Sunday, 30 August 2009

Leslie Wilson

On the left is a picture of my German grandmother, on the right is an image from my Jubilee Edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales, three volumes in Gothic script, which I got when I was still quite young, but didn't actually read through till I was at university, when I read them all in quite a scientific way, noting the repetition of key motifs and mentally grouping them into 'story-sets'. Something I recently heard Sue Price say she had done too! I love the image, it is of course the story-telling grandmother, an old peasant woman, and it's replete with German romanticism. Looking at it now, though, I realise that since half my ancestors were German, Polish and Austrian peasants, it is like a picture of one of them. And I do see some similarity between it and my own grandmother's image, though I've always also seem a resemblance to Virginia Woolf, who, like Omi, had a severe psychological illness.

It was she who first told me Grimm's fairytales, in German - my favourite was the Wolf and the Seven Little Goats, and I still have in my mind the vivid picture I formed then of the wolf, his face covered with chalk, erupting into the middle of the terrified little kids, chasing them round and gobbling most of them up - except for the smallest, who I understood to be me - who hid in the cupboard. Interesting that I never tried to imagine what it might be like for the others inside the wolf, who were later scissored out of him while he slept off his feast. (I did later spend quite a lot of time imagining Jonah's life inside the belly of the whale.) The story plays, in my mind, against the background of the darkness of my bedroom. Omi used to sleep on the same floor as my brother and me, in the attic of our house in Kendal, and if I wanted to go down the scary stairs to the loo in the middle of the night, I'd wake her up, because she was always patient, and then demand that she told me this story. It never scared me, nor did any of the other Grimm stories. It was safely stitched up (like the stones in the wolf's belly) in the world of story. Whereas the ghosts and murderers my big brother had told me infested the stairs at night were indistinct, unconfined by any narrative, and therefore incredibly menacing. As was the roaring lion who lived in the flush - another story of my brother's.

I can hear Omi's voice in my head now, gentle, rather silvery, actually very beautiful, but I didn't categorise her voice like that. She told me Red Riding Hood (another scissored-open wolf), and Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella - oh, that sister cutting the heel off her foot - and various other gruesome narratives - odd for her, who was so gentle that she literally couldn't hurt a fly, I remember seeing her watch one, saying 'Such a tiny being.' She was a vegetarian because she didn't want animals to die to keep her alive. The other stories she told me I was less interested in, like the Heiligejungfraumaria, (Blessedvirginmary) who she went to visit in church, a plaster lady with a bland face, though I did, to do Omi the favour, take my new/old doll (my mother's before me) to show Mary when I got her for my third birthday. I didn't much like the Jesus my Dad was so keen on either, though I believed in God. I preferred the Divine to be unpictured, and I still do.

That last is a digression, but not totally, because, coming back to those stories told in the dark, where my imagination made the pictures, I'm really glad I heard Grimm in that way, in the oral tradition, heiress to the policing of generations of children who must have said: 'No, it goes like this - you've left out the bit about hiding in the cupboard - what about the chalk, Omi?' And so on.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Learning To Write Karen Ball

I was once challenged at a party: if you don’t have children of your own, how can you know what to write for them? Once I’d overcome my urge to slap the man’s face, I tried to explain that I didn’t need to have given birth in order to create fiction. I once had a childhood of my own. Okay, it was a long time ago now, but I can remember it. Just. One of the delights of writing children’s fiction is that it forces us to think back to what life was like when we were young. I’ve really enjoyed revisiting times in my past and my sisters often spot those moments in my writing that come from our shared childhood. That girl with the long blonde plaits? My sister, Mandy. The child who always knows the right thing to do? My other sister, Tracy. And the mums in my fiction – reassuring, kind, warm characters. We all know who she is. I also come into contact with children through my friends. I have a god-daughter with beautiful strawberry blonde hair and a talent for the piano. She has a sister with enough personality to fill a room. But even if I’d been locked in a cell, starved of contact and with my memory wiped, I think I could probably turn out a story or two. But could I write if I’d never read? I’m not so sure. As a child, I adored the thrill of reading ghost stories and would then go off and scribble some of my own. Whilst still a teenager, I scoured women’s magazines and tried to write articles. I was imitating – yes, copying. And learning. It’s what I still do today. I read other people’s writing, admire it, fall in love with it. I try to analyse what makes it so satisfying. I adore the mystery of black ink on white paper; why one word put next to another word beside a few more words can make me burst into tears. Isn’t that a marvellous mystery, the poetry of writing? On some levels, beyond analysis. But on other levels, a lesson to writers who are learning their craft. This is why it’s so important that children are given access to books, that they are lying around in the home, or that the library visit becomes a childhood routine. With books in their lives, children are not only learning how to read or imagine. They’re also learning how to write. All those years ago, tucked up in bed with my ghost stories, I was learning to write. I didn’t know it then, of course. It’s why I know what to write today, even if I don’t have children of my own. I write stories.
Those two sisters of mine are in this photo. (Ah, the 1970s!) Tracy’s the one with the book. The book she’s holding upside down. She doesn’t know it, but she’s learning to write.
PS Adele mentioned Jane Brocket in her last post. Jane's latest blog entry has a very sweet moment about fruit in Enid Blyton books - and links to a few plum poems.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Conjugal & Genre Fidelity – Michelle Lovric

A lot of writers these days will claim to be fashionably non-genre.

Oh yes. And a lot of gondoliers will tell you they are divorced.

Once, when yet another frolicsome gondolier told me he was divorced, I mentioned somewhat wearily that many of his colleagues had told me they were between wives.

The gondolier nodded sagely and offered me this explanation: ‘It goes like this. You eat spaghetti every day. You love, I mean really love spaghetti. But after seven days you get just a tiny bit bored with it, even though you love it. Suddenly, on the eighth day, you want some tortellini. You just gotta have that tortellini. Then you go back to spaghetti quite happily for a while, because you really love it. But eventually you want some tortellini again. Then you have to get a divorce.’

He sighed, ‘And you remember all the good times with the spaghetti. And you are a sorry one.’

Are writers like this?

Don’t we all take holidays on the wild side, saga-writers going on safari as short-story writers, crime-writers romancing the idea of a love story? How many ‘literary’ writers have taken a furtive little roll in chick-lit, under another name? Do the noiristas have Magical Real moments, and think it could all be Otherwise and Otherworldly?

A career historical novelist for adults, I too had a genre-bending moment. I decided to write The Undrowned Child, a novel set in Venice for the 9–12 age band.

I was not betraying my genre to write a novel for children. My infidelity consisted in trying to write a book with a modern setting. And I just could not.

I could not conceive how a child could get into creative trouble with all the hi-tech accessories currently available. Can’t find out a crucial fact? What about Google? Lost in a strange part of town? What is your mobile phone for? Even though I have read and worshipped Creature of the Night, Bog Child, Artemis Fowl etc, I just could not manage the modern world. I knew it could be done. Just not by me. I stubbed my toe after 20,000 words. Reading what I’d written, my lack of conviction had tainted everything: how brutal and stark seemed my setting; how strained and artificially clanged my characters’ so-called contemporary vernacular. My plot stood naked in its banality.

It was a bad moment. A tortellini moment.

And then I too remembered all the good times I’d spent in the cosy embrace of a long work of historical fiction, in which my characters could express themselves with unabashed eloquence and a plot might writhe, somersault and deep-dive without a mobile phone or Google to click in a duh solution.

I remembered all those good times, and I too was a sorry one. And so I deep-dived into history, dragging The Undrowned Child way back to 1899 and 1310.

This is why I suspect that deep down we know where we belong. Don’t we?

In my case, historical fiction, be it for children or adults, is where I belong.

So – are we born genred, just as we are born gendered?

And does what Virginia Woolf said about the sexes apply to writers – that there is more difference among the genres than between them?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Get my new book FREE - Nick Green

Okay – here’s a deal for you. Pop over to my website and you can follow a link to download an e-book of my brand new novel absolutely free.
THE STORM BOTTLE is a fantastical adventure crammed with dolphins, boats, bottles, whales, ancient myths and mysterious messages. Check it out, it’s fun.
‘Why are you giving this book away for nothing?’ you may ask. Well, so far, no publisher has been keen enough to take it, but my readers have waited long enough for my next book, and I don’t want you to think I’ve been sitting idly eating fig rolls.
I wonder if I should really be using this blog for such direct promotional purposes, but as this offer is free, I hope my fellow authors won’t mind. In some ways it’s just a practical illustration of a blog-worthy topic: how hard it is to get a book published, even if you are already a published author.
With even a smidgen of luck, there will be a ‘proper’ edition of THE STORM BOTTLE in the shops in due course, but ‘due course’ in publishing usually means two to three years. Which is a long time, IMHO. So, in the meantime, anyone who wants to can download and read the e-book free of charge. I know that reading novels from a screen isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m sure some people don’t mind it, especially if you have a handheld reader. If you like the book, please visit my Message Board and tell me so.
And that’s it! A brand new, exclusive Nick Green book, absolutely free. Beat that, WHSmith.

On Arranging Books - Katherine Langrish

Many, many years ago I lost count of how many books I have. I only know that I don't have anything like enough bookshelves to keep them on. And of course I keep on acquiring the things. In only the last week, the tally runs something like this:

A secondhand copy of the Oxford Book of English Prose, which I couldn't resist and looks such a great book to keep in the car, for those little moments when I'm waiting in the Sainsbury carpark for my daughter to turn up.

A secondhand paperback Georgette Heyer, to relax with.

'The Crucible', 'Waiting for Godot', and Caryl Churchill's 'Top Girls', all from Oxfam.

'Blaze' by Stephen King, new from W.H.Smith's.

From the Red Cross Shop, a book called 'Silent Thunder: The Hidden Voice of Elephants', which looked too intriguing to pass over.

And a secondhand hardcover version of Susanna Clarke's 'The Ladies of Grace Adieu', even though I've already got the paperback, because, well, hey, it's Hardcover!

You see my problem. And I know you understand it, because I feel sure you have it too. Even though I do get rid of books - in driblets, in half-dozens, in great, wrenching pogroms - the tide keeps advancing.

I actually do have a system, and pretty well know where every book in the house is. I have a very good (through life-long training) visual and tactile memory for titles. I know, for example, that my copy of Siegfried Sassoon's 'The Weald of Youth' is a small, reddish-brown, cloth-bound hardcover and is going to be about halfway down the shelves to the right of the kitchen door. 'Count Belisarius' by Robert Graves is a Penguin paperback with a black and white photo of Graves himself on the front, spine cracked, losing pages, and will be found in a cramped location near the floor in the shelves underneath the staircase. And so on.

I try to have groupings of books. I have a history section, a science section, adult fiction, children's fiction, poetry, gardening, art etc. But it doesn't really quite work out. For example I'd like to keep the children's books together, all neatly arranged by author, but it's difficult because of the annoying way bookcases are designed, with the shelves at the top only large enough for paperbacks. I do have to use ALL the space, which means breaking up families of books when one hardback won't fit in next to its paperback brothers and sisters. I simply can't fit all my children's books into neat rows. They flow over into the adult novel bookcase, and get stacked up in piles. The shelves also get used as ledges where all sorts of other debris accumulates: combs, make-up (lots of my daughters' lipsticks rolling around), odd bits of rock, shells, photos, cameras, and small model cars.

It would be lovely to have a library, I sometimes think. A proper library with room for every book.

But then I visit some National Trust house and see a real country house library: ranks of uniformed books on parade, shut away behind tripwires and glass doors, read by nobody - and I realise that real booklovers haven't got time for arranging books.

We're too busy reading them.

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Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Has Realism Gone Too Far? Anne Cassidy

But where is the hope? Anne Fine says, when talking about children’s books.

Modern children’s books are too bleak, she says.

I have a disagreement with anyone who thinks that writing for children is fundamentally different to writing for adults. What I mean by that is there is a sense sometimes that part of our role as children’s writers is to protect children from the harsh realities of life.

But I am just a writer. I tell stories. I don’t have a role to make the world appear a better place for children.

I write crime stories for teens that often have dark and unpleasant story lines. They don’t end happily as such. The main characters go through a lot and I guess they come out the other end as a different person, maybe in some way a better person.

As an adult this is what I require in my own reading. I like my main characters to go through something, to change and develop.

I would, as an adult reader, hate it if the author manufactured some kind of ending that offered me a rosier view of the world.

So, when I write for teens, I do the same thing.

This does not mean that all teen (or children’s) books need to be dark. Variety is the key. I like to think that teens are just like any one else. They’ll read a dark book (perhaps one of mine) then they’ll go for something light, funny, fantastical, rude, historical or even something about a kid who goes off the rails and then gets offered a place at Rodean.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Name That Cat - Sally Nicholls

Just a very quick cheeky blog to say that I've started a competition on my website to name my main character's cat in Book Three. The winning cat namer will be able to read about a cat with the winning name, and will be acknowledged in the acknowledgements of the finished book.

If you're interested in entering (or would like to pass on the competition details to any children's writing groups/book groups you are involved in) please leave a comment on my website. The competition will run for about a month, or until I finish my third draft, whichever is sooner.

Now go and read Karen's post (below).

Shop Front Inspiration Karen Ball

Last week I had a day off from my 9-5 job and was walking through the glorious Bethnal Green, prior to meeting my family for lunch. (What an East End hodge podge Bethnal Green is! I saw second-hand catering equipment being sold off in a car park, a bed warehouse called ‘Happy Nightmares’, Hackney City Farm, a shop under railway arches selling vintage clothing, row after row of sarong fabrics – oh, and of course, loads of recently arrived café culture.) As I strolled, I thought about my latest SAS blog entry; I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to say. Then on Columbia Road I spotted a shop window display that screamed ‘Rules For Writers!’. I ran over and tried my best to take a photo, but the reflected glare of happy sunshine off the window pane makes the posters a little difficult to read. If you can’t make them out here, I’ve transcribed below:
Think Of Your Own Ideas
Work Hard And Be Nice To People
It Is Ok For Me To Have Everything I Want

Think Of Your Own Ideas
I subscribe to the theory that there are no new ideas, only the same stories told over and over again. I enjoy the fact that any or all storytelling can arguably be highly unoriginal. It helps to keep things in perspective. But I do think it’s dangerous to chase fashions or follow trends. Consider the time it takes to be told ‘YA is hot!’, to have an idea, write it, redraft it, see it circulated, hopefully see it published… Will YA still be hot? And was your heart ever truly wedded to that manuscript whose birth was so difficult? We must all think of our own ideas, regardless of what the publishing community says is the Next Big Thing. I’m not sure I always entirely believe those voices that ring out confidently making trade predictions, telling us what the sways and pulses of bookselling are likely to be over the coming year. It’s a crazy, unpredictable business – no one really knows what will sell next. That’s what makes it such an exciting industry to be part of. That’s why ideas are so important.

Work Hard And Be Nice To People
A motto for writing and for life. If someone has a talent for hard graft, that’s half the battle. The world of would-be writers is neatly divided into Talkers and Doers. There are those who chat at parties about how they’d love to write a book one day. Then there are those who get up before work, or keep weekends free, the characters who can’t sleep and work in the night or quietly slip off at lunchtime with a pad and pen. Quiet, modest, hard work: it goes a long way. The ‘Be Nice To People’ part? I don’t think this is simply about getting on with your editor or smiling at publishing parties, thanking book buyers or thinking carefully about your next dedication. It is about much, much more than that. The random but significant moments when you take the time. I’m no saint (see me swearing at van drivers as I cycle into work!), but I always remember the dark times in my own life when I craved a kind word or friendly face. Give it out, because one day you’ll need it. Oh, and you might just find yourself with a reputation as a good sort to work with.

It Is Ok For Me To Have Everything I Want
Ha! Where to start with this one? Definitely a motto to remember when you’re chasing a payment, an advance copy, an email of acknowledgement, or even the simple time to write. Most writers have day jobs, families, chores, duties. Somewhere in amongst all that we also need to find spare hours for writing. Without feeling guilty. Banish guilt! Spurn timidity! Laugh in the face of sentences that start, ‘I’m terribly sorry to trouble you, but…’ Easy for me to say here, I know. (And if you’ve met me, you’ll know that the word ‘pushy’ does not exactly spring to mind!) But we should all remind ourselves on a daily basis: It Is Ok For Me To Have Everything I Want.
Who would have thought? Three simple posters in a window on a quiet street on a sunny morning. I wonder if the shop owner knows any writers…

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Whitewash and Blackground - Elen Caldecott

I’m sure you’ve all read about the Liar cover and its fallout. I don’t intend to revisit a topic that has been covered by Laura Atkins and Rhiannon Lassiter among many others. But it did get me thinking again about racial representation in my own work.

I am from a white, northern background. In my heart I’m a closet Scouser, though I was raised on the Welsh side of the border. I write about urban children in contemporary Britain. In my first book, there were no non-white children. Which, even as I wrote it, felt wrong. One in five children in the UK belong to an ethnic minority. I feel that it is the duty of children’s writers to reflect children’s own experiences back at them – to show them a world they recognise. With my first novel, I hadn’t done that.

With the book I’m currently editing, the hero is mixed-race. His ethnicity has no bearing on the story. It is not a book about prejudice, or acceptance or any of the other themes that might traditionally stem from being mixed-race. His ethnic identity is just a small part of who he is and the story romps on regardless.

But – and, it’s a whopping great ‘but’ for me – I felt I couldn’t write about someone whose cultural experience was too different to my own. Which is why he is mixed race, rather than Somali or Iraqi, or any of the other immigrant cultures that are part of modern Britain.

I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see more diverse characters in children’s literature, but, as a white writer, I don’t know if I’m qualified to invent them. I’ve no problem making up a Viking child, or a Roman or anything else so far removed from all of us so that you pretty much have a licence to write whatever you want. But it doesn’t feel OK for me to invent the thoughts and feelings of a child from another, contemporary, culture. Nor does it feel OK for me to use a white main character with ethnic minority friends as blackground.

I guess the answer is that we need more children’s writers from more diverse cultures. We need more non-white and mixed-race writers to tell us stories from their own point of view. I don’t know how we go about getting that, but I imagine that buying their work when you see it would go some way towards helping.

And if we’re ever run short of stories about Scousers, and Frank Cottrell Boyce is busy, then I’ll just have to stand up and be counted.
Elen's Facebook Page

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Little Demons, Little Gods: Gillian Philip

I’m writing this post on a night when I’m lost for words. (Don’t say it. OK, enough already, I’ll pay you not to say it.)

So there are many times when despite the unsociable hours, the lousy pay, yada yada, it’s good to be a writer. Actually there are many times like that: that’s why we do it. What’s more fun than larking with your imaginary friends? I get to do exactly what I used to do when I was eight, except I get paid for it: adventures on a blank sheet of A4. Any adventures you like. Any adventures I like.

And of course there are times when it isn’t a lark. There are times when you look at the world and wish you wrote the script. We’re gods of our own little worlds, we are. We can make it all right. If we can’t make it all right, we can at least show up where it’s all wrong. It’s not happy-times, but it feels good, doesn’t it?

Then, like Fenoglio in Inkspell, we realise the whole thing’s careering out of our control and there’s nothing we can do about it. Minds of their own, these characters have. Motives of their own, too. In special little dark moments of the night, one of them might come and sit down, and pour a couple of whiskies, and explain himself. Those moments are treasure. That’s when you might finally understand why the person you made has thrust a knife into live flesh, or severed a head; why he has lied to a people and betrayed a nation; why she has pulled the legs from a fly or mugged an old lady; why he has sent hundreds of people falling through black night to their deaths.

And sometimes it helps to talk to them, in more ways than making a story. Sometimes you look at someone you didn’t make, someone on this side of the paper, and you think: ah, if only I’d written them, how different it might all have been. Or you think: well, it might have been just the same, but a story at least has an ending. A writer can play at being a little god; a writer can make redemption for everyone.

But there are times when there isn’t any explanation, there isn’t any excuse. He shrugs his shoulders and gives you a small, apologetic, slightly embarrassed smile, and he lights another cigarette.

When that’s how it is, all that can happen is the start of another story. That, at least, is what you can take with you when you’re a writer.

So I found a few words, even if they don’t make much sense.

And now please do excuse me. You know how it is. Worlds to create, people to kill.

the architecture of a parrot - Michelle Lovric

Have you ever thought that life would be easier if all writers married other writers?

Look what happens when you ‘marry out’.

When a writer marries an architect, she gets to type her manuscripts gothic-ly onto a dusty keyboard in a dusty corner, quaffing her coffee from chipped cups. For she dwells in a permanent building site.

On the other hand, the writer also learns to see things in a whole different way: whereas I look at the Venetian palazzi that surround us only to read the murders and rampant romances inscribed on their blistered paint, he sees the architect’s blueprints. Sometimes these are not uninteresting: sneaky soil-pipes, rampant rustication, Boschean chimneyscapes.

That’s all well and good. But what happens when the architect comes home with the seedling of a story that’s just begging to be nurtured into life, but literarily-speaking empty-handed?

Frustration, that’s what happens.

Like the day my husband rescued a parrot for the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian VAT tzars.

The tzars slouch about in a long grey barracuda of a boat. One day last summer, my husband saw the barracuda ripping its sides in an attempt to reach a narrow bank where a vivid green parrot was clinging to some moss. Uniformed tzars barked peremptory orders. My husband and our friend Bruno were to approach the parrot in our tiny boat, the Coniglio galleggiante, (‘the floating rabbit’). Bruno grabbed the bird, and, slightly pecked, handed it over to the officers.

This had the makings of something good, right?

But even under torture, even under scorn, even subjected to blatant bribery and other pleasant blandishments, my husband was been unable to deliver any more salient details about the rescued parrot of the Guardia di Finanza: the stuff writers ask about. Was it, for example, the Guardia’s own office parrot? A more exciting escaped contraband parrot? Confiscated from Columbian drug-runners? Pining for the Fijords? Escaped from gilded cage in a contessa’s gilded palazzo? Was it a he or a she? Did it have an exotic name? Did it speak, or better still, swear? In Venetian? Or Italian? (Venetian swears are like obscene short stories, often involving mothers, household implements and biologically-challenging insertions). What (getting desperate) about the architecture of the parrot itself? What were the Intelligent Designer’s plans for it? Green, red? Yellow tailfeathers? Lovely plumage?

No. Not a chirp. Not a whistle.

The spouses and offspring of writers should be constantly aware of their responsibilities. If something good happens to them, they should put on the siren and rush home with a stack of fresh, throbbing, juicy detail in the mental equivalent of a padded organ-transplant cool-box, every little incident lovingly packed away for the writer’s use, uncorrupted even by interpretation, exaggeration or embellishment. (That’s the writer’s job.)

Oh dear. I remind myself of the ever-charmless James McNeill Whistler, who came to Venice in 1879. Whistler affected a Japanese cane wand to orchestrate conversations, often referred to himself pompously in the third person. When his housemate, also an artist, showed Whistler his sketch of a Venetian scene, he was told: ‘This is a good subject. When you find one like this, you should not do it, but come and tell Whistler.’

But seriously, the more I think about it, the more I think there should be Arvon courses and UEA degrees in ‘Being Married to, or related to a Writer’. Lessons in making coffee, anxiety therapy, but most of all: delivering the raw material urgently and in good condition. I’d sign up my husband right away.

Meantime, we’ve appointed our boat the new Servizio per la Salvaguardia dello Pappagallo, the Parrot Rescue Service, ‘su appuntamento’ to the Guardia di Finanza. I had a logo designed by the talented Lisa Pentreath, whose daughter Emily was the very first reader of my novel The Undrowned Child.
But I remain inconsolable. I love my new insignia, but I know that the really good story got away.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Exposing Ourselves In Public - Nicola Morgan

Gah! What have I said, or what am I about to say, or what might someone think I said, or what did I really mean to say? What if I say something really, really stupid? What if I already have?

Please tell me I'm not the only one. See, every time I'm about to have something published I suffer a serious case of exposure anxiety. It manifests itself in my dreams. I'll have classic exposure dreams - things like needing to go to the toilet but finding that there's only a clear glass door between me and a load of strangers, or realising that I'm walking down the street without certain parts of my body being appropriately covered.

I sometimes have dreams where the News of the World has got hold of the really embarrassing things I did in the past and they're going to tell my parents. (I hasten to add that there were no embarrassing things, other than the time when ... but no, the News of the world will NEVER get that. Will it? Oh my God, what if ....?).

Thing is, having something published IS very exposing. Not in a way you can be arrested for, but in a way which is very anxious-making. We know (or if we don't, we soon find out) that lots of people won't like our book, even if lots of people do. Some readers will be vocal in their opinions, and even when the opinions are positive, many readers will see things in our books that we didn't consciously put there and which we didn't mean to be read into them. We will be misinterpreted and spoken about as though we're really really stupid. We see ourselves written about and talked about. And nowadays the reviews and comments are so permanent - which is good ... and bad. But anyway VERY exposing.

We do interviews in which journalists make weird and wrong assumptions or get facts wrong. I was seriously pissed off once when a journalist came to my house to interview me about Blame My Brain and asked me if she could speak to my older daughter. Now, my daughter hates being interviewed or photographed (after a previous horrible experience) and so I said she couldn't; then, in the article, the journalist referred to my "teenage daughter upstairs in bed". Actually, she was in her bedroom, writing an essay ... Yes, a small mistake, but one which had its effects.

I envy those authors who are confident enough and important enough to play the recluse card and keep their privacy, but even they are inevitably exposed as soon as their book is published. You don't get fewer reviews just because you hide. (Yes, I know we all in theory could be recluses, but we're not really allowed that option. Most of us have to do what we can to raise our profiles, not shrink them. Most of us have to do the equivalent of the model walking confidently along the catwalk, when inside we may feel very vulnerable and self-conscious.)

We lay ourselves on the line, allow ourselves to be hung out to dry, and we're supposed to maintain a calm and smiling exterior, never lashing out at public criticism.

Look what happened to Alice Hoffman and Alain de Botton when they lashed out. OK, they may have been unwise but in the old days it never would have become so public. It's all so immediate, so unforgiving and so hellishly permanent nowadays. (Maybe they have glass toilet door dreams, too?)

The need to be careful about what we say on blogs and websites and in interviews just adds to the exposure anxiety. The SoA has even suggested Professional Indemnity insurance for authors, to insure against the costs of being sued for defamation, for example. And I notice (because I've looked, carefully, paranoidally - is that a word?) that you have to pay extra for including your website, blog or other online presence.

Never was the power of words stronger and more frightening.

I feel a bad dream coming on. Someone, please, tell me I have got the appropriate body parts covered. And if I haven't, wake me up gently.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Pace - Sally Nicholls

Pace is, quite simply, a pain in the arse.
Pace is how fast a story is being told. It's annoying because it's not easy to explain WHY something is paced too fast or two slow. The only way to figure it out, as far as I can tell, is to read a lot of books, then print out your manuscript and read it like a book, noting down the places where the story is getting boring (pace too slow) or you blink at half a year's gone by (pace too fast).
With my last book, 'Season of Secrets', my pace was mostly too slow - mainly because I set myself targets like 'write a thousand words in a day', with the result that I frantically wrote a load of rubbish to meet my deadline. Editing then mainly became cutting, which is a wonderful process - my target then became 'delete a thousand words a day', which is frankly easier and gives one a wonderful sense of freedom as the story emerges from all the dross, shiny and streamlined. I've deleted about 20,000 words from both of my first two books, neither of which is longer than 37,000 words in total.
With the latest book, however I set myself the target of finishing sections - write two sections per week, I told myself. This has resulted in lots of ridiculously short sections, which are paced far too quickly.
I now just need to add stuff - which I have no idea how to do. Aargh! Help would be gratefully received!

Monday, 17 August 2009

Pause Button Time : Penny Dolan

It's been the big Pause Button time for the writing. Yes, the school holidays have hit. Last week included totally enjoyable family visitors visiting. There were meals and more meals, and a trip on a steam train, and a more than exciting time at the new childrens' play area in our local park. This was full of swingy swing things to knock out teeth, and roundabouts that could fling you off, and fantastic wooden structures to climb and get stuck or lost among. And a gigantic paddling pool. Just the place to relax and sit dreaming about aspects of one's plot. Not.

I was also in a tizz about my storytelling & mask making session at Knaresborough's feva festiva. This meant much inner "told story" revising, plus outer collecting of green paper, pens and glue, neither of which were exactly adding words to the page. Then another story for telling popped up into my head for the story time, and my "Green Man" mask idea was so happily adapted by the children. All the masks were so brilliantly different. Sigh of relief! It was a such fun, and I get to do it again (with my assistant the lovely librarian) this coming Friday! In the meantime, there's the small matter of some Rain Forest based stories for a session tomorrow. I think the rain aspects been taken care of already . . .

I'm sure that there's pieces of writing all across the land suspended for similar sorts of summer holiday reasons. All one can do is enjoy the diffeent pace and maybe a few new ideas. This Wednesday, I plan to press PLAY again, and set that novel running again. Hope you manage to find yourself some writing time and space this summer!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

N M Browne: It's like...

I am always intrigued by the language writers use to talk about writing. Perplexed, but intrigued. On-line, cyber space is full of talk of the writer’s tool box. All aspects of writing are tools. Not being a dab hand at DIY I routinely use a hammer to crack a nut and a similar approach to writing might be problematic.

I think people who think of aspects of writing, point of view, voice, world building, character building as tools must have a story in their head somehow, a platonic ideal of a story that they somehow reconstruct with the aid of bolt cutters, electric drills and a pair of pliers. I find the metaphor useless as I have no ideas at all when I start. None. Sweet F A. I don’t need a tool box I need a clue.

Is writing for me like doing a puzzle? A bit. Maybe. I don’t know; I don’t do puzzles. Certainly at the start it is like twenty questions. Is my heroine a princess, a slave, a dog, a duck billed platypus? I really don’t know anything at all at the beginning.

I kind of find all that POV, character and voice stuff arrives with the story – like the instruments I know I want to use from the moment I start trying to come up with a tune. I know the kind of sound I want – more or less, but I work out how to make it as I go along. Does that make sense? Probably not. I don’t understand enough about the mechanics of musical composition to strike a chord with those that do.

When obliged to talk about writing process, I often talk about weaving, which is ridiculous as I have no idea how to do that in real life. I definitely have story threads that I need to be worked into an overall pattern, different colours that need to be given prominence at different times, but as a metaphor it isn’t terribly helpful which probably explains some of the blank looks I get from students.

‘It’s like painting’ I say, a woman who hasn’t painted since about 1978 and wasn’t very good at it then. ‘The narrative kind of drives forward like a snow plough.’ What? ‘It’s like sewing – the main thread is a strong red line I embroider as I go.’ What is this girl on? I can’t do embroidery. I spent the year I was supposed to learn cross-stitch reading ‘Biggles’ under the desk and the same goes for knitting – only I think I was reading ‘Narnia.’

At secondary school I forgot my fabric every sewing lesson as reading the text book was more interesting. I can’t do craft and I can’t explain how I write – metaphors break down, melt or fizzle out in thin air like spells with no substance, lacking truth or power.

I don’t know how to describe writing a book – it’s like writing a book OK?

Friday, 14 August 2009

Ten Commandments of Epos - Katherine Roberts

There is a secret weapon publishers, agents and booksellers can use to find out how good an author you are. It’s called Nielsen Book Scan, and it’s a computer record of the sales of your books through all outlets that use electronic point of sale (Epos). Sales figures are certainly one measure of a book’s success. But there is a dangerous tendency these days to use this weapon to commit mid-list murder on a scale that would shame Hitler. Don’t even get me started on the twisted logic of this, but apparently the sales of your last book can be used to predict the sales of your next one. Decent sales figures last time around… next book welcome. Embarrassing sales figures… next book not so welcome, maybe not welcome at all. Dump bins for a new title from a mid-list author? Get real.

It is tempting to mumble in your freezing garret about mass market sales being no measure of literary quality, or point to the thousands of books you have sold yourself in schools that never registered on Nielsen. But since sales mean royalties, and all authors need to eat, let’s assume for now that we all worship this new god of commerce. With obvious apologies to Moses and no insult intended to anyone’s religion or beliefs, here are the Ten Commandments of Epos that today’s career-minded author ignores at their peril:

1. Thou shalt not worship any other god but me.

2. Thou shalt not make any graven image of me. Moulding a little doll out of clay, calling it Epos, and sticking pins into it under a full moon while chanting from the pages of your latest novel is unlikely to help your sales very much – though you could try putting the video on Youtube and starting a cult, that might work.

3. Thou shalt not curse my name. No good using “**!&*! Epos” as an excuse for your less than marketable writing. Go away and write a better book or find another job.

4. Thou shalt observe my day. By all means have as much fun as you like creating your own little worlds in your books during the first six days, but do not neglect to worship me on the seventh. (What do you mean, you can’t create a book in six days? What do you do all day?)

5. Thou shalt honour with due respect all those who brought your book into the world – your long suffering family, your equally long suffering agent, your editor, your writing buddies, your sugar daddy, whoever gave you a grant to pay your bills while you were writing the thing, without whom etc, etc… it’s what the acknowledgements page is for.

6. Thou shalt not murder other authors (in print or otherwise). Even if you think killing off the competition might be a good idea as a last resort, don’t forget that nearly everybody else in the world is now writing a book of their own, which means you will simply be murdering most of your potential readers.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Sleeping with the head buyer of a large bookselling chain is only likely to help your sales figures if you are young, beautiful and preferably already a celebrity… in which case you don’t need to sleep with them, darling, believe me.

8. Thou shalt not steal your books. Terry Pratchett might have gained some publicity for being one of the UK’s most stolen authors, but stealing the only copy of your book from the shelves of your local bookstore will merely result in one less sale. (On the other hand it’s understandable if you steal Terry Pratchett’s latest, since on the average author’s earnings you probably can’t afford to pay for it.)

9. Thou shalt not accuse your rivals falsely. If you read in the press that a new author has just been given a six-figure advance for her first novel, it’s no good saying bitterly, “That’s only because she has no past sales record…” before you have even read her work. Her first book might be… (insert her advance divided by your advance)… times better than yours.

10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbour’s talent – or their glamorous handbag, youth, Scottish castle, Swiss bank account, or whatever else they have that you don’t. Their sales figures are obviously significantly better than yours, but changing your name to JK Rowling is not going to fool anyone for very long. Especially if you are a man.

Now then, where did I put my chisel and those stone tablets...?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Ripping Things To Do by Jane Brocket. A review by Adele Geras

I first came across Jane Brocket on her blog, which used to be called Yarnstorm and which is now called simply by the author's name. Here is a link to it:

I loved the Yarnstorm blog because it had on it, in elegant words and accompanied by beautiful photographs, many things I love: flowers, quilts, knitting, fabrics, cakes, landscapes, and gardens. Jane Brocket wrote a book called The Gentle Art of Domesticity and this seemed to provoke a flurry of unkind reviews and reactions on the blogosphere to the effect that what she was writing was anti-women's liberation and retrograde and all sorts of other nonsense. In fact, it's a book that celebrates the domestic arts and if you like celebrating those, then surely you ought to have the freedom to do so. People who enjoy baking, sewing, and knitting are no stupider or less liberated than those who have no time for such things.

That's the background. This book, which is most beautifully illustrated and produced by Hodder and Stoughton, is a little like the Dangerous Book for Boys. I say that without having read Iggulden's work, but I'm sure that the market Brocket's book is aimed at is the one that made DBB such a hit. I hope that this book might also become part of every parent's equipment because it seems to be such a good idea, and very beautifully executed. Brocket has taken games, recipes, pastimes, etc from famous children's books of the past and adapted them for the present day, together with lots of extracts from the originals. So we have chapters called things like Secrets and Spies, Ripping Games, Amazing Adventures, Winter Days, Treats and Remedies, Lazy Weekends and so forth. There's something here to appeal to everyone, whatever their taste and each chapter has not only practical suggestions and full instructions, but also a reading list, so that the child or parent who might be daunted by having actually to MAKE and DO things can at the very least lie back on a comfy sofa and read about other people being creative and active. It's a really smashing book and very good value indeed at £17.99. It's got enough in it to keep a family amused for years and years and will definitely be a book to pass down through the generations. I'd also recommend it to any teacher wishing to be ahead of the curve when it comes to imaginative ways of passing the time. It will probably be in paperback next year but in the case of a book you're likely to use as much as this one, the hardback is worth the extra money. I'm sure lots and lots of you will love it and will keep coming back to it for all kinds of inspiration.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Cat Whispering - Joan Lennon

George, Parker and WT in the sink - Cleopatra would have been there too
if there'd been room

It isn't easy to find an activity that is madly, truly, deeply satisfying, and yet isn't connected to writing - at least that's what I've been finding lately. There was that bird of prey experience thing that was so fabulous, but that was (at least remotely) research for a book about a Viking boy and a golden eagle. But then, when I was in Canada visiting my family just lately, I discovered something wonderful, new and, though it seems disloyal to falcons, EVEN BETTER!

Cat Whispering.

Four feral kittens were born in my sister's garden in Toronto, where there is a big feral cat problem. In order for them to be adopted, the kittens must first be caught, and then socialised. Cunningly, I arrived after most of the hard work had been done. I got to spend time with them right at the end of the process, moving slowly, talking softly - and stroking! Four kittens to stroke! It was bliss. Kittens to the left of me - kittens to the right of me - I didn't worry about rewrites or fuss about editing or get my knickers in a twist about the state of the economy - it was all fur and purr and general satisfaction.

The perfect therapy, for writers or anyone (who likes cats ...)

Makes me smile, just remembering!

Cheers, Joan.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Writing in two languages - Leslie Wilson

I've put in a picture of a house in Berlin because that's the house I've chosen for the birthplace of the heroine of the novel I'm working on at present. It's in Inselstrasse, for anyone who knows Berlin, near one of the arms of the river Spree and just a bridge-crossing away from the Fischerinsel, the island where all the museums are.

But I'm not posting about Berlin geography, but about language, or rather, about what it's like to write about Germany in English when you are yourself bilingual. It's complicated enough when you can hear your characters talking German and then have to render it into English, making the best fist you can of 'equivalating' - yes, I know that's not an English word - the English to the German, when there are some things that are best said in German, and some things best said in English, the same being true for French, and of course for many other languages that I'm not fluent in. And what do I do about Berlin dialect, the way Berliners have of turning all their 'g's into 'y's, hard into soft, like Uri Geller getting his fingers on a spoon? It's impossible to put this into English. It gets lost. Too bad. Some things one can just render into English, very satisfactorily - 'meine Olle' for example, translates perfectly as 'my old lady' - when one's getting vulgar, 'Arsch' is so easy to translate I'm not going to bother here, but Germans do tend to get scatological quite easily. That is, not nice ladies like my mother - and that's another problem, 'Gnaedige Frau' (irritating lack of umlaut-facility in this software, never mind) which literally means 'gracious lady,' but in my childhood it was still used quite frequently. 'Madam' is the best I can do, but it fails to give the flavour of the German.

I suppose what I'm saying is that there's no such thing as a true translation, only a finding of equivalents, and it seems odd that I, who've always hated translating, am finding myself effectively doing it. And in the novel I'm working on right now I've given myself an even tougher problem, in that my main female character is a returned emigree, therefore bilingual like me in English and German, but the boy, who also has a point of view, is entirely German, therefore thinks in German. In the past I've translated German names into English 'Alexander Square' for 'Alexanderplatz', but this won't work when I'm inhabiting the head of someone who thinks in English but thinks of the place-names in German - but in the boy's head, they probably should be in English, because this is English masquerading as German.

I'll work it out in the end, but I'd be fascinated to talk to or hear from other bilingual writers who write about their two cultures, and hear how they manage it. The thing is, though I get frustrated not being able to use German, I couldn't write entirely in German. My German is very good, but English is my main language.

All the same, hearing the cadences and rhythms of the other language in my head does change the way I write in ways that I'd have to spend hours analysing to define, yet I know it is so.

Monday, 10 August 2009

When a good story goes bad - Anne Rooney

How many abandoned ideas does the average writer have? Not finished books that never sold (we all have some of those), but ideas that never made it to the finishing line.

When a new idea strikes, it's always so seductive. It trails its peacock-feather tail in front of you, casts 'follow-me' glances over its shoulder and poses provocatively in the half shadows. You can't quite make it out, but it's pregnant with promise. How can you resist?

But some of these pouting beauties are just flirts. They have no intention of bringing anything to fruition. They get no further than a scribbled note, an idea of a title. Then off they sashay, perhaps to strut their stuff in front of someone else, or maybe to dissolve back into the ether.

Others look as though they will hang around, but after a brief acquaintance it's clear the two of you aren't really suited. You might have worked up a character outline, and sketched an episode or two, but the excitement has gone. The idea which looked so tempting is actually rather dull. You don't make another date. Or maybe you're just messing around while waiting for something more alluring to come along.

Sometimes, though, you get seriously involved. Time passes. You move from the outline (if you write one) to the research and the writing. You pour your soul into it, invest your time, neglect your loved ones. And then the idea goes bad on you. It was messing you around - it's not really serious about this book thing. It's not ready to settle down, or certainly not with you. You mope around, weedle, try to please it in different ways, offer it a new setting, a new voice, a different font (that often brings out a story's true colours), an extra character or scene. But still it sulks. It doesn't call. You leave it on the desk(top) and get on with something else. But you keep coming back to it, drafting plaintive texts to try to rouse it. You set aside time for a nice evening together with no distractions and hope that you can rekindle the magic that has gone from your relationship. It might make a little effort to rouse itself but you have to admit that really it's dead. You're poking at the corpse. Time to move on.

But it's difficult to know whether a story is really dead, really irredeemable, or whether it's just hit a rocky patch (see Linda's post yesterday - this always happens at some stage). I'm lucky - the fiction I write is relatively short. If I give up on a story, I haven't generally invested months and months in it. But even so there is that pang of longing - what if it had worked out better? What if I'm wrong and it could be saved? Am I giving up too easily? Is it just playing hard to get?

Yesterday I gave up on a story that seemed a really good idea four or five months ago. But it went stale. I went back to try to revive it, but I think its condition is terminal. Maybe it's just in a coma and if I sit with it for long enough it will come round and smile and we can carry on from where we left off... But I don't think so. Time to turn off life-support.

Friday, 7 August 2009

'The Story Road' From Conception to Deliverance- Linda Strachan

Having just finished my latest book the process is fresh in my mind. Everyone approaches writing in a different way but for me it seems to be surprisingly similar from one book to another. Let me tell you what it is like.

There is that first single idea, one that begs to be noticed, a spark that glitters in my mind tantalising and tempting. Like a crystal it grows little by little by adding fragments and details until it almost has a life of its own.

At the start of the story road it is exciting and blissful, I can’t wait to find the means to get the words down, any words, to evoke the emotion, scene, character or whatever this little spark consists of. It begins to grow by revealing itself almost like a child’s magic painting - a wet paintbrush reveals a hidden image already embedded in the paper, invisible until released by water. The story seems to be already there waiting for my words to change it from thought to book …

Its progress is varied, at times fast then slow, running and hesitating in unequal measures as it climbs the hill creating itself, tumbling from my head onto the page. Building in the details of the back story, the scenes and the characters, developing the tale it has to tell.

For some reason, always at what seems like three quarters of the way up this hill it stutters; hesitation turns to pause, pause to full stop and stop to despair.

All at once the words, the delicate ideas, that gem of a story turns to ugly disappointment as I re-read and reconsider - take a pace forwards and then three backwards. Perhaps it should it all be thrown away and another new and better story started instead.
More than an errant child, this is a useless idea, something that has lost its way- words that had previously seemed to be spinning a magical tale have, just as magically, changed into a stale boring piece of absolute rubbish. The little bit of talent for writing, that I had begun to believe I had, has deserted me and I am convinced that nothing here or perhaps nothing I will ever write again will be fit for anyone to read, far less enjoy.

This, the most trying time, persists for a while until I get annoyed because I realise I have spent all this time in useless endeavour. I abandon it and walk away, wandering off to do mundane tasks, anything but face this wreckage that was my wonderfully exciting and enchanting idea.

But a stray thought appears about how the story might be changed, if I move this bit, or perhaps I discover that one character is actually envious or devious or about to walk off the set completely. I am driven back to work, not utterly convinced but since I have gone this far I feel I should at least try to rescue it, and myself.

Refusing to give in to the little voice in my head that says it is all drivel, I plough on relentlessly up the hill that has now become a mountain - until all at once the sun comes out and reveals the summit and I can see the perfect ending waiting in the valley below.
I rush down the other side towards the finish with sheer delight, or is it relief?

It is done, at least a first full draft. The story and the characters have all taken shape and the circle is complete. It has been wonderful and excruciating at different times and although it still needs a little final editing and polishing, for now I can rejoice, draw a sigh of relief at my deliverance, pour a large glass of wine and relax - until it is time to hit the story road again.

Visit Linda's website at

The Launching of a Book - Damian Harvey

Although I've attended a few book launches I've not yet had one for any of my own books. From the few I've been to I feel I've learned a lot, or at least enough to consider having one myself and hopefully making a success of it.

The idea of having a launch myself has always felt a little daunting as, in my mind, there are so many things that need to be taken into account in order to make it a success. Where do I have it? Who do I invite? What do I actually do? I was reminded of all these on Wednesday when I attended the launch of Helena Pielichaty's new series, Girls F.C.

I suppose a launch could be held just about anywhere, but to maximise the impact I've always felt that it can only help if the venue is relevant to the books in some way. Helena's launch was held at the National Football Museum in Preston - surely an ideal place for the launch of a series of books about a girls football team. People attending the launch were able take advantage of the facilities on offer at the museum as well as taking part in the launch -a guided tour, a penalty shootout, refreshments in the cafe etc.

One thing that has stopped me having a launch myself is simply being unsure about what I would actually do. Do I make it like a school/library/festival visit where I leap around and tell stories for a hour or do I quietly mingle with the people there and hope for the best? For my liking, Helena seemed to get the balance just right. Prior to saying anything herself, Peter Evans (the museum's education officer) gave an enthusiastic talk about the history of women's football with a slide show and some excellent props from the museum's collection.

It was then Helena's turn to leap into action with a little bit of talk and readings from the first four books. Rather than doing all the readings herself, she cleverly utilised some of the young readers that had come along to the launch - really getting the audience involved.
This was followed by a free prize raffle in which eager readers won sets of books (signed by the author - and by Hope Powell, the England woman's football team coach), a signed football shirt, match tickets and lots of other football goodies.
Refreshments were on hand for everyone there, then Helena made her way downstairs to sign books and make herself available for interview with the local press.
The launch was well organised and well attended - so well done Helena. I'll certainly be having one myself in the not too distant future. Hopefully you'll all come along.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Memorable Characters - Katherine Langrish

I was asked by a fantasy and science fiction survey what I thought were the weaknesses of the two genres. This is a bit like being asked in a job interview to identify your own personal weaknesses – one doesn’t want to admit to anything. But in the end I replied ‘Poor characterisation and an over-reliance on magical and scientific hardware.’ I don’t think this was unfair. As a teenager I gobbled up Isaac Asimov’s ‘Robot’ and ‘Foundation’ books, and Arthur C. Clarke’s many and various space odysseys, but what I loved was the vast sweep of the black canvas they both painted on – prickling with stars and smudged with dusty, embryonic galaxies. Against that background, the human characters in their books were unmemorable. I’m trying right now, and I can’t think of even one of their names.

As for fantasy, the same thing applies. The world is often more important than the characters. I don’t think I would recognise Colin and Susan from Alan Garner’s brilliant early fantasies, if I saw them in the street. Even in ‘Lord of the Rings’, characters are more often conveniently defined by their species (elf, dwarf, hobbit etc) than by personality. Could you pick Legolas from an identity parade of other elves, or Gimli from a line-up of other dwarfs?

You have several wonderfully memorable science-fiction/fantasy characters on the tip of your tongue at this very moment, I can tell, and you are burning to let me know. I can think of a notable exception myself: Mervyn Peake’s cast of eccentrics in the Gormenghast books. I’ll look forward to your comments... But moving swiftly on, I began to think about memorable characters in children’s fiction – which as a genre, like science fiction and fantasy, tends to be strong on narrative. Does children’s fiction in general, I wondered, have characters that walk off the page?

So here, in no particular order, is a partial list. Mr Toad. The Mole and the Water Rat. Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Tigger. William. Alice. The Red Queen. Oswald Bastable and Noel Bastable. Arrietty, Homily and Pod. Mrs Oldknowe. Dido Twite. Patrick Pennington. Mary Poppins. Mowgli. Long John Silver. Peter Pan. Ramona. Huck Finn. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy. Puddleglum. Pa, Ma, Laura and Mary. Stalky. Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden and the Hemulen...

All of these characters, I would argue, are so strongly drawn that once you have met them you will never forget them. I will bet that for each of the above names (so long as you’ve read the books) you knew instantaneously who I meant, and had a picture of them in your head and the ‘flavour’ of them in your mind, just as if they were real people. These characters have a life beyond the page: not only is it possible to imagine them doing other things besides what their authors have described, it’s almost impossible not to believe that in some sense they possess a sort of independent reality.

There are many good books in which characterisation is not very important. Fairytales have always relied on standard ‘types’: the foolish younger son whose good heart triumphs, the princess in rags, the cruel queen, the harsh stepmother, the weak father, the lucky lad whose courage carries him through. This is because fairytales are templates for experience, and they are short: we identify with the hero, and move on with the narrative. Fairytales are not about other people: they are about us.

But the crown of fiction is the creation of new, independent characters. Though Mr Toad may share some characteristics with the boastful, lucky lad of Grimm’s fairytale ‘The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs’, he is nevertheless gloriously and individually himself. Huck Finn is more than a poor peasant boy or a woodcutter’s son. Children’s fiction is a fertile ground in which such characters can flourish.

Visit Katherine's website at

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

It frequently does happen to an author! - Meg Harper

Well done to John on his very measured and all encompassing post about the ISA controversy! I am still entirely confused. I thought ISA was going to destroy CRB checking at one fell swoop but the child protection bod at my church (yes, churches need such people these days) says all Sunday School teachers still have to be CRB checked in September even though we’ll have to be ISA’d in October. Pourquoi??? Personally, I could paper the walls of our downstairs loo with my assorted CRB checks. I even have one because I volunteered to dog-sit for Guide Dogs for the Blind – not, thankfully, because they thought I had nefarious desires about the dog but because I might wangle my way into the lives of vulnerable people. I was looking forward to no more CRB forms (which I could now do blindfold) but perhaps I am mistaken! If anyone can clarify the situation, I’d be delighted – and personally, I’d willingly pay £64 to put an end to this torture!

But this whole issue does bring to mind some of the conundrums regular school visitors face. I have just completed a residency in a nearby primary school, helping year 6 to write and publish their own book – and very delighted we all are with it too. In theory, of course, I should never have been left alone with the class. I had both a teacher and a teaching assistant to help with the project. But towards the end, when we had children flying backwards and forwards between computer room and classroom and sometimes more help was needed in one place than the other, of course I got left on my own sometimes for short periods. I’m a qualified teacher, I run a youth theatre, teachers soon get the vibe that the kids are not going to run amok if I’m left on my own – and so it happens. Am I really going to abandon ship every time? Theoretically I should, according to the terms of my public liability insurance – but I could be putting the children more at risk by doing so. I know darn well that I’m not going to interfere with them sexually – but I also know darn well how quickly some kids can put themselves at risk when left unsupervised. So which should I choose?

I chose to leave on a school visit a few weeks ago. As part of an arts week, I was booked for three days to do a series of 6 two hour drama workshops with years 7, 8 and 9, based on my book, ‘Fur’. It was an excellent initiative with lots of artists from a huge number of disciplines sharing their know-how. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was very challenging, especially as the groups were mixed age and didn’t know each other to start with. I had to work hard to win some of the kids over but we got there on the whole – until my final workshop!

This group was something else. I could tell almost from the word go that a good half of them were in the mood to undermine. I persevered and we made progress but I was using every teacher tactic I knew. After about half an hour I made a decision. I was not there as teacher. I was there as visiting artist. I should not be having to ‘do the discipline’ with such a vengeance. I was there as a respected guest and I should be being treated as such.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you that I am stopping this workshop now and I am going to reception to explain that I am doing so because the attitude of this group is unacceptable.’

Appalled silence.

‘Oh, please don’t do that!’ said the randomly allocated minder/teacher. ‘I will speak to the group. We can’t have this!’

She spoke to the class. I agreed to carry on and the majority of the kids were more co-operative. There was one notable exception, a young lady who had interrupted regularly with comments like ‘Why do you have to read from you own book? You wrote it. Why don’t you know if off by heart?’ After another fifteen minutes or so, I stopped the workshop again. Politely, I told the young lady that I was now excluding her from my workshop. The teacher agreed that she should go. (It turned out later that this was a girl who was usually excluded from normal lessons. ‘I don’t know why she was in your workshop!’ I was told.) But then, to my astonishment, the teacher disappeared after her!

This was the point when I chose to leave. This was completely unacceptable. I was with a group I barely knew who had already proved themselves to be difficult and unco-operative – and now I’d been abandoned by my minder for I knew not how long! I told the class that I was not insured to stay without a teacher and left. Not a great moment.

Fortunately, I found my minder within a few minutes, she apologised profusely, we returned, I continued the workshop and we achieved most of what the other five groups had achieved – but the whole episode gave me pause for thought. Luckily for me, I work with teenagers every week as well as writing. I was naffed off and irritated but that was all. But I can imagine that some visiting authors would have been extremely upset by what happened – and as regards the ISA controversy – well, it just goes to show that although the lauded likes of Philip Pullman may believe they will never be left alone with kids, there are plenty of us working as creative writers in schools who will! Schools are places where unpredictable things happen. You cannot legislate for them all. I am entirely with John in not wanting to come down on one side or the other in this debate. There are points on both sides. But my point is that these are muddy waters. There are no guarantees of anything where you put a huge number of young people into one building with a relatively small number of adults. What is supposed to happen may not. That’s just school life. I wasn’t supposed to be doing my presentation in the room next to the very shrill recorder group. A small, disturbed boy wasn’t meant to do a moony in at the end of my talk. It was no one’s fault that there was a fire in the adjoining community centre causing us all to be evacuated. I have never been more surprised than when the Headteacher said, ‘It’ll be all right if I have my piano lesson at the other end of the hall while you’re doing your workshop, won’t it?’ (No, it wasn’t and she didn’t!!!) And so on. All this and more has happened to me as a visiting author.

ISA? CRB? I don’t know what you need to keep the kids and yourself safe. Maybe just a bomb-proof attitude and a willingness to say ‘Enough’s enough!’

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

It shouldn't happen to an author - John Dougherty

The new Independent Safeguarding Authority checking procedure was much in the news a couple of weeks back, thanks in no small part to a number of prominent authors, and since I managed to get a letter on the subject printed in the Independent (second one down) I thought I'd use my August entry to put down some thoughts, a little belatedly, on the subject.

Opinions seem to be broadly divided between those who say, "If it keeps just one child safe, it's worth it. What about William Mayne?"and those who say, "This measure is part of a growing sickness in our society." I find it difficult to come down absolutely on one side or the other, but broadly speaking I'm with the second lot. A few weeks ago, just before this all blew up, I was on holiday in Cornwall and I took my children to a little playpark near the library in Padstow. And there, on the park fence, was a sign that said:

Beware of strangers.

Just that. Nothing else. No advice on what specific action five-year-olds should take upon seeing - gasp! - someone they haven't seen before. No suggestions of how one might prevent strangers from being strange. Just the ominous warning to beware of them.

And this, it seems to me, is at least part of the problem. We're living in a beware-of-strangers society. See someone unfamiliar? Run! Run! Scream! Lock yourself away! Whereas in fact, the sad truth is that for most at-risk children a better warning might be, "Beware of mum/dad/"uncle" Dave/the woman down the road who babysits sometimes."

The arguments as to why visiting authors pose next to no risk for the children we meet are, I think, well-rehearsed by now. The ISA's response, apparently, is that the risk is greater than you might think because “many authors also now communicate with their readers online, following events in schools and libraries or via their own websites”. The gaping hole in this argument, of course, is that authors don't have to be ISA-checked to have a website, and if we were all to stop visiting schools we'd still be able to communicate with our readers online.

Now, as I said at the beginning, I find it hard to come down completely on one side or the other - "better safe than sorry" is an important part of my psychological makeup, and I'd find it very difficult to live with myself if I opposed the all-encompassingness of the ISA checks and found myself on the winning team, and then it was found that someone who would otherwise have been caught by the vetting had got into a school and abused the trust of someone they'd met there. But this is pretty unlikely; I think if there'd already been a case where the new check would have made a difference, someone would have produced it in evidence by this point. And before you mention William Mayne again: the point there is that the scheme wouldn't have caught him. Check the relevant dates on that Wikipedia entry.

I should point out here that I'm not trying to make a special case for authors. I think there are all kinds of people who needn't be checked but who, under the new rules, will have to be - war veterans, police officers, charity workers, even MPs (although I expect they'll be able to claim the entire £64 registration charge back on expenses - but let's not go there...) - all of them people who visit schools to talk about their work or their experiences, but who don't go back to the same schools often enough to build up any kind of real relationship with individual pupils.

I'll be registering for the ISA scheme, because I want to go on visiting schools. And I shan't be taking it as a personal insult that I have to do this. But I do think it's unnecessary. Worse, I think it creates a false sense of security; because there are bad people out there, and it's impossible to prevent all of them from doing bad things. And when, in spite of this scheme, a bad person does another bad thing, I expect the government will come up with another headline-grabbing knee-jerk response which won't solve the problem, just as this scheme was created in response to the crime of Ian Huntley regardless of the fact that it wouldn't have stopped him committing that crime. It might have stopped him getting a job as a school caretaker, perhaps; but what is often missed in that discussion is that the two girls didn't know him as a caretaker - he didn't work at their school. They knew him as the boyfriend of their classroom assistant, a position for which, as far as I know, no vetting is required.

Gosh, this has all been a bit serious, hasn't it? Anyone spotted the rather poor wordplay in the title?

Monday, 3 August 2009

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (or aren’t!) – Dianne Hofmeyr

I grew up fairly free. I knew each mountain path behind my house and every rocky outcrop on my beach. My backyard seemed to demand engagement and a certain fearlessness. I suppose it was before ‘stranger danger’. So I was struck by a recent article that said 38% of UK children spend less than an hour outdoors daily. One boy said he liked to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical connections were!

Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods uses a term ‘nature deficit disorder.’ There’s a disconnection. Children can probably tell you about deforestation but do they know a real forest… its danger and its freedom?

I can’t imagine growing up without this sort of wild freedom. There are so many layers of memory I can hardly begin to choose one experience over another. Camping in summer… the smell of canvas and wood smoke, collecting alikreukels to roast (like a very large periwinkle) the crickets loud and the voices of the adults murmuring on in the dark until I finally fell asleep. The smell of the sea, the waves beating in at the river mouth bringing mountains of foam that frothed across the brown river water like an enormous coke float… don’t swim beyond the shadow of the bridge or you’ll be sucked out to sea! The incense smell of the mountain fynbos that we packed under our sleeping bags and the day someone was bitten by a scorpion… would she die? And the scary sound of the round rocks rolling along the riverbed with the incoming tide.
I felt thrillingly alive.

Not just the real wilderness, but wilderness in books fed me too… and still does. Myths of forest and icy wastes. The deep dark cave. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...’ that’s all that’s needed. I’m sorry I got to know the Greene Knowe stories so late. But I remember being mesmerized by Gerald Durrell’s Overloaded Ark… all those secret animals in pristine forests.

I think stories that encompass the wild are like maps that orient you to respond to the world. It would be interesting to know if other writers have wild places or wild stories that are special. What I do know is… I’m connected to my inner child when I’m exposed to an older, wilder world of animals, stone, wood and water. And I feel sorry for any child suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’!

This is the Golden Orb spider that shared my backyard…totally harmless but fascinating... it's called the 'writing spider' because of its intricate orb-shaped web spun in golden thread. The other is of an alikreukel picked off a rock ready to be roasted.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

My Summer of Tove by Catherine Johnson

Most writers love books, and I can't ever remember not being able to read. Luckily for me reading was as easy as breathing, and just as natural. It took absolutely no effort, unlike being able to catch or hit a ball, or doing long division.
The summers were always big reading times for me. Our holidays were always the same; six weeks in North Wales, and that meant a lot of rain. In my Nain and Taid's house there weren't a lot of books in English, actually, thinking about it now, I can't remember any. English wasn't a well loved language at my grandparent's. I discovered Moomintrolls one summer, and went through the whole series thanks to the village library.
I was in a library in Enfield last week, and they're in the middle of the school holidays and knee deep in The Summer Reading Challenge. This is run every year by local librarians with resources produced by The Reading Agency. In every library young readers up to 11 (but a lot of older kids do it too) read as many books as they can. They win prizes and there are all sorts of book based activities. Every year there's a different theme, this year's is, I think, particularly lovely - it's Quest Seekers. The art work is gorgeous and the characters and the dragon are very attractive. I would say that of course because the artist is Jonny Duddles who did my last book cover for Random House.
The thing about the Summer Reading Challenge is that it works. It works really well. Thousands and thousands of children, and many of these are children without huge reading staminas, read hundreds and thousands of books. If you want to check out the statistics you can on the Reading Agency's website. Children go back to school in September as readers, their confidence and their love of stories fuelled sky high.
Hooray for libraries!
P.S. Looking up some illustrations I found that The Summer Reading Challenge also operates in Welsh. Hwre!