Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Crossing Books. Would you?: Gillian Philip

BookCrossing. It's that thing where people set books free in public places, hoping to hear back from them when the finder registers them on the website; BookCrossers also exchange books online, sometimes but not always supplied by publishers. I've never sent a book into the wild myself, but my books have been Crossed, so to speak, and it's been a positive experience for me.
It's on my mind because I'm speaking at the UK BookCrossing UnConvention in Edinburgh on Saturday. It's also on my mind because I talked about the practice on Radio Scotland's Book Cafe a couple of weeks ago, along with enthusiastic BookCrosser and UnConvention organiser Liz Broomfield.
I was playing the odd role of devil's and angel's advocate in the discussion. After all, I wouldn't be speaking at the UnCon if I was against the whole thing, but the interviewer wanted to know: was BookCrossing a bad thing for writers? It's one more way of cutting our earnings, after all, and heaven knows there are already enough ways of doing that.
There are a few answers to this from BookCrossers. Firstly (they say), they try books they'd never otherwise consider, and expanding the readership of books can only be a good thing. Secondly, if they love your book, Crossers will often end up buying it, for themselves or as gifts. Thirdly - and here's what I like - part of the deal, with books passed round web 'Bookrings', is that you get an online review. And reviews in the regular press are almost as hard to come by as royalties from Tesco.
I confess I'm keen on it, and not just because the BookCrossers have been largely nice to me and my books. All their arguments have merit, but more than that, I like their enthusiasm. I like that they are passionate about books. I can't help feeling that as long as there are people like BookCrossers around, books won't die the death that's often foretold.
Of course, I also hope that BookCrossers love books enough to understand that there won't be as many of them around in the future - at least, books not written by Jordan - if writers can't earn a living.
But I know a lot of writers are against the whole idea. I'd love to hear some views. Then I could put on my General and Allied Writers Militant Union hat on Saturday, as well as my Kiss-Me-Quick-BookCrossers one.
And I couldn't think of an illustration for this post. Which is why I've been a chancer and just posted a picture of one of my covers, Bad Faith. Sorry.

The writer goes shopping in a gondola - Michelle Lovric

Here’s a typical morning in Venice, during the period of writing The Undrowned Child.
You go to the San Samuele traghetto for the 8.30 gondola to Ca’ Rezzonico.

You mutter viciously to yourself all the way: the reason you have to drag your trolley across the Grand Canal is that all the food shops in your area have closed down to be turned into mask shops for the tourists.

You’ve already mentally drafted a droll, germane blog about this by the time you arrive at San Samuele. The gondola stazione’s deserted. The boat’s padlocked to the pole. You notice a young gondolier sitting disconsolately on a nearby bench. He whimpers that the two-man traghetto cannot start because his partner has qualche problema – some problems, and won’t be arriving for work this morning.

Ah, you sigh. This is why you go nowhere in Venice without a notebook. You sit down on the mossy wooden steps and write a scene in which your heroine, desperate to reach the other side of the Grand Canal in order to save the city from a terrible disaster, is forced to swim for it, jostling through four-metre sharks and a vast sea-creature’s tentacles, which are currently masquerading as the striped painted poles.

Eventually a substitute gondolier is found. You’re poled across the jade-green water. At the nearest vaporetto stop you ask for the new timetable for the ferries. The summer season officially started five days ago. But no orario di navigazione. The lady at the counter explains that the printer has qualche problema. You make a note: in The Undrowned Child, the ephemera of Bajamonte Tiepolo’s bloody revolution shall be printed in Venice’s most haunted house, Ca’ Dario. And ahead of time.

You go to the erborista for some flax-seed capsules to soothe eyes rendered glassy and red-rimmed by the computer-screen. But unfortunately the erborista’s distributor has qualche problema di consegna – some delivery problems. You should try again next week. Or the week after. Chissà? Who knows? Chissà indeed. (I hear this phrase so often in Venice that I gave it as a name to a grumpy mermaid in The Undrowned Child.)

You set off to Friselle on the quest for rare and precious light bulbs for the kitchen hob. The sign on the door announces that the premises shall open at 9.00am. At 9.20 you’re still waiting outside. A man shuffles up and unlocks the door. One look at his face and you know that he has qualche problema in a big way. You keep your voice low, state your business, and leave him to his misery as quickly as you can. But you take in the moist grooves of his forehead, the mouth dragged down as if hooked on a line, the desperate, shadowed eyes – and you reserve a special place for him as the doomed side-kick of the villainess in your next novel. That’s the face he shall wear as he drowns in the icy waters of the Adriatic …

You drag your trolley back to the traghetto. Of course, it’s on the other side of the canal. Of course, the boys are having their pausa. You listen to the dripping of the gelato melting on your new tea-towels inside the trolley. You scribble a brief description, imagining your heroine lashed to an iceberg in the lagoon, being tortured by the sun shining through a cunningly mounted magnifying glass.

When you get home, your husband asks you, ‘Did you remember my …?’

‘No,’ you interrupt ferociously, running to your computer, ‘no, I did not. I had qualche problema.’

Monday, 29 June 2009


Other authors, when upset, curl up in a little ball and try to be only slightly prickly - baby hedgehogesque, you might say. I, on the other hand, prefer the full porcupine-after-stubbing-its-toe-on-a-hot-coal method, shooting my spines all over the place. Crabbit, that's me. But all of us tend to get prickly/spiky about the same things. So, for the benefit of the non-authors amongst you, and to prevent painful mistakes by our nearest and dearest, here is a handy list of Things Not to Say to Authors - Especially Children's Authors - (because we need to be mega-prickly, being so little and weak and Not Important ...)

In no particular order (with the politest replies I can muster in brackets):
  1. "I've always wanted to write a book but I don't have time." (Get up an hour earlier, lazy-bones - I did. At even 1000 words a day - 3 pages of A4 - you'd be done in a couple of months. Simple, time-wise.)
  2. "Everyone's got a book in them." (Best place for it.)
  3. "I liked your last book better" / "This is better than your last book." (Could you possibly rephrase? I suggest: "I loved *******" / "This is brilliant.")
  4. "How are sales doing?" (I'll tell you how sales are doing when you tell me how much you earn. Besides, do you know what would be "good" sales? So, if I say I sold 1000 copies in three months, have you any idea whether this is good or bad? So don't ask. Pretty please.)
  5. "I was in Auchtermuchty and didn't see it in the bookshop." (Ah, that'll be because they sold ALL their copies just before you came in.)
  6. "Where do you get your ideas?" (I can't tell you - it's like being in the Magic Circle. No seriously, a much more interesting question would be: "What happens when you get an idea? Like, do you stop whatever you're doing and write it down? Or do you mull it over for weeks? Start writing straightaway? How do the characters grow? In your head or on paper?" Those questions, about process, are interesting to authors.)
  7. "Ooh, that sounds fab - I'll buy it secondhand." (Don't worry - I'm sure my bank manager will understand.)
  8. "Are you going to write an adult book?" (No, I'm not nearly clever enough .... Arggghhhh, please don't ever ask this without arming yourself with anti-porcupine gear. Actually, if you must know, I am going to write an adult book, when I feel like it, but meanwhile, while my brain is still at its peak, I'm writing for teenagers. We are very, very prickly about this, often unnecessarily so, but it always feels as though people think writing for children/teenagers is easier than writing for adults. So, if you want to ask the question, find a very sensitive way of phrasing it. Otherwise you chip away at our pathetic fragile egos.)
  9. "I haven't seen it reviewed in the papers." (Oh, and how many papers do you read every day? Do any of the papers you read have any reviews of children's/teenage books? If so, how many? And did you know that there are 10,000 children's books published in the UK every year?
  10. "Oh, are you the new JK Rowling?" (Considering I don't write fantasy or books in a series, probably not. Anyway, fame and fortune are the tawdry trappings of success and I am above such things.)
Look, I know I'm a crabbit old bat but we're sensitive souls, we writers, doing a really hard job and exposing ourselves (not in that sense, thank goodness) to public criticism. We're often bad at accepting praise and too quick to see the negative. Thing is, the one thing that many of those questions seem to say to us is, "Well, you're not doing as well as you'd like, are you?" (No, I'm not, but I'm trying, trying really hard.) "And besides, what you're doing is not that clever or difficult or important." I happen to think it is.

This wasn't really meant to be a whinge. We love you all, you lovely, lovely readers, really. And we certainly need you. But our skin is very thin and sometimes it's our closest friends who quite accidentally say the wrong things. So, I just thought it might help if I told you what those wrong things were.

Just sayin', as "they" say.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Writing for Pleasure - Sally Nicholls

I was recently at a celebration for the summer solstice. As part of the event, participants shared poems and stories which they had written, many on appropriate themes.

Now, as you can imagine, most of the poems were dreadful, but that wasn't the point. They were fun. They were silly, and irreverent, and the authors had obviously had a great time writing them. They weren't intended to be published - at least I hope not - they were simply a way of having a good time, and creating something personal to be shared with the writer's friends.

Which got me thinking. Everyone who kicks a football round the park doesn't want to be a professional football player. Everyone who cooks doesn't want to be a chef. So why is there this assumption that if you write, you must want to do it professionally?

Whatever happened to writing for fun? Not to have it published - be that in a book, in a magazine, or on the internet. Not to worry about how many people have bought or downloaded it. Not for someone else to read at all. Simply for yourself or a few friends. For itself.

I used to write a diary, many years ago. I used to write funny sketches about the madness that was my university house - for my university friends to read. I have been known to write bad poetry for the eyes of my forgiving boyfriend only.

What happened to that? To writing for fun?

Friday, 26 June 2009

Writer's Block: N M Browne

First of all I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in butcher’s block – I used to have one in my kitchen and plumber’s block – the kind that costs a fortune to unblock in my experience. I even believe in builder’s block the process whereby nothing can happen because the electrician can’t start before the plasterer, the plasterer can’t start before the plumber and there’s no way the plumber can do a thing until the electrician’s finished, but writer’s block, no. Writer’s block is the figment of an author’s imagination, an excuse for melodrama, existential despair and excessive drinking ; it is another word for idleness.
Secondly, I would like to explain that I am not personally ‘blocked’. I eat plenty of prunes, walk my dog regularly and, apart from the red wine, caffeine and chocolate habit, have quite a healthy life. The only reason I am not writing at the moment and indeed haven’t written for months is...
Well there’s the weather – we get so few nice days and I can’t see my screen outside and I can’t remember how to write with pen and paper – I get cramp just signing my name these days ( and not because I do so many autographs.)
Then there were the exams and the fact that now they are over, well,it seems only kind to let my poor overwrought children take over my work space. They do need to catch up on Facebook, MSN and Youtube so much more than I need to write a new novel. And again I think some ideas need to – how shall I put this - germinate slowly. This is especially true of ideas you haven’t yet had. The unthought story seed is as elusive as a windblown dandelion clock, that great high concept thingy waiting in some kind of inchoate state for the mind to be receptive enough to allow it to exist, needs time and patience. Of course this is not another way of saying I’m clueless, how dare you suggest it! I’m merely waiting, biding my time, not stuck at all.
In the meantime, I feel the author’s mind needs plenty of sunshine – to aid germination, fluid (preferably of the pink variety, rose, kir maybe even pink champagne) and rest. I also recommend plenty of visual stimulation, sales shopping is particular good for this as it also allows the writer to engage in useful imaginative thinking: this yellow, sleeveless sundress would look wonderful if I got a tan, worked out, lost the bingo arms, had breast augmentation surgery, botox, new teeth and wore very high heels.
What me? Got writer’s block? Whatever gave you that idea?

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Other Places : by Penny Dolan

They’re there in Julia Cameron’s books. They’re there in tales of writing lives & communities. There’s one in Edinburgh whose fame is based on what was written there and by whom. You may already spend hours busy in one, but I hadn't.

Writing in a cafe wasn’t something I’d ever actually done, not as a pen and paper activity in itself. Partly this was because I live close enough to town to be home in five minutes. “Why pay for coffee when it’s free at home?” The puritanical soul. The writer’s income.

Partly because, blessed with a large workroom, going to a cafe felt slightly too precious and pose-y. “I need even more space for my great gifts to spread themselves, darlings. Bye!” Swish of silk scarves. Wave of finely gloved hand. I don't think so.

Partly because, with someone else home here - a rather nice someone else as it happens - I sort of felt I shouldn’t.

But mostly because those old echoes of well-worn guilt, as in “You are getting on with your homework in that room, aren’t you, Penny?” made me feel uncomfortable about leaving my desk and computer and seeking out what felt such a selfishly indulgent writing place.

Then, earlier this week, I actually did it. I called into a small local café with no other intention than to sit and write for a while, at a time when the place wasn’t too busy. It was a small café. The mug was a generous size. Nobody stared at me much. The music and chatter wasn’t a bother. It felt sociable rather than solitary.

And I could work. I didn’t write much actual story, but I did feel free to really think and puzzle about my characters in a way I hadn’t at home. I could not hear the swarm of small attention-seeking Things To Do that buzz loudly around the house. It felt very good, and very productive, even without any laptop. I even overheard something that gave me a small Idea. I think I am a café convert.

So, where do you escape to write?

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Books for Everyone by Marie-Louise Jensen

I never cease to be amazed by how different people’s reading tastes are. Put a random group of people in a room and give them a list of books to read. Then ask them to put them in order of how much they enjoyed them. You’re very unlikely to get any two with the same list.
Some love romance, others find it boring or embarrassing. Many people love a good weep, others hate it. Some like to be challenged, to find a book difficult to read and to be made to think about issues, morals and difficult choices. Others want to escape into a fluffy, happy book world to escape reality. Others like something in between or a variety.
I know readers who think all fantasy is stupid. I myself struggle with books that have a school setting. Historical fiction is another divide. It’s some people’s passion and total, unalleviated boredom for others.
The difference in reactions to books is not just a male-female divide either, of course. It’s far more complex than that. Yes, there are girl-books and boy-books on the market. Once you get beyond the 9-12 age bracket, almost all books are gender targeted. And we all know that while many girls will read ‘boy’ books, it’s far harder to get boys to read girl books. But you won’t get a group of girls or a group of boys who like all the same books either. My two sons like completely different authors, and have completely different personalities. They only one they can agree on is Horowitz - but even then not on which of his books are best.
The more I think about it the more I think the diversity in books and reading tastes is to be welcomed and embraced. Something for everyone, reflecting our individuality and celebrating our differences.
I don’t envy the Carnegie judges their decision due to be announced tomorrow. How do a panel of diverse judges manage to agree on a choice of 'best' book they are not the target audience for? Rather them than me.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Lancashire Children's Book of the Year Award 2009 by Adele Geras

HERE is an account from the blogger Bookwitch of all the festivities at the 2009 Lancashire Children's Book of the Year award. She has photographs on her blog, taken by her daughter, and I hope you'll all visit her site and read what she has to say.

For my part, I have had a wonderful time being involved with the prize over the last few months. The fun started last September when Jake Hope sent me a list of the 90 or so books on the longlist. In March, we unveiled the shortlist and met the young judges for the first time. They are Year 9 pupils from 12 schools in Lancashire and a livelier, more intelligent, and delightful group of young people you couldn't wish to meet. They were each given copies of the ten shortlisted books and between March and May they read them and then we came together to find a winner. That winner was Sophie McKenzie's BLOOD TIES but JUST HENRY by Michelle Magorian and THE TRAP by Sarah Wray came close too.

The award ceremony took place this past weekend. It's the culmination of a lot of work by a great many people in the Lancashire Library Service, most particularly Jean Wolstenholme and Jake Hope. Publishers have done their bit by contributing the books and the County Council has joined in by allowing the meetings to take place in the Cabinet Room of the County Hall.

Last Friday, Sophie McKenzie and three of the shortlisted authors (Tabitha Suzuma, Sarah Wray and Craig Simpson) arrived in Preston and had a session in which they spoke and answered questions from more than a hundred children from all the schools involved. On Friday night, the University of Central Lancashire, which generously sponsors the Award, gave us all a superb dinner. A string quartet played as we ate and the highlight of the meal was not the lemon syllabub (though that came a close second) but the speeches from the young people who'd been judges last year. They all said how much it had meant to them to be part of the process and how they were now enthusiastic readers and eager to go on trying books of all kinds. One of the features of this prize is that it gets everyone reading out of their comfort zone sometimes...including me.

This prize brings together the whole community. The Council, UCLAN, the library services, the teachers, the pupils, their parents and grandparents, their siblings: everyone was represented in the Council Chamber on Saturday morning. It's a very imposing and impressive space with rather luxurious leather seats. Sophie McKenzie took home a cheque and a decanter. I took home a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a a pretty brooch with the coat of arms of Lancashire County Council on it. The latter was a gift from the outgoing Leader of the Council, Alan Whittaker, who will be much missed. Yet again, the best speeches came from the young judges. The authors who were there signed copies of their own books after the ceremony and then we went for lunch in the Council Mess, as it's called.

I'm proud to be associated with this Award and I'm already looking forward to September when another longlist will appear as if by magic in my inbox.

Thanks to everyone involved, especially Jean and Jake.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Walking the Walk - Leslie Wilson

I thought I’d put in a picture of my dog Matilda, as it’s my first ever posting on this blog. This is because a) she’s a nice-looking animal, and b) she’s an invaluable tool for a writer. This morning I was supposed to be staying in waiting for the gas-man, and my husband took Matilda for her walk, but I just wanted to be out so much – and I was messing around in my mind, trying to work out what to write next in the current novel. It just wouldn’t come, so as soon as the man and the dog came in, I got my walking shoes on, much to Matilda’s delight – she couldn’t believe her luck, actually – and took her out again.
This was a good idea, because I sorted out the writing problem. It’s a first draft, and I think it’s terribly easy – for me, at least – to get bogged down in first drafts with: well, after this, what did they do?
If I was teaching a class of writing students, of course I’d be telling them to ‘think scenes’, and I do really know the answer, but somehow being in the outside, moving about, seeing the leaves and the flowers – it’s a really lovely place, where I walk my dog, one of those suburban parks that’s been let go wild, there’s a clump of heavenly yellow flag iris, loads of trees and hemlock flowering at this time of year, as well as all the brambles whose fruit I shall later on be picking for jam. Yes, now, where was I? Ah.
In the middle of a sentence that my English teacher at school would definitely NOT be happy with, not the way I’ve left it.
Where I lost the thread and went off into ecstatic description of the beauties of nature, was at what being there did for me. Perhaps it was the physical movement that got the movement into my ideas, too, because I thought: Well, what do I actually want to put in the next bit. The answer came at once: my heroine’s father. Who’s a bit hyper-active at this stage in the plot, actually, he always is. And then I remembered that the rather scratchy old grandmother hadn’t been mentioned for a while, and I’d been wondering where she’d come in – so I knew I could have her making comments on the father and putting the spotlight back onto him – and looking at my heroine and muttering about her mother, who she doesn’t like and keeps accusing the heroine of resembling.
So there it was, and then I met another writer! Not published, as yet, but fresh from an OU degree and thinking about a calling card script for television. She has a boy dog who looks very much like Matilda, and they frolicked around in the bushes, coming out at intervals festooned with foliage, while we talked about my novel, and her script, and what hard work writing is. But it does have the advantage that one can go out for a walk to solve the problems, a privilege only self-employed people have. Then it was back home and down to the keyboard.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Space invader - Anne Rooney

This morning, my Big Daughter finished her A levels. This is good on many counts - not least because it means I can have my office back. Out with Hitler, Sartre, Truffaut, biological systems and inorganic chemistry. The piles of past papers and the coloured pens, the post-it notes and (worse) the dirty cups, plates, knives, spoons, empty Gu pots and discarded jumpers, shoes and jewellery can all be banished. And perhaps I will get some work done again.

My office is the nicest place in the house to work, and for the last three summers it has been taken over by the exam victim. It's my own fault - I suggested she use it during GCSEs to escape the noise and hassle of her sister (her own room being too untidy to work in), and so set a bad precedent. The result has been that I get no work done in May and June. Why, when writing can be done anywhere - and is often done in the library or Borders cafe - is it suddenly impossible to do it in the house if my space has been invaded by the detritus of A levels? My office is messy beyond belief anyway. But usually it's my mess and I know where to find things in it. I know why there is a flamingo wishbone and where the volcanic rocks are and how many chocolates are left and which CDs don't work and how the books are (dis)ordered on the shelves and which pile of papers conceals a working pen. And somehow it doesn't work if there are differet pens and books about evolution or active transport on top of the clutter that belongs here. And if Facebook is always logged into her account...grrr.

So tonight she is out drinking by the river in Grantchester and I am bundling up past papers and French DVDs as fast as possible so that tomorrow, perhaps, my characters will be able to creep back out of the corners and take back their space and do something. For the last six weeks they have lurked, sullen and contrary, refusing to do anything. But tomorrow they must get back to work.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Living in a writer’s head - Linda Strachan

I love to live as my characters but it can be a little strange, being at one moment

an explorer,
a mythical beast,
a petulant child,
a curious puppy
or a suicidal teenager

and the next a ‘normal’ responsible adult and parent, doing the mundane but necessary tasks of daily life,

like cleaning the u-bend
or cooking for a hungry family.

It is probably what makes life as a writer quirky but appealing, at least to me.

But how easy is it to stop one bleeding off into the other.As a parent when writing about a child’s worries the instinct is to try and solve their problems but as a writer I want to make their life a misery, (for the sake of the plot of course!)

I make my characters suffer; have nasty and often painful things happen to them, - the child might lose its parents, the dragon weep with dismay at the loss of its wings and inability to fly; and the puppy, well let’s just not go there.

I am a huge softie when it comes to children and animals, in fact just about everything, but my dark side appears once I start refusing to allow myself the comfort of making the world turn out right for my characters. I find I dig deep to find that dark layer that makes my fear of heights appear in my characters just as I force them out onto a perilously high window ledge.
As I step back into this mundane world am I relieved to be away from that scary dark side? Unfortunately no, I can’t wait to get back, to find out how it is all going to turn out, and whether I can find something just as difficult or nasty to happen next.
In the end I do feel the need to make things turn out reasonably okay – I don’t write horror stories after all.

I firmly believe that children need to explore their darker sides but they also, at any age, need to see something positive or some potential for a positive outcome in what they read. So I would never finish a book with no hope at all but I refuse to make everything saccharine sweet all the time because there are kids out there who believe that nothing bad can happen and when it inevitably does they suffer much more than those who have a more realistic view of things.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Adults in the Playground - Katherine Langrish

Some quotes from Amazon reviews:

1) “Skulduggery Pleasant is a rarity among children’s books. For one it doesn’t talk down to its audience, two it has some very original characters…”

2) “Tunnels is one of those few books that can be enjoyed by kids, teens and adults…”

3) “Don’t be fooled into thinking this [Sabriel] is a children’s book… Nix doesn’t pull any punches… there’s no patronising and talking down to children in his prose…”

4) “Overall [Northern Lights] is a children’s adventure story with grown up overriding themes concerning the questioning of authority…”

I hope your blood is boiling? I got these from a quick trawl of Amazon, and I’m certain it would be easy to come up with many similar examples. Now, whatever the varying merits of the above four children’s books (they do vary wildly, Reader; but I’m not going down that path) they have one thing in common: they have all been bestsellers. And bestsellers attract some readers who never normally pick up a children’s book. Their attitude seems to be:

1) I never read children’s books because…
2) …I believe books for children are puerile, patronising and fluffy…
3) …and that is why I never read them. However…
4) …here is a high-profile children’s book which, unexpectedly, has merits. I have actually enjoyed it.
5) Therefore it cannot be a representative children’s book.

Breath-taking in their ignorant condescension, such readers appear to imagine they are paying a children’s author a compliment by – effectively – telling him or her that they have failed in their first endeavour. Garth Nix thought he was writing a book for children? No he wasn’t! Adults can enjoy it!

Dear God. Let’s say it once again, loud and clear. Children’s literature is exactly that – a branch of literature. There’s a massive spectrum available, from simple adventure stories all the way through to complex, subtle, life-enriching explorations of characters and worlds which will stay with a reader forever. There’s a cartoon someone once showed me of a literary cocktail party with two authors chatting. One says something like, ‘I write for adults. I write stories about bored wives in the Home Counties, and middle-aged men having affairs with younger women.’ The other says, ‘I write about life and death, and grief and hope and terror, and rising above every difficulty to change the course of your life. I write for children.’

Saturday, 13 June 2009

My mind is boggling! - Meg Harper

I am having a hectic time! Well – what’s new? If I will insist on the portfolio life-style rather than knuckling down to a ‘proper job’ what do I expect? But right now, I feel a bit of a fraud contributing to this blog because the actual author bit is taking a very back seat – partly because I’m playing that lovely waiting game (you know, where the editor takes many moons longer to read and decide about your story than you took to write it – my best was a 500 word story that took 2 hours to write and 5 months for the editor to decide to publish it!) and partly because I’m doing all the para-writing stuff – working in schools, heritage education, youth theatre, adult ed and jolly old grant applications.

Anyway…today has been a youth theatre day and the bit that I think is of relevance to other children’s authors is the enormity of kids’ ideas. In my youth theatre, we devise our plays, sometimes from existing stories, sometimes from scratch. There are many challenges but it’s certainly a dynamic way to work and very empowering for the young people to see their ideas transformed into theatre.

Now let’s look at one example. My mind is boggling over it. Fair enough, our starting point was one of the pictures of Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’. (If you don’t know this brilliant work, see my footnote* and track it down!) The picture shows a house apparently launching into space. Right. Fine. But how did we get from there to a point where we have a play in which the children of the house have a nanny from the new All-Male Nanny Agency who happens to be an alien and whose evil plan is to abduct the children, take them to his planet, mutate them into aliens like himself and use them to breed so that his dying race will survive?????? And why is the crazy scientist (who rescues the children) who is developing pills to help you breathe where there is no oxygen, obsessed with a craving for meatballs!!!! And why is my imagination so tame and lame that I would never think of any of all this in a month of Sundays and even if I did, I would think it was too mad to include in a story or ever get past an editor? But the fact is, the children have no problem with the madness, they love it – and there are authors out there who are canny enough to know this and to convince editors that writing about killer mushrooms who eat your Gran or cows in action is the stuff of best-sellers for kids.

I need to overcome my craziness allergy. I’m entirely happy to help kids create what they will on the stage – so why do I get all sensible when I turn to the page? (Hmm…my book 'Fur' about Grace who started getting furry when she hit puberty on account of her mother being a Selkie was a bit mad – maybe there’s hope for me yet!!!)

* The concept of ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’ is that an unknown illustrator took samples of illustrations from 14 stories to a publisher, each with a mysterious caption. The publisher was very interested and asked to see the remaining pictures and the stories – but the illustrator never returned….14 pictures, magnificently drawn, from 14 mysterious stories…it is a wonderfully rich resource. Google it!

PS. The photo is me and friends on the top of Ingleborough, the third of the three peaks of Yorkshire, which we climbed recently as a sponsored walk for Samaritan's Purse 'Turn on the Tap' campaign. Just 24.5 miles with rather a lot of ascent. We had a great time but Karen (left) who is a bowel surgeon did at what point say 'What made me think this would be more fun than looking up other people's bottoms all day?'!!! If you'd like to sponsor us retrospectively go to http://www.justgiving.com/chbc_walkers Thank you!

Friday, 12 June 2009

Marathon Comparison - John Dougherty

Having, in the last six weeks, finished both a run of 26.2 miles and a story of 81,856 words, it occurred to me that there are a number of similarities between the two. They include:
  • the need for preparation. You can’t start a marathon run without having loaded your body up with carbohydrates, trained it properly, and generally prepared it for the long slog to come. Similarly, you can’t just write the first words of the first sentence of your story and expect everything to flow smoothly from there; you’ve got to prepare your imagination - whether with a detailed paper plan or just a lot of daydreaming depends on the individual; but the point is that you have to get your mind ready for the long grind ahead, with some idea of where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. Otherwise you may find yourself hitting the wall, and unable to carry on
  • the will to finish. At various points along the route, you’re likely to become aware of a little voice in the back of your head that whispers, “No-one would blame you if you just gave up now...” This must be fought at all costs!
  • the potential for disappointment. No matter how well-prepared you are, no matter how determined, now matter how inspired and ready you are at the start, you can’t do a personal best every time
  • the sense of sheer exhaustion once you get to the end. Actually, this one came as a bit of a surprise for me, at least as far as the story was concerned; in its present form, Bansi O’Hara and the Edges of Hallowe’en is by far the longest thing I’ve ever written, and I just wasn’t expecting the wave of tiredness that hit me as I left the wordshed, having composed the final paragraph, hit ‘save’, and closed the file.
But of course there are a number of differences as well, not least that after the London Marathon no-one’s going to review your performance and say, “Actually, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the way you got from mile 12 to mile 15. Could you go back and do that bit again, but perhaps going via Hammersmith?”

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Revisioning - Dianne Hofmeyr

Anthony Browne says 'Every time we create something we play the shape game – every time we write a story or draw a picture or compose a piece of music we are playing it. We are taking something that we have seen or experienced and transforming it into a story… it’s the essence of creativity.'

I’m delighted it’s the essence because (taking his shape game rather loosely) it’s how I spend my day… seeing a sentence, experiencing its downfalls and trying to transform and shape it differently. I’m no longer a ‘writer’ but a ‘revisioner’, spending more time ‘revisioning’ than writing. It’s more constructive than editing, which seems a very harsh and blunt action, sort of like chopping off a head with a guillotine. ‘Revisioning’ is more mellow… the idea of finding another vision in what you’ve written, appealing. Other people might call it time wasting. I’m a rubbish plotter that’s why I have to ‘revision’. Actually a friend said politely, you’re an organic writer. Organic writing means the story is constantly changing. We’ve had this debate often… the plotters and non-plotters.

The reaction to Gillian’s post this week on Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing shows how many opinions there are on how we should write and how we should edit. I’ve a penchant for puerile things… the ellipses, the word ‘suddenly’ and exclamation marks. How many times haven’t I put in those exclamation marks and ‘revisioned’ them out again, then ‘revisioned’ them back in? My people always speak in a high state of tension that can only be suggested by exclamations!!!

But seriously what I really wanted to say was congratulations to Anthony Browne! I think he’ll make a fine Children’s Laureate. It’s about time picture books get a look in again. Quentin Blake was a long time ago.

Anthony Horowitz was quoted as saying. ‘We don’t need a spokesperson to be the person representing children’s books. Children will come and listen to a writer whose books they like. They don’t need a government agency or a medal that says ‘laureate’ to continue that.’ I think Horowitz has missed the point entirely. No, children don’t need a Laureate in his sense… it’s not about children listening to a writer whose books they like.

A Children’s Laureate re-creates excitement for every kind of book… not just his own. And we need a Children’s Laureate like Anthony Browne who will do for drawing and seeing things in pictures, what Michael Rosen did for the joy of words and poetry. Anthony Browne’s books make no concession to what we expect to find in a picture book… they deal in mysterious nuances of the ordinary and not so ordinary… a world children connect with. The fact that they love his work shows their highly developed sense of visual discernment. Visual discernment is what it’s all about when the chosen Children’s Laureate is an illustrator. It’s about opening up a world that children will be able to access and share. And there can be no greater pleasure than sharing a book with a child.

PS. Come on, Charlie, now can you supply us with more details of what went on behind those closed doors?

PPS. I missed my yoga class this morning because I was so busy ‘revisioning’ this post and it still has a rubbish plot!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Loose Lips Sink Ships Catherine Johnson

The weather's gone all shivery cold, my generally lovely country folk have elected two BNP MEPs, but the one sunny ray of good news is that Anthony Browne is the new Children's Laureate and maybe he'll get us all out taking lines for a walk to many new and fascinating places. He has to be one of the masters of illustration and here's to hoping he'll get young readers sticking with picture books a little longer.

And if you're looking for an interesting, but wordy picture book, can I recommend The Lying Carpet by David Lucas? There, I have.

If this blog seems a little unfocussed it's because I am dying to shout about my new 'thing'. I cannot say how many ways this would be a disaster. My new character is dancing around in front of me and promising all sorts of enticements to get me to leave my almost finished first draft on the computer desktop and go off with her back to the early nineteenth century to high waisted frocks sprigged, no doubt, with muslin.

But I have to leave her a while and finish what the publishers (I hope) are waiting for.

In the meantime I am terrified the book I want to write is out there, being written right now by someone else. This has happened to me before, I have perfectly serviceable ideas only to find some other - usually better- author has beaten me to it. So - for now- my lips are very tightly zipped.

Piggybacking on Giants - Charlie Butler

Is it possible to convey the particular essence of a writer’s style – its unique flavour? That’s no easy task, but luckily for reviewers and blurb writers in a hurry, there’s a convenient shortcut, which is to suggest that a book be seen as the literary lovechild of two others. Philip Reeves’ Here Lies Arthur, for example, might be described as Morte D’Arthur crossed with House of Cards”, while Animal Farm would entice new readers under the banner of “Charlotte’s Web meets The Lord of the Flies!” If you don’t like the idea of these Frankensteinian creations, or are simply squeamish at the thought of beloved classics making the beast with two backs, an alternative is draw on the vocabulary of mind-altering drugs, as in “Coraline is like Alice Through the Looking Glass on speed!”
This way of putting things makes life easier for the reviewer, and can be a service to the reader too, to whom it says, in effect, “You liked Author Y, why not give Author X a go?”
Well, that’s fine, but what does it say about the writers themselves? Writers tend to be ambivalent about the whole notion of influence. Of course, all writers have influences, and most will admit to them. I was delighted when reviewers said that some of my books were reminiscent of Alan Garner. Garner was (and is) a hero of mine, and someone whose influence on me has been palpable. What better model could one take? At the same time, I didn’t want to be seen as just an Alan Garner knock-off. I wanted to be recognized for my own voice. So my pleasure in such acts of recognition was never entirely free of chin-jutting rebelliousness. This quasi-Oedipal anxiety is of course exactly what Harold Bloom’s classic, The Anxiety of Influence, is all about.
Besides, we live in an age that fetishizes originality and novelty. Nothing could be more complimentary than to be described as a “A unique talent”, “A fresh voice”, or “A writer who shows as little respect for convention as a hyperactive toddler at a society wedding.” In that sense, to be compared to anyone is a little galling. Thus, J. K. Rowling (remember her?) caused some irritation with her refusal to admit that her work was steeped in the tropes of children’s fantasy literature, presumably because she feared that to do so would diminish her achievement. In fact, much of her work only makes sense in the context of those tropes.
What would I recommend to the hapless blurb writer, torn between praising a book in terms of other books and praising it for being one-of-a-kind? If I had to pick a cliché, I think I would go for “In the tradition of...” It’s a phrase that settles the matter equitably, paying due regard to the fact that writing comes from somewhere, without closing off the possibility that it may be going somewhere else. So, blurb writers of the future, remember the phrase: “This is a highly original book in the general tradition of Alan Garner.”
Alternatively, just go with “The Bible crossed with Shakespeare... on speed!”

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Dead House starring Anne Cassidy

I’m one of those people who refuse to move with the times. When the hole in the wall came about I said it wouldn’t last and continued to write cheques and queue up in the bank. When mobile phones came in I looked on with mirth. When word processors arrived I clung to my typewriter. I remember being at an SAS meeting years and years ago when Dave Belbin was talking about the importance of the internet and I let my mind wander. These new fangled things had nothing to do with me.

In the end (a while after everyone else) I got the word processor, computer, mobile phone. I even got a web site.

When I first heard of Youtube I was frankly amazed. What use could it be? I thought. Then my creative team (my sister, my brother and brother-in-law) made a film for me about my new book THE DEAD HOUSE. They put it on Youtube. I was excited. I was thrilled. I was –for once- able to really contribute to the marketing of my book, in my own way.

It got me thinking and wondering why more authors don’t make more use of film. Kids and teens love film. They especially love five minute ‘bites’ of film. Ever since Youtube came on the scene my son sends me links to odd little films that he has enjoyed. I watch them. We talk about them.

A short film where you talk about your book and maybe chuck in a few images (photographs, artefacts, cover shots). You don’t even have to appear. You could have a slide show of stills and talk over them reading out a good bit from the book. It’s a perfect way of reaching a wider audience. And the film can go on your web site forever.

You have to find a camera supremo. No mean feat. But in this day and age of easy access to this high tech equipment there must be someone in your group of friends, relatives that could be leant on (in a nice way).

A year ago (or thereabouts) I read an article on the Bookseller web page where a writer wondered why more writers didn’t make use of blogs. It set me thinking and together with some other writers we set up The Awfully Big Blog Adventure. We’ve been going for nearly a year and the blog changes daily and is a terrific place to find out what’s occupying the thoughts of a motley group of children’s writers.

Likewise children’s writers need to be brave about putting themselves and their work on film. Next step Cannes. Watch out Scorsese.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Book Buying - Elen Caldecott

A poet friend of mine recently told me that a bookshop considers you a ‘heavy book buyer’ if you buy six books a year. Now, I don’t know where she got that figure. Sorry. But, I’m just going to happily accept it as the truth for the purposes of this blog entry – if you know better, please let me know in the comments!

But SIX books a YEAR? I looked at my friend and thought of her house – where the books have to be stored two deep on the shelves – and my flat – where the gap between doors and walls, that is usually just dead space, is piled high with books. SIX books? I buy that many in a month, I thought!

And then, I wondered whether that was true. I READ six books a month, easily. But do I actually BUY them. And, if I do, who gets the money?

As a fairly unscientific survey, just out of curiosity, I found the last six book I had acquired and looked at their provenance.
They were as follows:

Breathing Underwater by Julia Green – bought from Waterstones
Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera – borrowed from the library
Puppet Master by Joanne Owen – borrowed from the library
The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams – borrowed from the library
Tam of Tiffany’s by Dorothea Moore – bought from Amazon
Marketing your Book by Alison Baverstock – bought from Amazon

So, three library books.
Two bought online.
One bought from a high street chain.

So, even someone who scoffed at the idea of a mere six books a year (me) has only bought one from a real, actual shop recently. And that was a chain.
I felt a flutter of guilt. I know writers make more money when you buy their work in a shop. I know dedicated book buyers are the lifeblood of independent shops. And yet I haven’t bought a book in an independent shop in a long while.

This is partly because there isn’t an independent book shop in central Bristol (or even suburban Bristol as far as I know!) and partly because buying online is so easy (the library books are like buying online because I place a reservation online and get an email when the books I want are in).

What I need is an independent shop I can browse through online. Or for someone to set up an independent shop in Bristol (good people of Bath, come on, you’ve got loads of them, hand one over!)

But what I really need to do is to put my money where my mouth is and pay more attention to my buying habits from now on. There’s still a bit more space behind the bedroom door.
Elen's Facebook Page

Thursday, 4 June 2009

And then all hell broke loose: Gillian Philip

Elmore Leonard: I love him. Not just for Get Shorty and Maximum Bob and Cuba Libre (and it’s been years since I read anything of his, and I've just reminded myself to start again) but for his famous Ten Rules of Writing. Too long to list here, but you can see them on http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html. And they're wonderful, BUT...
I went through a phase of turning Elmore’s Ten into a form of religion. I blame this on the fact that I used to write only short stories (having assumed I’d never get a novel published, and that trying was far too much like hard work) (which it was, but by the time I’d written four I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t care. But I digress.) It wasn’t that the Woman’s Weekly or the People’s Friend were looking for much Elmore Leonard-style fiction; just that the principles were the same. Keep to the point, no excess verbiage, tell the story.

So when I started to write a fantasy novel, I applied all Elmore’s rules as ferociously as – well, as Maximum Bob. And having just discovered manuscript appraisal services, I tucked it up and sent it off to The Literary Consultancy, where a very nice man, tasked with critting this effort, told me that (on top of its many other faults) he had NO IDEA what my characters were thinking and not a clue what motivated them. Which was rather a handicap to the story.
I’ve always been fixated on the notion of Telling The Story, but what that experience finally knocked into my thick head was that you don’t have a story without characters to tell it. Which means getting inside their skins and their heads, and letting the reader see in there too. Which means that all writing rules – even Elmore’s, gulp – are there to be bent till they snap.
I was thinking about this recently because I just read and adored yet another Ruth Rendell book. I love Ruth Rendell even more than I love Elmore Leonard, but I could see this denouement (and the killers) coming a mile off. Did it matter? Not an atom. I stayed up till the small hours finishing the story, could-not-put-it-down, and all because of the characters. (I don’t get the whole plot-driven-versus-character-driven thing. Aren’t they completely and irretrievably entangled?)

Elmore’s Rules are still good ones. Just – like all the rest – not quite cast in platinum. After all, he did (allegedly) scribble them on the back of a napkin.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

What's it like, Being a Writer? : Penny Dolan

Sometimes, when I’m visiting schools, I get asked “What’s it like, Being A Writer?" I’ve always found this difficult to answer, because there are so many moods to the task.

Recently, tidying some childhood books, it came to me. Being A Writer is like living in A.A. Milne’s original Hundred Acre Acre Wood, the world of the Sheppard illustrations. (Not that Mr Disney, thank you.)

There’s Tigger days, when you have lots of energy and drive, and your writing seems to be going well, and you are maybe unreasonably bouncy and self-centred.

There’s Winnie the Pooh days, when you plod along, often mistakenly, despite the limits of your poor brain but where you know the essential thing is to keep going, in a fog of hope, no matter what.

There’s Piglet days, when it’s all really, really a bit too much for you, and though you might have some good ideas, they might not turn out to be good ideas and could you please just have somebody’s paw to hold.

There’s Rabbit days, when you feel totally on top of things, and you’re actually rather well organised, and can get quite tetchy with friends and aquaintances who get in the way.

There’s Eeyore days when all you understand is deep, deep gloom, and you know nothing will go right because the whole world of books and publishing is against you, and there’s no point in trying anyway, because it will all go wrong.

There’s Owl days, when you’ve sure that you’ve hatched a very wise and praiseworthy plan, and when all your work seems to be the very best writing you’ve ever done, and accomplished and clever at that. Only others know differently.

There’s Kanga days, when you need to care for yourself, and do what’s best for you and your health and your general tidiness and well-being, because you know it’s good for you.

There’s Roo days when you’re just way too interested in all sorts of special things to settle to any writing at all.

And, thankfully, there’s Christopher Robin days, when you know that all these different friends need watching patiently and lovingly, and that all will probably be sorted out happily, and that the important thing is to have serious fun while you’re playing. Because there are far less happy places you could be.

Wonder what sort of day . . . or week . . . or month . . . you're writing through just now?

Monday, 1 June 2009

SHHH! Don't Tell Anyone! - Nicola Morgan

Rather too late, I have discovered that we (authors) have Got It All Wrong. Wait for this, because, contrary to expectations, it is good news.

Bear with me briefly. See, I had a quite different post almost finished for you. Since I have a book coming out very soon (as in today by the time you read this ...) I was all set to tell you in an exhausted but excited kind of way about the weird stuff I'd been doing to try to get it out there. I would even have told you the title (which I now can't, for reasons which will become apparent.) And I was longing to show you the cute little animated video I made all by myself (well, with the help of some free software) which has turned up in the most interesting places. And as for the free crawling beetle screensaver which Walker Books made ...

But then I read today's paper (Saturday as I am writing this) and discovered, in a horrible flash of gah-ness, that I'd been doing everything wrong. And so have all you authors. If you are currently planning launches and any crazy publicity tours, CANCEL. No, really - it's important.

Here's the story that shook my world. After five years of anticipation by readers, Haruki Murakami's new novel, IQ84, has been published. The flood of advance orders meant that his publishers had to increase the initial print-run to 480,000. The secret to this stunning success? Secrecy. Silence. Nothing. Yep, he totally refused to say anything about it. Ever. For five years and all the way up to publication, he zipped his mouth and swanned about eating sushi and drinking rice wine. (I made that up: for all I know, he could be teetotal. After all, a writer with the self-control not to mention his book?)

Now this is the sort of publicity campaign I could go for. It's a bit late, but from now on my lips are sealed. I will not tell you anything, not one teensy item, not even the title, about my new booky thing that's published on June 1st, or thereabouts. I've no idea where you can buy it and if I see any copies I will hide them. Everything I have already said about the book is a lie. If you read any reviews before publication, they are fabricated.

As for the video below, which purports to reveal strange details of a book called Deathwatch, it is nothing to do with me and must be the product of a jealous rival's fevered imagination. You can watch it if you like but, honestly, it will tell you nothing.