Saturday, 28 February 2009

Finding Your Way: Penny Dolan

I have always loved maps, especially the history held within the names. Just the sheer sound of the places gives me joy, cheers me as I travel about, makes me create characters to fit them. I rage away when councils – or souvenir hunters? – seem to have removed too many street name signs. I also really love map-reading, which makes up, fractionally, for my lack of maths skills.

However, lately I've found myself weary at the thought of planning yet another school trip. I have to drive because of all the things I take with me just in case. So, with World Book Day week a-looming, I started thinking.

Now normally I plot out my route carefully, using both road map books (of at least two scales), the local A-Z, and also multimap printouts. I just cannot bear the thought of getting lost on a school morning!!! I use post-it notes with little symbols to mark my route, post-it notes to indicate the next page turn, as well as basic list on a card to help when I drive. (“Wetherby. A1M. M1. M62” etc) And more.

Last night I was struck by the fact that all that work is a bit like planning a story: the way you come at the thing from all angles, keep assessing what fits with what, decide on the best “landscapes” you want to see during the story, and making sure as far as possible you are warned about the tricky bits.

Now it was already clear that next week will be very, very busy. So I decided, somewhat reluctantly, to get a new toy. Yes, I now have a satnav, and yesterday I tried it out. A comfortable voice was saying things like “You will turn left in 90 yards . . . . Now turn left . . . Recalculating. Turn right. Recalculating. Turn right. . .”

So then it struck me that my friendly-sounding satnav is just like the little voice that sings away in your head when writing is going well, when you know what to do, when you know, and are delighted by what’s coming up next, writing wise, when the writing gods are with you.

Though who knows if my helpful friend is as reliable as she seems? Can I trust her sweet tones? I will also need my maps to give me some sense of where and how far I’m going and so on before I pack for the journey or even step out of the house. In fact, I still need both approaches on my writing journeys. And my real life ones.

That’s it. End of today’s idle ABBA thought. Hope all your writing approaches keep working well.

Oh yes, forgot to say. The satnav actually shows and speaks road names even when the signs aren’t there.

I’ve recently been reading historical crime novel “Dissolution” by C.J. Sansom, “The Victorian House” by Judith Flanders for research, and “Sylvia and Bird”, a picture book by Catherine Rayner for loveliness. Just in case you’d like to know.

Friday, 27 February 2009

A bout: N M Browne

I am a bout writer; I don’t mean I write about anything in particular, more that I am a lay about for much of the time. I shuffle uncomfortably and look shifty when students or people at parties tell me that real writers write every day. I don’t write about anything at all for months on end. I talk about writing a bit and I am guilty about not writing a lot. Then suddenly I am in thrall to a story and I can’t stop.

I am obsessed at the moment. I’ve written 40,000 words in a fortnight – a confession rather than a boast - as I don’t really see how it could possibly be any good. I wake up thinking about the story, I go to bed dreaming about it. When I walk the dog, my characters are arguing with each other in my head. Last night I had to go to bed early, exhausted and emotionally drained. I’d spent the day awash with real adrenaline as I tortured my imaginary protagonist.
I cannot rest until the story is done. There is no food in the house. I forget to walk the dog. I am avoiding social engagements; I resent time spent away from my desk. I am lost to this world.

I would love to claim the story is a masterpiece, but I’m obsessed not deluded. I know that once it is finished I will lose all interest in it. Obviously I will be disappointed if it doesn’t sell, but I won’t be devastated. I will keep it on my shelves in a binder for a while, but only until I need the binder for something else. It will be over for me, my passion will be spent the moment it is done.

Like a bout drinker, a bout writer is sober in between times. In a week or two I will wonder at the compulsion that gripped me. There will be food in the house and I will walk the dog conscientiously. I will talk about writing a bit and be guilty about not writing a lot – until the next time.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

When is a retelling not a retelling.......Adele Geras

The proofs of my forthcoming novel, Dido, are here now and very lovely they look, too. They're uncorrected but still very beautifully produced with a pretty cover somewhere between aqua and sky-blue. Together with the proofs, there have been some press releases, mentions in the Bookseller etc for which I am most grateful. However (and this applies also to my novels Troy and Ithaka) almost without exception these books are referred to as 'retellings' when they are something else entirely.

I know what retellings are because I've done several. I retold some fairy tales for a book which was most beautifully illustrated by Louise Brierley. This was called Beauty and the Beast and other stories. I also retold The Six Swan Brothers for David Ficklings excellent series of stories sold for £1, way back in 1998. I've retold Sleeping Beauty for another gorgeous edition illustrated by Christian Birmingham. I've also retold the stories of ballets and operas, so I have done quite a lot of it one way and another.

When you retell something, what you're doing is: taking an existing story, one which is moreover quite well known and you are not changing a single thing. My job, as I saw it in all the books mentioned above, was to read the existing narrative and tell it again in my own words. I tried, obviously, to make these the best words I could possibly find for the task but they didn't add or subtract anything from the known version.

In Troy and Ithaka and now in the forthcoming Dido, I've done something else altogether. Each of these books is a story about invented characters in their teens who just happen to coexist alongside events and characters taken from Homer or Virgil. In the case of Ithaka, the well-known stories of the Odyssey ( the Cyclops, Circe, etc) have been reduced to tapestries being made by Penelope. In this kind of book which isn't a retelling, I change things all the time. In Ithaka, for instance, I've made Penelope, ( whose name has been a byword for fidelity throughout the centuries) not faithful at all. In other words, I've played fast and loose with the events/accounts Homer gives in the Odyssey. In Troy, the war and its doings are a background to the concerns of the women and girls who are being beseieged. The Gods appear as characters in my story but I've dressed them according to my desires and given them attributes I have made up for them. Poseidon stinks of fish and like a fish, he has scaly skin. Ares wears a long black cloak and a red-crested helmet. Hermes is practically a skeleton, Aphrodite leaves a fragrance behind her like roses and almond blossom and so forth.

The main narrative in each book concerns my invented characters. The action is seen through their eyes. They are observers of the most important (Homeric or Virgilian) actors in the drama. I have made it all up, honestly. My stories did not exist before I wrote them. That's why I'm so keen that the books shouldn't bedescribed as 'retellings'. There's nothing wrong with retellings, of course, but they are not original in any way other than in their language. I hope very much that my novels do have something about them that wasn't there before and which Homer or Virgil would never in a million years have thought of writing.

The heroine of Dido is Elissa, and it's her figure that Alison Jay has put in the foreground of her lovely cover image. I hope all who read the book will enjoy it, and go on to find the quite different versions available in Book 1V of Virgil's Aeneid and in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

‘And all that is gone…’ – Nick Green

Endings, eh? Following on from Marie-Louise’s post below, I’ve been thinking about endings myself...

We authors of the SAS were having a chat the other day (we meet for a lazy lunch several times a week at a nice little club in Portland Place, where we relax on leather sofas, sip flutes of champagne and pass idle remarks about the size of our latest advances, in between cracking the lobster claws. Actually I fib, we use email. Don’t tell anyone.)

Oh yes – we were having this chat. And one author mentioned that, when reading books, she often reads the first third, then reads the last few chapters, and then reads the middle. This is in order to try and guess at the ending early on, and then see how the author builds up to that climax. Essentially, it’s a professional approach: the writer’s mind always keen to examine how other work is put together. I’m sure it’s not uncommon, either – I know several people, both authors and casual readers, who also skip ahead to the ending before reading the middle.

As someone who won’t even tolerate the tracks of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ being played out of order, I was slightly shocked to hear this. I struggle to get my head around the idea of doing such a thing. For me, Chapter 11 follows from Chapter 10 as surely as ‘Money’ segues into ‘Us And Them’. If you put the CD on shuffle play, I’m not sure you’re getting what you paid for. To read a book out of order seems even odder. Am I being terribly consreavtvie?

A friend of mine recently read my new book in manuscript, and did this very thing – skipped to the end, and then went back to read the middle bit. I must confess, I twitched. That middle bit isn’t just filler, I wanted to grumble. I didn’t put it in to make the covers a bit farther apart. If anything, I care more about middles than I do endings. That’s where the real book is, in my view. The ending just ties it all off. My endings are usually crammed full of stuff blowing up and all hell breaking loose, but that’s really just me going on a bender after a year of sitting at my desk. It’s not really the story so much as final punctuation.

Do people care mostly about endings? I sometimes wish I could avoid them. Let’s face it, they made a film called The Neverending Story, holding that up to be a good thing. These days I read so slowly, if I love the book, that I might read the same paragraph three times before reluctantly moving on to the next. It makes me look like a remedial pupil to anyone who might be watching, but I don’t mind. So long as it prolongs the experience.
Of course, the ending doesn’t have to be the end. If the book’s good, you can always read it again.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Writing Endings – by Marie-Louise Jensen

I don’t know what it is about writing a novel, but it seems to go through a sort of time warp. There’s the tremendous excitement of that first chapter. I always spend ages planning it out in my mind, deciding just how I want it to be. That usually seems to write itself when I finally sit down to it. But then begins the long, slow and seemingly endless task of working out and writing down the whole story. It’s not that I don’t love doing it, because I do. But when I’m in the middle of it, it sometimes feels far too great a task to complete.
There are despondent spells when it all feels difficult and it’s not going well. That’s the long part of the time warp, when time speeds up around me and the novel seems to slow down. My characters won’t always behave and the plot needs adjusting. Then there are spells where everything’s flowing beautifully and I just know it’ll all be right eventually. Those chapters buoy me up and keep me going.
But it’s towards the end of the story that it develops a momentum of its own. Probably because I’ve spent so many months imagining how it will end and planning out the final sequence of events. But suddenly the story starts to run, then race then fly towards its conclusion and it’s hugely exhilarating. That’s when I know we’ve entered the good part of the time warp and before I know it I’ll be flying over the finish line in breathless haste.
But just in case I get too uplifted, there are always the rewrites….

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Remembering Dad by Lynn Huggins - Cooper

My Dad died on Boxing Day; my first grandson is due to be born in June. As you can imagine, moving up a generation like this, all of a sudden, has caused a welter of emotions. As I sat in front of a blank computer screen, trying to write a eulogy for my Dad, I realised the common theme streaking like a silver thread through my memories of Dad was books. He was an avid reader, and a prolific writer.
When I was very small, he made up stories for me and my sister. He used to come home, still in his fire brigade uniform, smelling of smoke (health and safety rules being somewhat relaxed forty years ago) and tell us outrageous tales of giants with broken noses who had been abused by horrid, thieving boys. He revelled in stories of dragons (complete with rasping voices) and effete-sounding monsters.
As we got older, he’d read books with us, finding new favourites as well as sharing stories from his own childhood. Every Saturday, he took us into the street market in Brighton. We’d buy deliciously scary American import comics with lurid titles: ‘Astounding Stories’ and ‘Tales from the Crypt’ being particular favourites. Armed with those and a huge bag of sherbet chews, we were nearly set for the day. On the way home, there was one more stop to make: Lanes Bookshop – a second hand emporium of delights. Mr. Lane himself was a dour man in general, but he patiently discussed with a little girl the merits of various books as I weighed them one against the other, trying to stretch my pocket money as far as it would go. He even put books by when the decision was too agonising. I still have copies of most of Ray Bradbury’s work with ‘8p’ written inside in Mr. Lanes neat lettering. The shop is long gone, as is Mr. Lane, and now sadly, my Dad. But the memories of those days come back to me in a heady rush as I open a second hand, yellowed treasure and breath in that spicy-musty smell.
It was experiences like those storytelling sessions and glorious Saturdays of my childhood that made me a writer. If the adults around a child have their noses pressed in books, the small child copies them. Nobody ever had to tell us to read; in fact, they had to tell us to stop. It was the same with writing. Dad called writing my ‘real job’ long before it paid enough to become my day job. He made me believe that what I did was valid and his absolute belief in me was worth more than I can ever say.
My father’s study lays empty, but I can still find him there in the pages of the books he read and we enjoyed together. He’s there in the pages of the local history he wrote for QueensPark Books, and for various websites. He’s there when I write. Who did I call first when I signed each new contract? Dad. There’s a shelf in his study that he added each new book of mine to as it was published.
Now I have a grandson on the way. I’m sorry he’ll never meet his great granddad in person. But he will know him. After all, I know where to look.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Ooooo - Spooky! (Joan Lennon)

It's happened to all of us - that oh-so-unlikely way a single word or idea will suddenly just start cropping up all over the place. Usually a word or idea we'd never heard of before. Here's my most recent - the word ...


Yup. A few weeks ago, I'd never heard of it. But now ...

It started with a post on my own blog "What colour were Queen Victoria's eyes?" I'm just starting to spend lots of time in the Victorian period for a new series of books I'm writing for Catnip and I was realising that I might not know as much as I thought I did. Like, for example, the colour of Queen Victoria's eyes, which were blue, whereas I'd always thought they were brown. Like raisins. (Well, blame black and white photography, is what I say!)

THEN I did a school visit at a wonderful country 2-class school - Arbirlot Primary - and had a fabulous time. The kids and teachers were great and a whole swathe of parents showed up as well - I was thoroughly impressed with the place. It was also SUCH A TREAT going somewhere where they'd actually prepared beforehand!!!!! (Schools out there - you have no idea how relatively easy it is to make your visiting author love you forever - we're very easily swayed by a kind word , especially if the kind word is part of a sentence such as, "We've been reading your books and think they're really good" ...) I digress. When I was selling books at the end I was handed a glossy booklet titled Hospitalfield - Patrick Allan-Fraser and His Art Collection. In the midst of carrying on 7 conversations at the same time and trying very hard not to write the word banana while signing (I can never remember who did this - "To Banana - Hope you enjoy my book" because somebody behind her was offering somebody else a banana ...) ANYWAY, it turned out that one of the children and their parents had read my blog about Queen Victoria and thought the book might be helpful AND they used to live there! (If I got all that right.)

It IS helpful and I hope to visit Hospitalfield on one of their Open Days. It also seems to be the artists' equivalent of Hawthornden House, about which I was burbling not so long ago! But it ALSO houses Jazz Concerts - and here the spooky bit comes in (finally, I hear you say!) - I was reading Alexander McCall Smith's The World According to Bertie. In it, Bertie and his father Stuart are planning a get-away from Bertie's mother (I have to skim the chapters she's in, I really do) to hear a jazz concert in ...

"Arbroath?" said Stuart. "Is there jazz up there?"
Big Lou rounded on him. "What do you mean, is there jazz up there? Of course there's jazz in Arbroath."
"Hospitalfield, actually," said Alan.

Will they actually go? I won't know till I finish the book. Is the word Hospitalfield going to crop up again in my life? Well, I'll let you know ... And will you now start seeing the word as well? Ooooo.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

'Everything is Useful to a Writer' - Lucy Coats

I had an email from an author friend today about my blog in which I have been talking about the links between creativity and depression. In it she said that 'everything is useful to a writer'. Is this true? For me, certainly it is. Yesterday I found an old guidebook to Venice, and within its pages was a faded and torn scrap of paper on which I had scribbled such things as 'bells--all out of synch with each other', 'broom floating down laguna--no bristles', 'herds of gondolas', 'intricate canary cages being hung out in late afternoon for light and air', 'woman in black lace billycock hat with fat orange lips'. Immediately, I have an idea for a story using these things, which suddenly reconjured the air and light of La Serenissima so vividly for me. The seeing of them, and the finding of those cursory scribblings of the notice I gave them so many years ago have thus been useful, quite unexpectedly. The same goes for conversations overheard on buses and trains (always a rich vein of comedy to mine here), or trips to the shops, or weather, or news--all the most ordinary things of life are ours to make useful as and when we need.

Once upon a time I set myself the task of keeping a poem diary for the year (I'm particularly bad at diaries and only got to March). But looking back, I see that I wrote about a hurricane in Selsey which removed tiles, my daughter's chickenpox, my aunt's funeral, a filming trip to the middle of a muddy wood, among more normal stuff. The events of everyday life provided me with fuel for my writing endeavour. So they were useful too.

But what of the inner life and emotions? Are they not the most useful thing of all to a writer? I was bullied as a child and I exorcised those memories by writing about them in my novel. Naming that demon (as Terry Pratchett so eloquently puts it) helped me to put the experience behind me, and, somewhat, to understand the other side--the bullies' side--so that I could write about that in a current project. Right now I have an ongoing problem with insomnia, which leaves me tired and wretched. But those dark and restless hours of the night provided me with material for a poem which chronicles those feelings, once again making use of something which should logically be of no use whatsoever. However mundane, boring, terrible, painful, wonderful, uplifting the feeling, emotion, experience, sight, action is, it can be crafted and wrestled with and made to dance to the writer's music. We only have one life to live and write in. I'm more than ever determined to make use of mine--whatever happens.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Reading aloud allowed - Anne Rooney

On Tuesday, I was in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris at the splendid exhibition ‘Babar, Harry Potter et Cie: Livres d’enfants, hier et aujourd’hui’. In one corner a mother was reading to her two children from one of the books left out for sharing. It was Max et les Maximonstres (Where the Wild Things Are). Her intonation was as instantly recognisable as the words – is there really only one way to read that story? She paused where I would pause; her voice rose where mine would; took on a clipped, admonishing tone when Max is sent to bed without any supper, and slowed to trace the wonderful dance of monsters across the page.

A familiar story must always be told in exactly the same way, with the same tone of voice, expression, sound effects, intonation, and pace - children demand it. (Why is there no word for the recipient of reading aloud? Why is there no single word for 'reading aloud'? Does this paucity of the language demonstrate how little we value the activity?) Writing for small children, I always read the text aloud and try to herd the words, sheepdog-style, into the right shape for reading aloud. But it was quite astonishing to find Max read in exactly the same way when the words are different. What a fantastic translator to have accomplished that.

Stories read aloud remain as treasures hoarded in the memory. My Big Daughter is nearly 18, but we can still call up a book from a single phrase, with familiar intonation, that we shared many times years ago. It’s like calling up spirits from the vasty deep – and a frisson of the pleasure of the book can be relived in a moment. She will hate me revealing this, but she only gave up the nightly reading-aloud routine when GCSE revision kept her up later than me. By the end, we were reading Tolstoy, Boccaccio, Voltaire, Fitzgerald, Waugh… and then she took up those authors herself to discover more. We read the whole of LOTR (we did skip the bits in Elvish) and the whole Sherlock Holmes collection (except the one in which he dies, which she couldn’t bear) - those took 18 months each. I still occasionally read to her, especially if she is ill.

She hated GCSE English Literature passionately, which surely demonstrates the massive divide between the education system and creating readers, for she reads anything from picture books to Sartre. She can be reduced to howls of anguish by Small Daughter saying ‘The egg was young…’ (Egg Drop, Minnie Grey) or ‘Je déteste mon bec, je déteste le jaune…’ (Le Toucan Jaloux, Bénédicte Guettier). Surely this is what a reader is, rather than someone who can take a book apart but remain unmoved by it?

I wish I could see step into the future to see what type of readers the two French children from BnF will become. Surely, having been taken to the exhibition at all, they are in the best possible starting position? One of the saddest moments in Michael Rosen's programme Just Read was the little girl Lauren who said she was too big to be read to. No-one is too big to be read to - not even me.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Burning the midnight oil - Linda Strachan

I like to write at night because it is more peaceful. The phone doesn’t ring, no one comes to the door and there is that edgy quiet, if you need it, that darkness and the silence within which it brings.

I also find myself writing emails and doing all sorts of odd jobs on the computer often late into the night. The other day, well it was night really; I sent an email about a book cover to my illustrator, designer and a note to my agent, too. It was very late and I didn’t expect anyone to answer I just was trying to clear a few things from my desk. Almost immediately there was a flurry of emails.

It made me wonder how little the established ‘norm’ of working 9-5 applies to not just writers but many of the other people working in publishing. Email makes all of this possible but I wonder if it makes us also a slave to the job.

With so many freelance workers with the ‘freedom’ to choose our working time do we find ourselves forgetting to stop, trying to just write this last email, check this text, until the wee small hours or until our eyes are so tired or sore we can no longer see?

Is it a freedom or when does it become a compulsion, a drug - the temptation to get it all finished (when it never really is - there is always another email) overtaking all good sense?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

February Blues Catherine Johnson

I have had about eight weeks of NOT WRITING ENOUGH. Actually not writing anything if you discount some editing and a piece for the newspapers that got spiked. Before I start moaning and descend into Ed Reardon territory may I say that I like being a writer. I like it best when the words are flying and the numbers in my diary (I am almost OCD about word counts) grow faster than the funds in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scam.
But I have not been in that happy place for some time now.
I have had a few knock backs recently, and judging from the chat amongst other writers I am not the only one. There really is only one thing we can do.
Get up, go for a swim or a walk, talk to our friends. Talk to ourselves about stories. But most of all write.
Because the best cure for all this misery is losing yourself in a really good story. One that makes you feel excited - even if nobody else wants it. That's what I keep telling myself anyway

This morning I was sitting in my favourite caff when I saw outside in the street a pigeon wandering about unable to fly because it had a ring doughnut jammed over it's head.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Questions, Questions! - Katherine Langrish

Q: Where do you get your ideas from?

Author [thinks]: How the hell do I know? Do you really want to stand here for hours while I analyse my creative processes?
[Aloud, trying to preserve pleasant smile] What an interesting question! I suppose from all sorts of places… anecdotes and stories, my own past… A lot of it’s to do with asking myself what would happen if…
[But Q’s eyes are glazing over]
Author, hastily: The Muse! It’s the Muse. Flashes of inspiration from the ether!
Q [jokily]: And are you going to be the next JK Rowling, ha ha?
Author [thinks]: You bastard!
[Aloud, with light laugh and wave of hand]: Oh, I think she’s a one-off, a phenomenon, it’s not exactly likely…
[…but Q’s eyes are again glazing over, s/he not in fact being interested.]
Q [accusingly]: So when are we going to see you win one of these prizes?
Author [thinks]: Arrrgh*?!@*!#! Never, that’s when. But oh God, s/he’s right, I should have won something by now, been on a shortlist at least; I’m a failure, I’m an overlooked failure!
[Aloud, forcing smile to cover bleeding heart] Oh well, there’s a lot of competition you know, there are so many brilliant books out there!
[Q: nods gravely, concealing amused disbelief]
Q [even more accusingly]: I looked everywhere in WH Smiths/Waterstones/Borders and I couldn’t see your book anywhere. Why don’t your publishers make sure they stock it?
Author [thinks]: Yes, why the hell don’t they? Because they don’t care, that’s why. I’m not important enough.
[Aloud, carelessly]: I expect they’d sold out.
Q: Do you think you’ll write a proper book one day?
Author [livid, thinks]: You mean ‘an adult novel’, don’t you, you little sh*!*t! I don’t even want to bother talking to you!
[Aloud, in a cool voice:] You think a children’s book doesn’t take as much talent, craft, and effort as any other work of fiction?

Q [taken aback, but not actually convinced] Oh – no, of course I don't!

Q: Should I have heard of you?
Author [thinks, satirically]: How I’d love to say ‘Yes!’
[Aloud, politely]: Well – not unless you have children who read a lot.
Q: Why don’t you turn your book into a film?
Author [thinks, wearily]: Why don’t you give me a magic wand?
[Aloud; mysteriously]: It’s been sent to a few agents, of course – we’ll just have to wait and see.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Minding the gap

I’m having a life crisis! I won’t call it a mid-life crisis because, although I am mid-life and this is all about work and emotion and mental state, mid-life crisis suggests something you do once – whereas I have tended to lurch from one crisis to another ever since home-educating my children stopped being the main thing I did and my portfolio of writing, youth theatre and counselling re-placed it - always with writing novels feeling like ‘the most significant thing’.

But oops! Talking things through with a friend who is a life coach last week, I came to the realisation that things have changed. Although I still enjoy writing and want to carry on, I have lost the absolute ‘die for it’ passion that I once had – or at least, I have for writing lengthy fiction. Hand on heart, the book that I’m most proud of and which gives me the biggest sense of personal satisfaction is ‘Wha’ever – the teenager’s guide to spinal cord injury’ published by the Spinal Injuries Association and unavailable except through them.

And why is that? Why, whilst running a children’s book group, teaching creative writing in a variety of contexts, being a member of two book groups myself, has writing fiction slipped down my pecking order of Things I Would Die Rather Than Not Do. Is this just a knee jerk reaction because my agent doesn’t like my latest opus – and actually, neither do I?

No, I think not. There are many, many factors in the mix and it took me two and a half hours to unravel them with my friendly life-coach – but what may be relevant here on an authors’ blog is the difficulty in getting what you want to write published by publishers! For many years, I was published by Lion Hudson, the only Christian publishing house publishing specifically for the secular market – so although spirituality was an important and very welcome thread in the mesh I wove, it wasn’t expected to be a dominant theme in my fiction – indeed, that would have been unacceptable. But last year Lion Hudson stopped publishing children’s fiction and although I have had books published by other publishers, gaps that suit me are hard to find – and the point is, that I’m not sure I want to look! For me, the real joy is in writing what is on my heart and what is challenging my mind – whereas it seems to me that, very understandably, the way publishing now works is that a gap is spotted and writers try to fit their writing to that slot. Maybe that’s a very controversial thing to say? I don’t know – it’s just what I perceive to be the case. Let’s see if anyone comments!

Meanwhile, I’m not giving up as a writer – but I am valuing much more the different ways I write (of which there are many!) and looking at expanding them. That feels like the sensible thing to do right now. Until my next life crisis, that is!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

An ode for Valentine’s Day - Linda Strachan

Falling in and out of love…

A spark, a gem, a delight! What bliss
Words tumble to the page, characters hiss
They cry, they laugh, they’re a curious lot
That incredible idea, that wondrous plot
It’s working, it’s wonderful, a charm and a joy
You’re going to be hailed as the next Tolstoy

But wait what is this? It just doesn’t work
You twist it and turn it. Somewhere in the murk
The answer must lie, but your mind is a mess
The plot has turned stale, stress! stress! stress!
It’s rubbish, it’s hopeless, throw it all in the bin
Who said you could write? That plot is so thin.

Wait a minute, perhaps, yes! The answer is clear
Once more the words flow and the end is near
That wild excitement, the rush to the finish
Burning midnight candles and nothing can diminish
The triumph, euphoria, no need to be coy
It’s finally complete - jubilation and joy

Gonna Write It In An Attic - John Dougherty

Wouldn't it be nice to write a classic of children's literature?

Well, yes, of course it would. You know that. I know that. Those people who, on discovering you write for children, chuckle, 'Ah, the next JK Rowling, eh?' know that. The question, of course, is: how do you do it?

Actually, even before you ask how to write one you have to define what we mean by 'a classic'. My MacBook's onboard dictionary tells me that it's 'a work of art of recognised and established value'. I suppose on that basis I could argue all my books are classics: their value has long been both recognised and established as £3.99 (well, except for Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy, which is £5.99). I don't think that's quite what the dictionary means, though.

Wikipedia takes an interesting approach; its list of children's classics is defined as 'A list of the most important children's books, which were published at least 90 years ago, and were written for children and/or are still enjoyed by children today'. The 90-year limit suggests the author of this sentence believes either that a book has to stand the test of time before it can be considered a classic, or that classics can only be written by dead people; assuming it's the first, I think perhaps (s)he has a point. I personally think it's highly likely that some at least of the Harry Potter series, for instance, will come to be considered classics, but I think it's too early to start calling them that yet. The point that a book doesn't have to have been written for children to be a children's classic is a good one, too.

I wonder if we need to go back as far as 90 years to find classics, though. What about, say, CS Lewis's Narnia stories? They're over 50 years old, and still in print and loved by children. I'd like to think they qualify for classic status. I suppose by those criteria you'd have to count the Reverend W Awdry's Railway Series as classics, too. And the Famous Five, for that matter.

My musing on this point was inspired by the fact that I've recently been reading Alice's Adventures In Wonderland (one of the obvious classics) to my daughter for her bedtime story (although she's currently taking a break from Alice for a quick whizz through one of the Rainbow Fairies books). She's loving Alice; but one of the interesting things I've noticed is that she's clearly not getting all of it; and in fact, I'm spotting quite a bit that I didn't get when I read it as a child. Winnie-the-Pooh, likewise. There's a lot in the stories of the Bear of Very Little Brain that is actually adult-level (or at least teen-level) humour; when, in my teaching days, I read it to my Year 3 class they completely missed a lot of what, to me, were the funniest bits.

Which makes me wonder: to write a classic, do you actually have to appeal to adults, too? Does there have to be something in there to make parents want to share it with their children - or perhaps to make children keep coming back to it as they grow up, as I did with the Narnia stories? But then - and I speak as one whose son was utterly obsessed with the wretched Thomas between ages 2 and 6 - wouldn't that disqualify the Railway Series (except in the eyes of ardent train-spotters)?

Perhaps there's no one answer. Perhaps there's a certain amount of serendipity involved for the books that rise to the top and stay there to become classics, just as we all know of books that we think are fantastically good but that somehow never got noticed. Maybe many of us who post on here have written books that have already become recognised classics in another universe even though, in this one, they are barely managing to stay in print. It would be nice to think so.

It'll be interesting to see what thoughtful comments members of the ABBA community have to make on the theme of what makes a children's classic. It'll also be interesting to see who is first to get the reference in the title to this piece...

Oh - and: Happy Valentine's Day, book lovers.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Flying towards the dark - Dianne Hofmeyr

illustration by Jude Daly from 'The Star-bearer'

I’m home in the dark. Yesterday I arrived, dragging my case through the sleet from South Ken tube station, clutching a skimpy cardigan, bare brown feet in their paper-thin shoes slowly going blue, and couldn’t budge the door for the mounds of post stacked up behind it. Not a single incredible book deal or film offer! So I took to my bed with coffee and some back copies of the London Review of Books [less formidable than the buff-coloured envelopes] and found this bitter-sweet poem by Francis Hope [for which I have no permission].
Goodbye to the Villa Piranha[the house I’ve left behind has no such fancy name]

Prepare the journey North,
Smothering feet in unfamiliar socks.
Sweeping the bathroom free of sand, collecting
Small change of little worth.

Make one last visit to the tip
(Did we drink all those bottles?) and throw out
The unread heavy paperback, saving
One thriller for the trip.

Chill in the morning air
Hints like a bad host that we should be going.
Time for a final swim, a walk, a last
Black coffee in the square.

If not exactly kings
We were at least francs bourgeois, [africain bourgeois?] with the right
To our own slice of time and place and pleasure,
And someone else’s things. [in this case our own]

Leaving the palace and its park [a matter of perspective when you return to a postage stamp flat]
We take our common place along the road,
As summer [a southern hemisphere summer] joins the queue of other summers,
Driving [flying] towards the dark.

Apart from the poem now here in the dark, alongside the upturned case and its contents of useless sandals and gossamer shirts, I’ve also discovered amidst the heap of post a letter that states:

‘There are holes in your plot!’ A polite way of saying – you’ve lost the plot? And references to ‘this first draft’.

What? Does she really believe this is my first draft??? Doesn’t she know how many drafts have been in my head before even committing anything to paper or how many have drafts have subsequently been written??? Hasn’t she read our latest blogs??? Doesn’t she know that no writer of any substance would ever dream of not re-writing? We just don’t like others to tell us to re-write.

So here in the dark, I’m ignoring all this. I’ve snuggled back under the duvets with these wondrous back copies of the London Review telling of writers who never have holes in their plots, with yet more coffee… and perhaps I won’t come out again until summer comes to London and things look different and I can write a blog called: Flying towards the light!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Desk Jealousy - Charlie Butler

That Adele Geras! Yesterday she uploaded a wonderfully tidy desk picture, and I felt jealous (I suspect I'm not the only one), and ashamed of the depths of disorder to which my own desk - and, by extension, I - had fallen. If the desktop is the window of the soul, then mine is located somewhere round about Dante's fifth circle, and falling.

By way of catharsis - or self-flagellation - let me offer you this alternative vision, taken the minute I'd read Adele's post. Here are some of the features of interest:

1) My pearwood recorder. Like the second Doctor Who, I find playing the recorder a very useful aid to thought. My trusty descant seldom leaves my desk, unless to dance round the room with me in an ungainly pas de deux. Some of my best ideas have come to me as I tooted out a bit of Dowland.
2) The coffee cup. Of course there's always a coffee cup...
3) Reading the Awfully Big Blog Adventure is a terrible displacement activity. Actually, has anyone ever done a book of Displacement Activities? Surely a publisher might be interested - and writers are world's experts on the subject. I could edit an anthology, perhaps, and call it Thieves of Time. Hmm, perhaps I'll spend half an hour making a list of things to go in it...
*half an hour later*
4) This is the timetable for my day job, which tells me what I should be teaching, week by week. (What, you didn't think I financed my millionaire lifestyle just by writing for children, did you?)
5) Children's art - which doesn't get replaced as often as it ought. I see that some of these were written for my 44th birthday, which was... a while ago, now. Unfortunately I can't have a desk by a window, or the procrastination would never stop. I could happily pass a day watching raindrops nudge each other down the pane.
6) I've been consulting an atlas of modern history - which, in this context, means after 1483. I've only just realized, having read a little about the Kingdom of Naples, why half the people in The Tempest have Spanish names, despite coming from Italy. Am I the only one ever to have wondered about that? If not, am I the only one to wonder for approximately thirty years before bothering to look it up? Now that's procrastination!

What you don't see here, of course, is space for a longhand notebook. That's because I write my first drafts in cafes, on sofas, and in really comfortable chairs, not at the desk. So really this isn't a writing desk after all, just the plain vanilla variety. I'm very fond of it, though. It says nothing very good about me or the unhealthy chaos of my brain, but hey - this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

A postcript to my reviews....Adele Geras

Well, yesterday I posted some reviews on ABBA for the first time and today I am jumping in with a series of postscripts, prompted by reactions I've received.
First of all, I apologize for not making clear that Leslie Wilson's SAVING RAFAEL is not yet available to buy. It's published in May and I completely forgot to mention this extremely important fact.
Secondly, I will make clearer which books I write about are for adults and which for children.
Thirdly, I'll try and stick to two books per post. Four is a bit much to take in, I feel.
Lastly, I will try and get more familiar with the technology so that I don't have to rely on wonderful outside help. Damian Harvey, take a bow.
And just to show that I can do it, I'm going to put up a picture of my desk.

Brutal Youth Anne Cassidy

A good review impacts on my writing. I can be in the doldrums for days stuck in the middle of a complicated plot doubting my ability to write anything other than a list for the supermarket. Then I find a positive review on the internet and suddenly I’m sitting up straight, I’m buzzing with energy, I’m solving problems and moving my story forward. Somebody thinks my work is good. I am vindicated.

A bad review has a similarly dramatic effect.

Especially when the review comes from my target audience, teenagers.

My new book, JUST JEALOUS is out. When a new book comes out it’s like a new beginning. This will be the one that takes you forward that builds your reputation that makes you a dead cert for the Richard and Judy treatment. You wait with bated breath to see what people think. You sigh with relief when the first review is read. It is liked! It is admired! And then you find your first teenage review.

“Not the best book I’ve ever read.”

It’s like a physical blow. I’ve had worse reviews but it’s the brevity and the throwaway nature of the comment. It’s like a sneer and I’m reminded of Lauren, the ‘not bothered’ teenager, created by Catherine Tate. Seven words that resign my efforts to the mediocre bin. This book so under whelmed the reader than she couldn’t be bothered to say another word about it.

I want to remonstrate with my critic; I want to explain, to point out all the clever narrative tricks I have employed, to illustrate my talent with a stunning line or two. I want to offer my back list in mitigation and promise future plot lines that will compel and dumbfound and excite.

But it’s too late because she’s walked away. I only had one chance to impress her and that’s gone. She’s left me behind a crumpled heap on the floor of my study.

Oh brutal youth.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Reviews for ABBA - Adèle Geras

This is my first post reviewing for ABBA. Just to recap my policy about reviewing: I’ll try and highlight books I’ve enjoyed, for both adults and children and will also be noticing books by friends of mine, acquaintances of mine and other members of the SAS. I hope that strikes everyone as okay and fair and not too LOGROLL- Y! I’ve got four books to start me off.

SERIOUS THINGS by Gregory Norminton 4th Estate (pbk)

You know the kind of story: a person in the present, writing about events in the past during which some ghastly thing has happened which will eventually come to light. Quite often, the events in the past involve a school and teachers and boys and they very often have a sexual dimension. So far, so predictable and I wouldn’t be highlighting this book if it weren’t for the fact that even though all the foregoing is true, Serious Things is a seriously good novel and well worth your time.
The narrator is Ben, who is shambolic, overweight, and gay. He divides his narrative between Then and Now and the whole thing begins when he meets, after many years, someone he knew at school. There are many impressive things about the way the story unfolds, not least the impeccable management of the First Person Narrative. Ben’s background is unusual; his parents work for the British Council in the Far East and he’s sent to boarding-school where he endures a low level of misery for a very long time. He makes one friend and one teacher becomes more and more important to him. What then unfolds is brilliantly conveyed: the misery, the elation, the lead-up to the great secret event and even better, what happens to Ben as an adult subsequently. It’s gripping and exciting and in very many ways unexpected. Normiston knows a great deal about the natural world nature and all the descriptions...I don’t want to give anything away so can’t say what they’re descriptions of...are quite breathtakingly good. The school, too, joins a line of horrible establishments groaning under the weight of arcane rules and riddled with petty meannesses. At times it’s hard to believe we’re talking about the 1970s. I do urge anyone who has a taste for this sort of novel to give Serious Things a try. Bet you’ll thank me!

TETHERED by Amy McKinnon (Orion Books)

I read this novel in proof. It appeared in the United States last year , but today it’s being published in the UK for the first time.

I confess that I get through an enormous number of crime novels. I love them. There are certain kinds of books I avoid: those whose USP is ever more Baroque and hideously inventive ways of dispatching victims; those where the writing is so weedy and sparse that it’s only the puzzle element that might keep you going; those that take pleasure in torture and cruelty and above all, those where the characters are neither believable nor particularly interesting. What I admire most in all novels is the writer’s ability to put together a whole universe ready for me to step into. I like detail. I like a book to have a strong sense of place. I like an involving plot and I do admire good writing. And if there’s some element in the narrative of the unusual, of a part of the fictional forest that hasn’t been much explored, then so much the better.

That’s why I enjoyed Tethered so much. We are in Brockton, Massachusetts and in a funeral parlour where Clara March, the heroine, works at preparing the bodies of the dead for burial. The business is owned by Linus, and as Clara tells us, most people trust him to take good care of their funerals because “his is a sincere belief.” He and his wife Alma are almost like parents to Clara, who helps the dead on their way to the after- life with a bouquet of flowers grown in her own garden. The imagery of gardens and flowers and the meanings and symbolism of the different plants she grows are strong threads running through the book. This was one of the main things which for me lifted ‘Tethered’ above the ordinary run of crime novels.

The first person narrative, which is well-managed at all times and which rings completely true, takes us right up close to the bodies. Perhaps the detail of Clara’s work in the funeral parlour may be a little too much for some tastes but the descriptions are neither gloating nor prurient. They are completely matter- of-fact and sombre and very often poetic. They help us understand the damaged Clara and the complicated history she carries with her into the events that unfold in the present.

The mystery concerns a child, known as Precious Doe, who died some three years before the novel opens. One day a young girl called Trecie wanders into the funeral parlour and Clara is then drawn into a renewed police investigation. It’s Detective Mike Sullivan who questions Clara about Precious again because of a more recent death and the rest of the story, together with the relationship between Mike and Clara, unfolds from that point. Along the way, a morass of horror, corruption and exploitation of the young is uncovered. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling readers’ pleasure.

I couldn’t put this book down when I read it and I do recommend it to anyone who likes crime fiction with the kind of attention to real-life detail at which the Scandinavians excel – and something of that bleakness too. It’s a book that shows you an America you don’t often see, written by someone who sees a strangeness in ordinary things.

Linda Newbery: The Sandfather. Orion Children’s Books. (pbk)

The cover of this book, while very attractive, doesn’t tell you much about the novel within. This is the story of Hal, a mixed-race boy who has never known the identity of his father. Circumstances send him to a seaside town in the off-season and the book is, on one level, about Hal trying to find out who his father was. It’s a real page-turner, with multiple plot-strands: full of engaging characters and laced throughout with both humour and mystery. We come to care about everyone we meet. Linda is good at conveying a sense of place and this seashore comes most vividly alive. One of the best characters is an eccentric artist called Don Inchbold and he provides a subtly symbolic dimension to the narrative. The book is both well and simply written and if you can get them past the Hokusai-type cover, it’s a story many boys would greatly enjoy.

Leslie Wilson. Saving Rafael. Andersen pbk

There was much discussion on Balaclava about the cover of this book, so I’m sure a lot of SAS members will remember this book. The novel is about a love affair between the heroine, Jenny and a Jewish boy called Rafael, and the action unfolds in war-time Berlin under the eyes of the authorities. It shows us a part of the story of the Second World War which we’re not so familiar with: the fact that there were Germans rescuers who hid their Jewish neighbours even though discovery would have meant death for everyone concerned. The historical detail is very thoroughly researched and through her mother, Leslie has personal knowledge of these events. A fascinating story.

Friday, 6 February 2009

SUSAN PRICE: Rewriting

When I was a child, our house was littered with drawings, on used, opened-out envelopes, or old wallpaper, and even drawing-pads. My brother drew dinosaurs or battles (and battling dinosaurs), my sister drew swimming seals or people, and my father's drawings were usually of aeroplanes or birds.

They all had one thing in common: there would be repeated attempts at the drawings. My Dad, for instance, would do a sketch of the whole plane, and then, underneath, another drawing of its undercarriage, and another of its wings. He hadn't been happy with the first drawing, so he practiced the bits he felt needed improving. Turn the paper over, and there would be another, larger, better drawing of the whole plane.

These sketches taught me something without my ever realising I'd learned anything at all - 'You won't get things right the first time, so repeat them until you do'.

My own drawings were usually of people. As a child, I drew far more than I wrote; in my early teens, I drew and wrote about equally. After my first book was accepted, when I was sixteen, writing took over from drawing (and I haven't seriously drawn anything for about thirty years now). But the lesson that I never knew I'd learned moved with me from drawing to writing. If I wasn't happy with something I'd written, I rewrote it – and if I still wasn't happy, I rewrote it again, and again, many times if need be, until I thought I couldn't improve it any more.

I didn't think I was doing anything noteworthy. Rewriting was part and parcel of writing. It was just what you did; as much a part of writing as using a pen.

Years passed, and, in the way of impoverished writers, I started teaching Creative Writing. But between you and me, gentle reader, I was puzzled as to what 'Creative Writing' was exactly. And even more puzzled as to what I could teach my students. If I had ever stopped to think about what I did when I wrote a book, I couldn't remember doing it.

I consulted a few 'How to Write' books, to find out what those authors told their students, and it was enlightening. “Oh, I do that! Who'd have thought it?” I resolved only to steal those 'creative writing' tips that I could honestly say I used myself. (So you'll hear only a perfunctory mention in my classes about keeping notebooks, or meditating, or doing ten minutes of 'automatic writing' every morning.) My classes were about setting scenes, writing dialogue, building plots. It never occurred to me to tell anyone to rewrite, because to me rewriting was writing. I didn't think anyone would need to be told that.

Slowly, over weeks, it became apparent to me that the idea of rewriting had never, ever occurred to many – not just a few, but many – of my students. A lot of them seemed to think it was cheating. A real writer, they seemed to think – Thomas Hardy, let's say – just sat down and wrote Tess of the D'Urbervilles straight off, from beginning to end, never blotting a word; and then he packed it off to his publishers who printed it without asking for a single change. That's the kind of genius he was. That's the way a real writer works.

If my students wrote a story, and found themselves dissatisfied with it, they concluded that it was another failure, put it away, and tried to forget about it. The next thing they wrote, that might be perfect.

“Couldn't you,” I suggested nervously, not at all sure I was on firm ground here, “couldn't you rewrite it?”

They were astonished. But they'd finished it! And it wasn't any good. What was the point of wasting more time on it?

“But nothing I've ever written,” I said, “was much good in its first draft. But if I like the idea – if there are bits that are good – I rewrite it, and improve it. I've rewritten some things dozens of times over. I rewrote the whole of GHOST DRUM six or seven times, and I rewrote the ending many more times than that.”

Some of the class were quite excited by this revolutionary idea. Others were as plainly horrified, reminding me of a little girl in Year 4 of a school I once visited. Her story was so good, I told her, that she should rewrite it. The look she gave me would have reduced a lesser writer to a pair of smouldering boots.

But having belatedly realised that rewriting was actually a tool of the writer's trade that I'd never before suspected I was using, I became evangelistic about it. “Rewrite!” I cried to each new intake of students. “You must rewrite!”

And then one of my students stopped me in my tracks by asking, “But how do I know what parts I have to rewrite? How do I know which words I should change?”

Well – er – quite. Obviously, these are the technical complexities Jordan was referring to when she spoke of her ghost writer 'putting it into book words'. When a writer, like wot I am, takes the raw first draft and puts it into book words, what exactly is it I are doing?

I hadn't a clue. Look, I only write the stuff – I don't waste my time thinking about it, any more than a ditch-digger thinks much about ditch-digging. She just heaves another shovel-ful of mud.

But there were my students, waiting for an answer. So I gave thinking about it a try. And boy, did my brain hurt...

To be continued....

Why Write For Children? - Sally Nicholls

Why do you write for children? is a question I get asked every now and then. It's a good question. Here are some of the good reasons why people do it:

1. You love children’s books, and always have.
2. You have recently discovered children’s books and been blown away the amazing things writers are doing in this field (if you answered no to both of these questions - for shame! Go and read some Philip Pullman/Hilary McKay/Rosemary Sutchcliff/Mary Norton/David Almond immediately!)
3. All of your ideas are for children’s books. You aren’t sure why.
4. You have very vivid memories of being a child - many of the most significant things that ever happened to you were in childhood.
5. You are halfway through your epic fantasy about a little girl who finds a magical kingdom at the bottom of her sock drawer, and friends have suggested that it might not be suitable for adults. (This isn’t as unusual as you might think - Michael Rosen, Mark Haddon and Meg Cabot all started out thinking their writing was for adults).
6. You have no idea. You recognise it is probably an insane ambition.

And here are some of the bad reasons:

1. You’ve read some of the tosh that gets published and you can do better than that. Really? I sympathise with the desire to write something easy - when I was a little girl I wanted to write alphabet books on the same basis - but just because something looks simple, doesn’t mean it is.
2. You’ve read Harry Potter and it was utter tosh - you can do better than that. If you think Harry Potter is tosh, you’ve missed all the reasons why children love it - the humour, the read-aloud writing style, the vibrant characters, the plot twists and the deeply complex world-building. Children want to go to Hogwarts because it’s clear that J K Rowling does too - if you think what you’re writing is tosh, they will recognise this.
3. Children’s authors are loaded, right? Cue hollow laughter. Most authors earn less than minimum wage - around £6000 a year. And that’s just the ones that get published.
4. You want to be a writer and children’s books are easier than adult books. Probably true if you’re a celebrity and can afford a ghost writer. Otherwise, bear in mind that while you have to get everything right that you would in an adult book - plot, character, motivation, language etc - you also have to be aware the whole time that you are writing for people who are fundamentally not you, and come with their own needs and expectations. Not easy.
5. You’ve written a story and your children loved it. Children love attention, they love stories and they love anything created especially for them. It’s great that your kids liked your story - but this in no way means it is publishable or has any wider appeal.

Please note that neither of these lists are exclusive.

Thursday, 5 February 2009


Once upon a time, my kids (and my class) had a wonderful, well-loved book by Richard Scarry called “What Do People do All Day?”, where the newspaper-editor pig sat at his typewriter, wearing his eyeshade. Was there also a large lady hippo, lying on a sofa, with a scroll and a bunch of grapes by her side, or is that just the illusion so many people have of the writer's life?

For those interested in such details, my TO DO list today is something like this:

*Contact four separate schools to speak to a member of staff about sessions and schedules for a writing project. (Last week I did leave a number and message at two of the schools, but they haven’t rung back yet. )
*Reply & negotiate with a school who sent a detailed visit outline, but which doesn’t fit the way I work or distance I have to travel.
*Reply to three emails asking me if I am free on World Book Day, please. (I’m not.)
*And asking could I give full details of what I do, and how much I charge. (The answer is in the Author Visit section of my website.)
*Contact the organiser of an event where my audience that was 3 sessions for Early Years & Reception classes is now 4 sessions for 60 babies and toddlers and parents and carers.
*Contact a writer I met yesterday, forwarding some urgent information before I forget.
*Contact a Festival Organiser urgently about needing accommodation. And also a librarian.
*Emails/cards of thanks to three librarians, two schools, and someone at the BBC.
*Email a publicity picture and personal “blurb” to a festival organiser.
*Create two invoices & post.
*Renew my “Visiting Author” Insurance.
*Calculate mileage for an event where the finance has to be applied for beforehand.
*Check multimap for directions to an imminent event. This is not something you leave to the night before, especially in this weather. (Luckily they have a new detailed print-out showing all the junctions en route.)
*Check multimap for directions to the four schools at the start of this list, and then work out a realistic starting time for the days.(Unluckily, multimap still gives timings that are about two-thirds of the time needed.)
*Unpack, check and repack my “Talk-Bags” of books & rough proofs and so on that accompany my visits.
*Look over a revised short text an editor has worked on, and comment.
*Contact editor with a requested story idea for an anthology.
*Wash wearable clothes, as I now have nowt that I could go visiting in.
*And do some of that . . . what’s it called now? . . . ah, yes! WRITING WORK!

Sorry if this sounds crabby. I do know how hard it is to organise all that an event needs, or to get a whole school staff to agree their sessions, and I do like doing all kinds of visits and being with children, but sometimes the admin seems to take up all my usable time. However, with publishers taking months to get contracts and money sorted, sometimes it’s the need for real cash that counts. Grouch over. Dilemma still existing.

So what can I leave till tomorrow, so I can write today??? Well, there’s that ABBA posting . . .

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Nursery tale - Nick Green

With my son being of nursery school age, I often find myself listening to CDs that I wouldn’t normally choose to play. While this can sometimes be a rare form of torture, it does occasionally turn up delights. The other day I happened to hear a very pleasant arrangement of an old nursery rhyme. And it struck me: what a great little piece of storytelling.
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny's so long at the fair.

Promising start. Begin with a question. Something is wrong, but we don’t know what. We want to know what’s the matter. Already we’re wondering: who’s this Johnny character, why is he gone so long, and who is this person missing him?
He promised to buy me
A trinket to please me
And then for a smile,
Oh, he vowed he would tease me
He promised to buy me
A bunch of blue ribbons
To tie up my bonnie brown hair.

Ah! It grows clear. It’s his sweetheart, left behind. There’s some reason why she can’t go to the fair too. In my head she’s a servant. I’m seeing milk urns, laundry laid on stones. Is Johnny another servant, or a local lad from the village? At any rate, he’s got the day off. I get the impression that he’s a bit of a charmer.

Oh, dear! What can the matter be? (x3)
Johnny's so long at the fair.

He promised to bring me
A basket of posies
A garland of lilies,
A wreath of red rosies –

More promises! Really, that’s quite a shopping list. Now I’m picturing a long exchange between this couple, on the back doorstep, before Johnny set off. Doesn’t it sound like he had to do some persuading, before she was happy to let him go to the fair? No doubt she hoped to go with him, but her mistress made her work. Still, why was she reluctant to let her handsome boyfriend go alone? What is she worried about?
But wait, she’s not finished:
A little straw hat to
Set off the blue ribbons
That tie up my bonnie brown hair.
Ooh. See what she did there? She’s getting a hat to complement something (the ribbons) that she doesn’t even have yet. She’s building one fantasy upon another. Our heroine is on shaky ground.

Oh, dear! What can the matter be? (x3)
Johnny's so long at the fair.

He promised he'd buy me
A beautiful fairing,
A gay bit of lace that
the lassies are wearing –
(Johnny is remarkably well informed about female fashions, isn’t he?)
To set off the hat that
Sets off the blue ribbons,
That tie up my bonnie brown hair.
Now she’s going a bit far. Yet another fantasised accessory to add to her imaginary outfit. And now the story is poignant. She’s not just singing about clothes and trinkets here. She’s thinking of all Johnny’s promises, one piled upon another. The heroine’s dreams are reaching upwards, surely towards the idea that one day she and Johnny will marry – but it’s all castles in the air, because her boyfriend’s not even back yet.

Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny's so long at the fair.
What Johnny is actually doing at the fair, history does not record. But I have a sneaky suspicion that she’s blonde.
See? Great storytelling.

Monday, 2 February 2009

The Value of Author Events by Marie-Louise Jensen

I recently did a school visit to a delightful secondary school in Bristol, where the children were engaged, interested and well-behaved. They listened to my talk, asked questions, became enthusiastic as we began to talk about books by other contemporary authors and produced some great writing in a creative writing exercise afterwards.
It was all very enjoyable and the time flew by. Several children were interested enough to buy my books, which was also nice. :-)
I was very perturbed, however, to hear from the member of staff who arranged the event that she’s been asked to prove that these visits are of quantifiable benefit to the children in the school, or the funding for them won’t be continued.
Now, I can quite see that scientists may be able to prove that a certain drug can be used to treat an illness (after expensive trials, of course). But I’m not aware that any one educational method has ever been proven to be better than any other. So how do you prove the value of author visits? (I’m not aware that the school were offering money for a research project on the subject…)
The success of education in general, and perhaps English more than any other subject, is dependent on so many factors. Most subjects go beyond the classroom and are affected by home environment, parental expectation, and socio-economic factors. With all these influences, it makes it very difficult to accurately assess the impact of any individual classroom method over another.
I know that author events have had a huge impact on my own children’s reading. Thank you and bless you Francesca Simon for getting my youngest son interested in books! And gratitude also to Anthony Horowitz and Michelle Paver for extending his reading beyond Horrid Henry. I saw the effect of those events on his reading and his English over a two year period. But would I be able to prove that’s what made the difference? I wouldn’t know where to start.