a work in progress. That’s where my virtual friends kick in! Now, I don’t mean I am addicted to The Sims or Petz – I mean the people I am connected to on the Net. I belong to several online writing groups, and they are a mine of information and advice. They listen when I cheer and when I moan, and support me when I’m feeling flat. I do reciprocate, of course! Now, without my virtual friends, I would be lost. They are writers too, and they understand the things I feel. They are unerringly generous with help and advice and keep me going when things are tough and the editors bite. About a week ago, I took the plunge and went to a lunch with some of my online friends (some on this very blog!) and had a wonderful time! This could get addictive...

Now, it’s not just lunch that pries me out of the house. By a strange quirk of fate and the vagaries of the publishing world, I have three new books coming out in the next couple of months. That means a couple of parties, lots of events in schools and libraries, at an appearance at the wonderful Northern Children’s Book Festival ( It’s like a totally different life. For a few weeks there are interviews and events and I have to smile a lot and actually dress in nice clothes (most of my wardrobe is muddy and covered in ahem, varying types of manure). Here’s a weird frenzy and then it all goes quiet again and I’m alone in the study. The two different facets of my writing life complement each other – and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Meals for the Mind - Lucy Coats

Books provide meals for the mind. It’s a fact. I’m not talking about cookery books—although there can be and is great pleasure for me in reading a good recipe and anticipating its arrival on my table as real food. No, I’m talking about those sublime literary food moments which, once read about, stick in the memory forever. For me, many—but not all—of these moments occurred in the books of my childhood.

I learnt to cook scrambled eggs from Swallows and Amazons. Susan’s admonition to ‘keep scraping the bottom of the pan’ is forever stuck in my mind, so that whenever I make them now, a small part of me is in a clearing on Wildcat Island, crouched over a campfire frying pan, stirring as if my life depended on it. Later on, at university, I discovered the recipe for a perfect soft-boiled egg (it may be apparent here that I rather like eggs), from the redoubtable Pilate Dead in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I have felt immense disappointment ever since if the carefully cracked top doesn’t reveal a result ‘like velvet’.

Other of my memorable gastronomic milestones come from Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse, where Marmaduke Scarlet produces all manner of delicacies, from ‘pastry more like sea-foam than dough’ over a most succulent veal- and-ham pie, to a small blue box containing dainty biscuits with sugar flowers on. His glorious kitchen is squirrelled away in my mind’s eye as a long-held vision of what I might one day own for myself. An Aga is currently the best I can do in the way of ovens, but I have quantities of baskets alongside copious bunches of herbs hanging from my ceiling in a fragrant tribute to him.

As a child, books introduced me to new and wonderful sounding kinds of food, which I longed to try for myself, and sometimes could. My mother and I often made the parkin from Little Grey Rabbit’s bonfire night—and I remember carefully picking a whole basket of primrose heads with which to make the primrose wine recipe from the same source. The delicate fragrance of those small pale flowers transports me back to that moment every Spring. Sadly I have never tried Mrs Webster’s little heart-shaped yellow valentine cakes, decorated with a chamomile flower and made from duck eggs and sugar and butter. I don’t know why not, really, because they would be perfectly easy to make.

My perfect picnic is still Mole and Ratty’s feast from The Wind in the Willows. Well maybe not the cold tongue, but certainly the fat, wicker luncheon basket of coldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkins (deep breath) saladfrenchrollscresssandwiches pottedmeat (final deep breath) gingerbeerlemonadesodawater. My grandmother and I used to go on Badger Feasts—in honour of Mr Badger’s regrettable table manners—where normal rules of behaviour were suspended in favour of chewing with the mouth open, talking at the same time, and even (horror of horrors) the throwing of food.

This is only the tip of my own food-lit iceberg—no more blog space for Frodo’s buttery stolen mushrooms or Blyton’s Faraway Tree Land of Goodies where everything is possible. I know there are many more meals for my mind waiting out there—and look forward to your helpful suggestions as to where to find them. Must go and whip up a mound of something delicious now, though—this chatting about food has made me dreadfully hungry all of a sudden.

Monday, 15 September 2008

No Rules! by Linda Strachan

I remember those heady days when I first started writing.
I came to it rather late and almost unexpectedly. I am not one of those fortunate people who have always known they wanted to write, as with other things in life it took me a while to catch on. Although when I look back I was always dabbling with stories and poetry but the idea of publication never entered my head, it was completely outside my radar.

So when, after trying for publication for a relatively short time, I was lucky enough to get my first contract and had my first books published, I was delighted to take notebook and pen -later a laptop- away with us whenever we escaped for a weekend or week away from home, work and family. In fact at any moment of free time I would happily be seen scribbling in my notebook and working on stories and ideas, delighting in my new occupation.

It was a few years later, when I was able to see that being a ‘writer’ could possibly be a full time ‘job’ and I was writing or doing writing related tasks every day, I thought that perhaps writing when we went for a break away was not actually getting away, I was taking work with me.

So I gave myself some rules and purposely tried not to write when away for a weekend or holiday, to give myself a break from the pressures and allow my imagination to wander with no thought of how this or that would turn into a story, or become part of a storyline I was writing. I began to wonder when this delightful ‘free spirit’ occupation that I loved had turned into a 9-5 job!

Although I do always have at least a notebook with me for those ideas that might evaporate if not noted down, and the wonderful moments of EUREKA! when a plotline that had been stubbornly refusing to sort itself out becomes clear; I try not to write at all and the reality is that it does work - to some degree.

You see I discovered that those free idle days trying not to think about writing are at times the most creative because it allows the subconscious to take over and sift through things.

In fact going away and letting my mind wander is almost as much of a problem because I come back with IDEAS! With half thought-out stories and snippets that make me want to discard anything else I and writing and start on them…
I suppose the joys -and the tribulations - of being a writer is that you can’t help but think about it all the time! So now I have decided - NO RULES! Which is fine, because I suppose I prefer to be a bit of rebel anyway.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Diaries - Katherine Langrish

How many writers keep diaries? I’m guessing lots of us. I started keeping one when I was eleven. “Mrs Butler’s school,” runs the first entry, “went to Stump Cross Caverns. We went down a long flight of steps and it was quite dark. Some tunnels were borded [sic] up. It felt strange being so far below the ground. There were many stalactites.”
Not very descriptive, I think now – but although the entry is pretty laconic, I reckon I was impressed. Impressed enough to want to record it. Anyway, I’ve been going underground in fiction ever since – in ‘Troll Fell’ and ‘Troll Mill’ at least: and now I’m having another stab at it in my forthcoming book. I’m not a caver: if anything I’m rather claustrophobic, but I do find caves fascinating. Each time I write about them I head off underground to collect first-hand impressions: the most recent was a crawl down a Roman lead-mine in Shropshire: the entrance tunnel was approximately two feet high. It was wet, stony, uncomfortable, and of course unlit; and I wasn’t at all sure I could do it. But I did. I sat in the dark with a notebook and wrote about what I could feel and smell and hear, and swore to myself that there would be no cheating this time – no writing about magical lights or mysterious phosphorescence. Unless they took candles, my characters would be in the dark.
It’s interesting (to me at least) that this fascination with caves started so long ago. I’ve kept a diary on and off ever since, and in my early twenties recorded a number of conversations with a guy I worked with, who belonged to the Cave Rescue. He was for ever being hauled out of bed at 2 am to go down pot-holes and drag out people who had got stuck. Sometimes they were alive, sometimes they most definitely weren’t. One night the team was called out to rescue an eighteen-year old girl from a university club who’d fallen down a ninety foot pitch.
“When we looked at her” (he told me) “we could see that if we moved her we were going to kill her, so we stayed with her till the medics came down with oxygen. But even then we were still going to kill her if we moved her, and she died down there about half an hour after we reached her.
“It was pretty wet. Luckily she wasn’t very big, so it was easier getting her out – you know, it’s a pretty tight passage.” He paused. “She didn’t look very good when most people saw her. When we got to her she wasn’t so bad, because the water had washed her clean.” He paused again. “It’s going to be an awful shock for her mother.”
Strong and terse: he was shaken and emotional. I felt the emotion too, but also I was trying to learn how to write dialogue. That meant that I would go home and scribble down what I remembered. I don’t think I was being callous. I’m still moved by what he said. Yet I’d have forgotten about it years ago if I hadn’t written it down.
I’ve never used it in a book. I wouldn't use anything like that directly. But there’ve been plenty of times when it’s handy to turn up an old diary and find something to jog the mind into action. Writing about weather is a good example. Me and my brother walking on the moors in the heavy winter snow of 1979:
In places the snow looked just like the surface of a clean new mushroom, white and peeling a little all over. Later, coming down the tarn road, shadows on the snow were a luminous, pale violet.
I’d never have come up with that description if I hadn’t seen it, and I’d never have remembered it if I hadn’t written it down. Nor would I easily remember how intolerant and opinionated I could be as a teenager especially when taking an interest in current affairs. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were the daily stuff of the news then. Ignorant and biased, I took my tone completely from my parents, and wrote stuff which, er, frankly I’m too embarrassed to quote. Suffice it to say that my school fountain pen positively spluttered with my thirteen-year old British pride… I doubt if anybody would believe it if I put it in a book. Come to think of it, are there any books about teenagers which credit them with political awareness? (Well, maybe not awareness exactly in my case, but certainly passions?) Do we tend to assume that they're only interested in one another?
We all think we can remember just how it felt to be young. But a diary is there as a sort of reality check. I said and wrote some things which now seem outrageous - and I'm sure, without the diary there to prove it, I'd have edited them out of my memory.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Arming the Imagination - John Dougherty

Boys like guns.

I know I’m dealing in generalisations here; but by and large it’s true to say that most boys, however gentle and peaceable, are fascinated by weaponry and in particular by weapons that go ‘bang!’ Give them the chance and they’ll play with toy guns; deny them the chance and they’ll build them out of Lego.

And yet for some reason the current consensus seems to be that they shouldn’t have the chance to read about them.

I say ‘for some reason’; I assume the rationale is that we don’t want guns to be glamorised. I don’t want that either; but the problem is that, to most boys, guns already are glamorous, and making them a taboo subject - no playing with them; no reading stories containing them - will only serve to deepen the mystery and attraction surrounding the things.

Current thinking, however, is that guns are Bad (with which I agree) and that reading about them will turn children into Bad People (with which I don’t). And therefore we shouldn’t let guns into children’s books.

This way of thinking can lead to problems for the author trying to write for boys. Ever noticed how the British Secret Service is happy to send the fourteen-year-old Alex Rider into all kinds of potentially lethal situations, but won’t ever give him a gun? I think Anthony Horowitz has handled that particular dilemma very skilfully, but for me it requires disbelief to be suspended just that little bit more than should be necessary.

I didn’t realise how much of an issue guns in children’s fiction had become until, as a newly-published author, I showed my agent an idea I was working on and was told, “You won’t be able to get that published unless you get rid of the gun.” Since it was hardly plausible that my imagined villain would be able to keep four hundred people quiet, compliant and unresisting with the threat of a good hard smack, that was the end of that idea. It stung all the more because I’d intended, when my hero was faced with the gun, to draw a contrast between the fantasy of such a potent weapon and the reality of being threatened with one.

This wasn’t always such an issue, of course. In Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins is armed; the Famous Five are threatened with guns more than once. Yet now it appears that children must be protected from so much as thinking about them - although it’s apparently okay to give an eleven-year-old fictional hero a weapon which can be pointed at someone else and discharged with lethal force, just as long as it’s made of holly with a phoenix feather core. But is there any significant difference? Some will say yes, guns are real and wands aren’t; but as a child I never equated the toy guns with which I played, or the fictional guns I read about, with the very real armalite rifles carried around the streets of my home-town by the soldiers from the nearby barracks.

Now let me just reiterate: I’m not in favour of glamorising guns. But in a time when research is suggesting that maybe letting kids play with toy guns is not such a bad idea (see here, here or here), perhaps we should think about the possible benefits of allowing them to read about fictional guns, too - or at least the disadvantages of not allowing them.

Because as Steve Skidmore said to me recently, stopping boys from reading about guns won’t make them non-violent. But it may make them non-readers.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

On Pilgrimage - Charlie Butler

When I studied English at university I was told that to be interested in writers, or the places that had inspired them, or indeed anything outside The Text, was slightly vulgar. Of course you don’t need to walk from London to Canterbury to understand Chaucer! How reductive! How naive! How treating-the-text-as-disguised-biography-rather-than-as-literature! Didn’t I know that Shakespeare never set foot in Verona? And so on.
All the same, I reckon Chaucer understood people better than my teachers did when he wrote about the longing to go on pilgrimage. I’ve always loved to visit the scenes of my favourite stories, and relish the paradox of standing in the actual spot where such-and-such a fictional event “really happened”. A few years ago, when I wrote a book about some of my favourite children’s writers and their relationships with the places they grew up in and wrote about, one of my great pleasures was the excuse to seek out these locations. Perhaps oddly, I’ve not yet sampled what is now probably the most complete such experience to be had, by visiting the Manor at Hemingford Grey (a.k.a. Green Knowe), where I’m told that a few lucky visitors even get to hold Tolly’s mouse. (Fans of Lucy Boston will know what I mean, and drool.) I’m saving that up as a future treat.
When I was an unpublished author and dreaming of greatness, I rather fancied the idea that, one day, pilgrims might come following after me, wanting to see exactly how I’d worked out my fictional landscapes. They would note the slight liberty I’d taken with the course of a stream, perhaps or, minutely consulting their ancient Ordnance Survey maps, work out how the landscape had changed since my day (for in this daydream I was to have an enduring reputation). This was much in my mind when I came to write a deservedly-unpublished book called The Questing Beast. It was a modern-day fantasy with Arthurian connections, and much of the action was set just outside Winchester, around the water meadows (inspiration for Keats’ “To Autumn”, as the pilgrim in me well knew), and on St Catherine’s Hill, with its hillfort and mysterious miz-maze. It was a harmless enough piece of egotism, I suppose. Many was the pilgrimage I foresaw across this hallowed landscape, and I left plentiful topographical references in the text to make the trip worthwhile for my future acolytes.

Unfortunately the hallowed landscape was called Twyford Down, and no sooner had I written FINIS than the then Conservative government decided to rip it up and put in a motorway. That decision became hugely controversial, and the story of how the Battle of Twyford was fought and lost would make a better book than the one I’d written – but for all the Sites of Special Scientific Interest that were vandalized, I still felt that the whole project was personally directed at me. If it hadn’t been for Cecil Parkinson they’d be calling Hampshire “Butler Country” by now.
Of course, I’m wiser these days, and oh so humble. But I still daydream when I get the chance. And, when I can, I still love to go on pilgrimages.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Reworking Shakespeare Anne Cassidy

Shakespeare did it. He took other people's stories and reworked them. It's fair to say that he did it pretty well. How would I manage, I wondered when I tried to rework one of his stories? Turning it into a teenage novel? The play was OTHELLO. It's not one of my favourites but the central triangle has always fascinated me. OTHELLO/DESDEMONA/IAGO. Why did Iago do what he did? What was his motive?
As in all reworkings I threw most of the events and the characters out. I found the heart of the story which I wanted to explore and built outwards. So I have a teenage girl, Elise, who loves the boy next door, Carl. Carl likes Elise but in the novel he falls for an American girl, Sandy. Elise tries to stay calm thinking it is a fling but when it becomes clear that Carl and Sandy are close she decides to try and part them. Carl is mixed race and this is important because while Elise is whispering untruths into his ear about his girlfriend's fidelity she also comments on his race and the fact that the girl he loves is white.
Elise doesn't intend for anyone to die. She only wants Carl back. Sadly, though, things go badly wrong.
I've set my story at the coast (so another thing in common with OTHELLO). It takes place in a Norfolk seaside town in the winter. It's cold and dull and this Love is the only thing Elise has to hold onto.
OK maybe it does sound more Mills and Boon and less like OTHELLO but I'm hoping my readers will trust me for twists and turns and gritty realism.
The dropped handkerchief has turned into something else which is the trigger for the grim ending.
Would Shakespeare have approved? He would certainly have approved of me using his story. Whether he would have liked what I did with it is another matter.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Susan Price: Writing in the Olden Days

On the day I was born, my parents told me, a neighbour gave them an old, upright, cast iron typewriter. Not seeing it for the omen it was, they chose to leave it behind when they moved to their new council house. So, for my twelfth Christmas present, they had to go out and search junk shops until they found another old typewriter. A good present: I was still using it seven years later. I started my career on it, even though I could hardly lift it and was constantly having to move it (to make way for meals). Just bashing the keys down was a work-out.

For those who've never seen or used such a thing:- bashing a key levered up a long metal stem, on the end of which was a metal stamp forged in the shape of a letter. This slammed an inked ribbon against the sheet of paper rolled into the machine, thus transferring an image of the letter to the paper. There was a whole nest of these metal stamps on stems - one for every letter, plus punctuation marks. When you typed fast and raised more than one stem at a time, they'd mesh together, and you had to stop and dislodge them.

If you wanted a copy of your work, you had to layer a sheet of carbon paper between your two sheets of plain paper, and roll this flimsy sandwich into the machine. If you needed two copies, then you had to add another sheet of carbon, and another sheet of plain to your sandwich. Then you had to align all these flimsy, floppy sheets, and persuade them to be rolled into the typewriter without becoming creased or misaligned. This seldom happened.

But what I dreaded about the typewriter was changing the ribbon. The inky ribbon, black above and red below, wound backwards and forwards between two reels on top of the machine. At the middle, it passed through a clip, which held it in place for the keys to strike. It was a simple, uncomplicated system, and worked very well, except that, eventually, the ink in the ribbon ran out. So much did I hate changing the ribbon that I would keep using the old one until people thought I was using some kind of MI5 designed machine for spies, with special invisible-ink ribbons.

Removing the old ribbon was easy and clean - there was no ink left on it to make a mess. You opened the spools, took out the ribbon, and threw it away.

But as soon as you opened the new ribbon's packet, you were smothered in ink. You still had to unwind it, tether one end to a spool, thread it through the little clip, and fasten it to the other spool. A fiddly business, all of it. By the end, you needed a change of clothes and a bath.

I'll draw a veil over the rug-biting rage that came on me when I discovered I'd put the ribbon in upsidedown, and would have to type everything in red unless I took it out and started again.

And then, one day, a friend showed me his Amstrad computer...

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Write What You Know? - Sally Nicholls

Write what you know is another one of those creative writing 'rules' everyone debates. Are you only allowed to write about plumbers if you are one? What about if you want to write about aliens? Or vikings? Or elves?

It's true that books about plumbers written by plumbers have an air of verisimilitude that's hard to fake. But if you're a plumber who hates plumbing and loves reading about racehorses, you're going to write a much better book about racehorses than you are about plumbing, because enthusiasm and interest are catching. If you're interested in a subject, then your readers will be too.

If you're interested in Vikings, write about Vikings. It might take a bit of research, but at least it'll be interesting research. And if you have an emotional connection to something, it's much easier to imagine what it feels like to be that character. I've never had a terminal illness, but I've had similar enough experiences to be able to imagine what it might feel like, with research of course. I've never been a serial killer, either, and I can't really imagine why anyone would want to be, so I suspect any book about serial killers that I wrote would be a bit unbelievable.

The best books have a bit of yourself in them. I had great difficulty imagining what it was like to be an eleven-year-old boy in 'Ways to Live Forever'. But I had no difficulty imagining why he'd want to run up down escalators.

And I had great fun doing the research.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Stealing People Isn’t Wrong - Penny Dolan.

Stealing people isn't wrong. Well, not if you’re a writer, and you do it with proper care. It’s a completely painless and invisible process, and the rule is that you never ever steal an entire person. Just take just a pinch of this one, just a smidgen of that one, a moment so small the person won’t even know what’s been taken. No photographs, no video, no evidence. It’s a glimpse, a possibility, caught in the mind’s eye.

You don’t even need to know the person. In fact, as I tell young writers, it is far better not to know them, to keep that possible character floating in the current of the imagination. By the time you’ve grown that brief glimpse into a fully rounded character, you’ll probably know them well enough for your own purposes.

An example. I have definitely purloined the sighting of an unknown teenager who, one wintry evening, vaulted over the central crash barrier in traffic near Heathrow. All I saw was the expression in his hard young eyes and the pale grey face, while he darted among the headlights of the jammed vehicles like a contemporary Billy Caspar, and vanished. I’ve stolen that visual image all right. However, I now have the writer’s work of building the rest of his tale around that moment, and giving him a new setting, I expect, and lots of other things besides. Maybe my fictional leaper wants to become a girl instead?

It’s interesting. One can even steal celebrities and harvest the famous, very quietly. Again, not an entire person, not even a part. You take much less than that, way less. Maybe the colour of someone’s hair, their size or stance, the way they show grief, their look of joy, one slight but significant second. I am particularly fond of a certain actor’s gesture I still have in my possession – the rigid elbow and clenched fist of absolute and powerless anger. It’s there in my head, waiting for a fictional character to claim that emotion for its own, though over time, my memory may have played its own tricks on my pictures.

Of course, as a writer, I then do some renovation or adjusting to size, as I always do. I will cut and change and trim. Brighten the hues. Lower the lights. Alter the age, and the time. Make a new and living picture there in my head from my stolen treasure, a person so new that I’m sure nobody would know they were stolen. Not even, I’d hope, if my original inspiration met themself coming back through the fiction.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The Leaden Mean - N M Browne

What is it about middles? I don’t mean the bit of flab that sits where one’s waist ought to be, but the middle of a novel (where in truth there is often a bit of extra padding where the plot should be.)

Normally I like middles – I mean the middle of a sandwich is always the best bit – as a kid I never ate the bread.I was also extremely good at deconstructing Jaffa cakes so I could be left to savour the delicious orangey bit in the centre. Even today when eating cream cake I’m quite likely to skip the cake and go straight for the cream. The middle of the year is good, the middle way had a certain appeal and I’m even finding middle age tolerable, but I hate writing the middle section of books.

In the beginning there is that excitement – this is ‘The One’ – the breakthrough book, the best thing I’ve done. At the end there is the promise of those two wonderful little words ‘the end’ when all is resolved and the damn thing (note no longer ‘The One’ – just another one) is finished. The middle, however, is just all that stuff that makes the story work – I think it’s called plot and then there’s character development and world building and ... Well, the middle is just graft - the hard yards through which the shiny new idea is dulled and tarnished by much thought and occasional reworking.

I left my current book at the beginning of the summer at the mid-point, the middle of the middle. I do not know what I was thinking! Take it from me, you should NEVER leave a book in the middle. I have done it before and that story never got finished. This current one is lurking at the back of my head, taunting me even as I write this – half formed and whimpering...

I am sooooo past the point of initial enthusiasm and such a long way from the finishing line. I have procrastinated for weeks, but today the kids are back in school, my friends are back in work and I have just run out of excuses. Wish me luck - I’m going to need it.

Colourful characters – Nick Green

When writing early drafts of books, I frequently end up with whole scenes that never make the final cut, or which simply don’t belong in the story. But these orphaned scenes are not wasted; far from it.
When talking about writing I tend to use metaphors a lot. Even though I can’t paint at all, I sometimes think of characters as different coloured paints. Not in a literal way (I’m not that freaky) but in the sense of them all being there, lined up on your palette. To write in a particular character’s voice, to paint them into a scene, you have to get into their head. But you can’t do this unless you already know them well.
Just as an artist has to mix their colours in order to paint a picture, so a writer needs to mix their characters. Much of this I do along the way, with every scene in which each character appears. After you’ve written with a character a few times, you have a fairly good idea of how they will react in certain situations, how they sound, what they say, and what they’d never say. After a while, you don’t have to think about it… you just dip your brush into the appropriate character’s colour and they appear on the page, with even the smallest brushstroke containing something of them. You even know when they’ll fade into the background.
I tend to ‘mix my colours’ as I go, learning about the characters during the messy first draft. But I’m sure it can be done deliberately too. It must be a good idea to pick random dramatic scenes from life, and write your character taking part in them. By the end of the process, you ought to have a good quantity of their ‘colour’ on your writer’s palette, there to use freely when you start writing the book for real.
The story I’m writing at the moment is an extreme example of this. I had planned an entire book, getting so far as to do a chapter-by-chapter outline, but then the story went splat (as they do). But when I cleared up the mess, one supporting character was left behind. She became the main character of my new book. And, although virtually every detail of her life is different now (even her accent), her essential character and voice remain the same. The colour is ready-mixed. If only that happened more often.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Reality Check by Marie-Louise Jensen

I’ve always used reading as escapism. A good book is one that takes me to a vivid, real world so that I’m turning the pages without being aware of the passage of real time or noticing that I’m cold, hungry or uncomfortable. A bad book is one I’m aware I’m reading and I start to think of other things I could be doing. I find that most really good books (according to those criteria) are children’s books.
I can remember as a child reading The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings and experiencing actual pain to be pulled out of the fictional world for things like lights out or school.
What I hadn’t expected and still surprises me, is how much of an escape writing is too. It’s the ultimate escape. Far more than simply reading. As the author, I can play with endless possibilities and decide the outcome. I’m in charge of my own fictional world. And there are days when it becomes so much more real than my real life. I sometimes wonder how easy it would be to tip into insanity from that point or whether I’m actually quite safe…
When my children interrupt me to ask to have their chemistry marked or to be driven to gym, my imaginary world crumbles around me and comes crashing down. They start talking to me and I can feel the pull of reality, tugging me back to where my life is. Not that there’s anything wrong with my life, I hasten to add. It’s the transition that’s difficult.

Monday, 1 September 2008

A horror story, by Lynn Huggins - Cooper

As writers, we all no doubt find that our 'real lives' leach into our writing. If that is the case, expect a story from me soon about a horse needing daily will be a horror story, because I'm scared of horses at the best of times, and once you get to the 'stick the stabby thing in the big kicky thing' scenario, I'm in a cold sweat. Tonight (day three) ended with me taking four attempts as the poor horse bucked and kicked. Once I had successfully injected the horse, I promptly vomited in a handy hedgerow - only to have to gear myself up to do it all over again tomorrow. A horror story indeed.

Actually, I'm not kidding about it ending up in a story. I find so many fragments of my life end up in my writing that sometimes it's all a bit embarrassing when I read it back to myself. Take the novel I am writing for adults. It's about the diet industry. For those who don't know me, I'm fairly well-upholstered. Cuddly, even. As such, I have read all manner of ridiculous books about dieting and weight loss. Tried lots of them too. The only thing that has worked is eating less and doing more. It's not rocket science. But that doesn't stop me, like so many other people, wishing that their was a magic pill to fix things. I've taken all that angst and poured the feelings into my book. Hopefully, it is working.

The problem though is when you write about something that hasn't happened to you...and people read about it and look at you sideways. I've written about everything from World War One to infidelity. Of course, I've also written about vampires and ghost hunters. It doesn't mean I have pointy teeth or a penchant for EMF detectors. To be honest, though, I think i'll leave it to my readers to decide for themselves what parts of my books hold fragments of my life and which are inventions.