Thursday, 30 April 2009

REVIEW by Adèle Geras

HEARTS AND MINDS by Amanda Craig. Little, Brown hbk.

This is a novel which satisfies on so many levels that I felt I had to draw it to people's attention. It's one of those books which pulls you in from the very first page. It starts with a murder - a sure way to get a reader's attention. This is more than the very simple a shot rang out type killing. Rather, Craig sets up a mysterious and atmospheric crime which highlights the fact that London (almost the main character in the book) is still a place capable of hiding dark secrets of every kind.

We see the story unfold through the eyes of several narrators. From a trafficked prostitute to a human rights lawyer; from an American journalist to a South African teacher, and we take in all kinds of other people along the way, some of whom have appeared in Craig's previous work. We are never confused, never disoriented, though it is hard to see at first how these separate stories will come together at last. But of course they do, and when they do, the way Craig has arranged it seems inevitable. Each of plot strands is interesting in its own right. Some are moving, some exciting, some funny and some simply a vivid picture of life in London in the 21st century but the skill of the book is in how Craig brings everything together to form an intricate and convincing narrative tapestry.

Many novels are well-written but a bit boring. Many more are thrilling and badly written. Some, like this one, are fascinating and nailbiting and also satisfy on a sentence by sentence basis. The most impressive thing about this book is its architecture: the clever way it's constructed and assembled, but it's also gossipy, funny, full of hair-raising accounts of terrible things, and like the very best of Dickens, it'll make you gasp and make you cry while giving you a few laughs along the way. It is also satisfactorily fat, so it will entertain you for longer than one sitting. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Book DNA - Anne Rooney

A novelist is the sole parent of an immaculate conception. Despite the midwifery of the editor, the baby is all yours. An illustrated book is a very different matter. It has two parents – writer and artist. I’ve just corrected the first proofs of a story that will be out later this year, and seen the pictures in colour for the first time. It’s always exciting to see the other half of the book-baby’s DNA. Sometimes there are surprises – ‘Ooh, look at that lovely ginger hair!’, or ‘I didn’t expect him to like cheese’, or ‘Doesn’t she live in a big house?’ Sometimes, as with a real child, there is a feature you’d rather not see in the offspring – that ugly nose, or the sullen scowl. Occasionally one of your own features stares out at you, horribly: do I really use semi-colons like that?

Sometimes, a writer and illustrator work closely together, and the offspring has two parents intimately involved with each other – an ideal situation in publishing as in life. This book, though, is the product of IVF by donor. I had some say in the choice of co-parent, checking the agency website and looking at his portfolio, and the black and white roughs showed there were no horrors lurking. But the first colour proofs are the moment of truth.

A good picture book is an organic whole, with words and pictures inseparable. The writer needs to leave scope for the illustrator’s imagination, and the book is richer for having someone else’s take on the story. As a writer, you can learn more about your own story from the way the illustrator has interpreted it. It can be hard to step back and give the other parent space, but it’s as essential in picture books as in families. You might not like your co-parent letting the baby stay up late, and you might not like pictures with quite so much brown in, but you both have equal rights over the progeny and the mother/writer is not necessarily always right. Even so, I still wish he didn’t have that nose and dress sense, and I don’t like the way his mouth goes when he does that thing. Must be his dad’s fault, because I don’t do that.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Social Networking - Facebook, Live Journal, twitter etc. Is there any privacy anymore? - Linda Strachan

Are all our lives lived on the net, like some science fiction author’s view of the future?

How much is too much?

Reality shows vs good old fashioned privacy?

How much should we reveal about ourselves?

What is publicity and what is invasion?

How safe is it?

I will admit to being a complete novice but as much as I can appreciate the delights of social networking, it seems like a lot of fun, but I feel that there is an issue with privacy or the lack thereof.

I have had a website for quite a number of years and I am constantly thinking about how I can upgrade it or use it better to help publicise my books and myself to my readers or potential future readers. But can I have a public and a private face? I hope so.
Do I really want casual visitors who may have heard of me or my books, getting to know who my personal friends and family are. Finding out personal information about their lives and mine, and even my children’s lives? Suddenly the protective mother in me rears up at the thought.

The younger generation growing up with these sites seem to find no problem with sharing every little detail about their lives with not only their friends but also the friends of friends of friends. So if, as has been said, we are never more than 5 places removed from anyone on the planet, this means literally EVERYBODY!

Am I being paranoid or are they being naive?

We are often being told to be wary of giving away too much personal information because of identity theft, but surely these sites make people careless about what information they share and who they share it with.

There is the lonely person who just wants to be popular and agrees to be ‘friends’ with anyone who asks. There are the friends or lovers that have turned against each other, posting damaging material, under the guise of truth.

Okay, so I make up stories for a living but, hey, there are so many possibilities for horror stories in this alone and unfortunately you only have to listen to the news to see that not all of them are fiction.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Guest Blog Helena Pielichaty

Seven Stages of A Writer

1 You begin to write. You don’t know where it comes from, this strange urge,
all you know is that you have to do it.

2 You want to learn more about this writing lark. You begin to attend creative writing classes or seek out like-minded folk. You polish your work. Feedback is positive. Deep down, you know you’ve got something here; something out of the norm. People suggest you send things off.

3 Upon your first attempt/after many years (delete where appropriate) you find an agent and a publisher. Your first book does reasonably well. It goes into reprint and makes back the advance quite quickly. Reviews are flattering.

4 You become established. Your publisher is happy with your output, offering contracts automatically and talking about marketing plans. You are part of the festival circuit. Your bound proofs go out with gimmicks attached to them. Foreign rights are sold. There is recognition when librarians hear your name. You are having to write faster than before, providing more and more titles for the particular niche you inhabit.

5 Sales start to slacken off. Your latest title does not go into reprint with quite such alacrity. You receive letters from your publisher informing you that earlier titles are being taken out of print. Festival appearances dwindle. It takes longer for your agent/publisher to respond to your emails. Visits to bookshops, once a pure joy, are now tinged with anxiety and envy. Why aren’t all my titles on the shelf? How come he/she is on the three-for-two and not me?

6 Your new book is rejected. Your publisher dumps you. Your agent is soothing but has other clients to tend to. You are no longer in vogue. You vow to give up writing forever. It’s all a crock anyway, full of wannabes and untalented clebs…

7 You begin to write. You don’t know where it comes from, this strange urge, all you know is that you have to do it.

Sex and Violence but no Swine Flu. Catherine Johnson

I woke up at around three and couldn't get back to sleep for hours last night. Was I worried about the news filtering in from the late night world service? Swine Flu or the situation in Swat? No? I was thinking about a book I had just read. And not in a good way.

I have read loads of lovely, wonderful, books since Christmas, Solace of the Road, by Siobhan Dowd, Desirable, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Once, and Then, by Maurice Glietzman, Reavers Ransom, by Emily Diamand. I love books, honest. I even try and see the best in books which do nothing for me and are totally not aimed at a middle aged, female, Londoner.

But the book I read yesterday - which I am not going to name - made me so mad I couldn't sleep.

Let's back pedal a bit. Let's talk about boys' books. The Carnegie list is stuffed full of them this year. Now, I am not, and never have been, a boy. I did go through a serious phase around 11, of absolutely, completely, definitely wanting to be taken as a boy. I wore my brother's cast offs, I practised the walk and the speech patterns. Every time I was addressed as 'son' my spirits soared. But I did grow out of it.

I think it's fine and dandy there are wonderful books about boys. I think Kevin Brooks Black Rabbit Summer is fantastic in it's depiction of a very real teenage summer, full of honest, accurately scary nasty violence and raw emotion. There is also a lot of drinking and drug taking. I have no problem at all with this. I think it adds to the reality of the world of the book.

This other nameless book - not on the Carnegie by the way - had none of the subtleties of Kevin Brooks. Now, as I said before, there are, and should be books for all. And this was from the point of view of a young Londoner (not in London by the way). I am sure that many boys from 13 and over are inured to some forms of violence because of video games and films, and I am also sure that some of these boys have a strange (to me) disposable idea of sex.

I am not a prude, but I found the depiction of prostitution in this book shallow. I am not against violence in books (although it's not my thing) but the violence in this book was cartoony and the character loved and glorified guns.

Aha you say! You are a woman who made some money at least out of a gun film. I would argue that Bullet Boy never for one second glamourised violence. But there you go. I think the glorification of guns is not a good thing at all.

Now, I know there are many authors with cartoon style OTT violence. Anthony Horowitz, Robert Muchamore, it is a long list, I may have even done it myself. People(boys and girls) love it. But within those books we know it's not real. 15 year olds are not really spies, your reader knows this, he knows he is reading escapism. I have no problem with that.

This book was different. The violence, supposedly real, never affected the protagonist for more than a few seconds. Sex was consensual and often (much better than violence, but not half as graphic) but never, ever, with any contraception. The poor girl is bound to be pregnant by now, and given that, is sure to be killed in the sequel.

If I still had a 14 or 15 year old son. I would so much rather he read a book which explores real violence and sex and it's consequences, emotionally and physically, than this.

Maybe if I really was a boy I would 'get' it. I suppose this is the kind of wish fulfilment story that sees it's opposite in something like Twilight (not the sequels), a book that offers a kind of idealised perfect love and adoration without the danger of actual sex.

Ho hum.

So there's my rant.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

What's in - or on - a cover? - Katherine Langrish

I happened to be in the British Library this week, and there's a walk-in exhibition of children's poetry. I'd really recommend a visit if you can spare the time: one highlight for me was a notebook with Christina Rossetti's 'Who has Seen the Wind' in her own writing. There's also a letter by Ted Hughes, but the bulk of the exhibition is of printed books, old and new, open at some utterly wonderful poems, together with illustrations, some charming, others spine-tingling. Among the spine-tingling ones I'd include a version of 'The Highwayman' by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Charles Keeping in his inimitable scrawly ink and wash. Atmospheric, menacing, and ever so slightly camp, his masked highwayman glitters in the moonlight on a pale ribbon of a road, under bare trees whose branches appear to undulate as if underwater.

As my new book, Dark Angels, comes out this week, it set me thinking about the relationship between art and text: particularly cover art. We set a great deal of store on the perfect cover these days: publishers, authors and booksellers alike worry over the exact impression the cover should make: will it stand out? Will it have 'pick-up-a-bility'?

This seems to be a fairly modern phenomenon; and I'm not sure that children are as fussed as we are about superb covers. The Harry Potter books fared quite well without them. And while some of the classic books I loved best as a child had amazing covers, others did not: some (like my version of The Wind in the Willows, which was a wartime austerity volume passed on to me by my mother), had no artwork on the cover at all, and none inside either, and it didn't put me off. In fact, thinking about it, that's probably where I gained my habit of pulling out the most obscure looking books from second-hand shelves - to see if a dull cover hides some treasure within. To the left here is the 1959 cover of Lucy Boston's The Children of Green Knowe. It wouldn't exactly stand out on the shelf, but I loved and still love its dark mystery.

Perhaps we didn't have great expectation of covers when I was a child, as witness this 1968 Puffin edition of Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on The School. No self-respecting modern publisher would dream of putting out anything so dull. Would they?

Yet really, it does everything necessary: it's got the intriguing title, the author name, and a mildly interesting picture - even if the cartwheel with nesting storks appears to be hovering in mid-air. Compared with my modern cover, above, it could even be regarded as pleasingly uncluttered. At any rate, with such a book one wasted no time in opening it to see what it was about, and so the decision whether to read it or not was prose-based...
Others were better. Here's my much-read 1965 copy of Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I don't know what the first edition cover looked like, but this picture has stuck with me for life. I love the brooding gaze of the dwarf and the rich, magical colours. All the same, it's quite clearly an 'old' look. You wouldn't get that framing effect today: the separation of artwork from title and author name. And here's the 1961 cover of Rosemary Sutcliff's classic Dawn Wind: it looks more modern, perhaps because Charles Keeping, who illustrated nearly all her books, was such an strong and innovative artist. In fact, the art here is almost more important than the title, and the author's own name all but fades into the dark shadows at the children's feet. Today we'd be wailing for gilt or silver foil to 'lift' the cover. And yet I'd hate to see this changed. You could recognise 'a Rosemary Sutcliff' at a glance, precisely because Keeping's style twinned with her historical genius made such a fantastic pairing.

Back then, of course, books even for older children were full of wonderful illustrations, and nobody thought it babyish. (Even today I can't see that anything by Charles Keeping could be regarded that way.) My Dark Angels, in common with many modern books for the 9+ 'market', has no illustrations at all, which is a shame, really. Edward Ardizzone was another artist whose work was instantly identifiable: here's a cover he did for one of my favourite books by the much-neglected Nicholas Stuart Gray: Down In the Cellar (1961).
Here again, the artist is as important as the author and shares the credit on the cover. His work wonderfully expressed the spooky, yet homely world that Gray conjured up (a bunch of E Nesbit-style children come across a wounded man in an old quarry, and discover he has escaped from a nearby fairy mound.)

I do love the cover HarperCollins has provided for my Dark Angels, but it will have to make its way in the world without a friendly artist to interpret some of its scenes between the pages. I can't help feeling a bit wistful - but I'm sure that one thing hasn't changed over the years: what matters most is what is under the cover, not what is on it.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Book Packaging - Creative Collaboration or Artistic Cop-out? Meg Harper

New term at my youth theatre, new term at college and new term for the school where I’m working as writer in residence – hence the tardiness of this post! It’s one of those, ‘If I get to the end of next week and I’m sane it’ll be a bonus!’ phases! I’ve even had to take the plunge and do the supermarket shopping on-line! But more interestingly (I hope!), it’s made me think about collaboration – the creative sort.
My youth theatre is a devising company. Twice a year, each of the five groups performs a brand new piece of theatre which they have created in collaboration with each other and with me. When I opened the company and lacked confidence, we often used a story as a starting point. I would decide which scenes were essential and possible and the young people’s input was in creating each scene from the brief I gave. There is, however, a shortage of stories to suit casts of around 16 people, all needing maximum time on stage. Hence, I have broken out of my straitjacket and now we usually devise ‘from scratch’. Three plays are well and truly off the starting blocks already, one a complex but very funny (we hope!) who-dun-nit set in a mountain holiday resort, another a picaresque tale in which two girls are thrown off a train, have to find their way home and encounter real and surreal adventures on the way (there’s a sub-plot here about an escaped convict whose story keeps crossing theirs) and the third looks set to become a complicated twist on the Cinderella theme with Cinders a down-trodden barista in a city café – I just love that he’s going to be saved by his Hairy Godfather!
Meanwhile, as writer in residence, I spent a happy day of the holidays meshing together 25 variations on the opening of the class novel so that everyone has a contribution somewhere and far more of the children’s words are included than mine! Even happier was the time spent reading it back to them. They insisted on a second reading so that that they could stick up their hands when they recognised their bit! We have negotiated plots and settings and characters and are ready to roll.
All joyful, joyful stuff – and all collaborative.
Which makes me think about book packagers and the way I have tended to sneer at their process. Teams create the briefs and teams of authors write them up. And I have tended to think that this isn’t ‘proper’ in some way – that because the story doesn’t come from some sizzling inspiration burning out from some enlightened soul, it’s a kind of cheating. A sort of artistic cop-out. Well, shame on me. Actually, of course, it’s team work. And teams get results – as we can see in any and every context, including my own ‘other’ work. Obviously, some writers are zinging with wonderful stories and it is blissful that they want to share them with us. And, of course, some book packaged books are dire in the extreme. But it strikes me that the basic concept is a good one. I am stunned by the ideas that my young collaborators come up with and the process of jig-sawing them together is mind-bending fun for all of us. So surely this should hold true for book packagers’ creative teams too? But does it?
So….book packaging – creative collaboration or artistic cop-out? Your thoughts, please!

Friday, 24 April 2009

A Painful Case? - John Dougherty

A-Level English was a long time ago, and I don’t remember an awful lot of what was said in class about our set texts. I remember our completely missing a very rude bit in Hamlet - it only dawned on me some years later that Shakespeare had smuggled an actual naughty sweary word into an exchange between the prince and Ophelia - and I recall several conversations about A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides being possibly the most boring thing any of us, including our teacher, had ever read. I also remember our wondering how Johnson had acquired such a reputation as a great wit when he clearly wasn’t very funny at all:

Johnson: I’ve got the best bed!
Boswell: If you’ve got the best bed, you must admit that I’ve got the best bedposts!
Johnson: Well, if you have the best posts, we shall have you tied to one of them and whipped!

Brought the house down in 1773, apparently. Maybe it was all in the delivery.

Anyway, one throwaway remark which has stuck in my head was our teacher’s explanation of why Joyce, in Dubliners, had included in his character description of Mr James Duffy, protagonist of A Painful Case, the following line:

“He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.”

Miss’s explanation for this was that it was to round out and press home the fact that Mr Duffy was a bit of a weirdo. I mean, it’s clearly a very bizarre practice. What kind of a strange potato must he have been to do that sort of thing?

I remember keeping my mouth firmly closed and looking down at the desk, not wanting to catch her eye or draw attention to myself, because there in my head was burning the thought: “I do that!

Now, I was well aware that I was a bit of a weirdo, or at least that I’d never quite fitted in at my school. Still, this particular foible didn’t really seem to me to be such a strange habit - certainly not strange enough to be included in a character sketch simply to highlight weirdness. But this was clearly the Official Explanation, and thus all the explanation I was going to get. And so - as with Hamlet and his smuggled sweary - for me it would be years before any further light was shed on this particular issue.

It was only a year or two back, during an exchange on the Scattered Authors’ Society’s discussion group, that I realised: this is actually quite normal. At least, from what others were saying, it seems to be normal among published authors, and so - I assume - it’s probably quite normal among unpublished authors, and quite possibly among people who have never written a book and have no particular desire to. Quite a few of us seem to have little writers sitting in our heads who take details of not just our own lives but also things we observe or hear about, and - in the words of one of Jordan’s managers - write it into book words. Having said that, I don’t often do the full sentences in my head any more. Descriptive words and clauses, yes, and other sentence fragments, but gone - for the most part - are the full sentences containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense; and I think the reason I don’t compose entire sentences internally is that now I compose them onscreen, and not in isolation but as part of something.

Which brings me back to a thought I had not long after our teacher told us that Joyce had given Mr Duffy this habit to show what a weirdo he was, which was: how did Joyce know that some people do this, unless it was something he did - or had done - himself?

Perhaps in Mr James Duffy, Mr James Joyce had put something of his own character. Or perhaps what was being highlighted was not Mr Duffy’s oddness, but the wastedness of his life: here was a man with a head full of sentences, who never wrote them down - and who never moved beyond sentences about himself.

PS - I'm off to London in a few minutes; I'll be running in this year's London Marathon on Sunday. If you're going to watch, do keep a look out for me and cheer me on - I'll be wearing a green Stroud vest with a red and a blue stripe.

And if anyone would like to sponsor me, you can go to

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Senegalese Suitcases and Sabrage in St James – Dianne Hofmeyr

Dates suddenly loom in my diary after great, big, white, open spaces of nothingness. April 23rd is one of them. I have this blog due and two workshops and a book launch (not mine).

Months ago when someone asked me to do two G&T sessions, I thought I was being invited to a drinks party. It turned out to be two sessions for Gifted and Talented boys in Year 9 and 10.

They’ll tower over me. I write for Year 7.
They’re just slightly older.
Could I do Egypt? I’ve written some novels set there.
We need something more creative.
Caves? I’ve this novel about caves. It could take them into the future.
Been done.
Suitcases? Their hidden past. I’ve a short story about suitcases. (Should I mention it’s also about apartheid and an abortion?)

Suitcases it is! I’ve this Senegalese suitcase (actually from Goree Island which has a bleak a history as apartheid). The case is made from tuna tins and is lined with comics of hyena’s speaking French. Inspirational enough for a Gifted and Talented Year 9 or 10?

Now Thursday 23rd April is upon me. I’ve this blog to write, visuals to prepare for the writing sessions and need to work out how to make the widget on ABBA post this blog tomorrow, instead of today.Tomorrow will be chaos. I’ll either arrive hours too early or hours too late.

When it’s all done and the boys have produced their inspired pieces of writing, with Senegalese suitcase in hand, I’ll race across London to St James to sip champagne and munch chocolates in the Alfred Dunhill shop for the launch of my friend’s book. (How come I never get a launch in Dunhill?)

The story’s about a skilled martial artist who is a stealer of chi. (proceeds from the book to be donated to a fighting initiative for Afghan women – CPAU Fighting for Peace.) And with martial arts in the air I’m hoping to see a fine display of Sabrage - the ceremonial opening of Champagne bottles with a sabre being sharply slid along the body of the bottle toward the neck so that collar lops off with cork intact. (the art is in finding the seam I’m told.)
The technique was popular in France when the sabre was the weapon of choice in Napoleon’s fearsome Hussar cavalry. Napoleon's spectacular victories across Europe gave them plenty of reason to celebrate. One story goes that the tradition started when Madame Clicquot inherited her husband’s Champagne estate at the age of 27, and entertained Napoleon's officers in her vineyard. When they rode off in the early morning with their complementary bottles of Champagne, they would open them with their sabres to impress the rich young widow.

Maybe I’m pushing it. Sabrage in the Alfred Dunhill shop is perhaps a step too far... all those impeccable pieces sprayed with Champagne. But all the same, look out for my friend Natasha Mostert’s book, Keeper of Light and Dust…

What is the greatest desire of all?
In the death choked corridors of Palermo's famous catacombs surrounded by eight thousand mummified corpses, a young man asks this question. His answer will set the course of his life and take him on a journey into the heart of darkness. A brilliant quantum physicist and chronobiologist who’s devoted his life to the study of chi - this gifted scientist, is also a skilled martial artist… and a hunter. Drawing on the knowledge contained in an enigmatic Chinese text written by a legendary Chinese physician in the thirteenth century, he preys on martial artists who are blessed with a strong life force, draining them of their chi and making it his own.. But the hunter becomes the hunted when a mysterious woman enters his life.

Harper's Bazaar dubbed Keeper of Light and Dust as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ and chose it as a Hot List Must-Read-Book. (Natasha’s pervious book, Season of the Witch, won the Spread the Word: Books to Talk About Award on World Book Day 2009.)

Perhaps after a day like the 23rd April with Gifted and Talented Year 9’s and 10’s and French-speaking hyena’s and the possibility of sabrage in St James, I need to hold on to my chi.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

ePositive - Elen Caldecott

I recently went to an event where there were lots of writers chatting to each other about life, the universe and chocolate (the nibbles provided were very good). And, many people there were concerned about the future. Not the rising flood waters seeping into out repossessed homes, mind. But ebooks. The digital revolution that has changed music and TV and film now really does seem to be headed for the book world.

Now, I understand the fear, I really do. BUT. I can’t help feeling quite optimistic. I quite agree that it might be hard to make money from this writing lark once everything it instantly piratable and downloadable onto your phone. But, on the other hand, it has never been easy to make a decent living as a writer; it’s just a fact of life.

If we ignore the money thing, I can’t help thinking that the growth of different mediums is quite exciting. Like the invention of computer graphics must have been for artists working in paints. I can’t ever see myself loving mini-novels texted to my phone, Japanese-style. But I AM very interested to see how writers are using technology, specifically their websites, to expand the world of their stories. It draws out the lifespan of a book by providing a focus for your fans while you’re away scribbling the next instalment.

For example, Hilary McKay’s wonderful creation Rose Casson keeps a blog. And Mal Peet’s Paul Faustino has his very own website. And I was delighted to discover that one of the minor characters in Michael Grant’s Gone is re-telling the whole story again from a different perspective.

These websites are the DVD extras; places for fans to revel in the world of the books they have enjoyed. They are an exciting symbiosis of traditional books and the digital world. As soon as I get a bit of cash together, my own website will see the addition of a ‘deleted scenes’ page; maybe even an actor’s commentary...

Digitised words are nothing to be scared of – they’re still just words after all. As writers, we should feel, if not at home, then at least eager to explore our new neighbourhood.

Who have I missed out? Which writers do you know of who are using new technologies creatively?
Elen's Facebook Page

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Truth and Dare: Gillian Philip

Hands up, confessions and sackcloth all round: yes, I’ve been sniffy about celeb biographies. Well, I’m a convert now, and I don’t even care if they’re ghosted or not. I went on my Easter hols to remote Colonsay and I thought I’d take along a little light gossip, so along came Russell Brand and Jade Goody. And what do you know, I loved ’em both. It turns out that celeb memoirs work the same way for me as books of any genre – the crucial thing is the truth of it all.

Honesty: isn’t that the one thing you ask of a book? (Well, all right – likeable characters and decent spelling obviously come into it.) Russell Brand’s Booky Wook is just hilariously honest (and I don’t just mean ‘frank enough to make your granny wince’). There was a generational divide over the Andrew Sachs affair and I was on the grumpy-old-woman side of it (on grounds of kindness rather than taste). But really, Brand is so truthful, I defy anyone not to respect his writing (even if liking him is a stretch for you). He tells you stuff about himself whether it paints him in a flattering light or not (and mostly it doesn’t). He’s even honest about his dishonesty.

Jade Goody’s swiftly revamped autobiography – I liked that too. The funny thing is, she confesses to being economical with the truth in the first version. She seems to have got that sorted, because Version Two rings touching and true. Maybe it’s skewed in perspective, who knows? But it’s honest in her own terms.

You can tell. Or I’m pretty sure you can. I had a low tolerance for Holden Caulfield when I was younger (‘get a life, young man!’). Now that I’m getting old and crabbit, ironically, I can see where he’s coming from with the ‘phoney’ thing. They say fiction writers tell lies for a living, but there’s true lies as well as the other kind.

I have this ongoing argument with my husband, who hates fantasy fiction (even mine! I ask you!), because ‘it isn’t real.’ To my last breath I’ll argue that fantasy fiction can be as real or unreal as any other kind. All a writer has to do is tell the truth – whether it’s the truth about your holiday in Barcelona or your Journey of Self-Discovery with Chickens. It doesn’t matter if it’s the truth about ancient Romans, the Battle of Britain, hobbits, dragons or mermaids. So long as it’s the truth, it’s real, and for a writer it’s an obligation. Anyway, readers can tell.

There are writers who have told the truth about Hungry Caterpillars, stuffed cats, boy wizards, and dragons called Smaug or Shona. You can tell it comes straight from the marrowbone of the soul. And some writers can take real life, and real people, and fake it. I’ll never convince the husband of that, but I’ll keep trying.

Anyway, Russell Brand’s book has a very funny dedication. Honestly, have a look.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Journey Into Space - Nicola Morgan

My brain often gets stuck when I’m sitting at my desk. I put it down partly to the easy distraction of email etc, because it’s all just a finger-twitch away, and twitching that finger to the “sign on” screen is so much easier than writing. But I’ve often felt that it’s more than that. Even before the email tyrant took over, I’d noticed that if I was stuck on a story, the worst plan was to sit at my desk: the only way was to go for a walk. And so out I’d go, and lo and behold, within minutes all my problems (well, the writing-related ones) were sorted.

It got to the point when I’d answer the “Where do you get your ideas from?” question with “From my dog. See, I go for a walk with no ideas and I come back with ideas and I didn’t speak to anyone except the dog, so …”

None of this seemed like brain science, but I used it in the talks I do in schools about the brain, and how brains work differently, and how you can discover how your brain works. (For details, see Know Your Brain.)

But then I discovered that actually I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t relate to this thing about open space and walking as a way of freeing ideas. And, since I’m supposed to know that brains are different, I thought this was intriguing - but I didn’t really pursue it.

So, imagine how interested I was to read my newest issue of Scientific American Mind. There’s an article which explains it all in brain science terms. Seems we need space around us - and especially above us - in order to have creative ideas. And there’s growing research into this, with many architecture schools now incorporating neuroscience as well as environmental psychology into their syllabus. The environmental psychology isn’t new, but the neuroscience is.

For example, research in Minnesota in 2007 showed that people in a room with a higher (only two feet higher) ceiling came up with more abstract and uninhibited answers to questions than those in a room with a lower ceiling. Those in the lower room focused better on detail. This and other work suggests that higher ceilings help people think more freely and make abstract connections - just what a writer needs.

The article didn’t go to the logical conclusion - that outside is the biggest ceiling of all - but it did say that when we have scenery with greenery and nature we think better and differently. Research in 2000 followed some families who moved house, and looked at the attention ability of the children: those surrounded by more greenery after the move appeared to do better on a standard attention test. Other research showed that students had better mental focus when they had “natural” views, compared with those looking onto buildings.

There’s even a name for the human tendency to respond well to natural scenery: biophilia.

So, for me going for a walk is not instead of working - it’s an essential part of working. And I believe that this isn’t just about writers: everyone needs space to free those thoughts, get ideas flowing. So, every now and then (preferably every day) just stop focusing on the details of life for a while: get outside and let your mind fly.

Release your inner biophile!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Changing Landscapes : Penny Dolan

Off - once a late breakfast is over - to Fountains Abbey, near where I live. It's somewhere I 've visited often, a site I return to over and over again. The incredible thing is that the colour within the abbey stone is subtly different each time, and the mood of the place - from the ruins to the formal expanse of the water gardens and even the expansive deer park- can always surprise.

So do the crowds - from noisy families in holiday weeks, through to earnest historians and even, one cold winter Sunday, when the abbey grounds were "shut for maintenance", a group of guffawing gentlemen in hunting tweeds, with guns over their shoulder, striding off within to do . . .? Maintenence, presumably.

So how does this fit with writing? Because there's always a moment when you hear of another book, usually linked to a bright award winning name, that has a similar subject to yours. Plunge of heart. Despair in the soul. Some definite stamping about and sulking. But just as a landscape can change on each visit, with luck - and careful writing - our own work can have its own life and spirit. Good luck with whatever writerly regions, times and seasons you're visiting just now.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

You don't say: N M Browne

I have just recently been arguing on line with some writers who think that the only possible speech tag is ‘said.’
I am at that age where I am easily irritated and I am allergic to writing rules of this sort. I am a natural heretic when it comes to style rules and immediately feel obliged to break any ‘rule’as soon as it is suggested to me.
I suppose that most of the time I use ‘said’ but I reserve the right to use ‘muttered’, ‘grumbled’,’ argued’, and anything else that suits my story if I choose. So there.
Anyway, having made my point repeatedly, forcibly and not particularly well, I came up with this piece of flash fiction which probably says it better.

'My husband was a novelist and a good one. He wrote the spare, minimalist prose that won prizes. The idea of using an obvious speech tag horrified him. ‘I love you,’ he said. ‘let’s get married,’ he said, and years later after some small success,’ I am finished,’ he said.
‘Mark!’I howled when I found his corpse. I sobbed his eulogy, shrieked his last words at the graveside – overwrought and overwritten like the cheapest of airport novels. In all the things he said in all our long years together, he never ‘spoke’ to me at all.'

Monday, 13 April 2009

Get a better metaphor – Nick Green

Metaphors are a subject close to my heart. I binge on them, both in writing and speaking, and many is the time when my friends haven’t the faintest what I’m on about.

But metaphors can be pure gold dust in a story, so long as you rein yourself in. ‘Metaphor’ is made up of two ancient Greek words that mean, respectively, ‘Over/across’ and ‘carry/bear’. One can understand from that that they are things that can carry something across. And, perhaps, can also be overbearing!
To push this image further, metaphors are a kind of machinery – I’ve come to think of them as gears – that can carry loads that are too heavy for literal language. Voila, metaphor right there. Since much of what I write is a form of fantasy, I need to use these higher gears rather a lot. How do you describe, for example, what it’s like to have invisible whiskers? How do you imagine having reflexes like a cat’s? How do you convey the experience of being a dolphin and seeing the world with sound? (Little teaser there…). You use metaphors.
Sometimes I think I go over the top. But used with restraint, metaphors can serve the same function as music on a film soundtrack. I can’t arrange for day-of-wrath choirs to sing over the climax of my action adventure, but with a few choice startling images I can jolly well have a go. It costs less, too.
And consider this. In the end, ALL words are metaphors. No word is literally the thing it represents. All are just vehicles that ‘carry across’. I think that the difference between ‘ordinary’ words and the ones we choose to call metaphors, is that metaphors are the experiments, the seedlings, the daringly floated possibilities. And sometimes, further down the line, they take root, so that we no longer think of them as metaphors, but part of the language.
Isn’t language magical? It literally is.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Wow/Info Balance - Joan Lennon

As we all know, a lot of writing is problem solving. Which is why I'm always noting down questions to myself like, "What can this character do in this situation that no one else could?" or "What even remotely plausible reason could this character have for being in this place at that time?" or "Why in heaven's name did I think a character from another planet was a good idea?" The question I'm asking myself right now is one I've asked every time I've got myself into writing a series.

"How do I do the link with the previous book(s)?"

It's the balance between the WOW! that grabs the reader by the throat and won't let go, and the need to pass on the information that someone who didn't read the first book(s) will need if they're coming to the series in the middle. (Or have forgotten what happened earlier ...) I know of a dozen really clunky ways of doing this, but what I really want is something slick and elegant - oh, and different from whatever way I used in the last book!

It's a problem.

Time to stop blogging and get back to trying to solve it!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

A Great Loss? Radio and Children's Books - Lucy Coats

Next month marks the demise of Go4It, BBC Radio 4's specialist children's book review programme. Barney Harwood, the presenter, does a brilliant job, there are some great stories being read (currently Liz Kessler's The Tail of Emily Windsnap and Julia Donaldson's The Giants and the Joneses feature), some newsworthy topics being discussed (the Arctic and global warming). So why is it being axed? We are told that the audience is made up of the over-50's, and that therefore the 'target market' is not being reached. There are simply not enough listeners 'of the right sort'. If it doesn't work, and, for the present, leaving aside the fact that a) there are now many mothers who, having had babies in their 40's, are now well into their half-century and b) that the people who actually buy children's books for the 'target market' are generally adults, surely the BBC should be thinking about how to make it work. Books are an important part of the government's literacy strategy, and as a publicly funded body, the BBC should therefore be helping to promote books and providing their licence payers and their future licence payers with information on the subject.

But there is a problem. The weekly audience of 4-14 year olds on BBC Radio 7 is only 25,000--a small minority in the grand audio scheme of things. Children's radio programming will continue there--in the CBeebies 5-7am slot, which could be seen as a boon for early risers or, more negatively a graveyard, and books will continue to be featured on Big Toe. Radio 4 will feature Joan Aiken's Black Hearts in Battersea, Roald Dahl's Matilda, Erich Kästner's Emil and the Detectives and The Wizard of Oz at Christmas. But is it enough? Are the BBC thinking about what children really want, and more importantly how to provide it in a form they want?

For someone such as myself, brought up on a diet of Listen with Mother, listening to the radio is easy and natural. But today's children have so much going on that to sit down for a whole half hour and listen to a programme is, quite simply, an alien concept. A snatch of music here, five minutes on an i-pod there, gaming, downloads--the technology today's children are familiar with is all about fast and furious action. If books on the radio are ever going to work, they must be presented as cool and relevant. In the case of the Radio 4 choices, the books mentioned above are all wonderful classics. But why not introduce younger listeners to some modern classics in the making--by living authors who could be interviewed, could blog, could podcast--all things which kids can understand. Tapping into the 'celebrity culture' will be abhorrent to some readers here--and I'm not too keen on it myself--but if presenting books in this way hooks in more readers then why not? If the BBC wants books to work for those under 16, they must create a buzz about them--find different ways to use the technology which is out there. Don't tell me that there aren't the readers who are hungry for the next big reads, let alone the next good reads--Harry Potter and the current Twilight craze prove that there are. The radio is already linked to the computer--we just need some creative thinking to convince young listeners that books are right up there with the latest pop download. Answers on a postcard to Mark Damazer at the BBC, please.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

A postcript to yesterday's piece....Adele Geras

In my flurry to try and get the photos up without mishap, I left out the names of other Sassies who were at Worth and giving seminars and generally shedding lustre all around. Apologies to Sophie McKenzie, Marie-Louise Jensen, Nicki Cornwell. If I've left anyone else out, I'm sorry. More haste, less speed as they say!

Monday, 6 April 2009

Living in the cupboard – Linda Strachan

No, this is not a tale about my secret life as a gnome, living on a dusty shelf of an old cupboard .. hmmm … perhaps that might be an interesting idea to explore… but that’s for another time, and that is just the problem.

You see, yesterday I opened a file in my computer I hadn’t look at for a while and discovered the beginnings of a story; some lightly sketched out characters, a sliver of plot and a couple of lines of dialogue and narrative. I felt a frisson of excitement as I read it, knowing that here was the beginning of something that I had wanted to explore - a storyline and characters that gave me that indefinable feeling that makes you want to disappear into the world of that story, and spend time with these characters, exploring the dangers and the possibilities.

I am sure I am not alone in that I have bits of stories, complete shorter children’s stories and at least three or perhaps four novels – one adult and three for children – lurking in a cupboard or on my computer. I feel them like a quiet noise or chatter in the background whenever I think about them – which in most cases is not too often.

Some of them probably don’t deserve to be read by anyone else but I find I have a strange attachment to them, and now and again, when I have a bit of spare time, I go looking and find one of them. It feels like a guilty pleasure as I re-read them, enjoying the chance to meet the characters again, like old forgotten friends. I think about how I could change this or that, knowing that I will probably not find time or energy to re-write or edit them (and no doubt with some of them it is just as well!).

Instead I will be writing something new. Time moves on and it’s not good to keep rehearsing the past. Some of it is best left as part of the learning process.

But there is one particular novel that I think of as the writing equivalent of settling down to a favourite film with a box of chocolates. It is a fantasy novel (for adults- not children), the kind that could run on to a series (I am currently a third of the way through the second book) but it will probably never be more than a guilty pleasure. Despite that, I love the characters and go back to that world to find out where they are and what they are doing - locked away in that virtual cupboard in my computer.

Even now I can hear them … perhaps I will just go and look them up…

By Adele Geras: photos from the Federation Conference.....

at Worth Abbey and School. The Federation of Children's Book Groups is an excellent organisation and all Sassies ought to be aware of it. Several Sassies were there this year: Linda Newbery, who was a speaker, Anne Cassidy, who's already written about it, and Damian Harvey who was there with his lovely youngest daughter, Deanna.
Worth is most beautiful

Here is another view:

and here is part of a beautiful frieze by Walter Crane which runs around one of the public rooms of the Abbey. Some of us went on a guided tour.

Finally, here is a photo of three of us carousing with a friend from the Aldbourne Group: Linda Newbery, Anne Cassidy and me.

Pirates ahoy! - Anne Rooney

Last week – along with J K Rowling – I got my publisher to ask for a pirated copy of one of my books to be removed from Scribd is a file-sharing site to which people can upload texts, including books, that they want to ‘share’ with others. Scribd make clear that it is not their aim to offer pirated content, and say they will take down pirate copies quickly when notified (in keeping with the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act) – but mine is still there six days later. Whatever scribd may intend, pirated copies of books in copyright do appear on their site and unless authors or their publishers notice them, they remain there. My book had been there for nearly a year and downloaded 360 times. The book was a pdf, all its full-colour pictures still in place and with the text selectable - which suggests it wasn’t just scanned in. It claims to have a ‘non-commercial attribution’ creative commons license, which means people can use it for non-commercial purposes as long as they say where it came from!

Don't panic? Or panic?

Children’s fiction is unlikely to be top of the pirates’ list - younger children are not up to scanning and file sharing, and parents won’t bother. But by the age of 12 or so, readers are well able to do it and the more popular children’s books are already being pirated. A bit of poking around in the pirates’ den unearthed Celia Rees’s Sorceress in Italian, some of the Series of Unfortunate Events in Spanish, Northern Lights in Hungarian… and even The Very Hungry Caterpillar in various forms.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that every download is a lost sale and this will cost writers and publishers a fortune, perhaps our livelihoods. But it’s impossible to tell how many people downloading pirate e-copies would otherwise buy a paper book, and that’s the figure that really represents lost sales. Many would never read the book if they could only get it by paying for it. It’s not clear yet whether piracy will cost more sales than borrowing books from friends or libraries, or looking through them in bookshops. Not everyone wants to read a novel on screen and in some cases Scribd may even boost sales, if the reader gives up and orders the book from Amazon instead. But as people become more willing to read books on screen (computer, phone, whatever), the licit and illicit will come closer together. The longer publishers resist producing their own e-books, the more likely a book is to be pirated; not wanting to ‘do’ e-books may not be an option. The transition period, as a new model of reading, paying for and distributing books emerges, is likely to be a rocky ride for publishers and writers.

Excuse me, I have to go and re-decorate my garret ready for an episode of starving-and-freezing therein as the icy wind of digital piracy reduces our patch to a desolate waste.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Book Bounce by Anne Cassidy

I’ve just come back from the Federation of Children’s Book Groups annual weekend and have been inspired by the many brilliant speakers and by meeting so many interesting children’s book enthusiasts. In some ways the most enjoyable part of the weekend is just chatting round the dinner table and it was during one of these chats that I had an absolute brainwave.
David Fickling was talking about Book People and Non Book People (to paraphrase) and the divide therein. It made me think that maybe we ‘Book People’ need to be a bit more evangelical about our passion for books. This brought Jamie Oliver to mind and his ‘Pass It On’ programme where he taught people recipes and asked them to (yes, you’ve guessed it) pass it on! The people they pass it on to then pass it on to someone else (keep up) and it eventually many many people know that recipe.
Here is my brainwave. I’m calling it BOOK BOUNCE. If you read a novel that you really, really like then I think you should try and bounce this book in the direction of THREE other people who you know. Now I don’t mean you to GIVE them the book and I don’t mean that you should just say, Oh read the latest Joe Bloggs, it’s great. I mean something in between these two things.
I think if there’s a book you’ve really liked then you should carry that book with you for a week or so after reading it and SHOW it to three other people (workmates, family, friends, neighbours etc). A paperback book is a work of art. Not just in its content but it is a beautiful object. Let the person hold it, look at it, turn it over. While they’re doing this you should be able to sum it up in a couple of lines. This is really good, it’s about XYZ. If they ask to borrow it you have to say you can’t because you’re still showing it to people. If you’ve done a good enough job they might go and buy it themselves (or borrow it from the library). They’ll certainly remember it and you may have gained another reader for that book, given the person a lot of pleasure and given the book a longer life.
There are thousands of new books published every year and a very small number are reviewed. Many books that come out just do not survive very long on the shelves of bookstores.
Personal recommendations can change that. I try and do it all the time but it occurs to me that if all the book loving public had a go at BOOK BOUNCE it might increase the general readership.
Sermon over (apologies to David Fickling for ripping off bits of his talk).

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Here I go Again.... Catherine Johnson(but not that one)

This week I shall be mostly talking about names. I'm not sure if my new lead characters' name is fixed yet. I keep changing my mind which is not a good thing. I find that once I am completely sure about the name the character flows quite easily. People grow into their names, in fiction and in real life. So until I am sure I am a bit like a foal in the wind, skittish and unsettled.

My own name has been very easy to grow into. It's one of those dead common names that you could find - I bet - anywhere around the English speaking world. There are loads of other writers with the same name, an autism and animal behaviour expert (she does the books with Temple Grandin), a TV and Media lecturer and academic and of course Catherine Johnson, dramatist and writer of Mama Mia. I am not any of them.

Every month, every few days when the film came out I would find emails either from school headmasters in Denmark who want to do a shortened version for their end of year concert, sloppy BBC researchers wanting me to appear on Front Row (a few seconds of excitement there), or tourists from Idaho who are 'passing through your London' and would like the opportunity to take me out for lunch at the Ritz.

Up until this year I used to receive some fees due to the other Catherine Johnson, last year she recieved my advance (don't worry we swopped).

I suppose I could change my name, but I've had the same one for over forty years now and I'd find it hard to change. And anyway, names mean a lot. My parents gave my brother and I dull, heads-down, names. Names that wouldn't get us noticed any more than necessary. I think this was because they'd both had screaming look-at-me names that meant every time they introduced themselves people always said 'What?'.

My Dad's first name was Sturdee, named after some obscure British Admiral, my Mum's parents decided to go boldly and make up a brand new name for her - Erinwen Mai (in case you're wondering it means white plum of May in Welsh). No one ever got that right either. So I can see why they did it, and although I used to hate Catherine,(never, never call me Cathy) I feel utterly at home with it now.

Friday, 3 April 2009

On Making - Katherine Langrish

In Chaucer’s time, the word for a poet or author was ‘a maker’ - as witness the Scots poet William Dunbar’s luminous ‘Lament for the Makers’, in which he lists poet after poet taken by ‘the strong unmerciful tyrant’, death:

‘He has done piteouslie devour
The noble Chaucer, of makers flower;
The Monk of Bery, and Gower all three:
Timor mortis conturbat me.’

(In fact, damn it, go and read the poem first, and come back and read this after you’ve done.)
‘Maker’: I’ve always liked it. It’s less high-falutin’ than ‘author’ or ‘poet’: it links us inextricably – as we ought to be linked – with every other sort of human creativity. People make furniture. They make paintings, musical instruments and gardens. They make brain scanners, television programmes and films. They make homes. They make love – which as Ursula K Le Guin once wrote in the ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (go and read that too), ‘doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.’
None of these things (furniture, gardens, brain scanners etc) just happen. You can’t make anything worth having without a lot of effort. I should know, because my bones are currently aching from having spent three days digging bindweed roots (thick, white, snappy coiling things) out of my flower beds. But what a difference it will make come the summer!
Writers are makers. Creativity is toil. But it’s also wonderful, and as I read Meg Harper’s last piece, about getting the frightened writers in her workshop to get something down on paper, I was sad that children are frightened of using words.
My brother and I were part of the Blue Peter generation, and he was fantastic at making things out of Squeezy bottle and cornflakes packets. He went on to construct balsa wood planes that really flew, and can now turn his hand to just about anything, including boats, house extensions, and beautiful, glossy musical instruments like mandolas. He’s also an accomplished folk musician who can compose his own tunes.
Me, I tried. I longed to own a model sailing ship, so I made my own very ugly one out of balsa wood, and painted it yellow. It had so many holes in the hull, it would have sunk like a stone, but I made it and loved it till it was squashed flat in a house removal by heartless, careless men from Pickfords. I wanted to own an exquisite piece of Chinese embroidery I’d seen, smothered in birds and flowers – so I got a bit of frayed blue satin and laboriously stitched away at a puckered, lumpy, clumsy bird.
I wanted a miniature Chinese garden like one I’d read about in a book – so I borrowed a tray and arranged gravel and stones and moss around a tin lid (for the pool) and stood some china ornaments around it till the moss dried and the tray got knocked over. Oh, and I wanted an eighth Narnia book, so I got an old blue notebook and wrote my own. (You can see it on my website if you want.) And though none of the things I made may have been any good (by some ultimate critical standard), it was the making of them that counted.
For me, the writing is what has lasted. I’m not an embroiderer or a woodworker (though I would still love to be). But it’s all making, and any child who hammers a nail in straight, paints a picture or bakes brownies knows how good it feels.
Here’s a poem by Robert Bridges that I learned by heart when I was about nine.
I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them.
God hath no better praise,
And Man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them.
I too will something make,
And joy in the making,
Although tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream,
Remembered on waking.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Write? What now? Without talking? Meg Harper

‘I don’t know what to write!’
The heart sink moment. I am being employed by The Landmark Trust as writer/drama practitioner on a wonderful project with five schools in Bedfordshire which gives them access to the restoration process at Queen Anne’s Summerhouse on the Shuttleworth Estate and then three days back in their schools, one day with me and two with visual artists. We’re aiming for a book of the children’s writings and a display of their artwork.
And it is wonderful! I love it! I could wax lyrical and go on and on – but I won’t because I am a) tired b) too busy c) I would bore the pants off you. Let’s cut to the chase.
We have done every possible explorational and preparatory activity I can think of in the morning – we have had huge fun – and then the big moment comes. We have to write.
Ouch! And, oh my goodness, after a few minutes of chat and settling I’m saying that we are all going to write for ten minutes in complete silence – because that’s what I do at home, for hours on end sometimes (OK Mary H – I know you listen to the radio but I can’t!) and we’re not going to put up our hands for help, we are just going to get on with it – just for ten minutes. Some kids love it – they are away, heads down, instant beavers. Others will go along with it. So this mad woman wants us to stop talking – well, she’s all right – we like her – let’s humour her. And then there are the others.
Victoria: I don’t feel very well.
Reece: I’ve got a poorly wrist.
Five minutes later, Corie in tears: I just want to go to the toilet.
I am not unaware of this problem. I have talked about how it can feel like jumping off a cliff – and I have drawn a pretty parachute on the board because we do have a parachute to help us on the way down – it’s full of word banks and the similes we made up and our plays that we created this morning and our brains! And I’ve suggested that we only have to take one step at a time down the cliff – one word and then another word and they don’t even have to be the right words because we can change them later if we want to – and even if English is a new language for us (there are 13 EAL kids in this group), we can do it – we really can!
But oh it’s still hard for a few! And the teacher does not help, interrupting with:
‘Weronika, if you don’t write half a page you’ll be doing it tomorrow!’
Given a rope, I would have hung the woman! A shame – I like her. She has been great to work with.
We stop after the ten minutes. I talk about writer’s block and thinking time and say that sometimes all I do is think for ten minutes - and comfort myself that slightly undermining the teacher is less of a crime than hanging her would be. And in the end, we have some fantastic pieces of writing, considering this is year 4 and even Maksims (who never writes – there were no lions at Queen Anne’s Summerhouse but what the hell?) has written half a page and the teacher is cock-a-hoop. But that bit where the minority panics – oh, how I would like to avoid that! Am thinking I might try to develop a workshop called ‘Writing for the Terrified’. Got any suggestions anybody?

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The point of pedantry - John Dougherty

We had a science teacher at our secondary school who, on this date every year, would send some hapless first year to one of his colleagues with a request for a long stand. Or, occasionally, a big weight.

Even then, I always thought the 'long stand' was the better gag (not much better, but that was about as sophisticated as humour got at our school). After all, you wouldn't normally talk about 'a big wait'; it would be a long wait, wouldn't it? But of course if he'd requested a long wait, a child who'd been warned about the 'long stand' prank might make the connection.

I've been thinking lately about how it's on this sort of care with words, and this sort of awareness of the meanings of words, that good writing often rests. Probably it's particularly on my mind at the moment because I've been going through the proofs for my next book, Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom, and one of the things to be aware of - at this stage at least as much as any other - is that sometimes a phrase which carries your meaning perfectly adequately can also carry another meaning. It's not enough to think, "Does this say what I want it to?" - there should also be a small part of the writer's brain asking, "Does this say anything I don't want it to?"

My son was recently reading a book in which a character - in a environment very familiar to him - is looking for somewhere to hide. There are a lot of short, sharp sentences to emphasise the urgency of the situation - "His enemy was getting closer. He looked round," that sort of thing - and then comes the sentence, "A great oak tree grew in the corner of the field." Reading on, it's fairly clear that the writer means that there was a great oak tree in the corner of the field that had been growing there for some years and which was still alive and therefore growing; but when I read the sentence, it caused me to stumble internally, because for a moment I wondered if the writer might mean that as the character watched, a tree began to grow and in a matter of seconds was very large.

Some of you may think I'm just being pedantic - and you wouldn't be the first - but to my mind, pedantry's a much underrated pastime; and in my defence, there were a number of factors that made this a not entirely unreasonable supposition:
  • the story was a fantasy, set in a fantasy land, and magical things were already happening in the scene
  • the short, sharp sentences were setting me up to expect events - x happened, then y happened, then w happened (surprising everyone who was expecting z next) - rather than description
  • since the character was in a familiar environment, looking for somewhere to hide, I'd have expected him to know that the tree was there; being told 'he looked round' and then 'a tree grew', rather than 'he saw the tree' threw me a bit
See what I mean? It's the sort of thing any of us could do, and it doesn't even qualify as a mistake, but it's something to be wary of. As is the sort of double meaning on the sign I passed the other day, whilst out for a run: "Please do not allow your dog to foul on the golf course." Yes, I know what it means; but if the signwriter had omitted the word 'on' it would have carried exactly the same intended meaning, without conjuring up in my head the picture of a Jack Russell slyly using its niblick to knock another dog's ball into the rough. Or, as the Jack Russell might put it, ruff.

So for me, there really is a point to pedantry. It helps to keep us sharp; it helps to make us think about the words we use and the potential, as well as actual, meanings they carry. And while no-one will love you for being pedantic all the time, we writers really ought to make sure we're in touch with our own inner pedants - at least while we're at our desks.

I'm going to leave you with one more sign; one I snapped last year when I was in Dublin for the Children's Books Ireland festival. I have no idea whether the owner was aware of the potential double meaning, but it's provided at least one dieting friend with a bit of focus.