Saturday, 31 January 2009

Never a Crossword, Up Until Now - Joan Lennon

It's been suggested we should do some book reviews on this blog, and so I'd like to recommend Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) by Sandy Balfour. I was given it as a Christmas present by someone who I suspect fancied reading it themselves - and I'm loving it. I don't often read travel books (an exception would be Jamie Zeppa's book Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan which I read because she's a friend of my sister and, in spite of being outrageously cool, a really nice person. It's an excellent book - so there's another recommendation.) And Pretty Girl isn't just a travel book - but maybe if I read more travel books I would realise that none of them are. Just travel books, I mean. Anyway this one's also about crosswords. (It is also about a young man travelling about in a lot of places, from South Africa to Russia and beyond, without getting killed. Being in the midst of sending my own last two sons off into the far distant reaches of the world, I have a strong liking for stories with "and they didn't get killed" as the main thrust.) But back to crosswords.

I have nothing against crosswords, but they're not something I've spent much time on. But now I think I really might. Balfour writes with a beguiling enthusiasm about the way in which they wormed their way into his own life. And so many of the things he says makes me think of my own job - the joys of language, its wonderful malleability, and the way you can use it to step sidey-ways in your and your readers' minds.

At one point in the book, Balfour says of a group of crossword puzzle setters: "I realise I am in the company of people for whom every word is pregnant with possibility, people for whom the invisible web of words that binds all knowledge is something real and tangible. I realise that these are people who have climbed this web and followed its threads beyond their safety limits. These are people for whom to take a different approach is the norm." (p. 95)

Yes! It feels just like that, doesn't it!

Anyway, there it is - let me know if anyone else has come across Pretty Girl, and whether they liked it too.

P.S. This book is rich in crossword classics, but I'll just share one: "Die of cold" (3,4). Give me your answers in the Comments bit, and if nobody gets it, I'll post the answer under Monday's blog!

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Blogging as a Writing Discipline - Lucy Coats

I freely and readily admit to my techno-ignorance. This time last year I didn't know what blogging was, really. And then came the call to arms. Would any of the members of the Scattered Authors Society be interested in taking part in a blogging venture? No pressure--it would just be once a month or so in a rota system. We'd be talking about the business of writing and associated matters. I said yes at once. It sounded interesting. And besides, the blogmeister extraordinaire would be dealing with all the complex technical stuff. So here we all are, not far off 200 posts later, with a fantastic array of blogs on a myriad disparate subjects allied to writing behind us. Someone described it to me the other day as a mini literary magazine, and so it seems. I am always interested to read what my fellow authors come up with, and they often inspire me with their words and thoughts. But once I got caught by the blogging bug, somehow once a month wasn't enough.
So it was that earlier this January I embarked on my own blogging venture at Scribble City Central. Much has been written here about the perils of procrastination for writers, and perhaps you might think that blogging is yet another one of these pernicious lures and excuses. For me it appears not. I am using it as a writing discipline, an exercise in putting my mind into the right kind of space for 'proper work'. I have made a bargain with myself that I will blog on every planned writing day, first thing. So far it has worked a treat. In the days since I started the blog, I have been more creative and productive than ever before. Somehow the act of typing words onto paper--some words, any words on any subject that happens to have popped into my head at that moment--is very liberating. More importantly it seems to 'turn the mind tap on' quite effectively for me. I hope that some of you will care to join me over at the Other Place, on the principle that 'If You Liked This Then You Will Like That'. I've already blogged about such diverse things as marmalade, muse-wrestling, Obama, seeds and comfort reading. The more readers I have, the more I will be encouraged to blog--and (hopefully) the happier my agent and editor will be at my increased output in the 'real' writing job, currently two increasingly complicated children's novels. Procrastination? What's that? A sin of the past, I trust.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Goin’ robbin’: a copy-cat crime - Anne Rooney

‘What’s the point in robbery when nothing is worth taking?’
Adam Ant

There’s a rather shabby but serviceable yellow and gold console table painted with Chinese scenes in my front room, a cut-glass bowl full of oranges in the kitchen, and a white porcelain candlestick on the dining table. They are the wages of sin. It’s not a high wage (it’s even lower than the wages of writing), but I am smugly satisfied with these modest objects. And the sin? Daylight robbery.

I know that strictly speaking my skip robbin’ activities are illegal. But I can’t see the point in a law that says a cut-glass fruit bowl should be crushed and used as hardcore, or that a table is better minced up for mulching the council’s flowerbeds than holding a pile of papers three feet off the floor. Those 1920s tins for flour and sugar are put to better use holding pet food than being crushed and recycled. And my daughters learned to be pretty good at French cricket with the bat and gloves (but no wickets) from the skip at their primary school. At Christmas, I moved up a notch, taking advice on avoiding the CCTV, and rather startling my daughter’s friends by announcing I was goin’ robbin’ on New Year’s Day. The result is a compost heap which I hope will become a home for snakes and might also produce compost that I will forget to use.

As a child, I thrilled to Arrietty and Peagreen’s pilfering in the Borrowers books, and Great Uncle Bulgaria directing Womble operations on Wimbledon Common. I am not as inventive as Arrietty, Pod and Homily, and too large to make a bedroom from cigar boxes. But I try to ‘make good use of bad rubbish’, as Great Uncle B demands. My robbin’ exploits are copy-cat crimes, not in the league of those who carry out Clockwork-Orange style atrocities, but still sparked by admiration for fictional role models.

So I plead guilty, m’lord – but I was under the influence of literature. I admit to having more than 80 milligrams of culture per litre of blood and no, I won’t sign up for detox.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Suffled how it Gush by Katerin Xhonson

I know I'm lucky being a writer. Apart from the hours - John Dougherty mentioned this the other day - and the working conditions and the joy when you get a story or even a sentence just right, I am so lucky because right now, while you're reading this, I am in Athens. Thank you lovely British Council. I am writing this before I go so I hope it goes well, and since I don't have any Greek anecdotes yet I will share some from my previous British Council trip four years ago, to Tirana, Albania.
It was fabulous. I was leading sparky and scarily fluent in English Albanian school students in a week of writing workshops. They were all brilliant of course, and inspiring and Tirana was amazing. Post Communist craziness, car drivers who had never had to take driving tests, fantastic soviet era state museums, huge and empty of people, filled with beautiful, breathtaking artefacts, but with wild dogs living in burrows in the grounds.
The Albanian mineral water was fabulous too - the English translation on the bottle read
'Suffled how it gush from the woods of Tepelene...'
The best thing though was being on Albanian national breakfast time TV.
The studio was in quite an up market part of town, near the embassies. Upstairs, the TV studios were frozen in time - I recognised the edit suites as ones I'd used in the early 80s. There was the breakfast TV set up familiar to all, a brightly coloured sofa and an orange skinned presenter. I sat on the sofa, ready to nod and smile - the British Council Librarian Aida, would do all the talking.
Out of shot on the over side of the studio in a mess of duct and cables two very young girls in leopard and tiger print jeans and tight t shirts sat on tall stools chewing gum the embodiment of bored teenager. I wondered what they were doing there.
I was introduced, I had my name in Albanian across the screen Katerin Xhonson, and I nodded and smiled. I didn't knock anything over or make a fool of myself. When my piece was over the camera swung round to the two chewing girls who had suddenly produced violins and began playing completely beautifully. The credits rolled.
They did the music.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Beginnings - Katherine Langrish

Although I’ve only recently finished the last one (which was agony to write), and although I swore to my long-suffering husband that I wanted at least three months off, to do ordinary things like gardening and cleaning and shopping and seeing friends – I’ve begun thinking of a new book.
At the moment it’s not much more than a hazy set of ideas floating in the darkness at the back of my head, nebulous images glimpsed from the corner of my eye.
But I’ve remembered how much I love this moment, the birth of a new idea, when everything seems magical and the real hard slog of actual writing is still in the future. This is such an exciting time, waiting for something to come into being out of nowhere. And you can’t hurry it.
At first these wispy, ghost-like notions of mine are too vague to grasp, but if I leave them alone, if I don’t try to look at them too closely, they’ll slowly coalesce, gathering mass, until quite suddenly they’ll ignite like a newborn star. And I’ll know where I’m going and what I’m doing and what the book is all about.
Writers can’t stop stories from forming, any more than the universe can stop making stars. All the wonderful books and stories that have ever been written – some shine on forever, some blaze up quickly and die, some lie hidden in dark reaches of dustclouds, some have a gravitational pull so strong that they swing whole galaxies around them… and, whoops, I suspect I have pursued that metaphor far enough. So here’s a different one, for all of us who have once again come round the circle to the beginning.
Warmth in the dark.
what is given blind into your hand,
crumpled and wet from the egg –
stirring and cheeping –
not sure yet what it will become.
It is yours to nurture.
Your winged creature –
your tall Assyrian bull, your monster,
your mythical singing swan.

Friday, 23 January 2009

In praise of Lulu! by Meg Harper

Ha! This is a bit risky! Normally I write in word and then post on this blog - but today I'm posting late at night on a friend's computer because I'm away from home! So this might be brief through sheer fear - will this disappear at any moment?!

Now then...a quick scan of the keyword list suggests no one else has written about the glories of here but apologies if they have and you're bored of reading about it! I'm sure you all know that Lulu is an on-line self-publishing company which an be used to create anything from a single copy of a small paperback booklet to an infinite number of case-bound illustrated tomes. I have recently had my first couple of flirtations with this entertaining plaything and I'm pleased to wax somewhat lyrical about it.

Last summer I ran a 3 day creative writing workshop for adults on the theme of Banbury Stories. We sought inspiration from Banbury museum and local history books and then got cracking. We weren't aiming to write hugely well-researched local history - instead we wrote fiction and poetry inspired by what we gleaned and had an immense amount of fun, all with the aim of publishing a small booklet that we would sell in the museum and the arts centre where we were based. The head of adult education had agreed to take over the publishing side, once I'd edited the ms. Lovely! Fantastic! We finished the project and were all thrilled. And then disaster struck. The H of AE became seriously ill. Suddenly, I had to find another publishing solution - and decided, having heard so much about it, to try Lulu.

Now I am a techniphobe. I was expecting hours of frustration, major headaches and serious bad temper. I therefore decided to go for the simplest type of publication possible - which as it turned out was just about all I could do with the small size of ms that I had! With much trepidation, I began, starting with the registration process you might expect. After that, I had to take a deep breath and dive in - I had to START A PROJECT! Believe me, this couldn't be simpler. Essentially, if you have your ms ready to go, all you do is select the size and style of book you want, upload your ms, click 'make print ready file', create your cover - and publish as many copies as you want! I had one or two minor problems but found the on-line chat excellent as a means of help (though that seems to be more restricted now than it was - probably far too popular!). I also needed to consult my resident media expert (18 year old son!)about the photo and lay-out I wanted for the cover, but apart from that it was astonishingly simple. I ordered one copy as a proof and discovered that, sure enough, my on-screen editing skills were dire - but as each copy was only costing me £1.61 plus p&p, I wasn't too bothered! My only real criticism is that the weight of the cover paper could do with being heavier as it is showing a tendency to coil and there is no choice about that for the simplest style of book - but we still have a very professional-looking little product and are almost ready to put in our order. A tragic footnote is that one of our writers (who unbeknown to us was fighting cancer) died on New Year's Day without seeing the finished result but the lovely thing about this type of publishing is that I can easily go back and include a dedication to her before publishing the copies we need.

I'm not about to plunge into publishing my novels this way - though people do and sell them through the Lulu marketplace and Amazon as well as themselves (I have a really excellent drama games book which appeared in my Amazon suggestions and turned out to be self-published through Lulu - so the system works!) - but for creative writing projects and personal use, it's brilliant. I've just created a single copy of a little book for a special present for a friend - and I'm thrilled with it. A member of the group I teach has created a fully illustrated picture book for a friend's new baby - it looks great! Lulu provides a (fairly restricted) gallery of front cover images (I used one for my friend's present) but it's relatively easy to use your own.

Enough? Want to have a go? I've dwelt on the practicalities here but there are wider issues of course. Thousands of people are publishing through Lulu and it's clear from the drama book I bought that there is excellent material 'making it' in this way, rather than through conventional publishing. Publishers beware! There is something very attractive about the autonomy of this - and the speed and the cost! I've just been granted funding to be a writer in residence in two local schools - and guess what I said I'd be doing with the children? So that will be my next Lulu project - but I'm rather tempted to have a go with one of those novels that I think ought to be out there but hasn't found a publisher! I've so very, very little to lose!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Whose Time is it Anyway? - John Dougherty

One of the joys of being an author is having the complete freedom to choose how you spend your time.

One of the biggest drawbacks of being an author, on the other hand, is having the complete freedom to choose how you spend your time.

I don’t just mean your working time because, of course, when you’re not “going out to work” then your working time, leisure time and other blocks of time tend to bleed together. There are no clear boundaries. Time you intended to spend on writing becomes time spent on household chores, or family issues. People think that because you’re at home they can call for a chat or to ask a “quick question”, not realising that by doing so they’re interrupting your work - not just for the few minutes they actually take up, but also for the time afterwards that it takes you to get back to the mental space you were in beforehand.

Conversely, time ostensibly dedicated to other activities can end up as part of your working life.

Take running, for example. I often go for a run first thing in the morning, after the kids have headed off to school. This is time that I “should” be dedicating to writing. But then, I do some of my best work when I’m running. Very often I’ll go out for a six- or eight-miler and come back with a plot point more clearly defined, or a knotty problem untangled. I surprised myself by doing some valuable work on the early stages of Bansi O’Hara and the Edges of Hallowe’en (still in progress, but nearly there now) during last year’s London Marathon. I can guarantee it wasn’t during the final 6 miles because for most of them I wasn’t thinking much more than “ouch”, but as far as I remember I got quite a bit done up till mile 20.

Generally, though, the bleed goes on - and in my experience, running aside, it’s often to the detriment rather than the benefit of my writing. That’s why my New Year’s resolution was to define more clearly the boundaries between the different areas of my life. I’ve had a certain amount of success in keeping that one, but not total success by any means. This morning, for instance, instead of going off down to my writing room I’m trying to get the kitchen ready for the builder who starts in there on Monday. If I had a regular 9 to 5 then I’d have to go to the office and do my work, and the kitchen stuff would have to wait; since I work at home it’s somehow ended up taking priority.

But then, if it hadn’t, it would end up eating into my family time instead, and I’d be seeing less of my children. I’d hate that. And after all, when it comes down to it, it’s my time.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009


With last night’s moving inauguration of Barack Obama, I was reminded of Nelson Mandela becoming president through the ballot and not the bullet in South Africa… of the euphoria and need of the country to move on and put the spectre of apartheid finally to rest. There are moments in our lives which are forever etched… Nelson Mandela walking to freedom and now Barack Obama standing on the podium.

I could be writing on this theme but this morning with the sun up on another spectacular day, I’m writing of something more mundane – an envy of writers with rooms of their own – a loft, attic, shed in the garden, gazebo, beach hut, tepee, or any hidey hole that gives a sense of containment and peace – a space to which I can withdraw and be as reclusive/industrious/inspired or lazy as I want to be.

So here in the sunshine far from my 3m X 4m workroom in London shared with my husband (I email him when I want to move my chair!) I’ve put this right. Yesterday I built a driftwood yurt out on the dunes.

Ever since reading ‘The Poetics of Space’ by Gaston Bachelard, it’s hard to see space in an ordinary way. Bachelard believes language – especially poetry – can reveal hidden aspects of our experience of space, especially of our home space. He says certain spaces and experiences from childhood through to adulthood in places where we have lived, grown up, felt comfortable or alienated, have roles in our imaginary lives. The shell, the nest, the cave, the empty wardrobe or drawer, the attic, etc are significant spaces embedded in our memories and intrinsically meaningful in our lives. Fascinating reading!

A few years ago I wrote a book set on this same beach where my driftwood yurt now stands… Fish Notes and Star Songs… which is full of shelters of varying kinds. The protagonist and her father build a home from washed-up wood with a stone tower lined with shells and bits of mirror stuck on the walls so they can see the world reflected differently… a place where the girl’s imagination has free rein but where she feels sheltered and safe. Other children in the story, all have spaces which protect them from the world. A deep cave, a makeshift structure under a torn beach umbrella in the sand-dunes and the dark, shaded space under the branches of a Milkwood tree, provide refuge where they can hide away and reflect their true identity.

In confined space, experiences become condensed, intensified and enriched. Remember the dark space under the dining room table with a blanket draped over it? There’s the freedom to imagine but at the same time the space allows us immobility. We don’t have to do anything. We can just be. Which means from the confines of my driftwood yurt I can look out and observe the world… the shadows the beach grasses make against the sand, the terns dive-bombing between seals and dolphins in a fish-feeding frenzy that would impress even David Attenborough, the sea opalescent yesterday, today wild and crashing.

I can fool myself that inside my yurt, I’ll be creative... plots will come and words will flow. But will they? Does space or place make the difference? If I’m to believe Gaston Bachelard and judging by all those pictures or mention of garden writing sheds in this Awfully Big Blog Adventure, then yes! But I’m still sitting here with my chin tucked up against my knees thinking about it. And next week when the New Moon brings in the high tide, my yurt will be swept away and I’ll be back to envying all of you with rooms of your own!

Monday, 19 January 2009

Unweaving Rainbows - Charlie Butler

When I was at school, one of my favourite fantasies was that of being a telepath. I loved being able to carry on secret conversations in my head during school lessons, while seeming to have my nose in a maths book. And, since nothing is lonelier than being the only telepath in the world, I created a group of people to be telepathic with – inspired no doubt by stories where this really happened, such as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and ITV’s The Tomorrow People

Being able to speak with other people effortlessly across great distances was appealing in itself, but the fact that it was a secret and exclusive ability was just as important. This was brought home to me a few months ago, when I was watching a DVD of The Tomorrow People. In one scene, a Tomorrow Person was exploring the enemy hideout, but was simultaneously in telepathic contact with his friends back in TP headquarters. Watching this, it suddenly hit me that what had been a magical skill in the 1970s had now been rendered commonplace and dull – because, well, everyone has a mobile, don’t they? And what is telepathy but a swish hands-free mobile with unlimited credit? I could barely watch it after that. 
But why? What led to my disenchantment? A few explanations occur to me. 
Simple snobbery. As hinted above, it may be that magic keeps its allure only when it’s the preserve of the few – and when it’s a secret. It seems to be standard practice that children in books who discover they have supernatural powers will decide that it's necessary to keep it from the mugg– er, ordinary people. Sometimes the excuses they give for doing so are flimsy in the extreme. Do they really believe they would be a) experimented on by the government or b) put on display in a travelling circus, if people discovered their precious ability to turn into shrews, or make balsa wood taste of cheese? Not for a minute: they just want to be in a Sekrit Club. 
Habituation. I still feel a thrill every time I take off in an aeroplane, and can’t understand people who profess themselves bored at the prospect of living out one of mankind's most ancient dreams. But apparently it does happen. Maybe I’m more vulnerable to this in the area of mobile technology?
The puncturing of the mystery. I'm no techie, but if I put my mind to it I could probably get quite close to understanding how mobile phones work. Does knowing that there’s a scientific explanation detract from the glamour? Shouldn’t it rather add to it – being evidence that even the most commonplace things, like gravity and electrons, can add up to something pretty darned marvellous? 
I don’t know how far any of these explanations really hit the mark; but another of my regular daydreams is quite useful here. In this one I imagine what would happen should I be plonked down in, say, Restoration London. These daydreams usually start off quite well, with people being amazed and impressed by my tales of computers, televisions and the like, and Oohing at the luminous hands on my wristwatch. However, I soon find that I’m quite unable to explain how any of these inventions actually work. I usually end up testifying to a committee of the Royal Society and making a pretty poor fist of it: “Er, well, there’s this stuff called electricity, see, and it flows down the wire – no, Sir Christopher, not like water down a pipe,  more like – well, anyway, it comes out as pictures...”
Robert Hooke in particular is not impressed. 
It’s much more satisfactory to have someone from the past – Shakespeare, perhaps, or Isaac Newton – find themselves stuck in my present, and to act as a tour guide. That way I can bask in the reflected glory of several centuries of technological innovation. Not only that, by being seen through their eyes it even regains something of the lustre lost through familiarity. You should see Newton’s reaction (equal and opposite) to the sensation of taking off in a Ryanair flight to Dublin! Best of all, if he comes at me with one of those awkward questions about how exactly jet engines are put together, I have my answer ready and waiting. 
“Google it, Sir Isaac,” I tell him loftily. “Just google it.”

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Book reviews and other stuff....- Adèle Geras

I've been reading posts on this blog with great interest and I'm happy to be joining the writers here. Some of you may know that I used to review children's books for the Guardian but alas, those days are over. I was looking for another place where I could write about books I read and which I enjoy and ABBA struck me as very good location for the occasional review. I can't help having (this is true of everyone who posts here) friends who produce novels I like and I'll write about their work if I feel other readers will be interested in it and if I've really enjoyed it. I get through a great many thrillers and will post about good ones as these appear. I intend to highlight novels for adults as well as books for children and teenagers. I won't waste everyone's time by slating horrible books. Life's too short and generally when I start a book I dislike, I give it up almost at once with no guilt and no sense of failure.
It goes without saying that I'd be delighted if everyone else piled in with pieces about books they've enjoyed and are longing to bring to everyone's attention.

My first official review will be posted on Wednesday, February 4th. I'm writing this mainly to see if I can manage the technology without any hitches and glitches.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

This Time Last Year Anne Cassidy

I keep my old diaries. They’re just lists of appointments, school visits, lunches, meetings. I like to look back and see what I was doing this time last year.

This time last year I was getting ready to go down to Brighton to talk at the Southern Schools Book Award. I wasn’t on the shortlist (again!) but I’d been asked to introduce people and give a talk. I was especially excited because I’d heard Charlie Higson was going – his Young Bond book was on the shortlist. I was and still am a huge fan of his comedy work and had in fact read a couple of his adult crime novels from yonks ago, even before the Fast Show. It took all my self control not to rush up to him and say one of his catch phrases from the Fast Show but I did manage.

This time two years ago I was due to go to The Red Awards in Scotland (where I was on a shortlist). But I’d been ill for a while and had to spend a couple of weeks in the Brompton Chest Hospital in Kensington. It was a strange hospital stay. What I needed was a ten day course of intravenous anti biotics. So I had to go in hospital but not act like an ‘in patient’. All I needed were the drugs injected three times a day and the rest of the time was mine. I spent a lot time walking round Kensington, up the King’s Road, towards the Museums. I should have taken a lap top and wrote but I didn’t. I just took time off from my life and came out feeling hugely grateful for the NHS.

This time three years ago my father was dying. We didn’t know this at the time. We spent the days of January and February chivvying him along to the doctor’s and the hospital. We found a long list of reasons why he was feeling unwell. We suggested a new diet, new medicines, new blood tests, a change of scene. We comforted each other with stories of people who had exactly his symptoms and recovered. He was seventy nine but he had years and years and left. He had time, we thought, to play more games of Bingo, to bet on many more races, to have numerous political arguments and to play cards with his granddaughters. But he didn’t have time because during one of those visits to the hospital we found out that he had Mesothilioma, an asbestos related cancer. He died in May. His name was Frank Cassidy and I still think of him every day.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

SUSAN PRICE: Short Stories

I was on the cross-trainer at the gym, listening to music on my little zen-stone, when a song prompted a short story to drop into my head.

I find it's like that with short stories. Putting a novel together takes an age. You research the background, come up with characters, name them (always difficult), invent histories for them, thrash out a plot, change the plot, change the characters, start again... A novel, for me anyway, is constructed over months, even years – bashed together from odd bits and pieces. I always think of a full length book as being 'under construction' or 'up on the stocks'.

A short story tends to arrive almost complete. I suppose that's because it's short. Often there's no need even to name the characters. I may not know the exact words I'm going to frame it in, but I have the whole span of the story, its mood, its imagery, sometimes even the way it's going to be told – in the first person, say, or in a series of short, disconnected scenes.

I'm usually aware of a novel putting itself together. I remember the initial idea, I know when I decided to include this character, and that incident. I remember deciding to drop that whole section, and the reasons why. But a short story often seems to have come from nowhere. One moment I'm sweating on the cross-trainer, thinking of nothing in particular – the next second, there's a story. And it does seem as if some inner light-bulb has illuminated the inside of my head.

When I sit down to write the story, there's a lot of hard concentration and revision – this isn't automatic writing I'm talking about – but the work focusses on the arrangement of words in a sentence, or to what degree I can pare the narrative down before it becomes incomprehensible. With a novel the work covers a far wider range – research, say, or the sheer logistics of getting character B to a particular place, at a particular time, so s/he can encounter character D.

I suppose I'm saying that, for me, a novel is about plotting and a short story is about language. (I keep saying 'for me' because I'm very aware that it might be different for another writer).

I can clearly remember the arrival of some stories. I was watching the film 'Silent Tongue', in which a simpleton boy, played by River Phoenix, is mourning his dead wife, an Indian squaw. Her body, wrapped in a blanket, has been lodged in a tree, for the birds to pick clean. The boy, unable to understand that she is dead, sits under the tree, on guard, driving the birds away with shots from his rifle. The woman's ghost appears to him, haranguing him for keeping her tied to her body – she can't travel on to the other world until her body has disappeared.

My head is so stuffed with old stories and songs that they leak out of my ears. As I watched this part of the film, the words of the old ballad leaped into my head: 'Who lies weeping on my grave and will not let me sleep?' I was seized with the idea of writing my own version of this old song. I pared it down to almost nothing but dialogue, and then realised that I could make the title work as well. I called it 'Overheard In A Graveyard', and so was able to cut all description or even mention of the setting. The finished story is told entirely in dialogue. The two voices aren't even given genders – they could be male and female, or both male, or both female. You decide.

'What is Longing made of, that it never wears out?
Bone breaks. Rock wears away to sand. In this dark rain, hard iron falls to rust.
Razors blunt. But Longing's edge still cuts deep... '

Published by Hodder in my book, 'NightComers'
The whole story can be read on my website at

I used a similar title for 'Overheard In A Museum', (unpublished as yet) which came when I fulfilled a childhood ambition to visit the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, and stood beside the Gokstad ship. The museum is within sight and sound of the Oslo Fjord, where the ship must once have sailed:

'When the doors of the hall open, I smell the sea. I hear it. The pulse of the long-felled oak runs through me, and I feel the sea rush past and under me, and I surge forward to climb the wave. But I never move. I shall never more move...

The most surprising arrival of a story was during the SAS conference last year. My colleague Katherine Roberts (author of I AM THE GREAT HORSE), headed a collage workshop. Under Katherine's instruction, we first had to fix in our minds the kind of story we wanted to write, or the writing problem we wanted to solve. Then we whiffled quickly, at random, through a pile of magazines and, without thinking, ripped out any image or words that caught our attention. After a few minutes of this, we had to look through our bits of paper, and arrange them on a larger sheet to form a collage.

There were about ten professional writers in that room, with glue and paper, and tongues sticking out between teeth. It was, for an SAS conference, a rare few minutes of intense, absorbed silence.

Collages finished, we each had to speak about our own for a few minutes. I had known from the outset that I wanted to write a ghost story. I had chosen a large photograph of a wild moorland area. Over it I had glued a headline that had grabbed my eye: 'Buried in an Unmarked Grave'. There was a photo of a street of old terraced houses, and a dark, dirty flight of steps. But when I had to talk about the collage, I couldn't say much. I said I felt that the flight of steps led down into the underworld, and that someone was buried 'in an unmarked grave' on the moorland, and 'nane shall ken whaur they have gane'. Another colleague, Celia Rees (author of SOVAY), said that it reminded her of a famous murder case.

And then we went for lunch. My room was near where we'd been working, and I tossed the collage on my bed, and sped off to the refectory, for an hour or so of the usual lively SAS chat. I forgot all about the collage, but when I came back to my room at the end of the afternoon, there it was on the bed. The instant I looked at it, Celia's comment and my own thoughts came together and the story 'Carla' was in my head – the characters, the incidents, the mood, the way I would tell it.

I wrote the story about four months ago, and am still tinkering with it, but on the whole, it pleases me well enough. It's unpublished, but I've added it to a collection of new stories that I'm slowly building up, and which may be published one day. (I met my agent today and she told me to send her my stories, as she has a possible sale in mind).

I'll add this latest story to it, when I've written it, if it's any good at all. The song I was listening to on the cross-trainer? 'Cruel Mother' by June Tabor -

She leaned her back against a thorn
All alone and so lonely
And there she has her babies borne
All in the green woods of ivy

She took a knife both long and sharp
All alone and so lonely
And pierced it through each tender heart...
All in the green woods of ivy...

A Day In The Life ... - Sally Nicholls

I know we've done a lot of blog posts about procrastination, but I thought you might be interested in this piece on a Day in the Life of an Author, which I did for the Manchester Book Award website.

I've only been a full-time author for about a week and a half, so I'm hoping I'm going to get better at it, not least because there's no point being at home all day if you do all your writing in the evening. We'll have to see.

8.30: Boyfriend’s alarm clock goes off. Boyfriend turns it off and rolls over. I mutter something uncomplimentary about people with proper jobs and go back to sleep.

8.40-9.30: Repeat the above step at ten minute intervals until boyfriend admits defeat and wakes up. Open the curtains and wonder about getting up. Decide against it.

10.20: Boyfriend looks at watch, says, “Aargh! I’m late!” and goes to have a shower. I wander into the kitchen and make some breakfast.

10.35: Boyfriend kisses me goodbye and runs out of the door. I curl up on the sofa under my duvet and eat my porridge.

11:00: Turn on laptop and start checking my email, playing WordTwist and seeing if anyone has bought my book on Amazon. This is called ‘preparing myself to start work’.

1.30: Start to get hungry and realise with horror that I haven’t done any writing yet. Tell myself that I’m not allowed to eat until I’ve written some words. To prepare myself, I make a cup of tea and put some music on.

3.00: Having finally written about 200 words, I make some lunch and get dressed. Reply to emails from my website, read threads on several writing websites and get depressed because no one has sent me an email in the last ten minutes.

5.00: Flatmate comes home from work and we have another cup of tea. I start to get into this writing lark and begin a new chapter. It’s interesting. It’s good! I play a quick round of Spider Solitaire and keep writing.

7.30: Boyfriend comes home from work and asks me if I want something to eat. I say, “Mmm. I’m writing,” and carry on tapping away.

8.30: Boyfriend points out that if we don’t start cooking soon we won’t eat before nine. I sigh, close down my laptop and go and see if we have any beans left.

9.00: Eat beans on toast and watch The West Wing with boyfriend. Am grumpy or cheerful depending on how many words I’ve managed to write.

10.40: Go to bed with a book. Chat to boyfriend. Feel guilty about all the things (like housework and tax returns) that I haven’t done today. Resolve to do them all (and write 1000 words) tomorrow.

11.30: Sleep.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

This Fotherington Thomas Moment: Penny Dolan

Joy! This week feels like the proper start of the New Year for me. The last round of visitors has gone, and all is calm again, apart from sheet-mountains to wash, and a cornucopia of left-over festive fruit that needs eating.

Even more joyfully, I am now at a most delightful stage with The Tome. The long trudge of tense-changing is past. Now I feel as if I’m skipping along like a latter day Fotherington-Thomas from Molesworth, changing a word here, tightening a description there, reading aloud as I go. Hello sky, hello birds! Absolute, utter pleasure! Apart, that is, from the need to get everything done so that The Tome will be on desks in London by next Monday morning. Feel my sense of writerly leisure shifting already.

Lately - maybe through this very blog - I’ve become concious of how quickly some writers write. Four novels a year? No problem! This shouldn’t be a surprise, as we all read at different paces and in different ways, according to energy and circumstance. But I know The Tome has been slow work, and the plan for Tome Two glows on the horizon., so upping the output is on of my great intentions for 2009.

I had come across a useful book that promised to help with writerly procrastination. You had to write responses to various questions with your dominant hand and then with your non-dominant, and compare the different responses you got. Another task was to work out your own best writing time by colouring in a time grid in the hues of your choice to indicate your energy and mood levels.

It was all the most valuable stuff, but then I couldn’t decide on which colour to choose for which mood or energy. Is 6am a turquoise blue or a sludgy grey? Then the storyteller in me started to script the subconscious replies. What do you fear about writing? That I’ll lose my special sparkly pencil, the one with all the ideas in. . . That my very own words have returned to haunt me Aaagh! Thud! . . . So I put the book down for a while, about a month or so ago . . .

Enough - back to The Tome! Happy Writing, everyone.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

New Year's Revolution - N M Browne

I thought for a New Year I am going to try a new approach to writing and come up with something that might sell well. How novel and innovative, I hear you say, how ambitious and how doomed.
Be that as it may, I have decided to have a go. So far I have a knee tremblingly handsome hero and a beautiful, feisty heroine. (I know this last is not strictly necessary, but I am a feminist and I don’t do swooners.) Should this work of potential popularity be funny or melodramatic? Should it be romance or horror? Should I try for something original - a vampire romance meets James Bond in fairyland? An everyday story of a skeletal scarred wizard with a dysfunctional family in a doomed love triangle with a teacher? Should I go for some genre bending – gothic comedy, chick lit horror - or keep it clean and neat and stick to fantasy?
That’s the trouble, there isn’t a recipe is there? I have a worrying feeling that this attempt at popularity will end up like every other – abandoned in favour of a story I can care about. I will end up doing what I always do and write whatever it is my recalcitrant imagination will deliver and hope for the best. Ah yes, our old friend hope again, would any of us ever write without it?
The trouble is that there are too many good writers, producing too many good books and while that is great for readers it is tough on writers. How do we stand out from the crowd? How do we trap the zeitgeist, hit those over stimulated teenage nerves, inspire cynical publishers to lunch, launch and love us and, more to the point, put some promotional money behind us? Damned if I know.
So, back to my heroine, do you think she should be an orphan with red hair and untapped magical powers – what if I gave her a lightning scar?

Monday, 12 January 2009

Sisyphus - Nick Green

Right now, I hope, my agent is looking at a draft of my latest book. This may lead on to more exciting things, or then again, it may not. The Road to Publication can be a long and rocky one, as well I know from my single successful journey down it (and from many unsuccessful ones). When my book The Cat Kin was going through the arduous submissions process, I kept a log of its progress. Be warned: if I had read this post four years ago, I would probably have chosen a different career.

Part 1: Finding an agent
After more than a year of hard work, in November 2004 I decide my book ‘Cat Kin’ (initially it lacks a ‘The’) is ready for submission. Between November and December I send extracts to six separate agents, one of whom has already shown cautious interest. Come the New Year, already impatient for a reply, I target three more agents.
Part 1a: Result!
It turns out I don’t have to wait long at all. By February 2005 not one but two of the agents are interested in ‘Cat Kin’. For a couple of weeks I work through the manuscript diligently with one of them… and then sign a contract with the other one, Curtis Brown. I’m not especially proud of that, but given the second agency’s reputation it seemed like the right decision. It depends on whether or not you believe in karma.
Part 2: Looking for a publisher
So it’s February, only four months after I finished the book, and already I have an agent. This is going to be easy. My agent gets to work, submitting ‘Cat Kin’ to a long list of publishers. In June, twiddling my thumbs, I ask for an update. No, there are no offers yet (as if they would forget to mention it). August arrives, and I can’t resist another query by email. Any news?
By October I’m getting really twitchy. I want to write another book – I have a barnstorming idea for a sequel to ‘Cat Kin’ – but I can’t bring myself to write it if the first one isn’t published. I contact my agent again. They’ve tried 16 children’s publishers, and not one has expressed any interest at all.
Part 3: Desperate measures
So I give up. I decide that ‘Cat Kin’ will never find a ‘real’ publisher. I search the web for self-publishing options and find the print-on-demand company Lulu. With nothing to lose now, I put together my own edition and publish it in January 2006.
I don’t hope for big sales. Neither do I get them. I sell about 50 copies of that edition, most to friends and family. But I do send one to the Times’s children’s book reviewer, Amanda Craig. And – wonder of wonders – she likes it. She reviews it in the Saturday paper.
Part 4: Finally…
I tell my agent about the review. Barely a month after it appears, Faber make me an offer. It is now March 2006 – more than a year since I signed with my agent, and 17 months since I first began submitting the book.
Another year is to pass before ‘The Cat Kin’ appears in the shops, and the whole sorry saga of the sequel is yet to unfold… but that’s another story. Just to get to this point has been a long, hard slog, consisting mostly of agonising waiting. Yet this experience is hardly unusual, and is by no means confined to first novels.

So, yeah – fingers crossed that the next book has an easier time of it.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Name of the Book - Catherine Johnson

This is the blog equivalent of that awful Norwich Union/Aviva name changing advert on the telly. Although of course, this blog has been bought to you for a mere fraction of the budget of the ad with, sadly none of the celebs and none of the action.
I have to change the name of my new book. OK so I don't have to, but after talking to my daughter who agrees with my editor, I can see they are right and a better title needs to be found.
Until last week, the book was called The Munro Inheritance, see what I'm doing there? Cunningly referring to those Bourne movies and suggesting thrills and spills and fast paced espionage and action. However, although the story does contain all those things, it's also set in Soho in 1947, in a jazz musicians cafe, and features a fascist party called the British League, a fighting band of mostly Jewish young men called the 43 Group, and Soho gangsters.
Thanks to the immeasurable wisdom of the Scattered Authors Society I am veering towards something with the word 'Undercover' or perhaps something mirroring 'A Rage in Dalston,' an excellent radio documentary about the 43 Group, but I doubt whether that's going to have any 12 year olds reaching for their birthday book tokens.
It's very hard, especially as I've thought of the book as Munro for a year now, it's a bit like deciding to change your baby's name. As if you called her Blondie when she was born and now her hair's dark. This actually happened to my good friend Sophie up there with me in the photo, whose effortlessly clever, beautiful, and most excellent daughter Xanthe (Greek for blonde) is no longer fair haired.
So I need to be thinking snappy, exciting, and snappier still. And in this post Christmas vegetative state all I can think about is staying in bed and reading. Got some great books as presents though, and if anyone out there likes picture books with a few more words try The Lying Carpet by David Lucas. Now there's a wonderful title.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Writer's Retreat - Joan Lennon

My house is gradually emptying, and come next Sep- tember it will even be empty of me! My best Christmas present this year was a letter (on very posh creamy paper with an elegant maroon band round the edges) telling me I'd been awarded a four week Fellowship at Hawthornden Castle ... Huzzah just isn't a big enough word!

As I have said elsewhere, Scotland is up to its eyeballs in fine old houses, but the one in the photo (which I got off the internet - thanks to Dave Henniker) has been the focus of impossible desire for me for quite some years now. Hawthornden Castle sits above the River Esk, just south of Edinburgh and is the home of the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers - 5 writers get to come FOR A WHOLE MONTH of peace and quiet and somebody else doing the cooking, with nothing to do but WRITE! If you get accepted they call you a Hawthornden Fellow - as in, I guess, Jolly Good - I've been trying to get my children to call me that, without success.

Till now, I've never seriously considered applying for one of the fellowships - who can get away from home for an entire month?! - though it didn't stop me fantasizing about how great it would be. BUT since I will soon be living in a son-free house (which would probably be more accurately desribed as a son-empty house - much dread about that) and I am on my last year of piano teaching ... I did apply. And they said yes. Huzzah indeed!

Reactions from people I've told has fallen into two camps - horror, and envy. The "I'd go crazy - will they let you out?" camp and the "Can I come with you, please, please, please?" camp are pretty equally divided. Oh, and occasionally people say, "But what about your husband?" (To those kind folk I reply, "Don't worry, he'll spend the time staying up late, eating curry and reliving happy bachelor days!")

So next September there I will be - living the fantasy, writing my tiny socks off, with a foolish grin stuck to my face for 30 days. Actually, the grin's there already.

Jolly good.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Campaigning for the Book - Lucy Coats

I’ve never been much of a firebreathing active campaigner, really, being generally meek, mild and as retiring as a hedgehog in hibernation season (well, that’s how I see myself, anyway). Although I’ve signed a few petitions, been on a couple of marches (taking along a very British thermos of hot tea, naturally), I’ve never stood on a soapbox in Hyde Park and speechified (I mean, crikey, I might get noticed), preferring to hide in the background as one of the passive millions.

Then last summer I started hearing about cuts, and books being thrown into skips; reading about good, dedicated, knowledgable librarians getting the sack, as well as libraries being turned into computer suites, or closed completely--and I started to get very angry. When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to live in a house where there were books. But they weren’t terribly interesting books to me at that time (apart from my very own set of Beatrix Potter), being mostly either obscure French novels in the original language, heavy classics or technical sporting tomes. When I wanted to move on from Janet and John, Basingstoke Public Library was the place I haunted, every week, and sometimes more often if I could persuade my mother to take me. Without Basingstoke Public Library and its knowledgeable and patient children’s librarian, I wouldn’t be half as well-read as I am now, because I was a voracious devourer of anything and everything once I got going, and we simply couldn’t have afforded to buy all the endless picture books, Puffins and whatnot which I lugged home and curled up with with a happy sigh of anticipation.

Latin: liber, libri (m)—a book. It’s all in the name--it's why they are called libraries. Libraries, in my opinion, are where a copy of every book written is meant to live at some time in its life. The books in libraries are meant to be freely borrowed and then to educate, to give pleasure, to take you to other worlds and all the myriad other things they do, and afterwards be returned to do it all over again for someone else, (probably on the advice of one of those aforementioned patient and knowledgeable librarians). But now, apparently, books are out, and computer suites are in. While I am the first to admit the benefits of technology, this does not mean that real books with actual pages are dead, obsolete, extinct, nor that children no longer need or want them. Of course, as an author, I would say that. I write some of the books that are in those same libraries, and it is there that some of my readers make their first acquaintance with me (many, many thousands of them, according to the nice people at PLR today). And I don’t wish ever to live in a world where the marvellous cartoon by Roz Asquith at the top of this page is a reality. So that’s why, despite my retiring nature, I got involved with The Campaign for the Book, instigated by fellow author Alan Gibbons, himself a tireless and wonderful activist. I haven’t set the campaigning world on fire yet, but I have set up and am running the Campaign’s Facebook page in order to try and spread the word. If you are reading this blog, and you care about children continuing to have access to and advice on actual books in libraries, both in school and out, instead of merely sitting in what Alan calls ‘a café with a Playstation in the corner,’ then please go into your local library and tell them you care. They’ve never needed you more. Join us. Please.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

In praise of pencils – Anne Rooney

The pencil is the writer’s forgotten friend. Before a word hits the screen, there’s the delicious awakening when the muse stirs and we lure her from her cave (or café). This is the time for jotting down wild ideas, odd phrases, plot points, character traits – for courting the story, learning what it’s like and what it likes. The jotting and jiggling of this story-enticing dance is not fit work for a computer. It has to be scribbled on odd bits of the page, and the page might be an old napkin, or the edge of the newspaper, or the back of the tax return, or someone’s homework, or even your hand. This is when the pencil comes into its own (eyeliner pencil if you’re using your hand).

The pencil is for contingent or experimental work, for when we’re feeling free or when we’re feeling cautious. Will I like this idea? Or might it look so embarrassingly stupid I’ll wish I had never written it down? Did I really think I might write about an octopus with tentacle-tangle? If I rub it out quickly, no-one need ever know (not even future-me).

Or perhaps you have a beautiful, pristine notebook, the creamy pages already, in your imagination, crowded with the absolutely brilliant story you’re going to write. But it’s very difficult to sully the first page with the reality (which never matches up to the elusive Platonic ideal) and squander that promise. A pencil lets you try things out, knowing nothing need be forever. A pencil is for the writer who doesn’t have the courage of his or her convictions, who wants to flirt with words but isn’t ready for commitment.

And a pencil feels nice. It’s wooden, so it’s warm when you pick it up; the graphite glides easily onto the page, especially if you have a pencil with several Bs in its name. But then again, a pencil with several Bs makes a darker mark, so you also need an HB pencil, too, for when your ideas are even more flighty. (Promiscuous, moi?) And you need a very good eraser, because the only thing worse than a horribly stupid idea staring up at you is the smeary blur that is the incarnate remains of a horribly stupid idea, inexorably reminding you of what you tried to obliterate. And reminding you that not only did you have a really stupid idea, but that you are also very bad at buying erasers (or throwing them out when they get hard). This year, I will buy lots of nice erasers, ready to rub out all my really stupid ideas. That feels like a comforting plan.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The Room In My Head - Linda Strachan

As the new year begins I look inside my head to find that room where inspiration might be hiding….

In the middle of the room there is space, empty of life or furniture. Walls, used to colour and pattern stand bereft, waiting for design - perhaps imprints of flowers, pattern or activity.

Underfoot boards made of wood and nails move to mark my passage and where the light floods though glass no curtains block its passage. But yet the room is full of hope and joy because the sun is shining, casting summer against the emptiness.

Sounds fill the space with anticipation - strains of mystery that fill my ears and delight my senses, holding me captive - wondering - what I will discover?

Friday, 2 January 2009

A Fable - Katherine Langrish

As it's New Year and the holiday season, please excuse a foolish little fable.
The Sad History of Freddie the Frog, or The Fatal consequences of Confusing Life with Literature
Once upon a time there was a small frog who lived on a traffic island in the middle of a big road. Every morning at sunrise he would hop out of the wet grass and go sit on the kerb to take car licence numbers. In this way he learned the alphabet and how to count, and so became the most learned frog in the whole of Britain. After he had worked out how to read – which took a while because the letters on registration plates were so jumbled up – he used to sit waiting for Words.
“What do you mean, waiting for Words?” asked a passing shrew.
“It’s very exciting,” replied Freddie. “You sit on the kerb. You feel the dust and grit, the warmth of the concrete. In the distance a speck approaches, doing eighty in the fast lane. It’s a Word, sleek and powerful, rushing towards me. Suddenly it’s here! There’s a roar, a shock of air, heat and noise – and it’s gone. I’m rolling over backwards in a cloud of dust, the Word printed in my brain in letters of fire! The impact! The immediacy! The fumes!”
“Huh,” snorted the shrew. “That’s not literature, man, it’s too physical. You’re getting high on the sensation, you’re missing the purity of print on paper. Did you see that newspaper which blew in the other night? Calmness, peace, words linked in stillness. Just a little fluttering in the slipstream. Tasted good, too. Rich with grease, poignant with vinegar…poetry! Your stuff? Crude. Neeeooow, whoosh, gone!”
“Dynamism!” Freddie protested stoutly.
All the same, these words of the shrew got to him. He began to have secret doubts. Many of the Words he collected were so difficult – so abstruse. They certainly didn’t form a narrative. Although he kept up his nightly recitals of monosyllabic one-Word poems (croak-u), he began to lose heart. Should he take up mathematics instead? Was it all worthwhile?
“Dynamic!” he said loudly as the shrew trotted by.
“Dangerous!” snapped the shrew. “You’ll get poisoned,” she added, “breathing the fumes. I read that in that newspaper only yesterday.”
Luckily Freddie’s eyebrows were already up. “Do you read for the meaning?” he asked with incredulous pity. The shrew shrugged and kept going.
One day a strange frog appeared on the traffic island. He was big and fat and healthy and crossed the tired grass in whopping, energetic hops. He approached Freddie and said with humility:
Chèr maître, I come from across the pond on the other side of the highway. We have heard so much about you – your poetry, your literary theories. Can I persuade you to come on a lecture tour?”
Freddie pretended to agonize over the decision. He talked about Compromising his Art. He talked about Literary Backwaters, and the Sacrifice. He pursed his lips and spread out his fingers – but really he was delighted. He was tired of living with his doubts. It was time to live on his reputation instead.
“Off to the flesh-pots, eh?” shrilled the shrew. Loftily Freddy turned his back on her.
“This way, sir,” said the pond frog. He scanned the road and jumped briskly on to the tarmac. Freddy followed with a tremulous leap.
The smells of petrol and hot tar were stronger than he had ever known them, and his head swam. The surface of the road was full of little pits and crannies. He sat for a minute panting, exploring the holes with his soft hands.
“Come on sir, hurry!” said the pond frog with an impatient gasp.
“Interesting texture,” said Freddie calmly in his lecturing voice. “The medium is the message, you know…”
He raised his head. There was a noise in the distance – a purr rising to a roar.
“Oh sir, look out, there’s a Word coming!” The pond frog leaped for the white line – but Freddie, transfixed, had hardly time to draw his breath before the Vehicle of his Word took form above him – and rolled him out flat.
“He died for Literature,” the pond frog choked. But the shrew, who had known him, paused gloomily at the edge of the kerb and wrinkled her nose at the receding truck.
“What was his Last Word? Did you see it?” asked the pond frog. “At least I can bear it back with me - as a memorial.”
"S144 BNH," the shew said sadly.