Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Return of the Jungle Book - Dianne Hofmeyr

Yesterday I was a green-eyed monster. I saw Michael Morpurgo’s latest novel Running Wild in the bookstores. It’s the story of a boy and an elephant who rush off into the jungle because the elephant senses a tsunami coming. Four years ago (in 2005 to be precise... as I still have all my paperwork) I researched Sea Gipsies and elephants who escaped the tsunami because of their intuitive knowledge… a sort of 6th sense. I discovered these insights while reading Ian McCallum’s book, Ecological Intelligence. Fascinated I broached the idea of a story based on this. But the tsunami had devastated too many people’s lives and it was believed to be too close to the event. Four years later out comes Running Wild!

How often this occurs… writers have an idea, and then someone else brings out a similar story! On the positive side, Michael’s book with its handsome cover and lovely endpapers, made me wonder if we’re seeing a revival of ‘jungle’. Hopefully it bodes well for frogs too… seeing that my new series is called The Frog Diaries.

In the stakes of frogs versus vampires, it’s a no-brainer as far as popularity goes. Yet geckoes, chameleons and mammoth Madagascan moon moths were great draw-cards with 9 & 10 yr olds in the butterfly tent at the Natural History Museum this summer. And recently at the Saatchi Gallery it was the photograph of the toxic looking Blue Poison Dart frog (dendrobates azureus) that had a ring of children around it. Is this a trend? Will the jungle book return? I’d like to think so.
‘New jungle’ mixes nature with suspense and adventure. What’s not terrifying about the Golden Poison Dart frog (phyllobates terribilis) from the rainforests of Colombia, that’s capable of killing 10 to 20 people with its poison? A single gram on an envelope would kill anyone licking it.

So I’m playing herpetology and writing my Frog Diaries and soon to be Frog Blog. I’ve hunted down reed frogs in the Okavango Swamp (in reality often) with a frog-trafficking, dynamite-throwing villainess and I’ve trekked (in my imagination) the rainforests of Madagascar to track down its ghostly lemurs and Golden Mantella frogs and found much more… secret distilleries of ylang ylang flowers and modern-day pirates too.

I love doing what I’m doing. Because what does a primitive ylang ylang distillery look like in the heart of a rainforest? And how will my hero’s tree-house be suspended in the forest canopy by steel cables? Never mind plot problems and jungle-fact problems, I wake up each morning to engineering problems… and its fun. Fun because I love doing what I’m doing.

My frog stories join the dogged drafts of a few maniacs seeking new encounters. And if there’s to be an encounter with the world (and ourselves), then it’s up to us maniacs to do it. The root meaning of the word enthusiasm is enthosiasmos which in Greek translates: to be filled by the gods. I hope you are all filled by the gods this morning!

Book recommendations:
Here's a book list of my recommendations on

Shall we keep silent? Meg Harper

Hurray, hurray, I did some writing today! I was only polishing up a short story that is my contribution to the anthology I’m publishing for my summer school creative writing group (Good old Lulu!) – but it made me feel I can justify my presence on this blog still! I read some of the recent posts and I am bowled over by the sheer single-mindedness of some of you, writing, writing apparently all day long, be it on Facebook, Twitter, your own blogs, other people’s blogs or even something you might actually submit to an agent. Words, words, words. Voices, voices, voices. Talking, talking, talking.
As a result, I’m thinking that this is a forum where I can raise something that is much on my mind at present. I had thought not – because I had not thought you are people for whom it would make a difference to be silent – but of course it would! You are anything but silent in countless different ways.

So where are we going here? OK - an explanation!

I am much troubled by the issues of people trafficking, modern slavery and bonded labour. My most recent novel ‘Piper’ tackled the slavery issue obliquely. The central characters were faced with a dilemma – would they choose enslavement and relative safety or freedom and the likelihood of death? It appears to me that, despite the efforts of Stop the Traffik and the Anti-Slavery Campaign, there is very little attention being paid to these appalling and widespread practices – so it is in my mind to mount an awareness raising campaign. I recently went to a workshop run by Eugenie Harvey, of ‘We are What We Do’, the outfit she set up to create the book ‘Change the World for a Fiver’, followed by the ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ campaign and more recently the book ‘Teach your Granny to Text’. According to her, I should test out my bright idea for changing the world on a group of ‘normal’ people and get their feedback!
Well, I don’t want to insult ABBA blog readers by calling you ‘normal’!!! You are clearly far from that! But I can’t really think of anyone I associate who is ‘normal’ really, so forgive me testing out my thinking on you!
My counter-intuitive idea for making a noise about those whose voices are silenced by their oppressors behind hidden doors in a succession of anonymous locations - is to use silence. In terms of non-violent direct action, silence seems to me to have immense appeal. My idea is to encourage people to be silent in their workplace to draw attention to the plight of those who are silenced as they work as slaves – silenced by those who ensure they are voiceless by denying them any form of communication with the outside world in surroundings where the language is not their own. Consequently, even their screams are silent.
Which is where we get back to whether writers at work are silent or not. And it seems to me that you are not. Many of you talk to the outside world through a variety of Internet applications throughout your working days. So I can certainly ask you if you would stage as silent protest, backed up in advance by explanatory notes on your web-pages or Facebook profiles. And I can ask you what you think of the idea:
• do you think it would seed and spread?
• what are the things I need to think about?
• how could I make the ground fertile and make the silence that I sow run rampant?
• Should I see this simply as awareness raising, directing people to the excellent work of various anti-slavery/people trafficking lobbies or should I, for example, target a particular piece of legislation?
• Should I aim for a Day of Silence on which people could do as much silence as they wanted to – or should I ask people to make regular briefer, silent protests whilst spreading the word – or both? Or something else?

Or maybe I should just keep quiet and get back to my writing? : )

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

More authors than you can shake a loofah at – Elen Caldecott

I have spent the last week immersed in children’s books, revelling, rolling and rollicking in them. (I may also have spent too long reading alliterative texts...)For those who don’t know, it was the third annual, Bath Festival of Children’s Literature. I volunteered there all week, tearing tickets, keeping the signing queues fed and watered, running to buy red wine for the green room, among many, many other things.
It was both exhilarating and exhausting. Exhilarating to spend time around people who love the same thing as I do. Exhausting because there were just so many of them!

Writing, as we know, can be a lonely business. Even with all the friends and contacts we make online, it is easy to feel isolated, a bit odd, even. When I meet new people and tell them I’m a writer, they generally get excited. Then, when they find out I write for children, there’s a confused moment while they try to find the right thing to say (of course, they often fail
).But for one week of the year, in Bath, I fit right in. There are scores of children’s writers around the place. Hundreds of adults who love children’s books. And thousands of children there to hear their favourite authors speak. Heaven.
I wish I had taken pictures to share with you. But I forgot. I am a rubbish journalist. So, I’ll just have to describe my best bits.
There was the Tuesday evening Talking to Teens event. Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff and Terence Blacker all came along to share their perspectives. I was a bit redundant in the green room, as none of them wanted a muffin, but I did manage to foist a caffeine-free tea on one of their entourage. They were being interviewed on stage by a very capable young reader (I think she was all of 16 years old). She was a treat to meet too.
Terry Deary gave a fantastic multi-media, all-singing (but sadly no dancing) performance on Saturday. His signing queue went on for hours, but the kids at the back were patient. Many just sat down to re-read the books they’d brought with them. The signing queues for Lauren Child, Andy Stanton and Michelle Paver were equally huge, but equally gracious. Well done all of you!

Then, there was the brave and noble volunteer (you know who you are!) who climbed into a giant Horrid Henry costume and let small children ram raid her.
I missed out on seeing the Cybermen, and the Tardis (I was doing admin). I missed Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen (I was working another venue) and I missed Johnny Ball (I was falling asleep on the bus and missing my stop). But I saw so many speakers and they were really inspirational.

Thank you BathKidsLitFest and I’ll see you again next year!

Ps. For those of you like news updates. Here’s a photo of my new writing room
Elen's Facebook Page

Monday, 28 September 2009

Another Country and a Dead Wench: Gillian Philip

Well, that crept up on me. Just the other day I was saying to other ABBA bloggers that I ‘always’ post late the previous night so that it’s ready and cooked by morning. So this morning I wake up and think ‘doesn’t Nicola Morgan usually blog just before me...’ and I go through and look at the calendar, and I swear*.

However, although I’m ill-prepared, my bad timing did at least let me hear Hilary Mantel talking on Radio 4 this morning about Wolf Hall, the Man Booker favourite. So she’s saying (and I paraphrase, so I apologise an advance if I get this wrong) that she doesn’t write historical fiction, but contemporary fiction set in the past, and with a contemporary sensibility.

This made me wonder about a few things.

Is Hilary Mantel apologising for writing historical fiction, and if so, why? This year’s shortlist is
famously full of historical fiction (or contemporary fiction written in the past, yada yada), and there have been quite a few snotty comments about that very fact. What gives? I wasn’t even aware of an anti-historical-fiction thing till recently, and I’m confused. From what I could gather from this morning’s interview, it’s partly about the potential to play fast and loose with historical facts. I think I’ve also heard objections about the insertion of fictional figures into historical events.

We can do exactly the same in contemporary fiction, though, so I’m not clear where the difference lies. (I’m not being sarcastic. I would genuinely like to know where critics of historical fiction are coming from, because I’m interested.) For every Hollywood movie that explores the United States’ famous discovery of the Enigma machine, there’s a book that gets it right. Surely the only thing to do is roll one’s eyes and move on, rather than disparage an entire genre?

I was also curious about Hilary Mantel’s remark that she was writing contemporary fiction in a historical setting. Now, in ‘real life’ (see those inverted commas?) I’m very wary of imposing modern mores on our ancestors. The past is another country where they do things differently, and all that.

But does it have to be that way in fiction? It drives me nuts when I find characters in historical novels who talk like the Guardian’s comment pages. But then I’ll discover someone like Uhtred Ragnarsson, in Bernard Cornwell’s Alfred series, who has some fairly modern attitudes to women despite being a violent creature of his times. And that doesn’t annoy me, it intrigues me and makes me like him.

I’ve chickened out of this dilemma in my fantasy historical ‘Firebrand’ (Strident 2010, plug plug). I haven’t chickened out deliberately; it’s just the convenient way the story worked out. My hero can look back on his life from centuries ahead, and I know (mostly) when he’s being an unreliable narrator because of the change in his perspective – which is not the same as historical inaccuracy. But how would he have been if I’d let him live a normal human lifespan, and see his adventures solely from the perspective of his own times? Frankly I don’t know. I didn’t write that character.

I’m not making any assertions here. I really am curious, and I’d love to know how writers of children’s ‘straight’ historical fiction do it. And I apologise, again, in advance, if I’ve misrepresented what Hilary Mantel said this morning.

Anyway, back to that photo at the top. I need to go shopping. The kids were so caught up in Strictly Come Dancing on Friday night, we forgot to watch the last episode of The Tudors. So I owe my husband a DVD set. Because that’s one series that’s notoriously flexible with the facts.
But you know what? We love it.
*(something a children’s author never oughter.)

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Isn't Twittering for Birds? - Nicola Morgan

All this blogging, Facebooking, Twittering, Linkedinning, Diggiting and other more arcane forms of apparently essential author-profile-building  -  gah, it's amazing we have time to write at all any more! Of course, if you do none of this you are either a) feeling guilty / inadequate b) that and paranoid that every other author must be becoming better known, better connected and therefore obviously more successful than you or c) being rampantly Luddite and proud of your organic writing life and acquired technophobia.

Let's unpick this a bit and then I'll tell you why I use the tools I choose and what they do for me.

Two clichés: 1) there are many ways to skin a cat  2) horses for courses. Building your "profile" as an author can be done in many different ways and we should only do what we want to do and what feels comfortable. We are, above all, writers. If we let ourselves spend more time "networking" than writing and thinking and dreaming, then our profile is going to have nothing substantial to base itself on and we will lose touch with why we exist.

So, my advice to all authors is:
  1. Don't panic, Captain Mainwaring. It's not even a commercial.
  2. Take your time to try various possibilities 
  3. Each tool seems completely mad when you first begin  -  everyone's first "tweet" reads something like "well, I made it 2 twitter  -  WTF do I do now?"
  4. Doesn't matter whether you take it ultra-seriously or dip in and out  -  do it your way
  5. Don't let it take over your life, ever
  6. Enjoy it or don't do it
  7. People survive perfectly well without all of this
  8. BUT, every now and then you will make a fabulous connection with someone who could end up being a genuine friend, excellent colleague or very useful contact. But the same could be said of going to a party, reunion, meeting, lecture or supermarket ... (It's just somewhat less likely, statistically).
So, what do I do, how much time does it take and what do I get out of it?

I think I am registered on most of those things like Linkedin and a few writerly equivalents the names of which escape me. Which tells you how useful I have found them. As in not. So that takes me zero time and I get zero out of it. (There's a lesson there).

I blog. Obviously I blog because here I am. This blog takes me half an hour a month to write, and 5-10 minutes every time someone else posts, so I can read and maybe comment. I get out of it the feeling of being part of a community (we email off-blog too) and being able to listen to other readers; some people may read me who otherwise wouldn't have; and the act of writing something is good practice. It's fun and it's easy. No pressure.

My other blog (Help! I Need a Publisher!) takes up a lot of time. Maybe an hour a day, often more. I blog on it at least three times a week, and reply to all comments  -  most posts get around 20 comments, sometimes as many as 50ish. (Yesterday's got well over a hundred!) People also email me off-blog (including agents, editors and publishing industry people). That sounds like a lot of work for no money and it is a lot of work but here's what I get from it:
  • it's become a whole new career strand, with invitations to speak to writers (on Creative Writing MA courses, for example)
  • it's taught me a lot, as more and more people contact me with their own views, knowledge and experiences; it's broadened my knowledge outside the UK
  • I've been interviewed for or done guest posts on many other blogs, which would never have happened
  • I love doing it, love the free style of writing and the instant feedback
  • I've made friends, genuine friends, as in people I can phone, email and meet
  • With one of these new friends, fellow blogger Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works, I'm planning some exciting ideas which actually should earn us some income
  • I know I've sold some of my books, as I've gained readers who would never have heard of me
  • people have brought me chocolate. Really. Three times. And people have recognised me by my shoes or boots. Extraordinary.
Blogging, then, can be very rewarding. But you have to want to do it; you have to know what you want to say, and be prepared to open up your personality (or I guess you could always invent one if you wanted  -  though it would be very hard to keep up for any length of time). It's a form of writing itself, very real, very good fun, very flowing, very instant. And it can lead to a greater "platform" or profile, too.

I Twitter. Twitter is very weird when you start because you're essentially twittering to yourself until people start to follow you. I could write a tutorial on how to get started on twitter but this is not the time for that. (Except to say that  if you "follow" me, then I'll almost certainly "follow" you and then you'll quickly see how it works, and I'll help you along. Start your free account at and in "Find people" put @nicolamorgan).

How much time do I spend on Twitter? Probably 10-20 minutes a day, split into half a minute at a time.

What do I get out of it?
  • because I follow the Bookseller, Book2Book and industry experts such as Scott Pack, I know that I will get industry news early, so I'm always informed
  • people have come across me through the chain of twitterers
  • Twitter is easily linked to your blog, so a) a blog post goes instantly to Twitter, where your followers can "retweet" to all their followers and b) vice-versa, so every "tweet" of mine goes onto my blog automatically, so blog followers see more informal messages than blog posts
  • Twitter organises "tweetchats"  -  so you get to know that, for example, Mon/Wed/Fri, 9-10pm GMT, there's always "litchat", a load of people around the world chatting about a lit-based topic. There are things like writechat and amwriting and pubchat (publisher, not pub ...). Through this, I've made more contacts.
  • I love the even greater instant-ness and public-ness. It's like Speaker's Corner except you can only shout 140 characters. (Thank goodness).
  • I publicised some Edinburgh Book Festival events on Twitter and I know that some people only heard about them through that.
  • And in the last week I have twice been invited to speak, purely because of a message I put on Twitter
  • It's fun
  • It's free
What about Facebook? I do that too, but less than I used to now I use Twitter more. For me, Facebook is purely social and relaxing, nothing to do with work-related "networking". My Facebook "friends" are more genuinely friends, though I admit I haven't physically met them all. How much time? Some days only a quick look; other days I'll get involved in a fun message thread (especially if people like Gillian Philip, Philip Ardagh or Bookwitch are on form!) and come back several times during the day. What do I get from it? Contact with friends. Fun. Relaxation.

People can be very disparaging about all this, and use the word "networking" in a very sneery way. Some people, I agree, do it very calculatingly and some do it unattractively. Some people on Twitter can be very boring  -  there's one person who just says "Morning all" every morning, but on the other hand isn't that what real people do when meeting other real people as they arrive in their offices? This is all, really, about new forms of human interaction. You can call it networking and be disparaging if you want. I call it making human connections. I like doing it.

But, as with all forms of human interaction, it's all about doing what works for you and feels good for you. All I'd say, though, is if you don't try it you'll never know.

This blog post has been far too long  -  it's kept me from Twitter for at least half an hour.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Two Reviews and a Booker Contender - Leslie Wilson

I've been away on holiday, and have, as always, taken a lot of books with me, but haven't read them all because when the weather's nice - as it was up in sunny Yorkshire and Northumberland - me and D. like to do a lot of walking. But there were two which I took with me and was determined to read, I've been looking forward to both of them for months. One of them is Ann Turnbull's 'Alice in Love and War.'

I first came across Ann Turnbull's work when her 'No Shame, No Fear' was shortlisted for the Guardian children's fiction prize, along with mine. I was particularly interested in that book because it dealt with Quakers in the seventeenth century, and I'm a Quaker. I loved it, and its successor, which I was lucky enough to be able to review for the Guardian. Now she's written another book set in the seventeenth century - a period that fascinates me apart from the Quaker connection. Alice is a 'nice girl' who runs off with a soldier and becomes one of those most despised of women, a camp follower. Ann Turnbull draws her frankly but with total sympathy, so that you really care what happens to her - but through her eyes one sees the English civil war completely differently. I think this is exemplified in the scene where the Royalist army sets off for the battle of Naseby, which, of course, was to smash them to smithereens. There, up at the front, is the King, with Prince Rupert and the aristocracy, then the army follows, descending in rank and importance, and right at the end are the raggle-taggle of women. Through Alice's eyes, we see the wives of the Welsh mercenaries setting up their tents - like the Greenham Common 'benders - and scavenging food, dressed as men. Over and above Alice's own personal, gripping love-story - I don't want to give away too much about that here - Ann Turnbull shows us the pity of war, describing, with appalling honesty, the atrocities carried out by both sides; less luridly, but still importantly, she shows us the hardships and poverty the war caused England. It's a wonderful book.

The other book was Mary Hoffmann's 'Troubadour', also a story of love and war, and also dealing with an area of history that has fascinated me for a long time, that of the Albigensian Crusade - or the war against the Cathars of Southern France. Like most crusades, it was a pretty horrific affair, and, like 'Alice' this is not a novel for those who don't like to hear about man's inhumanity to man (and woman). But for anyone who's been to Languedoc and seen those white ruined castles rearing up at the top of scrubby hills, and wondered what it was like for their inhabitants when the northern French came, this will give you a fascinating, moving, and absorbing picture - and once again, the heroine will grip your imagination. Elinor, the daughter of a Cathar heretic lord, escapes from an arranged marriage disguised as a boy and becomes part of a travelling troupe of troubadours. At the same time, the Pope has called the crusade against the heretics. The focus of the novel moves between Elinor's adventures and the grim struggle of Bertran, the troubadour she's in love with, who has to fight the hopeless war against the northerners. This has to be the lost cause to trump all other lost causes, and there are some dreadful moments, though the courage of the Cathars is deeply inspiring. In addition, Mary Hoffman shows us the intellectual and artistic life of medieval women, a subject that's too often neglected. And, like 'Alice,' it had me gripped from start to finish.
I was delighted, on the first Wednesday of the holiday, to discover that Hilary Mantel's wonderful 'Wolf Hall' is on the booker shortlist. Considering that this author has written about five or more novels, all of which should have been there, I might well say 'not before time,' but anyway, it's there. I consider Hilary Mantel to be one of our best contemporary novelists, if not the absolute best, so for once, I shall be watching the Booker dinner on Tuesday week.
The last thing I want to say is that I must apologise to my brother. In my last post I talked about him terrifying me with stories of murderers and burglars creeping up the stairs. He tells me that he was just as scared, which was why he told me about his fears. So, if I made him sound like a heartless big brother, enjoying my fright, this was unfair. Actually, he was a very kind brother, with a few exceptions, such as the time he tried to persuade me to eat slugs. I'm happy to say that I didn't, however, they were black and looked like liquorice and I don't like liquorice.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Necessary Distraction Karen Ball

Photo courtesy of Tim Lumley

This week I received a Danish copy of one of my books. My writing looks so pretty in words I can't read. I also received advance copies of another book - it still surprises me when my hard work turns up in something bound, glued, with a bar code on the back. 'Oh, look. It's a book!' And my sister came round to take a new author photo of me to go on my agent's website.
The author photo – source of much debate in author households around the country, I’m sure. We decided against a bookish backdrop and stepped out into the garden to catch the last of the day’s light. Mandy found a stool to stand on so that I could raise my head to look into the camera, thereby hiding a double chin. Apparently, if you want killer cheekbones in a photo you don’t say ‘Cheese!’ you say ‘Wogan!’ (If you want to look as though you've been sucking lemons, you say 'John Humphries!') I’d recently shared Lucy Coat’s grief that the great Irish man is to leave our morning air waves, so I didn’t mind at all repeating his name over and over. God knows what the neighbours were thinking. I’m not sure we got a great shot out of any of those moments when I said his name, but it gave us both reason to laugh and made the process fun.
‘Do you want me to get rid of your wrinkles?’ Mandy asked as we inspected the photos on her laptop. You would be proud of me, fellow writers. I said no! My boyfriend came home and we showed him our shortlist of photos to work from. He frowned. ‘Your mouth is strange in that one and I think your hair looks a bit severe.’ We told him his opinion was no longer required. I then took my sister out for a curry – she didn’t mind being paid in nan bread for her efforts.
Packages, curry, wrinkles and Wogan. These couldn’t have come at a better time. For the past few weeks I have been working extremely hard on a second draft. I had started to feel a little lonely at my desk. Hard work is hard work for anyone, but my goodness it is solitary for a writer. I would take a break and go to the local cafe just to speak to someone. There wasn’t a blogger in the world who could blog regularly enough to give me an excuse to take a break from the writing. I had run out of items to load into the washing machine and the bin was overflowing with chocolate wrappers. Forgive me, Father, for I have eaten two packets of hula hoops, barely noticing them go down. Can you sense that I was becoming a bit strung out? So what a blessed relief to open surprise packages, laugh with my sister and tell my boyfriend that he was wrong. These little events mean that I can go back to writing a happy woman.
Thank goodness for distraction. All together, now. Saaaaay 'Wogan!'
Visit my website at

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Topping-out ceremonies – Michelle Lovric

A belly-excavating whine of bagpipes wrenches me from my desk. No, this isn’t Edinburgh, but Bankside on the Thames. From my window, I see that the bagpipes are announcing a topping-out ceremony on the roof of the construction site opposite.

A topping-out ceremony is an ancient ritual in the building trade. It means that the builders have reached the tallest point of construction. Topping-out is a major event in the life of a building. Sometimes they bed in a tree or a branch using a special trowel. Other times flags are involved. (In Bolivia, they bury a llama fetus in the cornerstone to mark the construction, but that’s another story). The one thing in common to all topping-out ceremonies is there’s always a party. The one that disturbed me had THREE pipers and trestles sagging under man-sized bottles of alcohol, and enough men to bellow a football chorus.

It’s always a great party. I’ve heard that a lot of builders lose morale and interest after this climactic moment. A kind of post-constructional tristesse. For after topping-out, it’s all drearily downhill: second fixes, cladding, fit-out etc.

You may say, ‘Another moaning, covetous author! What about the book launch? The cocktail party, the readings, the reviews, the congratulatory emails? Why is she complaining about topping-out ceremonies, when it is a known (if apocryphal) fact that publishing gives the best parties?’

But I’m not talking about celebrating the finished product. By the time we authors see a finished book, it’s already antique in our imaginations. We’ve let go of it a long time before. It has become the property of editors, jacket designers, sales and marketing. It has been to school, university and married a few times by the time we meet it, as a virtual stranger, in a bookshop.

‘Hello there,’ we mumble in embarrassment, ‘didn’t I used to know you when you were just an idea?’

No, we don’t need a topping-out ceremony on publication day – we need one at the point when the creative process reaches its zenith. A lot of writers, including me, think that this point is the completion of the second draft. After that, it is all filling in blanks, tidying up inconsistencies, cutting, redrafting and infiltrating the editor’s suggestions. The finishing of the second draft is the last moment at which the possible still has glimmerings, but the doable is all done.

‘Now’, I thought, listening to the bagpipes, ‘if I hadn’t been so rudely interrupted, I was just about to finish the crucial second draft of my next novel. Who is going to mark the fact? Is my editor going to set up a trestle table and call in a piper or three? Is his boss going to stop all work for the afternoon and pour the prosecco? Is my husband going to come home early from work, glowing with pride? Are we inviting the quantity surveyor, the team of architects, the structural engineer, the lighting consultant, the interior designer, the foreman, the electricians, the bricklayers, the stonemasons, the plumbers, the scaffolders, the planning consultant, the office secretary …?

No. Because, on the second draft of my own book, I do all those jobs. On my own.

And no-one except the author marks the finishing of the second draft. No topping-out ceremony. No statutory creative climax. Or afterglow. Maybe a cup of tea with the cat.

What I get instead of a topping-out ceremony is – a deadline.

A deadline means that there’s a date by which I have to stop working. What it really means is the work I hand in that day is the best I could do in that time. Unlike a jubilant topping-out ceremony, a deadline gives me dispensation for mediocrity. As in: ‘How could anyone expect me to do better than this, given the short time?’ And ‘Look at all those words I wrote in such a few months!’

See how deadly a deadline can be! It gives us a false goal. It means that don’t write the best book that is in us. We write the book that’s feasible under the terms of the contract.

No, I don’t want a deadline. I want a topping-out ceremony.

And perhaps next time I might just have one.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Where Beth They Beforen Us Weren? - Katherine Langrish

I took a brisk walk out this morning to the Anglo-Saxon grave.

It was only discovered yesterday. We were out for an afternoon stroll in the mellow sunshine, taking a lane that runs out of the village towards the Downs in the distance, when we realised the wide, flat fields were full of widely separated, slowly walking figures (some women, but mostly men) with bowed heads, swinging long metal detectors like oddly shaped proboscises. Every so often one would stop and dig a little hole, pick something up, then wander on. The big farm was running a metal detectors’ rally, proceeds of the camping fees to cancer research.

We started talking to some of the men. One pulled out a wallet and showed us a medieval silver penny. Another had more pennies, Roman and medieval: and belt buckles: and buttons. ‘And over there,’ they all said, pointing towards the furthest field behind a belt of trees – ‘over there, that’s where they’ve found an Anglo Saxon grave!’

Everyone was alight with it. A huge gold brooch had been found, together with some bones. The police had been called immediately and had thrown a cordon around the site. The archeologists were already examining the brooch, which was over in the marquee beside the farm. We headed back to look for ourselves, on the way chatting to a group of three men who wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place at a Saxon chieftain’s burial. Big lads, with acres of tattoos. One had long black hair, another a shaved head. One wore an enormous plaited gold ring on his thick forefinger.

‘Any luck?’ we asked. They were friendly, shook their heads: ‘Nah. Only rubbish today. Here’s what we got, on this table over here, take a look if you like.’

‘If you want some, have some,’ added the black-haired man. ‘It’s rubbish. It’s all going in the bin otherwise. But have you heard about the gold brooch?’

On the table was a clutter of stuff. Bits of pottery, coins, harness buckles, buttons, crumpled tin and lead. ‘Take it! Take it all!’ exclaimed the black-haired man. He shovelled it all into a plastic container. It was heavy.

‘When you start this game,’ explained the man with the gold ring, ‘you’re really excited about a coin or two, but then you get ambitious. Tell them about that ring you found.’

‘18th century, with seven diamonds,’ said the man with the black hair.

‘We’ve all found rings, one time or another,’ said Gold Ring Man. He laughed. ‘Once you start this game, you get addicted.’

We went on down to the tent. The brooch was there on display. It was the size of a large jam-pot lid, with a white coral boss surrounded by an inlay of flat, square-cut, dark red garnets. Around that, a broad band of bright yellow gold, with four set garnets standing out from it. Then more coral. And around that, a ring of intricate silver filigree, now black and dirty. People pored over it, photographed it, stared at it with awe, excitement, and reverence.

‘There’ll be another one,’ the archaeologist was saying. ‘They always come in pairs.’ And he had a look at the ‘rubbish’ the big guys had let us take away. It included four Roman coins, a bit of a medieval ring brooch, some Roman pottery, a lead musket ball the size of a marble - cold and heavy in the hand - and an 18th century thimble. Just a tiny fraction of what still lies under the dusty ploughlands.

So this morning, as I was saying, I walked out to see the site of the grave. Our village is probably Anglo Saxon in origin. The site was about two miles out from the farm, along a flat and dusty track between the fields, tucked away behind a strip of woodland, with a view of the Downs three miles away. It was marked out with striped tape, like a crime scene, and guarded by police vehicles. One of the archeologists gave me a lift the last quarter mile.

‘We think it’s a high status chieftain,’ she said. ‘Seventh century.  We’ve found bones. We think it’ll be a major excavation.’

I stood there, in the sunshine and the light wind, looking at the place where, thirteen centuries ago, some Saxon warrior was laid to rest, and I had a lump in my throat.

Where beth they beforen us weren,
Houndes ladden and hawkes beren,
And hadden feld and wood?

I keep being told by my editor that there’s no market for historical children’s fiction; that it’s difficult to sell. Well, all I can say is, most of the people I met and talked to out on the fields yesterday were enthralled not merely by the idea of treasure hunting, but by the romance of the past. And well they might be, because this is England and the past is all around us. And surely children feel it too?

Where, asks the anonymous Middle English poet, are they who were here before us, who once led their hounds and carried their hawks and owned both field and wood?

Still here, it seems, is the answer.
They’re still here.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Waiting for Royalties Anne Cassidy

Two tramps are standing on a bleak corner.

Will they ever come?
They always come.
How can you be sure?
I just know. The Royalties always come.
What do they look like?
They’re different every time.
I used to think they were a fantasy. A mirage. A set of myths made up by people to give themselves a reason to go on.
I’ve seen them. I’m the proof that they exist.
Tell me about them. Describe the way you feel when you see them.
It’s a feeling like no other. You get the envelope, you hold it up, you feel the cheque. It’s a religious experience.
Unless they don’t come.
They do come.
What if they didn’t?
Why are you saying that! Do you know something? Have you got insider information?
I might. You’re not the only one who has seen The Royalties. I know someone else who has seen them. Many years ago this person was in with the Genre Sect. He saw the Royalties for years. Then they went away.
Only special people see them. Chosen people.
But when?
Soon. The Royalties will come soon. Trust me.
I do. I trust you. I just wonder when they will come.
So, we just wait.
We just wait.

(They wait - apologies to Samuel Beckett)

Friday, 18 September 2009

Late! Catherine Johnson

I am never late. I am one of those people who is irritatingly always early. I cannot be cool. I am early to parties, early to everything and if I am not early I am chewing my nails off in terror that I might be late. I was so wound up by lateness as a child that if we had a train to catch my mother had to re-arrange the clocks so it was earlier than I imagined.
However this blog is not really late, maybe just a few hours, my excuse is I have been at a school all day - my first of the year and wearing suitable non threatening clothing - and am knackered.
So that's what I'm talking about today, or rather tonight, deadlines.
I have six more weeks to complete on rather important (financially anyway) job. I like to think I'm a good bet for a writing job, on time, reasonably competent. But I have spent the first two weeks in the grip of brain freezing indecision. I've tried swimming, going for walks, talking about it and not talking about it. I just have to hold my nose and jump in, but while I haven't actually started there's still hope that it will be good and not mediocre or awful.
And worst of all it means my lovely lovely super wonderful book (it is all these things because it is not written yet) stays unwritten. I was sort of hoping to have hammered it out by the end of the year. At the moment I have about seven different beginnings and that's about it. But believe me the costumes are fabulous!
At this rate that'll be late too.
PS If you're wondering about the picture it's Mary Toft whose schtick was giving birth to live rabbits. I am imagining them all saying I'm late, I'm late over and over again.......

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Truth and Fiction - Sally Nicholls

When I was a child, I valued truth in my reading matter. I wanted to read about children who behaved like the children I knew. I wanted their maths books to look like our maths books, and their arguments to sound like our arguments. It infuriated me that children who found secret passages and mysterious fairies didn't run immediately to tell everyone they knew (I would have done, and so would all the children I knew. Children love sharing exciting details of their life with adults. The old 'I didn't think anyone would believe me' argument never really washed with me.)

When I wasn't trying to make books work like real life, I was trying to make real life work like books. I wanted secret societies that didn't collapse after half a meeting because no one would listen to the chair and someone's little sister wanted to play 'tag'. Passwords worked really well in the Secret Seven books, but people either forgot them or said disturbingly logical things like "You know it's me, let me in," which made you wonder why the Secret Seven bothered. I could never understand families which only consisted of parents and children - I had hundreds of aunts, uncles, family friends and distant relatives who swooped in in times of crisis. Even at 8 I thought it was lazy writing when no one seemed to have siblings - all my friends had siblings.

As a writer, I'm starting to understand. Why waste words introducing aunts and uncles that serve no purpose other than to make your character more realistic? If your child does show her parents the magic fairy, how does it remain her story? If your children aren't allowed out on their own or are too scared to go out alone at night, how will they do all the things they need to do?

I err more on the side of realism than my stories probably suit, mainly because I'm aware that I'm writing for ten-year-olds like me, and because I want that younger me to recognise herself in the books, rather than throw them down in disgust. I can still remember getting excited aged 11 reading Jacqueline Wilson's 'The Suitcase Kid' because the characters watched Neighbours like my friends kid. If I'm not writing for that little girl, how can I call myself an honest writer?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Two grey eyes, with lids to them - Charlie Butler

I recently took a fun, online test – one of those things people do when they’re meant to be working – and discovered that I have really bad facial recognition, or, to give it its fancy name, prosopagnosia. Actually, I’ve always known this, but gilding the knowledge with a Greek polysyllable makes it feel much more respectable. Apart from giving me a ready excuse in various embarrassing social settings (“I thought I knew you from somewhere, but then I have so many nieces. It’s the old prosopagnosia playing me up again.”) it explains a difficulty I’ve often had in writing.
In short, I’m just not very good at describing people. I do usually have a sense of whether they’re old or young, tall or short, fat or thin, and will happily say so. I know whether they’re smiling or frowning, and anything that’s directly relevant to the plot I will duly mention. But the acute observation of physical idiosyncrasies, the play of changes across a face, the significance of a hairstyle, none of these comes easily to me. My first-draft descriptions turn into catalogues, blue-tacked onto the action, and it takes a lot of work to integrate them – which usually means, in practice, discarding 90% of what I’d originally written. Maybe that’s not a bad thing: the most effective parts of a book are often written between the lines, after all. However, I still envy people who can (or so it appears) conjure up a person’s history and character through their physiognomy with a few bold Raphaelesque strokes, or hold our attention as they show, à la Sherlock Holmes, how much information can be read in the face, clothes and body language.
Since I’ve got started, let the ABBA records show that I’m equally useless at recognizing flowers (I can do roses, dandelions, buttercups, tulips, daffodils, and er, that’s it) and makes of car (Mini, Robin Reliant and Citroen 2CV are okay, and maybe a Renault Scenic, but that’s only because I drive one). If you found yourself acting as getaway driver for an armed robbery at a florist’s, I would be your ideal witness. Luckily I do know how to look things up in books, though.
Hmm. I don’t seem to have done a great job on selling myself as a writer, today. Perhaps next time I’ll make a list of my good qualities! At least I’ve never been tempted to write a Mary Sue character. I mention that only as a way of pointing you to this fun, online test...

Monday, 14 September 2009

Pollyanna Time: N M Browne

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, I live more by the academic year than the calendar one. The first hint of autumn in the air, the chill winds, the shortening days and I get an unseasonal burst of energy, a desire to make new resolutions, dye my hair some unnatural shade of russet and buy a new pair of glossy, conker-coloured boots.
This year my first and most significant resolution is to enjoy what I do. No longer will I angst over the demise of the mid list or whinge about the parlous state of sales. I refuse to be envious of top sellers or bitter when my name is absent from short lists. I am going to enjoy the moments when I have a story I want to tell and the leisure to tell it. Autumn is always a reminder that things will probably get worse; colder, bleaker, darker so I am going to enjoy the last lingering golden days of sunshine and have fun.
Secondly, I am going to stop making crazy resolutions (I’m not including the above resolution in that category whatever you might think.) I know I’m not going to be up and dressed and working first thing in the morning. I am rubbish in the mornings and my brain does not come on line until significant amounts of caffeine have been imbibed, until I have listened to the Today programme, skimmed the paper and surfed the net. I am very unlikely to write a thousand words every day – I never have so why should this year be different? I am going to write what I can when I can and wherever I can and not beat myself up when the quality is a little bit dodgy either.
Thirdly, I am going to read more teenage fiction and enjoy the skill and talent of my fellow writers. I am going to be glad to be living in an age when such good books are available instead of depressed by the quality and quantity of ‘the competition.’ I am going to be pleased when my books are in stock, not cross when they aren’t. I am going to smile benignly when people ask me whether I’ve ever been published or thought of writing a real book - for adults. I am going to laugh in a warm, friendly and entirely non hostile way when someone asks if I’m going to be the next JK Rowling. In short I am going to be a veritable peri- menopausal Pollyanna. I think I’ll be happier.
Watch this space...

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Art of Stories - Lucy Coats

It's the final week of the J.W. Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy, and if you can possibly get there, you should go before it closes. The pre-Raphaelites are in vogue now--the BBC's recent series Desperate Romantics have made them very popular indeed. Waterhouse is a pre-Raphaelite painter, one of the lesser known ones, despite his painting The Lady of Shalott being one of the most popular at Tate Britain. And what has he got to do with children's books, you ask? In my opinion, the most important thing. He is a bringer to life of stories--in particular myths, which are my own special field of interest.

Last week I visited the exhibition in the company of two teenagers, one my daughter, both studying Art for GCSE. You might think that this was a fatal combination. But it wasn't. Personally, I am not a great traipser round galleries, being prone to mental indigestion if I see too much all at once. That cliched old tourist joke of 'If it's Tuesday, it must be Amsterdam (or Florence or Rome)' fills me with utter horror. I don't want to see all the great art in a city all together in one day. But the Waterhouse was small, intimate and extremely well hung, with interesting information in each room--yet not too much of it to overwhelm. What I loved most, though, was the pictures. Which is the point of an exhibition, really. It was like coming face to face with old friends in beautiful new dresses which somehow also dressed them in meanings I hadn't noticed before. I wandered round in a daze of happiness. Here was Circe in several guises. Here Ophelia, here poor Echo being ignored by Narcissus. And here is Ulysses in a boat, tied to the mast, his men rowing for dear life with their ears plugged with wax. But what are these strange winged beings around him? Not the Sirens, surely. But yes, they are--except that Waterhouse has mixed them up with the Harpies, and painted them as such. I didn't mind at all--it makes the picture visually very powerful, and I suspect that many people would not have noticed. It takes a myth freak to do that.

My teenagers adored the rich colours, the beautiful young things, the sumptuous velvets and silks and tapestries. But what gave me immense satisfaction was being able to tell them who everyone was, and the stories behind them. To have your daughter's sophisticated 15 year-old best friend say to you in awed tones (yes, they were awed, Emily!), 'But how do you KNOW all this amazing stuff?' was immensely gratifying, (not to say satisfying). And I like to think that perhaps my storytelling skills have made those pictures more alive and three-dimensional than they already are for at least one person--and maybe even two. My daughter admitted afterwards that even she found it all a lot more interesting with my wittering. And that's the biggest compliment of all for a storyteller--and the hardest to achieve.

You can find Lucy's website HERE and her own Quite Interesting writer's blog HERE.

Friday, 11 September 2009

What world are you in? - Linda Strachan

Sitting on a train the other day I looked up, struggling to climb out of the enthralling world of the book I was enjoying, I realised that there were several other people equally engrossed in their books. It made me wonder where they were in their heads, what delights or terrors were they experiencing through the characters and what other worlds, places or environments they were experiencing as they read. Having been so immersed in another world myself, I found I was reluctant to let go of it (for the mundane necessity of finding my ticket for inspection).

I had a momentary image of all those different scenes being played out in glorious technicolour above my fellow passengers, like several films running at once, portals to other worlds.

When writing I have something like that running in my brain while the words appear on the page (or screen).I find that when I lose those mental images the result is a piece of writing that lacks conviction and is ultimately boring both to myself and possibly to the reader, too. If it doesn't excite me why would it grab the reader at all.

I remember one instance when I was writing late into the night and realised that I really did need to stop and go to bed, despite being still engrossed in the story with much more to tell. My characters were in a fairly desperate situation but my eyes were closing and my fingers making a mess of words on the keyboard. Despite being exhausted when I got to bed I picked up the book I had been reading the night before As it turns out the same genre (fantasy) as the one I had been writing. I opened it where I had left a marker and started to read.

After a paragraph or two I looked at the cover to make sure this was the book I had been reading previously because something wasn't right, it wasn't the story I was expecting. But, yes, it was definitely the same book I'd been reading. For a moment I was puzzled and then it dawned on me.

The story I had been expecting to read was not the book I had in my hands it was the story I had just been writing. I realised that I had been so engrossed with the images reeling through my tired brain that when I picked up my book I'd expected the story to continue on from where I had stopped writing. I exected to discover what was going to happen to my characters next. A very strange sensation.

It made me think about the wonderful thing it is to read a book to lose yourself completely within it, and what a privilege it is to be a writer. Despite the difficult times it is a wonderful job!

A rendez vous in Venice - Anne Rooney

Let's get the envy-inducing bit out of the way at the start: I'm sitting less than a metre from the Grand Canal, listening to church bells tolling and the lapping of the water against the walls, and watching the sun glint off the ripples left by passing boats. All courtesy of Michelle Lovric, who has very kindly let me stay in her lovely palazzo (which has featured elsewhere on ABBA) while I try to resurrect some characters from 16th century Venice. I left them behind in 2007 when they wouldn't quite do what I wanted. One I executed, a couple of others I sent off to Constantinople, some I had die of the plague, one was murdered and another exiled. It's good the revenges you can have on wayward characters, isn't it? But now I have to persuade them to play with me again and they are - understandably, given my treatment of them in the past - rather wary.

I've been to their palazzo, which is currently being used for the Scottish pavilion of the Biennale, and tried to coax them out. I went onto the altana where my heroine bleaches her hair in the sun, and looked at the view she has of the bridge to Campo Santa Marina, a view that is important in her story. Later I'll take a boat to the Lido and trace her route around the Lazaretto Vecchio, the plague hospital she escaped.

It's not quite like meeting up with old friends, as old friends have generally been doing something in the intervening years and these people are pretty much where I left them. But as we get re-acquainted, I'm beginning to see that there are things I'd got wrong about them. That man I thought was led astray by his embittered brother was actually rather more blameworthy than he seemed; and his wife is a bit of a slut, to be honest. I still don't know whether they will now be willing to engage with me enough to kickstart the story, but it's fun to spend time with them again. Perhaps we've all moved on, and at the end of the week I'll leave them to a watery grave and light a candle for them in Zanipolo. But at the moment it looks as though some of their surprises might bring the story back to life. I've discovered a secret key wasn't lost in the canal, and a clue that had fallen down the back of the bed. There are a number of darlings that need to be slaughtered, and I'm still unsure whether we need a major structural overhaul. Meeting them on their home territory is a good way to open negotiations again. And if I'm found at the bottom of Rio Santa Marina wrapped in a sail stolen from the Arsenale and chained to a block of Istrian stone, you'll know that they got the upper hand.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Back to School: Penny Dolan

Next week, term begins. Most schools are back already, but I'm taking about the “visiting author” type of term. Next Tuesday, I’m doing a poetry morning, and later in the week I’m over at the Stone Literature Festival. In the distance looms October Book Week, which lasts about a month. Add to that the sudden rush of requests, and its definitely Back To School time. However, my worries seem the same as they ever were.
First there’s sorting out The School Bag. Or Bags. My plan, this year, is to NOT be laden down by every book I’ve ever written. My “Talk Bags” now have so much weight behind them that once I set off at one end of a corridor, momentum makes me unstoppable before I reach the end. (Have begun to fear for any small child who steps in my way.) Try a trolley? I did. It broke. Besides, have you any idea how many small flights of steps there are in schools, even the single storey buildings?
Then there’s the Pencil Case Problem. Why have I ended up with fat purple, green or brown markers and none useful for actual writing? On second thoughts, must also check no permanent markers are hidden among the whiteboard markers (oops!) and there’s a useful wodge of glutak too. Requesting glutak in some schools can is like asking for fillings from teeth. At least I no longer need a geometry kit.
Next there’s the Uniform Problem. I need clothes with pockets when visiting. I need places to stow small notebooks, signing pens, mints, objects to surprise the children, tissues for the front row dribbler, crib cards and occasionally a totally new timetable for the day. So, come September, my visiting wardrobe holds an array of interestingly-shapeless garments that I fear will only add to the Bag Lady Look (see above). This is not why or how I imagined myself stared at on my first day back in school. Maybe I should opt for the flattering pudding bowl haircut as well?
Now for the Back To School shoes. As a young girl, I longed for diamante ballet shoes and ended up with sensible brown lace-ups. It still happens. I’ve seen Meg Cabot in bright pink cowboy boots. I’ve seen Nicola Morgan’s blog and her parade of excellently varied Edinburgh footwear collection. I am wretched with admiration, until I face a day of carting stuff about in such things. Not for my ten little piggies, sadly. I can talk the talk, but I can’t walk the walk. Sigh!
There’s all that Catching Up On Homework too. Getting the visit paperwork in sequence. Checking there’s a timetable for the day. Making sure I’m not booked for John O’Groats one day and Lands End the next. Finding out where I’m going via the vital post-code & map books. Working out how early I’ll have to get up. Buying sturdy new Alarm clock. Dreading the mists and mellow fruitfulness aka slippery roads and poor visibility.
And there’s the most Dreadful Dread of All. Despite all the mutterings above, I love to do school visits. I enjoy them tremendously. I like meeting children and sharing stories with them. I like seeing new places and new faces, and meeting some of the wonderful librarians and teachers there are.
But there’s a cost to setting off by or before seven, doing four or more lively performances in an as-yet unknown setting, and driving two hours back again. And that’s the loss of the quiet a writer needs to think and plan and just get on with the writing task. The Dreadful Dread is ending up with no time to write. How on earth do you manage the problem?

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

But Is It Art? - John Dougherty

Depending on how you look at it, Hackney council has just (a) done its duty in removing unsightly graffiti, or (b) committed cultural vandalism and destroyed a work of art, in sending a couple of workmen to paint over an original Banksy.

I'm going with (b), myself. Mind you, I feel I have a bit of an investment in Banksy - not financially, you understand; but in common with thousands of others, a couple of weeks ago I queued for over four hours in order to get in to Bansky vs. Bristol Museum (the little cherubs in the picture, by the way, are my kids, who joined me in the queue an hour and a half in, by which time I'd managed to get about half-way through Philip Pullman's Once Upon A Time in the North), and as far as I'm concerned, that's a serious investment of time. In total, after all, I spent more time queuing than I did actually looking at the exhibition.

So: was it art? Here, I have to shrug my shoulders and say, 'dunno'. And I don't really care, either, if I'm honest. I enjoyed it. My wife enjoyed it. My children enjoyed it. Thousands of people from all over the world enjoyed it. And I've never, in any exhibition at any museum or art gallery I've ever been to in my entire life, laughed out loud as often as I did at Banksy vs. Bristol Museum. Given all that, does it really matter whether or not I know what the correct label for it is?

By this point, some of you are probably checking to make sure you are actually on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, and thinking, 'what's all this got to do with children's books?' Before I answer that question, let me put up another photo from my day at the Banksy exhibition:
I do like that one particularly. Anyway, where was I?

Oh, yes. It's easy to dismiss a lot of kids' - and, for that matter, adult - literature as "light" because its aim is to be funny and entertaining. Michael Rosen founded the Roald Dahl Funny Prize partly because funny books just don't get picked for prizes, and he felt it was as important to celebrate them as any other kind. Well, I'm with him on that. And at this point, I was going to start talking about how humour can be hugely intelligent and instructive; and I was going to use Banksy's How Do You Like Your Eggs as an example of something that first made me laugh and then made me think, and that posed questions... and then I thought, hang on, I'm falling into the same trap. To justify comedy - funny pictures, funny books, funny whatever - in that way is to say that it has no value unless it does something other than entertain. And I don't think that's true. I like to laugh. I think it's good for me. Yes, I like clever comedy; I like the thought-provoking stuff; but I also like comedy that's just plain silly - and what's wrong with that?

One voice is notably absent from the debate about whether Banksy's work is art, and that's Banksy's. He really doesn't seem to care. In the same way, Michael Rosen's response to people who think he doesn't write proper poetry is, well, don't call it poetry, then. Call it "bits" or "stuff". And Terry Pratchett, awarded an OBE for services to literature, commented, "I suspect the services to literature consisted of refraining from trying to write any". I love that attitude. These are people who know what they're good at, and who do it, and do it well, without worrying about which labels properly attach to their work.

Dr Johnson once said,"One of the amusements of idleness is reading without the fatigue of close attention; and the world therefore swarms with writers whose wish is not to be studied, but to be read." Well, all those clever writers whose wish is to be studied definitely have their place. And so do the rest of us. If people read my books, and enjoy them, that's good enough for me.

John's website is at

Monday, 7 September 2009

Tick the box if you do NOT want your book in our digital library… Katherine Roberts

As I write, the Google Book Settlement is gearing up for its fairness hearing in the US courts. This Settlement will affect authors and publishers worldwide, and in recent months authors have been bombarded by information that is at best confusing, at worst contradictory, and is still making my head spin even though one important deadline has now passed – that for “opting out” of the Settlement entirely.
Any author who had a book published in the US before 2009 and did nothing is now a part of the Google Settlement, like it or not… which is uncomfortably similar to having to remember to tick those tiny boxes hidden away in the small print if you NOT want your details shared with third parties (i.e. so they can sell them behind your back). Clearly, there is some advantage here for Google along the same lines. The trouble being I can’t quite work out what it is. Yet.

The other way of looking at the Settlement is that it involves some payment for the digital use of our books. That has to be a good thing, surely? Google claims to be building a digital library, so in future we might well look upon these payments with the same kind of gratitude as we do our share of the Public Lending Right for printed versions of our books. So I have broken a personal rule, and this time I did not tick the box. I “opted in”.

To me, you see, the Google Book Settlement is not about the stealing of copyright. It is about libraries. Since the advent of the written word, there have been libraries to collect and store knowledge. From the Great Library of Alexandria, to the British Library in London and other national libraries around the world, to the humble library in your local town, these are places where books in various formats are kept safe and loved. Whether these books are ancient scrolls, paper pages between glossy covers, or digital versions of our words, the important thing is that they are made available to the public because - correct me if I'm wrong - that is the whole point of publishing them in the first place. If our words are to survive the centuries, we NEED our books stored in more than one place, and preferably stored in more than one format.

The key word in the Settlement is “non exclusive”. Google won’t be the only digital library in the digital age, and nor should it be. Some of these libraries might choose to make their collections free to the public; others might charge a fee. But as long as systems exist, like PLR, to reward the creators of such works fairly for their efforts I don’t see the problem. The real issue seems to be setting up such a fair system in the first place, and that seems to rest in the hands of one man, Judge Denny Chin, who will preside over the fairness hearing in New York on 7th October.

I just hope I won’t regret not ticking that box!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Greedy for Summer to last (and Summertime with JM Coetzee) - Dianne Hofmeyr

After Meg’s really superb piece yesterday and all the responses, this seems frivolous but it’s the week-end!
In a recent SAS newsletter there was some good advice on what to do when rejected. For me it’s cooking. Banging pots and pans about, rocking a sharp mezzaluna blade against a tender stalk of celery, stabbing a tomato, hissing through a fennel bulb with a Japanese Global knife, are little acts of retribution. Cooking is something I turn to in all times of writing crises – at the first sign of a deadline or the smallest glitch in a plot.

But I have to confess to cooking because basically I’m greedy. And right now with the leaves swirling down, I’m greedy for summer to last.

I’ve taken Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle quite literally this summer and without the hassle of Ryanair have been living a life of the Italian countryside… in London. I’ve shopped at my local Farmers Market in Bute Street every Saturday (even taking back egg-boxes) and have come home laden with enough produce to feed the Titanic.
It was the sight of the zucchini fiori that got me started… those furled globes waiting to be filled with ricotta and basil. Somewhere in the 70’s Shirley Conran wrote in Superwoman that life’s too short to stuff a mushroom. Well life’s too short, NOT to stuff a zucchini fiori and dip it in egg and Japanese breadcrumbs and fry till golden. And then there are the heaps of different sized and shaped tomatoes… some for roasting, some for salad, some for gazpacho… that fill my basket because we all know the same tomato can't be used for everything!

Right now it’s the turn of tiny plums straight from English orchards tasting of almonds and the late summer figs, still holding their sweetness. Except figs aren’t too eco-friendly because of airmiles. But I’ve marked the fig trees around the streets of Kensington and Chelsea. They’re laden with tiny, green goblets and I’m watching them just as possessively as I’m watching the olives on my single olive tree growing in a pot on my terrace. Figs on hot toast is not far off!

I have ‘wood-fire oven’ envy of anyone who’s built their own…Lucy Coats. There’s nothing better than slow-roasted chicken done on a bed of red peppers and vegetables in a wood-fired oven. Perhaps I might be converting a corner of my tiny terrace?

Now I’m heading off to the kitchen to bake biscotti. But I do on occasion write and even read, so on a bookish endnote, taking Anne Cassidy’s (sorry Anne couldn't find your exact blog on this) remark to heart that we should be physically putting books into the hands of others, here are some I’ve read this summer:
For some summer reading light enough to travel with - here's a book list of my recommendations on

Friday, 4 September 2009

It's a violent world - get used to it! by Meg Harper

Tonight I've been reading Gillian's excellent post about knife crime, hot on the heels of the horribly disturbing report about the two brothers who attacked two other boys, hitting one on the head with a sink, forcing them to commit sexual acts and leaving one so battered he was unconscious. Last week I was at the Edinburgh Fringe watching a profoundly moving piece of theatre entitled 'In a thousand pieces' about sex traffiking – girls lured into thinking they will be moving to education and a better life and ending up being carted from British city to British city where they are raped 50 times a day and never see the outside world. As a volunteer school counselor in an inner city school, I have heard stories not so disturbing that they'd hit the Misery bookshelves, but far too violent and unpleasant to be accepted by a YA publisher. One of my own sons has been mugged twice. At the weekend I was at the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival, listening to a talk about the myth of redemptive violence in Disney movies – time and again we see the only solution to the bad guy being to kill him or her. You worry about violent video games? Saturation in violence starts much younger than that – aren't you worried about that? That was the question being raised.

'But,' said a teenage voice from the floor, 'it's kill or be killed.'

'It's a violent world,' said another young man. 'You've got to get used to it – the sooner the better. Then it's not such a shock later.'

I got chatting to the latter young man on the way out. 'You really think that, do you?' I said. 'That it's a violent world – get used to it?'

'Yeh,' he said. 'There's nothing you can do – you've just got to get on with it. It's human nature.'

'But,' said a friend who was with me (a published poet incidently!) 'so's adultery. Should we just get used to that too?'

'Yeh,' said the young man. 'You might as well.'

On the other hand, I had a youth theatre parent complaining about the use of the word 'bastard' in a YT play being created by 12-14 year olds because she didn't want her daughter to grow up too soon- and I'm sure the editors I've met would be on her side.

I find all this profoundly depressing and I'm sure we all ask ourselves about our role as writers here – observers, moral guardians, activists, entertainers? But my other question is where are the books that reflect this world? I haven't read 'Crossing the Line' but it sounds like it does. Bali Rae's books do I think and possibly Kevin Brooks' and Keith Grey's – but there aren't many. When I suggested a series of books about a gang of young kids, such as those who kick around our estate, unsupervised and at hours of the night abhorrent to parents who are doing bedtime routines which end in a story and a kiss, my agent just laughed. No publisher would publish them because it is middle-class parents and librarians who buy books and they wouldn't want young children reading about dodgy street gangs, apparently. So we all end up reading about a very nice world inhabited by remarkably nice people to whom nothing terribly beastly ever happens – or we read fantasy. Sorry – is there a difference? Isn't it all fantasy?

I haven't met many editors but inevitably they've all been very well- educated and have been well and truly middle class. (They've all been stick-thin too, which is very annoying seeing as they have a sedentary lifestyle!) Most of them have been young and haven't had children. A significant number seem to be products of independent rather than state education. Do they know what it's like to be a kid growing up in today's violent world? I only have the vaguest of insights myself, despite having 4 teenagers and despite spending a large part of my working life working with young people. And we wonder why such a minority reads books.

It's great that 'Crossing the Line' is out there. But where are the books for younger children reflecting our modern world? Is there a raft of books that I have missed? Who is going to publish them? Supposing they are published, which librarians will stock them and which teachers will be bold enough to read them to their classes? And, most importantly, who is going to write them?

One of the endless conundrums of fiction. Do we read it to escape reality – or to embrace it? Do our readers want time away from their lives – or the reassurance that others have been there too?

PS. Sorry there's no picture! My computer died today and I'm using my husband's - and he doesn't have photos of me!!!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

A Room All Of My Very Own - Elen Caldecott

A huge and momentous thing is happening on Monday. I am uber excited. Imagine a child who is spending Christmas in Disneyland with Zack Efron and Dr Who. I am that excited.

On Monday, we are moving house. I should say, rather, that we are moving flats. We are moving exactly two doors away. However – and this is the good bit – instead of living in a one-bed flat, we will have A Second Room. A Writing Room, no less! I loved John’s shed idea earlier this year. But I would have settled for a door that closed to write behind.

And now, I’m getting one!

So far, I have written four novels in my one-bed flat. I write at the dining table (which is, in fact, the only table); while people cook a few feet away; while the Champions League plays over my right shoulder; while the washing-up glares at me from the sink. Whoever invented open-plan living was painfully and abnormally attached to their family, imo. Here is the view from my table:

Did you spot the washing-up being glarey? It is, oh, it is.

I read Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager. I scoffed at it. There was a lot of the bolshy about me in those years. I thought I would be immediately successful and rich as soon as I left school. I thought the whole ‘room of one’s own’ thing was a bit whiney. Ha! I could happily give my younger self a stern talking to (not that she would listen, she’s bolshy, you see). It is hard, trying to produce good work in a bad space. Especially if it is chores getting in your way. I hear myself say things like, “I must finish Chapter 14, but only after I’ve put the rubbish out,” or “That character needs a lot of work, but then, so does the bathroom floor.” Being able to see all the mess and all the jobs needing to be done really intrudes. Like Catholic guilt, but about housekeeping.

But on Monday, all that changes.
There is a small part of me that worries – what if I can only write while the world and his dog are there? What if closing the door on the world sends me into tailspin? What if I need clamour and clatter and chaos to write?

I guess in that case, I just have to pick up my lap-top and go back to the dining table. And we can have a guest bedroom instead!

Now, you must excuse me, I have some packing to do!
Elen's Facebook Page

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Past the point of the blade: Gillian Philip

You could have knocked me down with a very small feather. (Fortunately I was sitting down at the time.)

I had my first ever Edinburgh Book Festival event this year, and I loved every minute, even the fear and trembling in the yurt beforehand (none of which was necessary, since my audience was terrific).

So there I was signing books after the event, and a friendly teacher told me she knew of schools that won’t have my novel Crossing The Line on the premises, because it ‘encourages knife crime.’


Now, I think there’s a lot to be said for the unofficial ‘filtering’ system that exists for children’s and young adult fiction. I was asked to write a piece just the other day on a nearby topic, namely the constraints on sex and profanity in YA books. And on the whole, I think this one of the (many!) areas where YA writing actually has the advantage on adult writing.

I’ve lost count of the adult books I’ve read where the curse-count becomes yawnsome (and believe me, I’m not averse to some choice language myself). Or where a profanity sounds awkward and giggle-inducing in a character’s mouth, like that buttock-clenching bit at Live 8 when Madonna tried to be Bob Geldof.

And when it comes to book sex, we’ve all bumped into those explicit episodes where you get the feeling the author was asked to up the word count (and again, I’m not averse to a sex scene. Mind you, I don’t think there’s a single profanity that should be banned, but the word ‘manhood’ definitely should. It always makes me imagine it’s wearing a little cape.)

Writers for children and teenagers always have to have, in the back of their mind, the limits of what their publisher will accept – and beyond them, the teachers, parents and librarians who often buy or recommend this fiction. That’s a good thing. I do believe we have to take particular care in our writing.

(And then I read this in Tuesday’s Guardian online: ‘Alison Waller, senior lecturer at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature at Roehampton University, says: "As a children's writer, Anne Fine has a very strong sense of a pastoral obligation to her readers... But many writers for children and young people don't feel like that. They believe they should just write what they want and leave it up to the reader to interpret."’ Hmm. Perhaps Alison Waller has been misquoted? Because if not, that’s an astonishing, unfair and inaccurate assertion. But I digress, and maybe Ms Waller's reported statement doesn't deserve the digression.)

When you meet a choice bit of swearing in a YA book, or some underage sex, you know that thought and care has gone into that moment. We don’t chuck this stuff around lightly. And the same applies to violence.

I have some violence in my books, and that includes descriptions of how violence feels for the perpetrator. To avoid the kick of brutality, to pretend it doesn’t exist, is not only to patronise your audience, it’s to lie about humanity and how we got here.

What you do, then, when you’re a YA writer, is you follow it up. You follow your line of sight past the point of the blade and you take a hard look at what came next. For everyone.

I think hard about every blow. I don’t wallow in violence-porn; I’m not an ‘adult’ writer. But YA writers don’t give moral lectures, either. We look at the evil that men and women do – even the young ones – and what comes after. And personally speaking, I look for some hope.

So given the thought that goes into our work, is it honestly too much to expect that the gatekeepers – much as we appreciate and value them – take a moment to read a book before they denounce it?