Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Right to Write Anne Cassidy

I’m glad the Julie Myerson furore has died down. Now I feel that I can creep out of hiding and say what I really think. Myerson wrote a book about her family’s experience of her son’s drug use. I have listened to a number of interviews that she gave and read various articles in which she has been criticised. I was amazed, frankly, at the level of abuse she received. I don’t know Julie Myerson, I’ve never met her and I’ve never read any of her books. I am a writer though like her and I have to say that when she got all this abuse I felt some solidarity with her.

Who has the right to tell writers what they should write about?

I don’t think anyone should feel that they can restrict the subject areas that writers should or should not cover. Writers themselves should make that judgement. Writers of fiction use autobiographical material all the time. They fictionalise it. I know I have. Indeed I would argue that this is what makes my writing successful. When people read my stories they recognise situations and emotions that they may have experienced. They empathise with things that I describe.

Some of the responses to Julie Myerson’s book suggested that she should have written a novel about a mother with a teenage son who was into drugs. That would have been OK, people said.

But she wanted it to be non fiction, a memoir, a piece of autobiography. She wanted to write about her life as it was being lived. She wanted to write some truths about being a mother. What’s wrong with that? Oh! Everyone said, but she shouldn’t have written about her son! That’s criminal. How could someone write a truthful account of being a mother of a teenage boy without mentioning the teenage boy? How could she describe, analyse, inform without giving the reader the whole picture?

She shouldn’t have written it at all, many people said.

But how are we ever to find out the truth about family life if people are discouraged from telling it? Most parents know about the grim teenage years, the years when one’s much loved golden boys and girls turn into strangers. Is this not something to be written about?

Or is it only possible for adolescence to be written about in medical terms or ridiculed in sketch shows or over dramatised in soaps? What’s wrong with an honest account?

Some people said that she should have written the account anonymously and changed the names. But my interest in those real life articles always flags when I know that the John or Sue that I’m reading about is a made up name. How much more powerful these accounts are if you feel that you are reading about real people.

Julie Myerson wanted to lay open her family for inspection warts and all. I wouldn’t have done it (I hide in fiction) but as a writer I think she has the absolute right to do it.

Julie Myerson seems to have paid a heavy emotional price for publishing this book as does her husband and her teenage son and her other children.

But there is a heavy price to pay if we, as writers, start to say what should or shouldn’t be written about

Friday, 27 March 2009

Happy Birthday, Persephone Books Adele Geras

It’s easy to imagine that Persephone Books have been around forever, so completely have their gorgeous silver-grey covers become a part of our reading lives, but in fact they are only ten years old this year. That’s a good enough reason, I hope, to celebrate a publishing house that produces books (mostly by women) which have fallen out of print or otherwise been neglected. They have a shop in Lamb’s Conduit street in London and that’s a wonderful place to visit and in which to do some quantitative easing ( shopping, to you and me!) when you’re in the Covent Garden area. They otherwise operate by very efficient and good-value mail order. Their books cost £10 (this is uniform throughout the list) and you can get a bargain if you buy three at a time.

From the beginning, they’ve been uncovering gems and bringing them to our attention in a most delightful way. Each book has endpapers printed with a pattern taken from a fabric or wallpaper pattern which echoes both the period and the feel of the work. This pattern is also on the bookmark which accompanies every Persephone volume and I, like many other people I know, treasure each one I receive and put it neatly between the pages of its own book and never use it on anything else I’m reading.
Their authors are among the best writers of novels, short stories, social history, cookery books, and essays you could imagine. You’ll find titles by Monica Dickens, Richmal Crompton, Marghanita Laski, Noel Streatfeild, Lettice Cooper, Molly Panter-Downes (how did she survive school, I wonder, with a name like that?) and many, many others but my favourite among all the Persephone writers is the amazing Dorothy Whipple.

Before reading about her in the catalogue, I’d never heard of her. She was a very popular and bestselling writer in her day (1930s and 1940s) with many of her novels becoming Book of the Month Club choices. One of her books was made into a movie starring James Mason. Thanks to Persephone Books, she is now their most successful writer and deservedly so. I wrote an article about her work for my husband’s blog a short while ago, and I’m taking the easy way out and linking to that piece instead of saying the same things all over again here. I do urge you to click on the link and read about a tremendously good woman writer whom I think many of you will like very much. I’m a huge fan and like all fans, I like trying to convert my friends.

For those of you who don’t feel like trying a Dorothy Whipple (her name does remind me of an ice-cream and indeed I believe there is a brand called WHIPPLE in the USA) there is much, much more on the Persephone Books Website. You’re sure to find a treasure there and I hope that the firm flourishes and grows and continues to provide huge pleasure to increasing numbers of readers.

GRIM GRUESOME VIKING VILLAIN: THE QUEEN'S POISON.

This is the second adventure in this series to come from the pen of Rosalind Kerven. She began publishing her own books in this series and her imprint is called Talking Stone. The first thing to say is, the books are produced to a really high standard with good covers, thick paper, maps and line illustrations by the excellent David Wyatt and so forth. The second thing to say is, these books are just exactly right for anyone of about eight or thereabouts who loves rip-roaring Viking adventures, with plenty of magic mixed into the tales. Kerven knows her subject very well, and that gives a good solid basis of historical fact to her stories. They're set in Jorvik, which in the tenth century was "the heart of a Viking kingdom that sprawled across Northern England." Kerven tells us that it stank of sewage, ships' tar and woodsmoke. It's the place we now call York. No Betty's Tearooms in those days. Rather, we have runes and magic and the exclamation of choice is: Farting Giantesses. The children in the story are easy to identify with and also of their time. The names are wonderful. I'm particularly fond of the children's father, Snorri. Historical characters such as Kind Eirik Blood-Axe and Queen Gunnhild lend an authenticity to stories in which Grim Gruesome himself has a starring role. Is he real or imaginary? You'll have to decide for yourselves, but anyone with a penchant for Vikings should go at once to the Grim Gruesome website and order up some copies of this book and Grim Gruesome adventure number one: The Cursed Sword.
Hours of fun for everyone and a great book to read aloud, too. I'll quote the verse that ends the book, and hope you're all tempted.
"Wolf-guts! Whale-doom! This I swear:
I'll stalk vile children everywhere.
I'll snatch and spike them in my snare
And boil their bones in dark despair."
Sweet dreams, everyone!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Susan Price: Weaving

Desperate for a subject on which to blog, I ventured to offer hints and tips on how to write. After all, after 35 years of earning my living doing it, I thought I might know a bit about it.

Well, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Just call me a fool.

Thinking about what writers do when they write and rewrite a book has left me even more awe-struck with admiration for the books I love than I was to begin with, and astounded at my own audacity in even attempting it.

Just consider even some of the elements that go to make up a book.

Plot
Theme
Characters
Dialogue
Description/atmosphere.

All the time you're writing a book, you're dealing with one or more of these things, balancing them, weaving them together... Because although you can consider them singly, none of them really exist singly. They are, all and each, influenced by all and each.

It's often said that 'characters take over' a book, but that's not entirely true. If the characters really take over, then your plot pin-wheels off in all kinds of directions and breaks apart. The characters have to be characters necessary for the story being told – so plot influences character. It works the other way, of course – the characters have to seem alive and spontaneous, and following a character rather than your carefully planned plot-line can often improve a book. But they work together – characters drive plot, and plot shapes characters.

There are books written on Dialogue, and classes taught on it, as if it's something that exists by itself. Dialogue should always be natural and spontaneous – except, of course, when it's deliberately heightened and theatrical, for effect. The language of a particular character might be affected by their personality, age, background, job, nationality – and, of course, by their current situation and the other characters in a scene. You don't use the same words or manner to your boss as you do to your pet or a close relative.

Having taken all this into account, it may still be that the page of excellent dialogue you've written has no place in your book. It's natural and spontaneous. It reveals character – but does it, at the same time, further the plot? Do we need to know more about the characters at this point? Has this page of dialogue a strong enough reason for existing in your book?

Ditto description and atmosphere. Why have you chosen this setting, and why are you bothering us with these several paragraphs describing it? Does it serve a purpose in the book as a whole, or are you just enjoying the adjectives?

As a practiced driver uses pedals and gear-stick and wheel and indicators without having to think about it, I imagine that most practiced writers don't stop every moment of their working day to agonise about how the plot is shaping character while the characters is driving plot, and dialogue is revealing character and furthering plot, and the descriptions are aiding the theme... They just get on with the writing and then, later, cut out every passage that isn't multi-functional.

The more I consider it, the more I feel like the centipede which, when asked, 'Which leg goes after which?' lay distracted in a ditch, considering how to run.

So, distracted, I sign off, and go to learn again how to run. This is my last blog for a while..

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Comfort Reading - Sally Nicholls


I've been wondering about doing some reviews for a while. About the sort of books you fall in love with, the sort you return to over and over again and read until the pages start falling out.

As a child, I had a lot of 'comfort books'. Noel Streatfield, Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgeson Burnett ... With a library consisting of three shelves in a little white-painted bookcase, my books suffered a lot of re-reading. Even now, my copies of 'Watership Down' and 'The Borrowers' are held together with glue and spit. And the book I read most as a young teenager now has a spine composed entirely of masking tape, with LORD OF THE RINGS printed across it in permanent marker.

As an adult, I've discovered two new 'comfort authors', who make me laugh no matter where I open their books, who I can read again and again until I know whole passages off my heart.

The first is Hilary McKay, in particular her Casson family books, in particular 'Saffy's Angel', which won a well-deserved Whitbread Award for Children's Fiction. The Cassons are a wonderfully anarchic family, with four children all named after paint colours, a mother who sleeps in a garden shed and a father who drops in every now and then from London, dripping expensive accessories. With the help of Saffy's friend Sarah and Cadmium's sexy driving instructor, the Cassons manage to get all around the world in search of love, family and a sense of belonging.

The second is Jaclyn Moriarty, and her three scrapbook books all set in two Australian secondary schools and composed entirely of letters, emails and other ephemera. 'Finding Cassie Crazy' is my favourite, but they're all brilliant. I lent one to a friend recently and she returned it saying, 'I was just like that as a teenager ... I thought I was the only one!' Her teenage girls are bright, spunky, rebellious, vulnerable, imaginative and slightly silly. They are perfectly capable of running away to join the circus one minute, and fighting to preserve their right to privacy and a fair trial the next.

Go and read them immediately.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Who minds the minder? - Penny Dolan

Dearests, rising from the velvet sofa, I finish my fine cup of freshly-ground estate coffee, then sigh as the muse arrives. Reach out for my quill pen, I dip it sharp as a birds beak into my crystal inkwell – a merry gift from a grateful fan - and begin my day’s musings. . . .
No. T’isn’t like that. Now, as the chocolate chickens and rabbits are clogging the supermarket shelves, there’s a Christmas anthology story to write. The tome is back from the editor and I Must Get On With It. By the by, I have an editor-and-consultant version of a story I once wrote to read over, think about and make a reply.

I’ve also got to unload the car from yesterday’s miles-away visit, sort out my talk-bags, and repack for this afternoon’s visit with two early year’s classes at a fairly local library, where, for some odd reason, I originally requested percussion instruments. The problem solving part of my brain is whizzing creatively away about what I intended to do with these as I write.

However, despite all this, I do feel as if I have been living in the above fantasy of luxury. I am feeling very relaxed just now. Almost pampered. Why? Because at yesterday’s busy event, I was “minded” by a children’s librarian. Today I will be minded by a librarian too. It is almost impossible to speak of the difference in stress between the frequently “minderless” day in school, and these wonderful times when someone is there to help you and your sessions go well, and deal with any of the people or admin problems that arrive. Thank you, librarians!

Did you notice that word? “Librarian.” Not “Customer Services Person”. For me, “librarian” is a word that goes with “library”, a place that can be used by young families, by students, by people on low income, by the old and the even older, by groups of various people who love books and reading. I even heard an old man chatting about how he was going to the library to keep warm when the daytime heating in his flat was turned off. It can be used by anyone at all, in fact. Even by politicians.

Yes. The Librarian. The Library. Both under quiet but sinister threat. Go and find last Sunday’s article by Rachel Cooke in The Observer, suitably entitled “Time to go into battle to save our world of books”. Search for Alan Gibbon’s “Campaign for the Book” website, and join it. Visit your local library and see what is happening there. Use it. Borrow books, if you can find some. Think it may be more than time to mind the kindly minder.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Between: N M Browne


I am between books - which is an awful lot like being between jobs. It is a bit of a misnomer. I mean, I will only be between books if at some future moment I write another and right now I am still at the post coital stage - not yet ready to contemplate doing it all again. I'm lying around all passion spent, utterly exhausted, wondering vaguely if it will be good for the reader too.
I finished my last book a week or so ago. I've a few minor tweaks to do and then it's truly over and done with, out of my hands. I have tidied my office (Well, I have had guests,) read a few novels. I am even toying with going to the gym. I have made a start on my 'to do' list - chiefly by writing this - and I am wondering if I should update my website, clean my windows, sort out my kids' wardrobes, clear out the aptly named 'horrible cupboard' under the stairs - you get the picture: I have a very long 'to do' list which is in itself an excellent incentive for writing something new.
The madness, my writing frenzy, has gone now. It is as if it never was and now even the details of the story are beginning to recede. The book that consumed me is now 'my last book',a hazy memory. The next book is not even a twinkle in my tired eyes. I'm in no man's land, a place between worlds, calm, peaceful and ever so slightly lost.
I like the space between books once I know I am indeed between books, once I can see my way clear to beginning to consider the possibility of thinking of another one, once I know that this is just a place between and not my final destination.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The musical muse - Nick Green

I’m a music geek. Until I got married I was that character from ‘High Fidelity’, endlessly scouring Crouch End record shops for the most obscure stuff I could find. And for as long as I can remember, music has played a major part in my writing.

Long before I ever finished anything as long as a novel, I conceived of a grand concept: a novel with its own soundtrack, perhaps contained in an attached CD. My dream is still unrealised (because I can’t compose) but even now, when I write, I find myself constructing a soundtrack to the story out of songs and tracks that I happen to be listening to at the time.

It all began when I was writing a (terrible) fantasy novel as a teenager, when for some reason or other I was heavily into The Eagles. I was listening to one of their tracks ‘Journey Of The Sorcerer’ (better known as the theme tune from ‘The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’) when suddenly the plot came to me, crystal clear, in one blinding flash. The fact that it was a bad plot hardly matters now. I’d discovered that music could lead me places I might never find on my own. Even now, when I play that Eagles instrumental, I think not of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect but of that unpublished fantasy novel.

These days I do it deliberately. When I have a new idea, I start hunting around in my CD racks for ‘that song’ which might capture its mood. When I have it, I might look for other tracks to orchestrate other key scenes. These imaginary soundtracks are inevitably cheesy – subtlety doesn’t work in this context. Until recently, I couldn’t stand the band Coldplay. Suddenly, heaven help me, I found an entire album of theirs (X&Y) which seemed to reflect the atmosphere of my book-in-progress. As a result, I had to play it constantly. At the same time, by way of contrast, a track by the progressive heavy metal band Dream Theater got straight to the heart of the book’s climactic scenes (if anyone is curious, that track is ‘The Ministry of Lost Souls’ from the album ‘Systematic Chaos’. And no, it sounds nothing like Coldplay).

It’s bizarre, this hard-wired link between my musical ear and my writing hand. But it has its uses. I know that a cure to writer’s block lies only as far away as the nearest record shop.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Sayings That Make Me Blink - Joan Lennon

Isn't it great when you stumble across a quote that makes you draw breath! Like the one by William Morris I found when I was looking for something else. This is what he said:

"If a chap can't compose an epic poem while he's weaving tapestry he had better shut up."


It's the sheer, outrageous, well-of-course-we're-creative-don't-make-a-fuss-just-get-on-with-it-ness of it that makes me want to cheer. Yes - we are meant to be creative - it's the way we're built - stop talking about it and getting doing it!

Well, I talk about it lots - I'm talking about it now! And I spent some time looking at Google Images of gorgeous Morris tapestries. To be fair, I should also spend some time checking out the guy's poetry (which I don't know at all) but you know what - I don't think I will. I think I'll just go and get on!

Does anybody out there have any sayings about this strange job of ours that made them blink? I'd love to hear them!

P.S. I got the picture of the Morris tapestry from a site called www.buzzle.com - thanks for it!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Power of What If - Lucy Coats


I am both blessed and cursed with a 'satiable curtiosity much like that of Kipling's Elephant's Child. This is, perhaps, the main reason I am a writer. My brain is wired to ask the sorts of questions which drive a parent mad in a five year-old. "I wonder why" is one of my default modes, and I am apt to catch myself wondering about such things as the shape of catkins (and why they are like lambs tails at the same time as the lambs frisk in the fields, and whether Nature has a sense of humour about this). The other thing I am prone to is a serious case of the 'What ifs'. I will be reading an old fairy story, forinstance, and I will find myself asking a question such as 'What if the Sleeping Beauty's bad fairy godmother merely had a terrible case of magically induced indigestion from going to too many other parties, and subsequently regretted her curse?' or 'What if Prince Charming turned out to be a wife-beater? What if Cinderella didn't live happily ever after?' among other (you would think) unnecessary and unanswerable queries. Only the thing is, I don't find them unnecessary and I can answer them in any way I want to. Which is the whole point for me of being a children's author in the first place.

There is huge power contained in 'What if', and I harness it unashamedly when I visit schools. For a London school, forinstance, the question 'What if a giant dived into the Thames?' can provoke a session full of imagination and creativity. Would there be a tidal wave? Why did he do it? Was he a nice giant or a horrid one? How would you talk to him (if you wanted to)? Would you need a hero or heroine to do this, or could it be someone unexpected like the shyest person in the class or the postman or a dog? I just love the way that a sense of huge excitement rolls over the room when this kind of communal creativity takes place. And the advice I always give them at the end of a session is this. 'All you really need to tell a good story is those two little words rioting around in your brain, and the courage to follow where they lead you.' The Power of What If is my own personal wizard's wand--much more magical for me than any old abracadabra.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Catching tales by the tail - Anne Rooney


Where do stories come from? The angel may be in the stone waiting for the sculptor to reveal it, but stories are altogether more flighty. Stories flit through the ether; the writer tries to capture one and put it down on paper, like a lepidopterist pinning down butterflies. But what if you don’t get it right? What if the sculptor accidentally lops off one of the wings, or hacks away at a block of stone that doesn’t actually have an angel in it? What if the story twists away and wasn’t what you thought it was?

First, catch your story. A sculptor can go to the quarry and choose the block of stone to work with. Perhaps (s)he hears the angel whispering or singing inside. Take heed, those who ask ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ – there is no idea quarry. Stories have their own ways and behave differently for each writer.

Stories can be petulant, selfish, demanding. Or they can be promiscuous, taking over the zeitgeist so that suddenly everyone is writing the story you thought was uniquely yours. Often, a story gambols across the path when I’m too busy to do anything with it, demanding I drop everything. (My last ghost story, The Hanging Tree, jumped out of the shadows on the way to Waitrose. I had to buy a pen and scribble the idea on toilet paper stolen from the loo.) The story taunts me with its flashy, iridescent colours. It flicks past, so that I catch it out of the corner of my eye, and then it’s gone. Moments later, it returns to run backwards and forwards, saying ‘look how beautiful I am, why aren’t you taking any notice? Think what you could do with me!’ [a bit like boys, really] But when I have time to write and want a story to come, suddenly they’re all too coy. If I sit quietly, or do something else, look away, pretend I don’t care, a story might wander by.

Then there’s the catching of the beast. It’s like catching lizards. Sometimes it slips away completely, sometimes the tail snaps off in my hand leaving a useless end that twitches for a while but won’t grow a new lizard. Given long enough to grow a new tail, the story may be back and catchable, but often not.

The difficulty is in recognizing when you’ve got a lizard-less tail and when you’ve got a tail-less lizard. Does this story just need a bit of sorting, or is it never going to work? I’ve been working on a picture book text for the last few months which, I think, is a lizard in need of a tail – there are only a couple of problems with the narrative. But it will present a challenge to the illustrator that might be insurmountable. I have great faith in illustrators, but not being one myself I can’t be sure if I’m asking too much. This might just be a very long tail that’s going nowhere, but it’s still twitching so far, so I’m hopeful.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Fantasy or Reality? - Linda Strachan


Where is the border between the two and does it really matter?

I, too, have spent the last two weeks doing author visits, speaking to all ages from nursery children to adult learners, young offenders to primary school kids.

The nursery children have a wide-eyed wonder and are willing to believe anything. Tales of talking animals and facts about real creatures sit side by side in their minds and they appear to have no problem believing in both or at least in the possibility of both. They also seem to realise that the animals only really talk in the story and do not expect to have a conversation with a cat or dog they meet in the street.

When you ask adults to suspend their understanding of the universe they know, many are resistant to it and reject anything that suggests magic or fantasy. It is as if it should be confined to their childhood, which they have left far behind. They often seem to fear the idea of taking a step beyond their familiar reality as if it might make them appear ridiculous - a fate worse than …?

We are conditioned by our upbringing, experience and often the expectations of others around us, parents or peers, and sometimes that can be incredibly limiting.

One young primary school child told me she only likes books with no pictures, or only black and white pictures. It was immediately obvious that she thought it made her sound more grown up than her peers and perhaps, by her reckoning, cleverer. I was sad that she thought it necessary to disregard the many wonderful stories told with beautiful illustrations because she was now ‘above all that’. It was tempting to ask her about graphic novels but she would probably not have understood the term anyway.

I don’t expect everyone to love fantasy or to believe in fantastical places or creatures but if we limit our imagination to hard facts and the things we have experienced ourselves we lose the ability to dream.


Without dreams our world becomes dull and mediocre. Without our dreams we lose the ability or will to achieve great things, to invent new wonders or to go out and explore the world, or the universe.



So, have fun and let go every now and then.


Give yourself permission to let a little fantasy into your reality.

Friday, 13 March 2009

'Catherine does not lack ability, only the will to use it.' Catherine Johnson


World Book Day is over a week ago now, but I am still in a haze of March school visits.
On the whole I do like visiting schools more than I ever enjoyed attending school. I suppose it's knowing you are free to leave and never return. I like young people too, I like their company - at least for some of the time anyway. Many of the students I met were preparing for the summer exam season. I thank my lucky stars I am not in their shoes.

Kath Langrish's memory of school got me thinking too. I find it hard to remember anything good about mine. I remember the lessons lasted forty minutes and dreaming up this game which involved moving stick men (one for each minute) from a bench by the side of a river, over the footbridge and safely onto a bench on the other side. When all forty men had made it, the lesson had finished.

I actually visited my old school last year for World Book Day for the first time since I left in 1980. The cherry blossom blew down in drifts of fat pink petals, just like I remembered. The corridors seemed cleaner and the staff room didn't smell of cigarettes.
The uniform had been made slightly less rigid - trousers or skirts, v- neck jumpers, no ties. But it was still terrifying. The hordes of confident, competitive, articulate, girls. The palpable fizz of hormones and ambition. My alma mater is still a school where anything less than A* is as good as a fail. I took my school reports to read aloud. The quote at the top is one of the nicer comments.
The girls couldn't believe that anyone could possibly be happy without an A at O level.
I felt glad that I could show them that I am.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Lessons - Katherine Langrish


Two early school memories. I’m about six, I’m learning to do sums. I have a sheet of simple additions on the desk, and I’m not quick at this, but I am getting the idea:
2 + 6 = 8
4 + 3 = 7
I’m working steadily down the sheet, and then I come to this:
0 + 0 =
What!? I’m baffled. Absolutely and utterly foxed. How can you add two nothings? How?
I grapple with it and grapple with it. Finally I scribble what I know isn’t the answer but is at least an answer:
0 + 0 = 14
I carry my book up to the teacher. Who puts a big red cross beside the sum, and I feel rebuked. She explains, kindly enough, that nothing plus nothing is – well, nothing; and though I sort of understand, I also feel cheated, because the whole point of adding up is – isn’t it? – to make more of something: so making an addition sum out of two zeroes in this way feels unfair, a sleight of hand. And there – I suspect – begins a lifelong mistrust of the rules of mathematics – a feeling that numbers are governed not by laws but by some elaborate set of conjuring tricks. I know I'm wrong, of course, but that's been my emotional response. (And, er, judging by the current state of the economy, maybe I'm not entirely wrong.)

Second memory: I’m about a year older, I have my brown school reading book in my hand, and I’m about to knock on the headmistress’s door. Everyone has to go and read to the headmistress each week. It’s an occasion steeped in ceremony: there’s something special about leaving the classroom while lessons are happening and making this solo pilgrimage across the quiet school hall. The door swings open, and I see her room drenched in sunlight, her window opening onto a garden beyond. I stand at her desk and I read aloud, and the story is Briar Rose. And somehow the feeling of her office – this sunlit, secluded, shut-away space – weaves into the story I’m reading, so that while the tall hedge of briars springs up around the castle, and everyone, even the doves on the roof and the flies on the wall, drop into their century of sleep, I feel as though it’s all happening right now, and the sleepy afternoon enfolds the school for a perfect enchanted moment, now and forever.
My point?
If I do have a point, it’s only that neither of these educational experiences were in any way planned. They were unintentional side-effects. Accidents. Yet I’ve remembered them for years, and they seem to me important, formative moments in my school years, even though the teachers involved never knew, and never could know, what was invisibly going on inside my head. Life happens in the gaps between the lines, the spaces between the atoms, the silences between words. Fascinating, isn’t it? And maybe rather alarming.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!


I’ve hit the front page! OK, it’s only the Banbury and District Review, a freebie newspaper, but it’s still quite enough to mortify me! Not only is the picture a completely ghastly one (I am never photogenic but this one is all manic turquoise eyes, orange skin and a desperate need for a facelift!) but I am referred to as ‘Miss Harper’ throughout which a) sounds prissy b) surprises me by how much it annoys me seeing as I’ve been engaged in the challenge of marriage for 25 years! And – and – worst of all, the photo caption is ‘IN MEMORIAM Author Meg Harper and (inset) Valerie Whitaker’ – so there has been some concern that I am, in fact, no longer with us. (Given the ghastliness of the photo, that wouldn’t seem unlikely!) However, this is me, live and typing, and the dead person is, very sadly, Valerie, and joking aside, I have something quite serious to say about all this.
Why the front page? Well, you may remember from my ‘Lulu’ blog that I’ve recently published an anthology of stories and poems that was the result of a creative writing project last summer at The Mill Arts Centre where I work. It’s called Banbury Stories and the material was all inspired (loosely!) by Banbury’s history (surprisingly lurid, actually) and artefacts on display in Banbury Museum. We’re selling the book at The Mill and the museum, so of course we did a press release – and what were the press interested in? Not, of course, the actual stories and poems or indeed the living writers – but the fact that, very sadly, one of the writers, Valerie Whitaker, died shortly before we went to press, not having told any of us that she had terminal cancer. Since she was possibly the bravest and most positive person I have ever met, none of us guessed she was ill at all. She was still cheerfully exchanging notes on her new writing with one of the team just a couple of weeks before she died.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not dissing the publicity and I am delighted that Valerie has a little posthumous recognition; she was an excellent writer and far more committed to excellence than I am. But what’s going on here? You can bet your life that if Valerie hadn’t died, the whole project would hardly be considered newsworthy and we’d have a tiny bit of column space buried in the middle of the paper. I’m not denying that this is a poignant story. Believe me, the shock of Valerie’s death was severe and those of us who knew her well through the creative writing classes were very shaken. I feel awful that we didn’t get the book out earlier than we did and that Valerie never saw it. But to find the story is front page news for that reason is something I find vulgar and voyeuristic. Banbury Stories is a good little anthology – the stories and poems have value in themselves. Why is it suddenly more interesting because one of the writers has died? Since the newspaper article, two radio stations have been in touch with me wanting interviews as well.
I shouldn’t be surprised. We all know that if you have an interesting back-story, if there is something in your life that the media consider of interest, even if it is entirely irrelevant to your book, then it will help to sell it. The advice to play up your back story is so strong that one is frequently tempted to invent something.
There is no such thing as bad publicity of course (even if I’m cringing over that photo!) – but how sad, how very, very sad that our much respected fellow-writer’s death has been used as reader-bait. Maybe I’m too cynical – maybe the book really is seen as interesting enough in its own right to be seriously newsworthy.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

More dos and don'ts - John Dougherty

Like Damian - and unlike Dianne - I've been doing a lot of school visits over the last week or two, and thoroughly enjoying myself. The schools I've visited this time round, I should say, have been thoroughly well-prepared and I've had a lot of fun talking and performing to groups of very enthusiastic and involved children.

That said, my experiences over the last few years have qualified me to add a few more dos and don'ts to Damian's list...

Firstly, do remember to pay your visiting author. I haven't had too much trouble over this, but there was the time I called a school to check that they'd got my invoice, as it had been a few months now and I still hadn't been paid... to be told, "Oh, we thought the bookshop who organised the event would pay, so when we got your invoice we just ignored it."

Never ignore the invoice. Never. Query it, by all means, but never just ignore it.

Secondly, almost as important as getting the author's name right is getting his or her profession right. It's immensely irritating to find that the teachers are expecting a 'storyteller'. It's not the same thing. Fortunately, the children won't be expecting a storyteller, because if the school's so disorganised that the literacy co-ordinator books an author and then tells her colleagues she's booked a storyteller, the teachers are unlikely to have thought to tell the children anything at all.

Thirdly, if the children are enthused and inspired by the author visit, some of them will need a focus for that enthusiasm and inspiration, so do promote the end-of-day book-signing. You may be surprised by some of the children who are most keen to get their signed copy.

All that said, though - it does work both ways. I've heard so many authors complain - justifiably - about ill-treatment at the hands of schools, that it rather took me by surprise when a teacher who'd booked me for an event this week took a minute for a little moan about some of the authors she'd worked with. One, apparently, rejected everything she was offered for lunch, so that something special had to be made for her, and needed constant attention throughout the day. Another followed a stream of emails with a forty-five minute phone call about her requirements for the visit.

When it comes down to it, I suppose - at the risk of sounding middle-aged - it's simply a question of manners, on both sides. Whether you're an author or a teacher, think about the needs of the other party in the agreement. And remember that the main beneficiaries of any author visit to a school should be the children - and this is most likely to happen if the author and the school treat each other with respect and courtesy.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Entering the Lion's Den - Dianne Hofmeyr

I’m shamed into having to admit that I’ve done no school visits this year. Call it laziness, telling myself I’m too busy writing, lacking in competitive spirit, being too disorganised… whatever it is, I haven’t. Let’s face it, it requires an enormous amount of effort to tear one’s self away from what one likes doing best… playing with words, changing a sentence and then changing it back two seconds later to exactly what you had before. So to be organised enough to set out to visit a school, to find suitable/any clothes, to sort out travel etc requires enormous discipline.



And then there’s the moment of actually entering the lion’s den… that daunting, crowded space of bustling, noisy children when you’re used to spending hours of each day entirely alone in your head.


Damien’s blog struck a cord. So many of us have similar experiences – some great schools, wonderful book displays and an excited atmosphere, others where you come home flattened, having travelled halfway across the country, when you actually wouldn’t mind being Damien Hirst for a day… so you could pickle some teachers or children!

Last night as I read Damien’s suggestions and the positive comments, I was reminded of some experiences. The two girls who designed this Egyptian tile after a session, possibly won’t ever read Eye of the Moon but I sense from their work that for a moment they were transported with the eye of a jeweller or a fabric designer to something beyond the classroom.


And the time I was approached to do a workshop with a group of children with severe special needs, 11-13 year olds whose understanding was approximately equivalent of 0 – 4 years, some partially sighted, most with very little speech ability, where an autistic girl made no eye contact but worked untiringly to produce huge quantities of mosaic work on an Egyptian mural. Did I touch her? Or any of the others? I don’t know. They certainly won’t be reading my books. But at the end there was a tangible air of excitement as they hung the mural they’d made of Nut, the Star Goddess across the Library wall.

And then there was the visit in winter to the Library in Kwanokotula in South Africa where I discovered a group of street children escaping the cold. There weren’t any copies of my books in the library but I sat on the floor and we spontaneously shared and read whatever books we could find.

At the end of a school session, how many of us aren’t approached by a single shy child who hasn’t volunteered anything during the session but has stayed behind to mumble something almost incoherent. They might never become a writer or even an exceptional reader but they’ve been touched by something – there’s been a moment of creative thought that has taken them out of the ordinary. Maybe? I hope so. Enough reason perhaps to energise me out of my lethargy and send me back into the lion’s den.

Friday, 6 March 2009

A Lorra Lorra Laureates - Charlie Butler


One of the most interesting innovations within children’s literature in Britain in the last decade has been the introduction of the post of Children’s Laureate. The idea, I understand, was hatched in a conversation between Michael Morpurgo and Ted Hughes, then Poet Laureate (and a fine children’s writer to boot). The role of the Poet Laureate, who is appointed by the monarch, goes back a little further, to the reign of Charles II and John Dryden – or possibly Charles I and Ben Jonson, depending how you count it. Jonson, typically, arranged to be paid with a butt of sherry (that’s 700 bottles!), and this tradition continues today. No such luck for the Children’s Laureate – though there’s a useful cheque that goes with the job. And – well, at least the Children’s Laureate isn’t required to praise the efforts of the latest member of the royal family who thinks that writing a picture book is Easy, or to write mellifluous verses on the occasion of some blue-blooded sprog’s first day at school. Humility has its advantages.
The Children’s Laureate post rotates biennially, and there have been five so far: Quentin Blake (1999-2001), Anne Fine (2001-2003), Michael Morpurgo (2003-2005), Jacqueline Wilson (2005-7) and Michael Rosen (2007-2009). I think that represents a pretty good mix of genres and age ranges, though they’ve each approached the job quite differently. But what is that job? Mostly, I think, to keep the profile of children’s books as high as possible, in a world where they’re often neglected or seen as something ‘less’ than books for adults, where the National Curriculum has led to a culture of teaching snippets rather than whole books, where libraries are a soft target in any round of spending cuts, and where children face a range of alternative digital allurements. That sounds very negative, but it’s not all a rearguard action. The Laureate should also be a positive example of what it means to be a children’s writer, and all the holders so far have a great track record of producing books that are both popular with children and highly respected by their peers. Ambassadorship, campaigning and getting your views across are all important, but personally I hope that whoever gets the job this time round won’t stop writing for the duration.
Why am I writing about this? No, no – I’m not on the shortlist, don’t worry! But I do have the honour of being one of the panel that will choose the next Laureate, from a shortlist supplied by children and adults across the country. Right now I’m reading furiously (and delightedly), and in due course I’ll be travelling to a Secret Location for the meeting. I believe the announcement won’t be made officially until June, so there will be a period of bursting-to-say ahead of me, for we panellists have sworn an oath of secrecy. For the one who gabs, the Big Red Scissor Man awaits.
Wish me luck, ABBA readers!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Almost Dead Narrators Anne Cassidy

I’ve read two books lately where the main characters were on the point of death. The first was NEWES FROM THE DEAD by Mary Hooper which is out this month in paperback. The second was IF I STAY by Gayle Forman which was sent to me as a proof copy. Both books are very different and yet they have this central thread that is the same. The person telling the story is barely alive. The tension of each story is whether that person will pull through.

NEWES FROM THE DEAD tells the true story of Anne Green who was hanged for infanticide and her body sold for dissection. From the dark of her coffin Anne Green thinks over her short life giving the reader the background to this grisly scene. It’s a terrific read and the tension is at times unbearable.

In IF I STAY Mia’s family are killed in an horrific road accident at the beginning and Mia’s life hangs in balance in the hospital. Her spirit though rises above her comatose body and becomes the narrator, telling the reader what is happening in the hospital around and filling in chunks of her family life up till this poignant moment.

The position of both of these narrators is an ideal one. At the point of death, the cliché goes one’s life flashes before one’s eyes.

Both novels depict gruesome situations and are not for the squeamish. Both novels are gripping with adult themes and yet each is set in a different time. Anne Green is a servant girl in 1650. Mia is contemporary, a teenager with a boyfriend and a love of music.

As each of them lie close to death the reader wonders whether they will have the strength and the will and the desire to live.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

ARCTIC CHILL by Arnaldur Indridason Harvill Secker pbk
I’m an Indridason bore and proud of it. Anyone who comes anywhere near me to talk about books very soon hears the name spoken in my totally ridiculous and fake Icelandic accent, in which I think I try to mimic the cadences I remember from Ingmar Bergman movies, and they course were in Swedish and therefore not much help.

This novel is the fifth in the series and you would be well-advised to read the books in order, even though each one does stand on its own perfectly well. The hero in all of them is a policeman called Erlendur. He’s a complex character and in common with Wallender and other detectives in the genre known as Nordic noir, he’s not a chap you’d go to for a rollicking laugh. He has problems of all kinds, both in the present and most importantly in the past. When he was ten, he and his younger brother went out with their father and while they were on the mountain, a snowstorm of the kind that we never see in this country came down. Erlendur, who was holding his little brother’s hand, let go for a second and that was the last he saw of the boy. When the storm abated, a huge search began but his younger brother wasn’t found and the loss of this child and Erlendur’s responsibility for that....the letting go of the hand, even though he was completely unable to keep hold of it...now haunts the detective and recurs as a motif in all five books.

In this one, because it is about the murder of a child, the story of his brother comes even more to the fore. The boy found dead in the shadow of a block of flats is the son of an immigrant mother and Indrisason, without being at all heavy or preachy about it, is fascinating about the problems faced by a woman from Thailand and other immigrants to this most chilly and forbidding of landscapes. A recent movie of Indridason’s first novel, Jar City, gives a clear picture of just how strange and other-worldly Iceland looks: in some places positively lunar. (It also, incidentally, shows Erlendur eating some really unspeakable things, but don’t let that put you off the film.)

All sorts of other themes feed into this story. There’s a racist teacher at the school. There’s the question of bullying among the pupils. Is that racist or simply bullying and who is responsible? The story is told plainly but the language (in translation at least) has heft and solidity and a bleak kind of poetry about it. As always with this writer, you can feel history in the background and his characters, especially Erlendur’s fellow police, are very well drawn. I’m not even recommending this writer: I’m nagging. If you like crime fiction, do read him as soon as you can.
Other novels are: JAR CITY, SILENCE OF THE GRAVE, VOICES, and THE DRAINING LAKE


FORTUNE COOKIE by Jean Ure. Collins pbk.
Jean Ure has written more books than most people have had hot dinners. She started when she was sixteen and since then has been no slouch when it comes to the publication of stories of all kinds. Readers may remember some of the highlights of her writing career, like A Proper Little Nooryeff , (which Billy Elliott either copied or made a hommage to, depending on your point of view) See You Thursday and Plague and my own favourite, Play Nimrod for Him.

For the last few years, she’s been very successful with a series of novels for slightly younger readers which deal with ordinary situations that affect her heroines’/heroes’ daily lives. She wrote about child leukemia in Becky Bananas, and has also described many child dilemmas of a far less serious nature.
Anyone who knows her realizes that animals are her passion and in this book, there’s an adorable beagle puppy at the centre of the story. It’s narrated in the first person by Fudge (reason for the name becomes clear, don’t worry) and it’s about her and her friend the Cupcake Kid and Cupcake’s little brother Joey who is disabled and who desperately longs for a puppy. The real fun starts when the puppy needs medical
treatment costing a fortune and Fudge and Cupcake turn to their ‘life of crime.’

There are very poignant moments in this story but generally speaking, as ever, Ure’s style is upbeat and humorous and easy to read without being either silly or vapid. I can’t imagine a child of eight or so not loving this book and wanting to read others by this author...and as I say, there are plenty of those.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

SUSAN PRICE: Rewriting Part II

Or, HOW TO PUT IT INTO BOOK WORDS.

As promised, I have cudgelled the brains over my student's question: How do you know what parts to rewrite? How do you know what words to change?

There are, I've concluded, two levels to rewriting: the big and the small.

The big takes in the whole of the book or story – never mind this or that word, does the whole thing work?

The small concentrates on words, sentences, paragraphs at most.

So, to begin small...

One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever came across was: Read your work aloud. It's a good idea to train yourself to hear a voice speaking the words in your head, even if you're reading or writing silently. This helps you to 'hear' the rhythms and stresses even as you invent the words - but it doesn't replace reading aloud.

Feeling your lips, tongue and throat shaping the words you've written, and hearing them, forces you to concentrate on every syllable, on rhythms, and on the sense. Reading by eye alone, you can skim through sentences, and even whole paragraphs if you're a very fluent reader (as writers tend to be). You can miss the small details of sound.

But words are, ultimately, meant to be spoken, not read. Poetry, as a poet once told me, is rhythm, not rhyme – and rhythm is sound.

But, when I rewrite, what am I listening for? How do I know which words to change?

Well, I consider if my words are easy to say, and pleasing to hear. The twelfth Leith Policeman dismisseth us. Beware of such jaw-breakers. What the eye reads easily may be a clog to the tongue – and I want that talking-book deal. So if I catch myself writing a tongue-twister, I rewrite it.

I'm on the listen-out for repeated sounds that jar. 'My keel coursed cruel care-halls - ' The Anglo-Saxons were keen on alliteration, and if consciously done for effect, it can be wonderful. But if I've repeated sounds through carelessness, and it's spoiling the rhythmn or sound, I change the wording

Are the words I've chosen the best ones for the job I wanted them to do? English is crammed with words that are close in meaning, but have their own nuances, weights, textures and colours. 'Amble' has a clumsier and more endearing sound than 'stroll'. 'Lope' is quite different from either. 'Smirk' has very different connotations from 'smile' or 'giggle'. Is there another word that's a closer fit for my meaning? That means the same, but has a better sound or stress for that sentence? Or has a sound that better fits the sense?

Do the sentences have a good natural rhythm? Reading them aloud makes this obvious. Am I running out of breath before reaching the end of the sentence, or the next natural pause? Does the sentence have the natural swing of speech's rise and fall? When I read it aloud, does the stress fall on the most important words – the words I really want people to hear? If the answers are 'no', then shorten the sentence, or divide it into two; change the word order, or find other words.

But having said all this about making a sentence easy to read, sometimes I want to make a sentence clumsy or difficult. If I'm describing drudgery, then I want the words I use to be slow, awkward, clumsy, tired. I might want the sound and rhythmn of my words to reflect the sleek quickness, the harshness or the cold of their sense. If what I've written doesn't do that, I try to find words that do.

A frequent consideration is whether the phrase I've used is a cliché – a phrase too over-used and stale to make the reader stop and think about the sense. It isn't easy to avoid cliches, and I am certainly guilty of using them often. For one thing, they're often true – as white as snow, as cold as ice. But I am honour bound to try. So I give the brains another pummel, and see if I can come up with something fresher.

Finally, I check if I mean what I've said. Words can get away from you. A friend of mine, a teacher, once read in a pupil's exercise book: 'I was lying on the settee watching the telly eating peanuts.' She wrote in the margin: 'My telly prefers chocolate.' But it's all too easy, in a moment of carelessness, to mangle your grammar, and say something you never meant to say. So I watch out for this kind of slip and – rewrite it.

Enough for one posting. I don't imagine for a moment that I've said all there is to say on this subject, but something like this goes through my head when I'm rewriting. I'd welcome any additions and expansions – even corrections.

But I hope I've gone some way towards answering my student's question: 'When you rewrite, how do you know what words to change?'

In my next post, you lucky people, I'll consider the book or story as a whole. Unless someone else wants to do it?

Monday, 2 March 2009

Sure-Fire Method To Avoid Procrastination - Sally Nicholls

Like most writers, I occasionally procrastinate. This is probably a bad thing. This is why, today, I am bringing you my sure-fire method to avoid procrastinating when supposedly writing your novel, otherwise known as Use The Procrastination. It Is Your Friend.
Confused? Read on.
The method is simple. First, find something very important and very difficult/dull which needs to be done (preferably on a computer). This can be anything from tax returns to Scout Club minutes to essays (I learnt this technique while studying for a Masters). This works best when the thing is urgent and overdue, but it does need to involve your brain, or at least more brain than your novel.
Then ... turn on your computer. Stare at the screen. Say to yourself, "I really must do that tax return". Whistle. Think, "Oh, I'll just write a few paragraphs of novel first."
Suddenly, novel stops being Work and Difficult and becomes Procrastination and Fun, and you wake up at the end of the day to discover that you've written 1000 words (hurrah!) and ... er ... not done that tax return (less hurrah).
I probably shouldn't admit to how useful I find this method ...

PS Yes, I was interested, Penny. Today I have spent the whole afternoon reading a proof copy of Girl Meets Cake by Susie Day, which is utterly hilarious and well recommended. Out in April. Also reading Dangerous Liasons, for fun (and it is fun too, makes me want to be a libertine), In Bed With ..., a collection of erotic short stories, for research (because I'm going to have to write a sex scene for the work in progress, and I'm terrified) and an envelope full of short stories for work (I'm a competition judge).