Friday, 31 July 2009

Are We There Yet? - Charlie Butler

The journey is perhaps the most obvious of all "Writing is like..." metaphors. But summer is upon us, and I can’t help but remember that a full 78% of the children’s books I read in the 1960s and ‘70s began with a train arriving at a holiday destination and the prospect of Adventure. Now, at a time when recession is sending millions back to the romance of buckets, spades and soggy chips, I see no reason to refuse the homely embrace of this cliché. To make things interesting, however, I have arranged things in the style of a commonplace book, and there are points – but alas, no prizes – for identifying the quotations.

Grand Potential Station

“Behind them, the big diesel locomotive hooted like a giant owl, and the train began to move out.”

This is where which we climb aboard, cradling our little bundle of ideas. We are somewhat dazed, and unsure of our precise route or destination. It’s exciting all the same, for we have an open ticket, and ANYTHING could happen. We have brought freshly-laundered hankies, but as yet they are for waving, not drowning.

“Like many others who have lived long in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable Broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo.

Blocks Hill

Oh dear. The train has ground to a halt in the middle of a tunnel. There is nothing on either side but slimy bricks. An electronic voice flickers into life, and we suspect the speaker of being a Microsoft paperclip: “Apologies for the delay. This is due to signalling problems/mechanical breakdown/an unforeseen lack of track. We will be underway as soon as these issues have been resolved. Meanwhile the buffet continues to serve a full range of hot and cold snacks, Facebook quizzes and daytime television. Feel free to stare at your window and pretend you’re waiting for inspiration.”

We wonder dismally whether we are writing on the wrong sort of leaves, but eventually the train shunts backward out of the tunnel, and takes off along a different route.

“He doesn't mind the rain now, because he knows that the best way to keep his paint nice is not to run into tunnels, but to ask his Driver to rub him down when the day's work is over.

Wise words indeed!

Editing Junction: All Change

“The first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.”

Ah yes, the editing bit. I rather enjoy it, in a masochistic way. In fact I can become quite reckless in striking out perfectly good material. A fanatic gleam enters my eye. The book begins to look worried, and shifts further along the seat.

“It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well.”

At last my blood lust is quenched and we are friends again. We set off for the next station, which is far more pleasant.

Fiddler’s Halt

Here is a charming Arcadia, where we stop a while and frolic. The book’s limbs fill out, its hair becomes glossier, its manners more appealing. But we must not linger too long.

"Tho gan Sir Calidore him to advize
Of his first quest, which he had long forlore,
Asham’d to thinke, how he that enterprise,
The which the Faery Queene had long afore
Bequeath’d to him, foreslacked had so sore."

And so we must conclude, remembering that Atropos too is a weaver - and the goddess of Knowing When to Stop, without whose kind despatch publishers' lists and bookshops would lie desolate.

Waiting at the Border

“I am waiting at the border
For the man to give the order.”

The Borders guard is checking my book’s papers. “Name? EPOS record?” He glances suspiciously at the wide-eyed novel before him. Clearly it has nothing to hide: it is an open book. “That all seems to be in order," he admits, and whisks the book away for shelving.

So now we must wave goodbye to our charge, and this time our hankies are frankly sodden. “Go, litel book! Don’t be a stranger!”

Sigh. No need for a return trip: we’ll go on from here. There’s a train to the coast in half an hour, I see.

"The end is where we start from."

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Things to Do on a Difficult Rewrite Anne Cassidy

Things to Do On a Difficult Rewrite

1. Change the font. This makes it look like a different book.

2. Change the names of the main character. Just press ‘Replace’ and suddenly you’ve got a brand new heroine called Elizabeth instead of ‘Kelly’.

3. Spend weeks cutting and pasting on the understanding that the story was really good you just told it in the wrong order.

4. Don’t do any housework.

5. Drink a lot of red wine.

6. Be horrible to your loved ones.

7. Go into bookshops. Search for your books and look at the finished product. You did it last time – you can do it again.

8. Look at the first chapter closely –yep, that’s OK. Look at the last chapter – that’s OK too. It’s just the bit in between that’s the problem.

9. Consider the fact that maybe it’s too grown up for your audience. Remove sex and violence.

10. Consider the possibility that it’s too young for your intended audience. Add sex and violence and themes about the existence of god.

11. Cry.

12. Go away for a weekend and walk along a windy beach until you experience a moment of clarity. The novel’s not working. It’s not convincing. You’re going to have to rewrite vast sections of it.

13. Rewrite vast sections of it.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Full of Stuff - Karen Ball

A child once wrote to me: ‘I picked your book because I felt sorry for it. It was sat on the shelf, being ignored by everyone else.’ Once we get past the friends, agents, editors, publishers, reps, booksellers and reviewers there is a very appreciative – and honest – audience waiting for us. This is one of the things I love best about the world of children’s books. Children don’t know how to massage an ego, they can’t lie (Well, not very well. Well, not all the time.) and if you’re boring them, they’ll let you know. If they like you, however, you’ll be adored. They’ll be as faithful as they can, for as long as they can, and then they’ll grow up and move on to something else. Fiction repays this loyalty. We give readers characters to believe in and love, we tell stories that enchant or frighten. Then the book is put to one side and … the relationship ends? Well, no. New audiences arrive to sit at our feet whilst adults fondly remember the novels that brightened their younger years. Faceless readers continue to borrow the book from libraries and the author will occasionally pick up a copy, flick through, and think, ‘Yes. Not so bad.’ Pages become stained, dropped in baths or scattered with biscuit crumbs. Some books get signed. From the first idea that pops into a writer’s head, through the system of emails with an editor, via the printing press and the stickers that are made to peel off without ruining the cover, all of these parts make up the whole. The child who wrote to me was sincere, but possibly mistaken. No book can ever be ignored. It’s too full of stuff. It’s crammed with life. Perhaps we should ask our publishers for new stickers on our books: ‘Full of stuff’*. It’s the best description I can think of.
* If publishers refuse, you’d be amazed by what you can achieve with a Post-it note and a roller ball pen. What do you mean, it doesn’t look professional…?

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Easy as ABC? - Elen Caldecott

I don’t consider myself to be an educational writer. By this, I mean, that, for me, the story and characters are the most important thing. I don’t worry too much about vocabulary or reading attainment or key stages (in fact, I don’t really know what a key stage is...) In short, I don’t worry about the reader; I just try to make the stories the best that they can be.
I’ve just spend a really interesting week with my youngest brother. We went on a camping holiday. It rained a lot. He is learning to read at the moment, so while the rainclouds hid the sea, we huddled up in the tent with a big pile of beginning readers. And it was a very interesting experience.
I don’t remember the point in my own life when the black squiggles on the page turned into James and the Giant Peach, or the Little Prince, or the Railway Children. For me, it just happened and it was magic. My brother is finding it a much harder struggle.
There were loads of things I noticed about him, as a reader, that might well find their way into my own writing.
The sentence The thoroughbred sought the trough and thought of oats didn’t appear in any of his books (in fact, I fear for the sanity of any author who would use such a sentence). BUT, each of those words did. And they all had him open mouthed in disbelief. As did any homonyms; ‘But it doesn’t make sense’ he sighed at my side (see what I did there?).
There were also words that literally made him throw the book on the floor. ‘Q? Q?’, he yelled, ‘How does queue spell Q? It doesn’t make ANY sense!’ He has a point.
I tried to help him break up difficult words into smaller ones (phonemes? Or am I getting that confused with something else?). And, there were some wonderful moments where the English language seemed to take on the truth and beauty of maths. Any words ending in ‘ly’ or ‘ing’ could be broken up and reassembled like algebra; (sm)+(ugly)=smugly; (jumping) – (ing) = jump.
You often get told, as a writer, not to use repetition, outside a picture book. But, once a word had been conquered, it was a delight for my brother to meet it again - and soon. ‘Invisible’ was an implacable foe at the beginning of a paragraph; meeting it again three lines down, it was an old friend.
The foolishness of English spelling will come as no surprise to any of you. But I think, as we become bibliophiles it is easy to forget just how alien the physical words can be. It was a bit of a revelation listening to a child struggle with something I play with everyday. I’m not saying I’m going to forget about plot and character and all that jazz, but I am going to try to remember that turning squiggles into stories ain’t as easy as the Jacksons would have us believe.
P.s. the picture is of my brother in the sea during one of the few gaps in the rain!
Elen's Facebook Page

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Lights, Camera, Action - Gillian Philip

I watch too many movies. I should read more, watch less. But my misspent hours with my DVDs aren’t entirely wasted, professionally speaking. There are scenes in my favourite films that I’d love to be able to – well, not reproduce, obviously; that would be stealing. But I’d like to get the same energy, the same straight-to gut hit that you get from the best movie scenes.

It’s not possible, obviously. Movies don’t have to hang about describing the landscape, they just dump you straight in it. Same with character description, the weather, the background music... There are scenes that are all but perfect film moments and they couldn’t be written – or not in the same way, not as a sort of storyboard-in-a-novel. The tango scene in Moulin Rouge! could only be a movie scene; it couldn’t live that way in prose. Some movies do it better even when there is a book – Sonny Corleone’s book-bound death in The Godfather was never as elegant and brutal as the one he met in the film.

I was thinking about both those scenes recently because I’m on holiday and I ran out of books (sob), and moved all too early onto DVDs. But just as I was in the slough of despond about not being able to write a tango scene that danced, or a death scene that – well, that also danced – my eight-year-old daughter (who never seems in danger of running out of books) announced that the abridged version of Call Of The Wild was her new favourite.

‘Good pictures, too,’ says I.

‘Yes, the pictures of Buck were good. But John Thornton didn’t look like that.’

‘Oh,’ says I.

‘The pictures are good,’ she says, ‘but my mind-pictures are always the best.’

Which reminded me of something someone said recently – and I have to apologise because I can’t remember if it was here or on Facebook or somewhere else, so I have to paraphrase – ‘No two people in the world ever read the same book.’

Which is so reassuringly true: everybody has a different mind-picture. Everybody sees the same film – more or less. Visually, anyway. But everybody reads a different book. I’d love to see what readers see when they read my characters but it’s probably just as well that I never will - though I get a real kick out of hearing how someone else pictured a character or placed a scene. It’s magical to think of someone reading your words, but making his own mind-picture. (What’s more, the power of the mind-picture is consolation for any author who hates the face printed on the cover of their book.)

Besides, going back to films, it works both ways. There are words that can’t be successfully filmed – not as they were written. For Whom The Bell Tolls is one of my favourite books. It was made by a great director, word-for-word and scene-for-scene, into one of the most turgid film experiences ever.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

That obscure egret of my desire - Michelle Lovric

I’m thinking of putting up a sign: Vacancy for nest, all mod cons. Tuna provided. No seagulls. No pigeons. No riff-raff. Ideal for young egret couple looking for first home.

The elusive egret of the Grand Canal has become the object of my desire. I was never a twitcher, never took much notice of birds at all. Then an egret floated onto my jetty one day, and I fell into a kind of haze. Now, if the egret lands on my jetty, then I know I’ll have a good writing day. If it flies past in a disdainful way, landing on the shipwrecked gondola by Ca’ Rezzonico on the other side of the canal, then I might as well close down Microsoft Word and go and drink gin in the campo.

Does this happen to other writers? You fix on something and endow it with talismanic powers over your creativity.

Certainly the egret looks supernatural: the impossibly delicate neck, which makes a swan’s oesophagus seem crude as an S-bend, the spray of white feathers rippling its tulip-shaped back, yellow-tipped spears of legs, the miniature rapier of a beak.

And perhaps the bird’s sad history lends it a more piquant romance: it was hunted almost to extinction by the early 20th century. Only the foam-light sprays of back-feathers were needed to decorate women’s hats – and yet hundreds of thousands of birds were massacred in their nests, their fledglings left to starve to death. Egret feathers sold at up to 80 dollars an ounce, compared to gold at 16 dollars.

Now the egret appears like an angel, a ghostly manifestation of all those murdered ancestors. Those too-desirable feathers are so delicate that they blow around its perfect body like talcum powder. The egret, when it shimmers into view, is the whitest thing on the Grand Canal.The ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent described the egret as ‘the most charming of all our marsh birds … It seems conscious of its beauty and likes to show off its charms for the benefit of its loved ones’.

I believe the big love affair with the egret is perfectly mutual. Why does it appear so often? Last week, when I arrived home in Venice, the egret was surfing down the canal on a log. I mean, really!

And this golden-edged, azure-tinted morning, we were sitting on the balcony, having a coffee, talking, inevitably, about the egret.

‘It would be a really good time for the egret to visit,’ I suggest.

My husband raises his eyebrow.‘You think I am getting a bit obsessed with the egret, darling?’

‘Maybe a bit,’ he replies tersely.

But as he says it, the egret is cruising right past at eye level.

My husband whispers, ‘He definitely gave you a sideways glance.’

Good writing day, today.

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Thursday, 23 July 2009

The stoy of a story - Anne Rooney

Yesterday I sent off a finished story - hooray! Break out the Prosecco! This morning I found myself thinking back to how the story started. And last night, after a chance remark by another writing friend (hello, Lucy), I thought of how another story had started.

The story delivered yesterday was triggered by a scene glimpsed from a train window two or three years ago. It was raining, the train was crawling across the Fens on the bleak Peterborough-to-Cambridge run - which I love, because of its bleakness. There was a car parked in a field beside a dyke, and a man getting out, opening the boot. And then the train had passed him. I wondered what he was doing, and thought 'What if he were dumping a body? We all saw but no-one really saw. Would he get away with it?' Eighteen months later, that scene became the starting point for the story, Off the rails, in which a boy on the train home from school sees two men apparently dump a body in a dyke. That first scene became a later scene, and then moved back to the beginning again. The one man I saw became two men. The possible murder became something else. But the story's origins are firmly in that fleeting view of a moment in someone else's life. (And maybe he did dump a body...)

The story Lucy reminded me of is a short ghost story just published [shameless plug: it's in Ghost Stories published by Evans, with stories by three splendid and talented other writers - Gillian Philip, Dennis Hamley and Alex Stewart]. The Hanging Tree began on a walk to Waitrose in November. A streetlight shining through the bare trees cast shadows like crooked, arthritic fingers. By the time I'd got to Waitrose, they were the fingers of a ghostly highwayman, hiding in an old yew tree (a yew tree from my childhood, in which a real highwayman was rumoured to lurk awaiting prey hundreds of years before). In Waitrose, I bought a pen and nicked some loo roll and wrote down the bones of the story. And then did the shopping.

An adult novelist friend told me how her novel grew out of a conversation with a German astronomer with whom she shared a late-night taxi to Cambridge station. Something he said had grown, by the end of the short trip, into the germ of a long, complex novel in which Isaac Newton is implicated in modern-day murders (Rebcca Stott's Ghostwalk).

These stories that seem to come from nowhere, sparked into life by a chance remark, something glimpsed, heard or misheard, then go out into the world ripped from their origins. If only all stories came with a short note about their conception - the story of the story - it would give a fascinating insight (at least to other writers). How did Melville come up with Moby Dick, I wonder? Did he have a demanding pet fish? Maybe it's best not to know about some of them. What did Mary Shelley think of her husband....?

Far From The Words We Know - Sally Nicholls

"It's like lambent - everyone uses it, no one knows what it means."
A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

Like most writers, I got most of my vocabulary from novels. This meant that as a child, I would refer proudly to appen-dickes instead of appendices and that even now my fella and I will have moments of confusion over how to pronouce something.

It also means that I think I know a lot more words than I actually do.

A few months ago, I was doing a crossword with a friend.
"Transparent - five letters, starts with l?"
We sat thoughtfully for a while, then I said,
"Does limpid mean transparent?"
"I thought limpid meant ... limp," said my friend.
"But you get limpid pools, don't you?"
We looked it up and discovered that it did, indeed, mean transparent.

Another friend works for the Civil Service, and was always being asked to find, "Some factoids we can drop into the Minister's speech." Being a Classics scholar she had her suspicions about this, so looked it up. Sure enough, a factoid is 'Something which sounds like a fact while actually being false.' She then spent several months giggling every time she was asked to provide factoids.

Writers are people who know the names of things. As a child, I used to drop long words into stories simply because they sounded nice (I wasn't alone in this - T S Eliot was a firm believer in occasionally using a word which sounds nice above one which actually means what he says it means.)

As an adult, I'm discovering retrospectively what all these words mean, and I'm having a great time. 'Torrid', for example, I always thought meant passionate, as in 'a torrid love affair'. Actually, it means hot. 'Scintillating' I thought meant interesting, as in 'a scintillating discussion'. Actually, it means sparkling.

It's not so much expanding my vocabulary as focusing it. Now all I need is the courage to actually use some of these words in a sentence without getting them wrong ... who knew the ch in chthonic was silent?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Beginning The Beginning: Penny Dolan

I'm a few thousand words into my new "big idea". A simple synopsis for the novel already exists, so I know something about where I'm going. Some people advise that this is the time to go with the flow. Just get that first draft written at a cracking pace! Write, don't think! Scribble out the unconcious text.

That's not how it's working here. I am taking slow careful steps of the opening chapters, finding the dry path across the moor. I am watching for the brief moments when the story itself - not the skeletally lean synopsis - reveals itself. It's when a host of tiny ideas and questions and all that wonderful word stuff comes flashing into my mind. I need to catch each one before it disappears. This very slow writing pace lets the emotional plot as well as the factual plot grow and echo in my head. At least that what's I'm hoping.

I go over each paragraph time and again. I expand lines into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes. I change telling into showing, build in snatches of dialogue, cut this or that, move ideas around. It is very enjoyable, almost as if I'm placing minute pieces of bright glass into a mosaic, watching the pattern take on beauty and shape. Yes, I have to keep the free and dreamy state, but I have to focus on the miniature details too.

A version of the "Three Pigs" I tell has the first sister building a house of flowers and grass, the second one of twigs and leaves, and the third a house of iron. The first two houses are the most immediately beautiful, even to tell, but I must get that iron into my writing too, or my whole story won't be strong enough to stand.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Dark clouds with a silver lining: N M Browne

I never write much in the summer which is why all my books take place in bad weather. My protagonists are always fighting the damp and the cold as I am when I’m working. They never get to lie about in the sun because when it’s sunny I am too busy seizing the day and replenishing my vitamin D supplies to write them into the experience. I write miserable books in the autumn and slightly more hopeful ones in the spring but I have yet to write anything more substantial than a post card in the summer – I have a writer’s version of SAD – seasonal airhead disorder. I don’t need a light box but an ice house in which to work – a few dark clouds and the promise of snow and my muse is pulling on her ugg boots and her woolly tights – the moment the sun shines she is out of here, lazing in the garden or checking on the sales. I like reading other people’s sunny stories but cannot find it in me to write one myself. My imagination likes a minor key and a monochrome palette.

Now that the dark clouds gather over Richmond and the barbeque summer has failed to materialise things are starting to stir, I can visualise my characters shivering in a stiff breeze and I start to feel hopeful – time to begin.

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Hero(ine)'s Journey - Katherine Roberts

I have just returned from the Other SAS’s annual retreat. This takes place at a top-secret venue in deepest Oxfordshire. Naturally, we are all sworn to confidentiality so I can’t tell you much about what goes on there, except that there is always some magic. But I would like to share with you the results of a dream workshop led by Jenny Alexander, who guided a few of us on the Hero’s Journey along our personal writing paths.

Imagine you are walking in a familiar place, when you see a sign saying “To the Treasure”…
I am in the local wood on the boardwalk, and it is raining so no one else is walking there today. The trees are dripping and the bluebells are out. All smells green and garlicky. I am approaching my favourite bridge over a stream, where I often imagine fairies, when I see a new path twisting through the trees where there are no marked trails. A sign says TO THE TREASURE. I think it is one of the farm’s regular treasure hunts for children so I hesitate because it might be something tacky and disappointing. But since no one is around to laugh at me, I decide to have a look.

You find the path blocked
I duck under the leaves, push aside some vines, and find the path blocked by a monstrous “bird” that some local artists strung up in the trees by the boardwalk during a recent Arts Trail. It is a fantasy creature made of old grey canvas, black feathers, and a scary triangular beak/snout. It is meant to be a future people’s idea of a bird they have never seen because birds are extinct in the future, and it has come alive. It hisses at me. It has been tied in the trees long enough and now it has escaped. But it can’t fly because its wings have not been made the right way, and they are soggy with the rain. Also it has no eyes, so it is blind.

How do you get past the block…?
The “future-bird” cannot see me so I freeze, trying to make no sound. I think about going around it, but the undergrowth is too thick. Also it’s boggy because I am off the boardwalk. I am too afraid of its huge sharp beak and its powerful claws to try climbing over it, so I decide to fool it. I pick up a stick and throw it into the undergrowth. The future-bird hears the stick land and flaps off after it, getting its wings entangled in the bushes and shrieking as it flounders in the bog. I hurry past before it can get free, a bit afraid of meeting it again on the way back.

You find the treasure
As I leave the future-bird behind, the sun comes out and the path emerges in a clearing where there is a barrow covered by greenery. I push aside some ivy and crawl inside, where I find a gleaming golden sword. This is the treasure! I take the sword, thinking it might be useful if I have to fight the future-bird, although I don’t really want to soil the beautiful blade with its blood, nor hurt the future-bird because it is the last of its kind. Also, I doubt my fighting skills because I have not been trained to use a blade. So I venture back warily along the dripping path, where the sun now sparkles through the leaves and gleams off my golden treasure.

What do you do next...?The future-bird is still stuck in the bog, but it has exhausted itself and the sun is drying its feathers. It steams gently, its wings spread in the warmth. It still cannot see me, but the sword is magic so it can see the golden light. It crawls towards me, as if hypnotised. It seems less afraid now, maybe because it is no longer lost and alone. I stroke its beak and it does not attack. Murmuring to the creature, I climb on its back, and since the sun has dried out its wings it can now fly. Although it is still blind, my eyes will guide us. As we take off and circle above the trees in the sunshine, I see the glint of water below us where the fairies live. We both feel amazingly free. As long as we continue to trust each other, we can fly anywhere in the world, and my treasure-sword will defend us from all enemies, past or future.

I added the last part after the workshop because I had only tricked my block on the way to the treasure and knew it would be waiting for me to return. Other writers’ blocks were dealt with the first time they met them.

You are welcome to analyse!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Summer Reading by Adele Geras

The newspaper round-ups of holiday reading have come and gone, but conscious of the fact that many schools are breaking up around now, I thought I'd make a list of my recommended Holiday Reads. I don't entirely buy it when I see people choosing hefty tomes of military history/biography/science etc to take to the beach or the villa, or the cottage, so I'm going for things that will pass a pleasant hour or two in the shade of an enormous umbrella or tree. I'm not limiting myself to books I've read recently, either, though there may be some of those. I'm going to have two sections in this round up: one for adults and one for children. I hope some of you will be able to test a few of these in idyllic circumstances.


The author is Ruth Rendell too, of course, and it's hard to choose one from among her many outstanding books. These are always on sale in charity shops so pick any, really. I chose this one because it's set in the hot,hot summer of 1976 but ASTA'S BOOK or A DARK-ADAPTED EYE will do just as well.

Men often choose Wodehouse in such round-ups but I reckon he's just as funny for women. My favourite is THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS

THE BRUTAL ART by Jesse Kellerman
An intelligent and unputdownable American thriller. About art and history and lots more. Proper people in it too. He's the son of two other thriller writers, Jonathan Kellerman and Faye Kellerman. His mother is, I believe, also a Rabbi. Clearly a family to be reckoned with.

LIFE SENTENCES by Laura Lippman
She's the wife of David Simon, creator of The Wire. A very interesting and absorbing novel, with a thriller element to it, set in Baltimore.

He's the man who wrote the fabulous 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.' This is about Venice. It's a fantastically interesting account of what happened after the burning down of the La Fenice theatre. A must for anyone visiting that city. Read in association with Henry James's THE ASPERN PAPERS which is a real corker.

SAINT MAYBE by Anne Tyler
Anyone who knows Anne Tyler's work will understand why I've chosen her and this book. Those of you who don't, you have some wonderful treats in store. She's the best writer about families and their madnesses, sadnesses, wonderfulnesses and dreadfulnesses. She's funny, moving, and brilliant. She's the most human and humane of writers and I do urge you to try her books. I'm mentioning this one b ecause I've just read it and it's fresh in my mind but try also A PATCHWORK PLANET or THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST or THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE. She's right up there with the greatest of US novelists, but famously publicity-shy, which is why she's not as ubiquitous as some of the Big Male Beasts of US fiction.


This is a very amusing and also slightly spooky book about young love and the way it takes hold of you and makes you lose any good sense you ever had. Light and funny but not silly, it's just right for holiday reading.

Both of these are perfect for romantic young girls and boys who are sensible enough not to mind a bit of romance. THE DROWNING POOL in particular is a wonderful book, full of Ruritanian romance and featuring a school based on a real one attended by the author in the Thirties. Ibbotson writes so well and ought to be considered a National Treaure.

Another writer on whom you can always rely. All the novels featuring the Casson family are highly recommended. You can collect the whole set. I like this one best for no better reason than that I adore the title.

I assume that this is still in print. My favourite Arthurian book of all and THE SWORD IN THE STONE, about Arthur's boyhood, is the sort of novel which changes your landscape forever.

Finally, I've just received in the post (and haven't yet read but want to draw to your attention) a novel by Patricia Elliott called THE PALE ASSASSIN. What an irresistible title! It's part one in a series called PIMPERNELLES and the books are set at the time of the French Revolution. Elliott is a very good writer indeed (remember MURKMERE?) and this, with its deliberate nod to Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, is sure to be terrific. Watch this space as I'll comment on it further once I've taken it on holiday myself.

A slight Adele Geras

I had a whole summer holiday reading list ready to post and scheduled and it now seems to have disappeared off the face of the blog! And off the back of the blog as well. I will try and find it and post it later on...if I can't, I'll try and reconstruct it. A lesson there, folks! Copy and save stuff to Word in case of accidents. Mea culpa and see you all later, I hope!

Friday, 17 July 2009

A Demolition of Square Brackets - Joan Lennon

I'm not a sequential, chronological type of writer. By which I mean, starting at the beginning of a story and writing through until I get to the end is as alien to me as sun-bathing. (Though I am not suggesting that writing in a beginning-to-end fashion is carcinogenic or gives you leather for skin.) I am not alone in having a writing style that can be (and has been) described as "water-boatman-like". A scene here - a scene there - concentrated whirling on one spot before ricocheting off to another to whirl again. Eventually I have enough scenes to start to sew them together. As I do that, if I can't think how to make something work, or a seam seem seamless, I put square brackets around it and go play somewhere else. Eventually the holes begin to be closed - a point comes where I must hunt down what cowers between the brackets - and, one by one, I pummel them into prose. Have at thee, square brackets! Are metaphors being mixed? Who cares!

It's a heady feeling, finishing a book!

Cheers, Joan.

Don't forget - today is the last day to enter the Great Birthday Giveaway. Follow the link for details.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Telling the war stories myself - Leslie Wilson

I’m a British national, born in Nottingham, but my mother was born German. My father was British, and they met after the war and got engaged. Later, my mother came over and married him, and we were born.

This is a picture of me with my brother, I’m a little half-German kid in my first ever dirndl. I was so proud of it – it was one of those dresses you remember all your life because they were just perfect. I wish I’d kept it for my kids.

In my childhood I was surrounded by images of evil Germans. German spies were the villains in many of the adventure stories and comics my brother and I read, and they were always cold-eyed men – occasionally fat, cruel women – who said: ‘Schweinhund’ a lot, and enjoyed torturing people. If kids were portrayed, they were fat, ugly and greedy. It felt like a series of slaps in the face. Later, when I found out about the Holocaust, another image added itself: they had all adored Hitler and hated Jews.

Only the images didn’t fit with the Germans I lived with. My mother was slender and beautiful, and my grandmother was beautiful too, though worn by years of mental illness. She’d become ill when my grandfather was persecuted in 1933 for being a leftist – he’d never liked the Nazis. There’s more detail about this on my website, so I don’t want to go into that now, but the story was true. I’ve read his file in the German Federal Archive. He was a policeman, and he only just managed to keep his life and his job.

During that period my grandmother was constantly harassed by the Nazi women who’d say: ‘You’re scum, you’ll end up in concentration camp.’ When my grandfather was finally allowed to stay in the police force, she attempted suicide and had repeated ‘nervous breakdowns’ subsequently. Every time she was hospitalised my mother was afraid she’d be murdered, as many mentally ill people were during that time, especially because when she did become ill she’d say that Hitler was the Antichrist. Maybe the only thing that kept her alive was that we was the wife of an up-and-coming police officer – a good incentive for my grandfather to toe the line. And my mother had a best friend, in her teenage years, who was a quarter Jewish – who was killed, tragically, by the RAF in a bombing raid.

When I got older, I started to want to know about the Holocaust, and that was where my mother didn’t want to help. She’d been a child when the Nazis came to power, she’d never wanted to believe the rumours about what was happening, and when they were proved to be true she found if she thought about them she went into a depression. I discovered that last fact years later, but all I knew when I asked the questions was that I was pushed away. Of course, it didn’t stop me wanting to know. I read everything I could find, trying to understand the reality of Nazi Germany and how people who I knew not to be monsters but ordinary human beings could lend themselves to such crimes and let them happen.

Now I’ve written my own fiction about the period. Not just because I want my readers to understand how difficult and dangerous it was to resist Hitler – though that is part of it. Trying to tell it how it was is another way of seeking to understand. It’s meant facing up to some awful truths about what human beings are capable of – and I do mind that they were Germans and thus to some extent my countrymen. But I’ve also found out about the Germans who defied the Nazis and risked their own lives - and sometimes lost them - to save the lives of Jews at that time. There may not have been many of them, but I’ve been very glad to put that story out into the world.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Origins and lemmings - Nick Green

Here’s a thought. Is originality the biggest red herring in publishing? By which I mean: is being original really the key to success that we all assume it is? Are publishers really yearning for that brilliantly original book? Or is originality, in fact, the element most likely to kill a submission or a pitch stone dead?

Writers work themselves to the bone in the struggle to be original. They tear out their hair over the limitations of plot, tie themselves in knots to avoid repeating other authors, and suffer panic attacks if another recent book or film bears passing similarity to their own work. I must be original, we whisper, like a mantra. But must we? Maybe if we want to be artists, but if we want to make a living? Look at the evidence.

Harry Potter became an international phenomenon. Almost at once, the copycats started to appear. At one point, anything with a hint of a witch in it got hyped into bestsellerdom regardless of quality (believe me, I had to market the wretched things). Ironically, some of the better Rowling-alikes were actually Rowling forerunners, like Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson, newly marketed as being ‘like Harry Potter’ to cash in on the phenomenon. As original authors they’d already been very popular. But rebranded unfairly as being ‘just like that book you just read’, they sold more than ever.

If one book becomes a super-bestseller, then publishers charge like lemmings to copy its success with whatever they have to hand. Take The Da Vinci Code (please). But seriously: how many books in the top 20 were suddenly about codes, grails, holy plots and Knights Templar*? Kate Mosse’s book Labyrinth, which surely took longer to write than The Da Vinci Code, was even accused of copying Dan Brown’s book, as if she had dashed it off in an afternoon after noticing it in WH Smiths. It gets even more ludicrous: Sam Bourne appears to be marketed on the strength of the similarity of his name to Dan Brown.

Do readers want cosy predictability or do they want something they can’t get anywhere else? It’s not a rhetorical question – I really would like to know.

* How about a shiftwork recruitment agency called Temps Knightly? Anyone? No?

Newspaper reviews: SO last year - Nicola Morgan

There was one Thing You Shouldn't Say to an Author which I quite forgot: "I haven't seen any reviews of Deathwatch anywhere," said a certain author's elderly acquaintance (possibly related) who lives in a tiny village in Scotland, skims "the" newspaper and doesn't use the internet because, although he technically has broadband, you'd never know, and because his computer is perched in a gloomy corner of a poorly designed room which gives him a crick in his neck after ten minutes peering at the screen. And ten minutes is how long it takes his computer to boot. On a good day, with the wind in the west and the fish beginning to bite.

No, well, you wouldn't have seen any, would you? Yes, there were lovely reviews, even in newspapers, even in a few decent ones, but with 10,000 children's books published every year in the UK, the chances of your young* acquaintance's book just happening to be reviewed in the Pittenweem Telegraph are about as slim as a very slim thing. Slimmer even than the Pittenweem Telegraph. (*artistic licence. Anyway, age is all relative.)

Thing is, we've moved on from a thralled reliance on newsprint and so much grubby ink, haven't we? Not that we'd turn our noses up at a review in the Guardian or the Book of the Week spot in the Sunday Times, of course - far from it: crikey, I'd have a party if that happened, or at least open the bottle of fizz which is waiting in the fridge for such moments and rapidly becoming vintage. But we don't rely on them because we have many more, and equally well-written and important, sources of reviews.

No, no, not Amazon, silly! Everyone knows that Amazon reviews are tainted. Lovely as it is to get four or five-star reviews there, we also know that they can be trusted about as far as a strawberry plant in the Sahara: the good reviews are as likely to be written by our mothers or publishers as the bad ones are to be written by an idiot / enemy / someone who was a bit pissed and bored at 3am. (I hasten to add that as far as I know neither my mother nor publisher has ever done this, but we can never be entirely sure what our mothers get up to at 3am.)

I'm talking about the growing number of increasingly respected and valued websites and blogs where sensible and knowledgeable people write sensible and knowledgeable reviews. Places like Achuka and WriteAway and the Bookbag and the Bookwitch. It feels to me as though, a few years back, readers moved from grovelling reliance on newsprint (when that was all there was) to a gluttonous and undiscerning vox-pop-fest of democratisation (when Amazon felt like the only place you could buy and comment on books), and that now we have something more useful and adaptable: a healthy array of places where serious, knowledgeable, passionate readers can give serious, knowledgeable, passionate views and share them with the like-minded. Because, after all, what's the point of a review by someone who's not like-minded?

I'm doing an article for the Author on this subject soon (like, er, rather horribly soon ...) and I'd love your views on that phrase in red above. "Increasingly respected and valued" - do you agree? How and why are some of them respected? Which ones do you (as readers or writers) value? Or don't you? As a writer, do you still blush with extra pride when you find yourself reviewed on scrunchable paper? As a reader, do you take more notice of a printed review than an on-line one? Do we care whether reviews are by "ordinary" readers, as opposed to "professional" reviewers. (Deliberately provocative adjectives there.)

Seems to me that people have been talking about the review being dead (and that link is only one example amongst vast numbers that you'll find by googling "review is dead") when in fact it's merely shedding its skin. And, though I don't claim to be an expert on snakes, I do know that when a snake is shedding its skin it looks pretty grotty and acts as though its not feeling very well at all. (I apologise for the technical lingo there.) But then it appears all sleek and gorgeous (for a snake), bigger and better and stronger than before.

The review is not dead at all. It's beginning to hiss loudly. And people are listening.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Disasters happen - Linda Strachan

Almost every day, somewhere in the world, there are people who visit the threshold between life and death unexpectedly - and survive.

Whether it is a plane crash or an avalanche, if you believe the anecdotal evidence, the experience seems to create a need to live for today. All the unnecessary flotsam and jetsam that is a part of our lives, and at times seems almost the most important part, is suddenly irrelevant. We realise that in these moments of extreme danger they contribute nothing to our ability to survive.

As a writer you could look at this in various ways.

At the most basic level these events in themselves can create a gripping opening or a thrilling climax.

When editing we need to be brutal and give no quarter when redrafting our words; to cut away all the excess and trivia, polishing each piece like a skilled craftsman who cuts away at a diamond to reveal the perfect stone and then polishes it to glistening perfection.

In the plot we need some of the flotsam and jetsam of life to create problems for our characters and to add texture to the lives they lead. It can help to reveal the characters' values and their relationships.

Also, something that might seem trivial in a critical situation can have value in different circumstances. The pursuit of wealth may seem trivial if your life is at risk, but without the means to put food on the table we cannot continue to live a normal life.

Despite the reality check that a disaster creates we all need the minutiae of our daily lives to continue in some fashion.

All these aspects of disaster can feed the writer within us.

Don't forget - it's still not too late to enter the great book giveaway competition and sign the guestbook.

Why Children's Books? by Lucy Coats

Because they are my passion--always have been, always will be. From the earliest days of being read to by my father (Rudyard Kipling's White Seal and The Elephant's Child were top favourites as were Peter Rabbit--the first 'proper' book I ever read by myself--and the tales of Orlando the Marmalade Cat), to the present day (discovering new wonders all the time, the latest being Neil Gaiman's Coraline and Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker and Angel Isle, plus the anticipatory future pleasure of reading a long list of others including Michelle Lovric's Undrowned Child), I have found almost my every reading need covered within the canon of children's literature. (Of course I read a wide-ranging variety of 'adult' literary genres too, and take great pleasure in much of it--I am currently immersed in the three volumes of Lyttleton/Hart-Davis Letters--a nostalgic journey into a long ago world of publishing and academia.) But if some wizard waved a wand and said 'Begone' to every book written for those over 18, then I would not be unhappy to find only children's books in my library. There is an honesty and a directness about a really well-written children's book which cuts straight to the heart of things without messing about. For me, being a writer in this field is the best job in the world. While wrestling with words and plots and recalcitrant characters (and often days on end where inspiration fails) is hard work mentally--and sometimes physically--I wouldn't and couldn't dream of doing anything else, ever. When a story comes out just right, it is a kind of satisfaction second to none (until a second reading, when, inevitably, the next round of 'fiddling about' kicks in--for me a story is never really finished, even when the editor has to physically rip it out of my hands and send it to the printer!).

Thus, feeling as I do, it was a huge pleasure last Friday to join in with our fantastic blog birthday party (and if you haven't visited, please go back and take a look--it's still not too late to enter the great book giveaway competition and sign the guestbook). The chance to celebrate, talk and read about children's books here with like-minded people from fellow authors to agents, publishers, reviewers and readers has indeed been An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. I've learned a lot over the last year. Happy Birthday once again, ABBA, and thanks for introducing me to the blogsphere! Long may you flourish, and long may we all go on celebrating children's books together.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Time Management? What Time Management? - Charlie Butler

Well, that taught me a lesson. Last weekend I was co-organizing a three-day conference about one of my favourite children’s authors, Diana Wynne Jones. There were 74 people there, from a total of 14 countries. Even for someone with the multitasking skills of a six-armed goddess this would have been a hefty undertaking, and for your poor correspondent it was daunting indeed, though there were considerably more than six capable arms and legs devoted to the conference’s service. I’m glad to say that it went as smoothly as such an undertaking ever can, but by Sunday evening I was pretty pooped.
Then, on Monday morning, my partner and I headed off to another conference in west Wales (this time organized by someone else) where I was to give a paper on the Romans in Britain as represented in children’s books. That was fun too, and included appearances by Michael Cadnum and Caroline Lawrence amongst the assorted scholars. (ABBA's own Lucy Coats would have been there too, but was indisposed - hope you're feeling better, Lucy!). But so much concentrated networking, listening, thinking and socializing have left me a little bleary-brained - and somehow it slipped my mind that I was meant to be posting a blog here on Monday. I totally missed the ABBA birthday party, too! Mea culpa. It was only ever going to be a breathless piece about how hard it is to fit the writing life in with the day-job life, sometimes, but in fact I seemed to have demonstrated that rather than talked about it. So you can think of my post’s non-appearance as a piece of post-modern performance art, right?
Yeah, right. Now, back to the writing pad...

Saturday, 11 July 2009


Don't forget our birthday giveaway! Email your entries by Friday 17th.

Clapping games and word play

About a week ago I was in a pub garden watching a little boy of about three trying to play Aunt Sally - a game rather like skittles which is popular in our bit of Oxfordshire. He was having difficulty, but eventually succeeded in hurling the heavy wooden baton (which is used instead of a ball) down the alley at the Sally, which is a single white skittle, and knocked her down. In great delight he went running back to his family chanting ‘Easy peasy lemon squeezy, easy peasy lemon squeezy!’

I was smiling and thinking to myself how much young children love rhymes and rhythms and wordplay. Many of them, in junior school, are natural poets. You’d think it would be dead easy to make readers out of them. What happens to the simple joys of having fun with words?

Here’s a rhyme my children used to chant at school. I wanted to show the stresses, but the blog won't let me. Come down heavily on the words 'my', 'your', 'lives', and 'street', and you'll get it:

My mother, your mother, lives across the street.
Eighteen, nineteen, Mulberry Street –
Every night they have a fight and this is what it sounded like:
Girls are sexy, made out of Pepsi
Boys are rotten, made out of cotton
Girls go to college to get more knowledge
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider
Criss, cross, apple sauce,

Chanted rapidly aloud, you can feel how infectious it is. Another one, which is also a clapping game, runs:

I went to the Chinese chip-shop
To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread,
They wrapped it up in a five pound note
And this is what they said, said, said:
My… name… is…
Elvis Presley
Girls are sexy
Sitting on the back seat
Drinking Pepsi
Had a baby
Named it Daisy
Had a twin
Put it in the bin
Wrapped it in -
Do me a favour and –

I suppose every junior school in the country has a version: chanted rapidly and punctuated with a flying, staccato pattern of handclaps, it’s extremely satisfying. I've heard teachers in schools get children to clap out the rhythms of poems 'so that they can hear it' - but never anything as complicated as these handclapping games children make up for themselves. No adults are involved. What unsung, anonymous geniuses between 8 and 12 invented these rhymes and sent them spinning around the world? Nobody analyses them, construes them, sets them as texts, or makes children learn them. They’re for fun. Nothing but fun.

Keats once said, ‘If poetry does not come as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all.’ I’m not sure he was totally right there (it may have been right for him) but I don’t believe there’s any essential difference between the contrapuntal patter of playground clapping games and the sonorous rhythms of:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should rave and rage at close of day.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light –

which I once declaimed theatrically in the living room to my ten year old nephew. He looked up startled.

“Wow!” he said.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Birthday Post 8 by Catherine Clarke

Books for children have long been an important part of our culture, secret worlds which stay with us into adulthood. I lingered at the Pollyanna and A Little Princess end of the spectrum; loved buying five Secret Seven paperbacks for a new pound when we went decimal in 1971; moved on to Alan Garner a little later, more interested in the burgeoning teenage relationships than the myths bursting into the present, though the mix was thrilling.

Now children’s books—and books for Young Adults—are big business internationally; they are more codified and professionalized, franchised and targeted and branded. But that means they are taken seriously by publishers and booksellers (there are far more independent specialist children’s booksellers than any other category in the UK) and the choice of reading for children and the adults who buy for them is richer and more diverse than ever before.

And those categories are there to be challenged and pushed and opened up by innovative writers who can flex their visionary muscles; like clever, inspiring teachers they can take storytelling—and imaginations-- into new realms, and know that their stories will stay in many minds forever.

Catherine Clarke was Publishing Director of the Trade Books Department at OUP for several years before she joined Felicity Bryan as an agent in 2001.

Birthday Post 7 by Julia Churchill

by Julia Churchill

What's your first book memory? THE HUNGRY CATERPILLAR - all the yummy food he makes his way through! And I adored WHERE THE WILD ONES ARE. It totally plugged in to that wild imagination of a four year old.

Best bedtime story? One year my grandmother read us THE HOBBIT. She did the voices and everything - her 'Gollum' was terrifying. It was that Autumn in '87 with the massive storm. The night of the storm trees were coming down all over the place and my grandmother read to us til dawn to keep us calm. Or maybe that's just the way I remember it.

What book made you check under the bed and in the cupboard? THE RATS by James Herbert. I slept with the light on for weeks. THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE had a similar effect a few years before. And because of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (the Ladybird version) I still can't sleep with my feet sticking out of the duvet.

Best ever baddy? Cruella De Vil. Every baddy should have a 'thing' and a coat made of puppies is just the best ever.

Which character would you like as your best friend? Hal and Roger Hunt from THE ADVENTURE SERIES by Willard Price. Their break-neck adventures took them through jungles, rivers and desert islands. Perfect escapism for a tomboy.

Best illustrations? Beatrix Potter's books - Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Peter Rabbit. Those characters are so much a part of childhood and even now the illustrations take me right back there.

Which book made you cry? THE RECTORY MICE. I don't think it's in print any more. It's the story of a struggling family of mice and it took me apart.

Most annoying character? Anne and Julian from THE FAMOUS FIVE. They were such fun-sponges.

What's your favourite fantasy world? Narnia. The scope of that series was extraordinary. Or maybe the world of THE BORROWERS which put magic into the every-day.

Which books did you hide from your mum? Anything by Judy Blume. Not that she'd have minded but I would have blushed if she'd found all the passages I'd underlined...

Desert Island children's book? Can I have THE COMPLETE WORKS OF ROALD DAHL? It's a bit of a cheat but would keep me entertained for a good while.

Which book do you treasure? My childhood copy of THE PRINCESS BRIDE. That book has everything.

Julia Churchill began her career in books in the Press Office of Sheldrake Press. In 2002 she started work at the Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency, eventually becoming Associate Agent specializing in children’s books. She now works at The Greenhouse Literary Agency.

Birthday Post 6

Hope you're enjoying our birthday party! And don't forget our giveaway!

Here’s the scenario.

The wolves have wandered off, but the oak sprite is still hanging around. She’s taken a bit of a shine to you and your bibliophilia. She is – for now – turning a blind eye to the wood pulp in your hands. Anyway, she calls on her dear friend, the dressing-up box gnome. Together, they plan to turn you into your all-time favourite children’s book character.

Who do you choose?

Birthday Post 5 by Gregory Jensen and Lucy Philip

What I Read
by Gregory Jensen
I grew up without a TV so I had no choice but to read.
I was still reading early readers at 7. When I wanted my mum to read me Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and she said I was too young for it, I took it and read it by myself. Although I was frightened by the ghosts and snakes, I finished it. Once I’d read that first book, things snowballed and (oh, hang on, Disney moment coming up) I discovered ‘a world of magic’.
Soon I was reading so many books so fast, my mum thought it was time I visited a library. My favourite authors are Anthony Horowitz (no. 1), Cathy Cassidy (because her books are such real life), Robert Muchamore (I’ve read the Cherub series three times), Steve Voake (awesome, just awesome), Alan Gibbons (tense), Malorie Blackman (The Stuff of Nightmares was especially brilliant) and Eoin Colfer, who is hilarious.
Oh and I do read Marie-Louise Jensen, but only because she’s my mum, so don’t tell anyone.
Greg is 15 and lives in Bath with his family and a lot of books.

My Books
by Lucy Philip

I love to read and I get ideas from my books to write my own stories on the computer.
My favourite books are Magic Kitten, Magic Puppy, Magic Pony and Animal Ark, because they have animals and magic in them. I also like excitement and adventure, like the Famous Five. I always know there’s going to be a happy ending when I read my book. But my favourite author is Michael Morpurgo. I read his book The Butterfly Lion and I felt excited and sad but I loved the characters, especially Bertie. It was hard reading one chapter a night because I wanted to read it all at once. Next I’d like to read The Dancing Bear, and I’d love to see War Horse in the theatre.
I don’t want to ever read just one kind of book. It’s fun to read different kinds of stories. And when I grow up I want to be an author. When I’m writing my books, I’ll write about animals and magic too.
Maybe I’ll write Magic Rabbit or Magic Otter.
Lucy Philip is 8 years old and lives in Scotland.