Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Secret of Comedy - John Dougherty

Tempting as it is to press the enter key 20 times and then type ‘timing’, I’m not going to. Nor, to be fair, am I going to reveal the secret of all comedy. If I knew that, then instead of sitting at my computer typing I’d be relaxing by a sun-soaked lagoon with my wife, our children, and their incredibly expensive home-schooling experts, while the butler serves us the appropriate meal for whichever time zone I’d eventually have settled for.

Rather, I want to do some musing about the art of writing funny books for children. And it is an art - and a craft, too. I do get the impression that there are some people who think it’s easy; and reading some of the “funny” children’s books currently on the market, I can see why. But then, looking at some of the “comedy” written or broadcast for adults, I could see why anyone might think that’s easy, too; and it’s not. Quite clearly it’s not, or the overall standard would be a lot higher.

Oooh, I’m sounding like a grumpy old man today. Sorry. And I hope nobody thinks I’m saying all, or even most, funny books for kids aren’t funny, because I’m not. But there are some right shockers out there.

In my opinion. And there, of course, lies the first secret of comedy: finding the right audience. Because - up to a point, at least - comedy really is a matter of both taste and perspective. I loved The Office partly because it seemed to me horribly close to drama-documentary; I’ve known people with as little self-awareness as David Brent. My parents-in-law hated it because, whilst accepting that comedy needs to stretch the boundaries of believability a little, they felt The Office snapped those boundaries in two and then jumped on the pieces. Our different experiences mediated different understandings of the humour. Similarly, I suppose, there are jokes about DOS that computer technicians would find hilarious but that I wouldn’t get at all. So to write a successfully funny children’s book, firstly, you need to have an idea that’s sufficiently recognisable to enough children to make it work.

Once you’ve got that idea, what marks out, say, the Andy Stantons from the just-not-funnies? What’s the difference? For one answer, I might go back to Gillian Philip’s piece on Pixar’s Up, and say as she does: it’s the story that matters.

A month or so back, I was on a panel with Andy Stanton, Kaye Umansky and Anthony McGowan (Anthony: get yourself a website, man, for goodness’ sake!), and among the many excellent points that were made was one I found intriguing: the jokes cut across the grain of the story. In other words, you’ve got a story going along in one direction, with jokes interrupting it by taking the reader’s mind off in another. I think there are exceptions, but this strikes me as being largely true, and if you look at Andy’s Mr Gum books - quite probably the funniest children’s books of the current crop - you’ll see this happening in spades. In fact, the interruption itself often becomes the joke, or amplifies it. Yet there is a story, and recognisable characters, and however silly and tangential the jokes - and however much they interrupt - they never actually stop the flow of the story.

Put another way, there’s a delicate balance between story and jokes. It doesn’t have to be the same balance for each story - some funny books have lots of jokes and not much story; others have lots of story and not many jokes - but as long as the balance exists, as long as the tension between narrative and silliness is in some way maintained without detriment to either - the reader will be satisfied.

By contrast, I’m currently reading a massive whopper of a book - which I shan’t name - with my nine-year-old son, which doesn’t actually seem to have any story at all. There are a lot of silly situations, but no discernible plot. A detail which appears to be absolutely central in the first couple of chapters suddenly ceases to have any bearing on matters. Characters - apparently major characters - disappear without warning, and then wander back three quarters of the book later, or behave without any particular consistency and without living up to the reputations other characters ascribe to them. Situations are set up solely for single, not terribly amusing, jokes. “Funny” things happen and almost immediately suffer deus ex machina reversals so that the next thing can happen. We’ve been reading it together, a bit at a time, for days if not weeks, and I just want it to be over.

Yet... googling it, I can’t find a single review which doesn’t proclaim it to be comedy genius. And to be fair, my son, while not laughing out loud or even cracking a smile much of the time, claims to be enjoying it. So maybe it’s me who’s out of step. And maybe, when it comes down to it, personal taste is the most important factor.

Oh - and timing.

Thanks, by the way, to everyone who sent good wishes for my Punning Dad’s birthday - he had a great day. And just to keep you all informed of how the next generation of punsters is coming along: for reasons too tedious to explain, my wife’s computer is currently living on the dining table. And last night, while we were eating, I asked Punning Son (9) to be careful, thus:
“Don’t get chilli on Mummy’s Mac.”

To which he replied:

“She doesn’t mind getting rain on her mac."
[Perfectly timed beat]
"And rain’s chilly.”

A double pun! That’s my boy.

John’s website is at

His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom (Young Corgi 2009; ISBN 978-0552558051).

And when this goes online he'll be in Germany without internet access, so if you ask him a question about this post and he doesn't answer, he's not being rude, okay?

Friday, 30 October 2009

Facts, Fictions, Dreams & Wishes : Penny Dolan

See this picture? It’s the cover for The Third Elephant, beautifully and atmospherically created by artist Helen Craig, and shows a small carved wooden elephant, who lives on a high shelf in a forgotten room with two grumpy older elephants and a wise grey mouse for occasional company.

The one thing he loves, the one thing that gives him joy and hope, is “a miniature marble palace, whiter than the moonlight that flickered around it. Elegant minarets graced each corner, and the beautiful dome was tipped with gold. It was a palace fit for dreams.” You can see that in the picture too.

But, with the house due for demolition, the room is suddenly stripped of everything, even the beloved palace. That night,“he thought about what the mouse had told him: wish for what you want, wish for what you dream about. “I wish,” he thought, as hard as he could, ”I wish I could see the white palace again.” The moonlight flickered around the room like secret laughter.”

Thrown from the window, he goes on to adventures where he helps three young people as much as they help him. Eventually the small third elephant does get his wish, although it isn’t exactly the miniature white palace. It is more than the miniature model. What the Third Elephant eventually sees is the famous building itself.
Hey! Going a bit heavy on the book promotion here, aren’t you, Penny? That’s perhaps what you’re wondering? No, it’s not that. I’m talking about past and present matching up.

You see, long ago, that miniature white palace really did exist. It was kept in my grandmother’s best room, with other objects from India where she’d lived as army child, wife and mother. Little myself, I would creep into that room when Nanna Rose was too busy to notice and tell me off. Then I would stare at the palace and daydream, because the room felt full of untold stories. My quiet grandmother never ever spoke about her life in India. Was that from sadness, loss, grief, regret, relief? I never knew and by the time I should have been bold and asked, both she and the room had gone.

Years later, when that lost white palace re-appeared in a short scribbled exercise, I seized it, although the writing soon became tough going. I had to know enough to ground my story. So for ages I researched fiction and non-fiction, websites, maps, films, videos, interviews and more. I picked up oddments of information and wove them into a vast nest until the words were so many that the whole thing seemed about to topple over. I hid the wretched weighty unreadable mess away.

Time passed, and then I saw a charming brass statue in a shop: Ganesh! He who makes impossible things possible. He who, with his helpful tusk, is god of writing. Ganesh with his kindly elephant head. It seemed a sign.

I had a few strong words with myself, went home, hauled out that unwieldy manuscript and began again at the beginning. I discarded anything that didn’t help the wooden elephant’s story, or that of Sara, Nita or Jack. A year or so later, The Third Elephant was published, and some people and children read it and liked it. One or two loved it.

I loved it too, although my finances and circumstances had been way too tight for any travel or first hand researching. I slightly regretted that I had made my story largely from dreams and illusions.

However, something wonderful is happening. I have a friend. She is living in India for a while. So, just after my next ABBA post, I will be off on my own small adventure, though I will be too excited to write about all this sensibly by then.

You see, even though it is long past the making of the book, just like the Third Elephant, I will be on my way towards the “beautiful white palace”. At long last, I’m getting my wish, and seeing the Taj Mahal for myself.

Wonder what objects have long inspired your dreams?


Thursday, 29 October 2009

What it's all about

This will be a very short post, I'm afraid, and probably unusually illiterate, but please bear with me.

I have had a truly terrible week, with immense family trauma. In the dark times, when I was on my own (which was often) I turned to books as a way of making sense of what was happening, or of finding a way to cope with it. I don't mean making sense of events in seeing that there is a greater purpose, or finding spiritual solace in belief. I mean finding their place in the great jigsaw of human experience, discovering where they click with the experiences of others over the past few millennia. And so while the world seemed to be crumbling around me, I read Pearl and In Memoriam and thought about Schopenhauer and dug words of Ben Jonson out of my memory, and found there something to cling to while the tempest raged.

It is not a comfort, really, to see the sufferings of others. We would be the poorer culturally if Hallam had not died young, but we cannot wish his death on Tennyson (or himself) to enrich our later lives. It is finding our experience articulated with clarity and compassion, having it validated and given form by recognition.

In the Middle Ages, people believed bears were born without form and licked into shape by their mothers (there was a good reason for this belief, don't diss my friends from the 12th century). I feel that in some sense our experiences are the same - the awful experience of the last week was a formless mass, all the more terrifying because it had no shape. But reading, and recalling texts read years ago, helps to give shape to the terror and to what had happened. Literature - or just stories, literary or not - helps us discern the shapes in our experiences, good or bad, and see their shadows in the recorded lives of others. And literature, going beyond stories and not always requiring fiction, gives comfort by showing that it is possible to find words to formulate the horror and through those words to reach out to others and be understood. We can borrow the words of great writers when we cannot find our own (how many of us have used a quotation as our Facebook status in extremis?).

Perhaps I could have found something of value by looking online for support groups, and connected with other living people going through something similar, but it was not where I turned. I did not want the rawness of other people's current experience, but the recollection of emotion in tranquility that proves that even the most terrible of things is susceptible to contemplation, to articulation, to being polished into something which can be held in the hand and recognised. Things being beyond words is the most terrifying state for writers, and when life is unutterably bad, being able to find or borrow words for it means we're not just whirling in the void - there is something, hair-thin though it may be, to try to grasp.

And that is why I am glad I have a room full of books, a head full of books (even those I think I have forgotten) and know where to turn amongst my dead literary friends (as well as my live literary and non-literary friends) when chaos is come again. And it's why I think it is as important to give this to our children as it is to give them food and shelter and love. And it is, after all, why we write.

OK, it wasn't short after all.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Left Handed Writer - Katherine Roberts

I’m left handed and never learnt to touch type. So when I started writing fiction in the days before personal computers (not that long ago, honest!), I used to scribble my first drafts in pencil with my left hand. Since the left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain, which is meant to be responsible for creativity and intuition, this made perfect sense to me. I’d then type up my draft using an equal number of fingers on each hand (only about two fingers from each, but involving my right hand as much as my left). This resulted in an edited second draft, which I then worked on by hand until I had a final draft, which needed typing all over again. It made sense that I should start editing my words at the typewriter stage, since the right hand is controlled by the left side of the brain, which is meant to be responsible for linear reasoning and analysis – useful editing skills.

These days, for the sake of speed and convenience, I write my first drafts straight on the computer, missing out the left hand creation stage entirely. My right hand (and my analytical left brain) are therefore involved at a much earlier stage, which no doubt accounts for the amount of editing I feel compelled to do to the text as I type. There are also many more "drafts", since the text feels endlessly fluid. It works, but is this the most effective way to create? I still find it impossible to write poetry straight into the computer, and for a long time I could not write my first drafts in this way… it was almost as if my brain had to learn how to do it first. It would be interesting to do a survey to see how many creative writers of the past have been left handed. I’d also be interested to know if the right handed authors among you find your first drafts easier when typed straight on to the computer, rather than writing them in longhand? Because in theory you should do!

But writing a novel is not just a matter of scribbling a wonderfully creative first draft - the words still need to be worked on to make them readable. So whatever hand you use to hold your pen it would seem that, with the right brain doing the creating and the left brain doing the editing, the most important thing for a writer is that both hemispheres of the brain should work well together. This ability to use both halves of the brain (sorry, blokes!) is supposed to be a female characteristic, as well as being helpful to the typist who uses both hands… so is writing a novel using a keyboard actually easier for a woman than for a man? There certainly seems to be a high proportion of female authors out there.

And what does all this mean for our children, who might never learn to write in longhand at all? Have computers trained our brains to work in a more efficient way and levelled the playing field so that more people now find it possible to write a novel? Or are they quietly destroying the unfettered creativity of the left handed writer? Perhaps returning to pencil and paper for my first drafts might not be such a bad idea, after all...

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

All this in Autumn in Urbisaglia, le Marche - Dianne Hofmeyr

Hilltop villages, winding roads, a shepherd sitting on a red blanket while his pecorino sheep browse, sunflower fields flattened to grids of black stalks and deeply ploughed raw umber earth bordered by silvery olive groves... this is Le Marche in autumn. Not picture postcard but with an earthy ruggedness.

I’ve just spent a week across the valley from Urbisaglia, a town at the crossroads between coast and interior where the Roman town of Urbs Salvia once existed. Its amphitheatre, still fairly intact, and the stones of its aquaduct, cisterns, baths, theatre and tombs all that remain of the colony that reached its height during the first half of the 1st century BC and was utterly destroyed by the Visigoths under Alaric in about 410 AD.

Walking the winding farm road down from our villa near Paterno, across the valley to Urbisaglia, with the vineyards in the distance catching the low sunlight and the spires and towers of far hilltop towns taking on the chalkiness of frescoes, stirs the writer in me and puts me in the mood to set a story based here. Fired up by Roman ruins I’m breathing in a sense of place.

But its another story I discover... too big to write... that completely overwhelms me.
The internment camp of Urbisaglia was one of the first to be established by the Ministry of the Interior in Italy in 1940. The first inmates were Italian Jews who were suspected of having anti-fascist sympathies. Soon after, other ‘refugees’ began arriving from outside Italy... from Germany, Austria, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Dalmatia.
In the peaceful surrounds of the Abbadia di Fiastra where 12 Cistercian monks still live, is the Villa Bandini – a huge Palazzo where the inmates were held. There were hundreds of beds on the floor and a large hall was used as a refectory but the building was still overcrowded. They were given access to the park and a small synogue was allowed to exist inside the building.

According to testimonies, the Jews were well accepted by the people of Urbisaglia. Many of the interns were merchants, painters and doctors, who spent their time helping with farm work or using their professions in some way amongst the locals.

Its hard to discover their true story. I’m relying on words translated from Italian. And its made more difficult to even imagine while walking in the sublime surroundings of the Abbadia, that apart from a few escapees, all of the people held here were finally transferred to extermination camps.

The following was written by the only survivor of Auschwitz from Urbisalglia’s internment camp, by a man named Paul Pollak:
Before my stay in Urbisaglia I was in a German concentration camp and after Urbisaglia, I was at Auschwitz where prisoners could talk to all Eurorpean countries, and was able to compare the fate and treatment of Jews in other countries. I always had this spirit in the camp of Urbisaglia. Humane treatment of its inmates will always receive full marks for Italy and a document of his noble ancient civilization and his sincere piety. In the hours and dark grey in Auschwitz, we have always seen in front of us, like a mirage, the bright garden of Urbisaglia in Italy, a country of sun and good people.’

Monday, 26 October 2009

Not quite what I expected! - Meg Harper

I am feeling that I am a very privileged writer. Not because I’ve bagged a big writing contract – not on your life. And not because I’ve been short-listed for any awards or even been sent a bundle of bookmarks by a publisher. But because today, at some god-forsaken hour before you begin to read this, I will be off back to the wilds of Bedfordshire for an open day of Queen Anne’s Summerhouse, a newly restored Landmark Trust property. I will be writer in residence, collecting local people’s reminiscences about the place, now that it is about to begin a new life as a holiday let. Earlier in the year, I worked with five Bedfordshire schools, exploring responses to the summerhouse through drama and literacy. When consulted by the Education Officer about ways to display the products of the art, drama and literacy workshops,I suggested – you’ve guessed it – that we made a book. And that, dear readers, is precisely what we have done. I hoped you could view a pdf of the book by following a link at the end - but am failing to get Blogger to accept it. If you're really keen, go to The Landmark Trust's Learning section, by the Queen Anne's Summerhouse project, scroll to the end of click on Schools Book! Tomorrow I'm going to ask about making it more easy to find!

To be honest, when I saw the pdf I went all weepy! I had a great time working with all the kids, some of whom very rarely if ever had trips out of town and I am very moved by the beauty of the resulting book. It feels like a really special thing to have been part of the team which has enabled children to be part of such a lovely project – and not something I ever expected when I decided to start writing for children. These days I am doing more work in schools and other contexts, helping other writers to write, than doing my own writing and I’m not quite getting the balance right! But I am not uncomfortable with it; it gladdens my spirit! It is subtly different from being the teacher. This sort of work is always an event, a special day – there is a buzz even when I’m turning up regularly at a school as a writer in residence. And so there should be. Writing is special. Books are special. If in a small way, I can help give children a sense of that by helping them to create quality writing of their own, then I am well-pleased.

Today will be a special day – it will be work like nothing I’ve done before – but that is one of the joys of being a writer. It certainly isn’t all slaving over a hot computer. Once I thought it would be and longed for it. Now I’ve discovered that it isn’t and I’m glad!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

LoveBooks (tm) - Elen Caldecott

We have just joined LoveFilm. For years, the ‘first month free’ leaflet has been ruthlessly recycled along with all the other junk mail. But this month, we thought ‘why not? Everyone else in the world seems to like it.’

For those of you who don’t know, the premise is straightforward. LoveFilm hold a huge catalogue of films; you keep a list of the ones you’re interested in. They send you one film from your list. You keep it until you’ve watched it, then return it. Repeat as necessary. So far, we have watched Waltz With Bashir and the first two episodes of Thick Of It.

What has this got to do with books?
It must have something to do with books, surely, this is a book blog after all.

It occurred to me that LoveBooks could be a grand idea, should any of the Dragons' Den crew be reading this just now. Think about it. You keep a list as long as your arm with your local library, add any titles who jib you find to be cut attractively. Maybe they are recommended by a friend, or you read a review in Books for Keeps, or maybe Mariella interviewed the author while you peeled spuds on a Sunday evening. When a library copy of the book comes free – and here’s the bit I like – the library send it to you. You keep it until you’ve finished, then post it back.
This scheme (I have it all planned out, you see) runs separate to your regular library card. You can still wander on up and load a shopping trolley full of Stephen King and Marian Keyes to your heart’s content. But, for the more difficult books, by new authors perhaps, or worthy prize winners, or ones that are just unlucky enough to have an ugly cover, LoveBooks could make it easier for you to take the plunge. After all, I work in a cinema that showed Waltz With Bashir for weeks and I didn’t go and see it. It was something to do with Middle Eastern Politics and an Oscar nomination that put me off, I am a bit of a chicken sometimes. I like romcoms, what can I say? It took someone posting me a copy to make me sit down and watch it. And I enjoyed it. Immensely.

Would I love this year’s Booker shortlist as much? I don’t know, I haven’t read any of them. But LoveBooks could put me right. I’d pay £3.91 a month for that. So, Theo Paphitis, if you’re reading this, get your people to ring my people and we’ll talk turkey (what on earth does that mean? Anyone know?).
Elen's Facebook Page

Friday, 23 October 2009

Once Upon a Dream: Gillian Philip

I was going to write about Nick Griffin but I like my villains to have some charisma and some cool and some smarts, so I’m going to stick with my original idea and talk about CGI animation.

One of my favourite spots on earth is the Drive-In movies in Barbados (and I know that sounds swanky, but I lived there for 12 years, so it’s just Aberdeen with more sun and no seasons, OK?) At the Drive-In the sun has set by the time you find a parking space; no matter how hot the day was, it’s a cool dusk, and kids are running around under the giant screen, and grown-ups are trying to coax them into silence with hot dogs, and the lights of jumbo jets are blinking toward the airport. And that moment when the first trailer flickers up, and the sky suddenly seems that little bit darker, is a real heart-thumper. The movie doesn’t always live up to that take-a-breath moment, but when it does...

Well, back in July I was there to see the latest Pixar movie ‘Up’. And it lived up to its Drive-In moment. For me, anyway. Not for the teenagers to my left, who didn’t get the point of the first immensely touching twenty minutes (or pretended they didn’t), and not for my husband, who didn’t see why it had to deviate thereafter into talking dogs and a large amusing bird. For me, though, it was a perfect balance. I loved it. Loved its story, its characters, its thrills, its philosophical ending. And I loved the sheer, spectacular visual beauty of it. CGI is an astonishing invention.

For some, animation has an undeserved image of frivolity and shallowness and juvenility – much like children’s fiction, then. You wouldn’t read it – oops, sorry, watch it – in public, or not if you don’t have a child in tow as an excuse. Proper Grown Ups Don’t Do Animation (just as they Don’t Do science fiction, fantasy, or graphic novels). So it was a lovely indulgence to watch the recent South Bank Show dedicated to Pixar animation.

It took five years to make ‘Up’, I discovered. I also discovered why it worked, why it lived up to its breath-drawing sunset Drive-In moment: three and a half of those years went on ‘the story’. ‘Story’ was what everyone emphasised in this documentary. Does a story resonate, asked one creative director? Because if not, there’s no point wasting devastatingly beautiful, state-of-the-art animation on it.

Pixar claimed they always wanted to do something new, something surprising, yet sheer novelty didn’t come across as the be-all-and-end-all. I suspect it used to be. A few years ago Disney (with whom Pixar were in partnership) announced they had given up traditional drawn animation for good. That funny one with the cows was going to be the last. The future lay in CGI, and nobody would want to watch old-style animated movies any more. Nobody (said Disney) would settle for the likes of, er... Beauty and the Beast, or Bambi...

Pixar, at least, must have had a change of heart, because their current work-in-progress is a traditional animation of a traditional fairy story, The Princess and The Frog. A story, you note: not a series of pratfalls with contemporary jokes to make a movie tolerable for the parents.

‘It’s about the audience,’ said John Lasseter. ‘The look on their faces.’

On the South Bank Show Pixar were keen (certainly in retrospect) to emphasise that computers were originally an aid to hand-drawn animation, nothing more – another toy in the storytelling toybox. I don’t think they’d deny, though, that for some studios CGI special effects stopped being a toy in the toybox, and became the whole point. For every Toy Story movie, for every Nemo or Monsters Inc., there came a Chicken Little, or an Over The Hedge, or, God help us, an Ice Age 2. It’s still going on, but as the novelty fades, Story is increasingly back on the storyboard.

As a writer (yes, I got there) I plan to keep Pixar’s experience in mind. There’s a temptation to get hung up on finding something new, something spectacular, some clever new toy in the toybox. (Or, conversely, to do the same as last year, if that worked.)

Note to self: it’s the story that matters. And it’s the audience. The look on their faces.

I can’t resist returning, briefly, to last night’s Question Time. Interesting that one of the later questions was about Jan Moir’s odious little Daily Mail column on the death of Stephen Gately. The consensus was that its publication was a Good Thing – not just because of the principle of free speech, but because we got to see those opinions laid out in the cold hard light, and because the (unorchestrated) reactions were so overwhelmingly against her. Of course, the same could be said of last night’s Question Time and its controversial guest.

I think the BBC were right to invite him, for the same reasons. Anyway, tolerant liberal democracy is nothing to be complacent about. It will always, always have to justify itself and argue its case. It ought to do it more often.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

What's a book anyway? Er, a book - Nicola Morgan

What is a book? I just read an interesting article here. Well, maybe not an article, but a list. After all, what's an article? It's the Eleven Axioms of 21st-Century Book Publishing.

It's a list of challenging observations about the future of books. Or it thinks it is. It is designed to question our assumptions about what a book is. In fact, look at the first comment:
As I read these, I find that the word "book" seems out of place. Maybe we need to find another name for written works in the 21st century.
But why? Did we need a new word for books when audio books came along? Did we need a new word for story when stories became written instead of sung or told to a rapt audience in front of the fire?

(By the way, for the record, I found the list interesting and many aspects of it I agreed with, along with many of the comments. But.)

I'm delighted about the rise of ebooks, as new ways to deliver our words to readers. But I don't find the need to call them something different from books. Just as a paperback book is a format, so is an ebook.

In my view there's an artificial argument brewing. Aren't we all just writers? Don't we all simply try to put the best possible words in the best possible order, and who the hell cares whether those words are delivered by paper, screen, bard, or pigeon?

As long, of course, as we get paid ...

If this seems like an unusually short post for me, that's because ten minutes ago Anne reminded me that I had forgotten to do my thing. I'd not even thought about it because I thought it wasn't until the 26th. I'm quite proud of myself for delivering this so quickly but will probably be less proud when you all wade in and tell me I'm talking rubbish.

Still, at least I've not written it in a book...

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Heidi Revisited by Leslie Wilson

I’ve just read ‘Heidi’ in German for the first time ever, which is odd, considering my bilingual state! As a child, I had a delightfully-illustrated English translation, long gone, alas, how I’d like to see some of those pictures again.
However, this blog is not about the pleasures of reading it in the original – I’d been hoping for Swiss dialect, and was disappointed. It did engage me, though. I loved, once again, the description of the child’s arrival at the Alm, of the grandfather’s care for her, of the high mountain pastures and the goats – all described so vividly, I could feel the wind, smell the flowers, see the blue sky. The goats were engaging, too, especially since I’ve been accompanying my small grandson to various city farms, where I’ve seen how nice they can be with children.
Then I got to the bit where aunt Dete comes back and takes her niece, willy-nilly, off to Frankfurt, where she is to be a companion to little disabled Klara. It was at that point that the adult in me woke up and raged. Heidi is acquired by the Sesemanns as a cat or a dog might be, and when she proves not to be the docile animal the housekeeper had expected, she’s bullied and abused by this female, accused of ingratitude when she feels homesick, forced to repress all her grief. The picture of her, sitting in her room all by herself, desperately trying not to cry for fear someone might hear her, is utterly heart-rending. And her ‘pranks’ – such as trying to find a tower she can see the countryside from, or bringing home kittens – are distorted into proof of insanity or an evil nature by the housekeeper. She has friends in the house, the butler Sebastian, Klara herself, but they can't really help Heidi because what she needs most of all is not to be in Frankfurt. Of course then the good grandmother comes and tells her to confide all her unspoken troubles to God, and when God doesn’t give her what she wants, tells her she must go on praying because God will give her what she asks for only if it’s good for her. Meanwhile the child stops eating and wastes away almost unnoticed, and if she hadn’t started sleepwalking, would presumably have died before it occurred to Fräulein Rottenmeier to concern herself about her well-being.
Leaving aside the rest of the story, and the rather gruesome abject piety, what struck me most was this narrative about poverty, and the way the poor are exploited by the wealthy. It made me think of the unfortunate ‘Swabian children’, the children of desperately needy peasants in the high Alps, both Swiss and Tyrolean, who were taken in droves to southern Germany and offered to farmers at so called ‘child markets’. This was the time when mountain people often lived on nothing but polenta, when a piece of bread was absolute luxury to the children. Concerned contemporary commentators described the 'child markets' as slave markets, and the children were worked like slaves, paid virtually nothing, and frequently abused- but their parents were spared the expense of feeding them. Like Heidi, they must have to repress their desperate homesickness. Nobody cared, anyway, they were another kind of domestic animal, probably worse fed than the oxen and the pigs. I do wonder whether Spyri had their plight in mind – though her own story of depression, an abusive husband, and docile acceptance of her lot, seeking help only from God, has clearly also fed into these parts of the novel.
Heidi is of course luckier than the 'Swabian children' – she gets back home, her rich pet-owners turn into rich patrons and assure her grandfather that they will always look after her, so she will never have to go out and earn her bread among strangers. The other family on the mountainside, goat-herd Peter, his mother and grandmother, also get some trickle-down effect from her good fortune, a bed and warm clothes for the grandmother, and a lifetime’s pocket-money for Peter. Luckier, too, than her creator, who only had a few years to enjoy independence and the friendship of other writers after her husband died. Her son predeceased her, too.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Lost The Plot? I Never Had One Karen Ball

I have a guilty secret. I’m not sure I know how to plot. Oh yes, I know all about peaks and troughs, cliffhangers, release of tension, resolution. In my day job as an editor, I liaise with writers about how to negotiate all of these. But when it comes to my own writing? I know there are books you can buy on plotting and graphs you can draw. I meet people who talk in low, reverent tones about the ‘three act structure’. I know all the theory. I know, I know, I know! And yet, I don’t. I struggle to storyline a manuscript before I begin writing. I enjoy the ‘eureka!’ moments of hitting on a solution whilst cleaning my teeth, the slow development of an idea from rough outline to sharply focussed manuscript. But the fact still remains that I have two unanswered questions in my life: When will I feel like a grown-up? and Will I ever know how to plot?
We all know the fear of a publishers’ party – surrounded by other, more glamorous creatures who brim with confidence, beauty and the satisfaction of a successful career. I hover on the outskirts, wondering if these people… Well. Where did they buy their accessories and do they know how to plot?
I tell myself I should stop worrying; that plotting is a process, just like all the other processes I don’t analyse. Characterisation, setting, narrative tone, word counts... And yet it all comes back to plot, doesn’t it? If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.
I’ve started to see plot as a question. The constant question: Why? Every time I hit a stumbling point I hear a voice in my head. ‘Why?’ It’s a really good test of how to move forward. If I find myself saying, in manner of harassed parent, ‘Because I said so!’ – something is wrong. Seriously wrong. There’s no room for harassed parents when it comes to plotting. Plot is logic. Quick logic. It’s getting from A to B to C in the most interesting but logical way possible. I’m sure it’s lots of other things, too, but I’m still learning. I know it’s about keeping readers with me and I know that it’s probably not about them pausing and asking, ‘Erm. Why?’
Perhaps when I discover the secret to plotting, I’ll finally feel like a grown-up. And then I might stop taking silly pictures of myself.
Any other guilty secrets out there? Or advice about plotting?
Visit my website at

Monday, 19 October 2009

The costly muse - Michelle Lovric

We got our cat, Rose la Touche of Harristown Morrison-Lovric, from a charity.

For free.

And ever since then she has cost us a fortune.

Chasing a moth, she smashed an antique turtle skeleton, necessitating £400 repair work.

Wanting attention, she jumped on my computer screen, leaving a paw-shaped fissure in the middle. Cost of new computer: £1427.

Ejecting a furball into the bed: I threw my new £300 glasses into the washing machine along with all the bedding. They came out in a rain of glass splinters followed by what looked like a small bicycle that had been stomped by King Kong.
Impaling herself on a nail in the beams, she fell, smashing a leg. Vet bills: £400 and counting. Trauma to us and lacerations to vet: both unhealed.

Rose la Touche has also savaged my mother-in-law (value of subsequent dramarama: incalculable). She has bitten three of my editors over the years. She has performed malicious vomits with full sound-effects in front of honoured visitors. She has cost us many nights’ sleep as she ranged the house, howling to break your heart.

But I forgive her, because there’s one job my cat does with Swiss precision: that of muse.
1. She stops me from leaving the house on distracting, non-writing errands, by following me to the door with a reproachful look. There have been times when I have put down the shopping bag and sloped back to my desk.
2. As long as I keep working, she sits on the back of my chair purring, nuzzling and generally reinforcing the work ethic. Illustrated is the gaze she gives anyone coming to distract me with a cup of tea or a bit of gossip. The look and the accompanying silent miaow eloquently suggest that the visitor takes himself and his business to another rift in the space-time continuum, preferably a deep one. Few pass.
3. She always answers enthusiastically when I consult her on a plot or character question. (It goes like this:
WRITER: ‘Do you think the mermaids should fancy Signor Alicamoussa?’
CAT: ‘Yes! I fancy a cuddle.’
WRITER: ‘How shall Teo help Renzo when he’s imprisoned in Newgate?’
CAT: ‘Food would certainly help. Chicken breast? Now?’)
4. She hates me chatting on the telephone, and squalls until I put the receiver down and get back to work.
Muse or dominatrix? I don’t know. But it works for me.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Value of Fantasy and Mythical Thinking - Katherine Langrish

Myths (so runs the myth) belong to past ages, when people were naïve enough to believe in them. Today, in scientific modern times, we’ve put away such childish things. So why bother with fantasy? Isn’t it just puerile escapism? Even children are expected to grow out of myths and fairytales, and surely any adult found reading or writing the stuff cannot expect to be taken seriously? Can fantasy really have anything meaningful to say?

These are interesting questions. Bear with me as I try to answer them in what may seem a round-about way. I’ll begin with an even bigger question:

What makes us human?

The answers to this one keep being refined. A special creation in the image of God – for centuries a popular and satisfying answer? Difficult to sustain as it became clear that we’re only one twig on the great branching tree of evolution. Language? Perhaps, but the more we study other animals and birds, the more we realise many of them communicate in quite sophisticated ways. Toolmaking? Not that distinctive, as chimpanzees and a variety of other animals employ twigs and stones as tools. Art? It depends what you mean by ‘art’ – if you think of bower-birds designing pretty nests to attract their mates, it seems clear that some animals do have an aesthetic capacity. So are we different from other animals at all?

Common sense says yes – at the very least, we have taken all these capabilities incomparably further than other animals – but is that really the best we can do for a definition? What was the point at which our ancestors became recognisably ‘us’, and in what does that recognition rest?

Innovation is one answer – the development and bettering of tools. Homo habilis and homo heidelbergensis lived with one basic design of hand axe for about a million years. When, on the other hand, we see signs of people messing about and tinkering and trying out new ideas, we recognise ourselves.

Related to this is another answer: symbolic thinking. Maybe some of our closest relatives are partially capable of it – a chimpanzee can recognise a drawing or a photograph, which means nothing to a dog. But wild chimps don’t indulge in representational art. Sometime, somewhere, somebody realised that lines of ochre or charcoal drawn on stone or wood could stand for a horse or a deer or an aurochs. That in itself is an amazing leap of cognition. On top of that, however, there had to be some fascination in the discovery, some reason to keep on doing it – some inherent, achieved meaning that had nothing directly to do with physical survival. What? Why?

Somewhere along the line, human beings became sufficiently self-aware to be troubled by death. When you truly understand that one day, you’ll die, the whole mystery of existence comes crashing down on you like the sky falling. Why are we here? What was before us? Where did we come from and where will we go?

The ‘mystery of existence’ is an artefact. We choose to ask an answerless question, and that question is at the core of our humanity. The before-and-after of life is a great darkness, and we build bonfires to keep it out, and warm ourselves and comfort ourselves. The bonfire is the bonfire of mythical thinking, of culture, stories, songs, music, poetry, religion, art. We don’t need it for our physical selves: homo heidelbergensis got on perfectly well without it: we need it for humanity’s supreme invention, the soul.

Karen Armstrong claims that religion is an art, and I agree with her. In her book ‘A Short History of Myth’ she examines the modern expectation that all truths shall be factually based. This is what religious fundamentalists and scientists like Richard Dawkins have, oddly, in common. A religious fundamentalist refuses to accept the theory of evolution because it appears to him or her to disprove the truth of Genesis, when what Genesis actually offers is not a factual but an emotional truth: a way of accounting for the existence of the world and the place of people in it with all their griefs and joys and sorrows. It’s – in other words – a story, a fantasy, a myth. It’s not trying to explain the world, like a scientist. It’s trying to reconcile us with the world. Early people were not naïve. The truth that you get from a story is different from the truth of a proven scientific fact.

Any work of art is a symbolic act. Any work of fiction is per se, a fantasy. In the broadest sense, you can see this must be so. They are all make-belief. Tolstoy’s Prince André and Tolkien’s Aragorn are equal in their non-existence. Realism in fiction is an illusion – just as representational art is a sleight of hand (and of the mind) that tricks us into believing lines and splashes of colour are ‘really’ horses or people or landscapes.

The question shouldn’t be ‘Is it true?’, because no story provides truth in the narrow factual sense. The questions to ask about any work of art should be like these: ‘Does it move me? Does it express something I always felt but didn’t know how to say? Has it given me something I never even knew I needed?’ As Karen Armstrong says, “Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever.” If that happens, you will know it. It makes no sense at all to ask, ‘Is it true?’

Fantasy still deserves to be taken seriously - read and written seriously - because there are things humanity needs to say that can only be said in symbols. Here’s the last verse of Bob Dylan’s song ‘The Gates of Eden’ (from ‘Bringing it All Back Home’):

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true:
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.

Visit Katherine's website

Friday, 16 October 2009

Breaking and Entering Anne Cassidy

Somebody tried to break into my house the night before last. My husband went into our dining room at just before seven in the morning and found the back door wide open and the bolt broken. It appears, the police said, that he (male?) stood outside the back door and just gave an almighty pull. The door opened. Three other houses were broken into as well.

He did not come into my house. Nothing was taken; there was no sign of any entry. We were lucky. We have two large dogs who sleep in the downstairs hallway and we think that the housebreaker must have heard them moving about. Maybe he thought our dogs were guard dogs and feared for his safety. Actually our dogs were more likely to overwhelm him and lick him to death.

My neighbours did have some stuff taken. Luckily no one stumbled upon this man and no one was hurt.

I am a crime writer and often give talks in schools. I start my talks by explaining that I don’t write these dark edgy stories from experience. I have, in fact, led a blessed life and have been lucky and it’s that good luck that makes me look on the dark side of life. When will be my turn? I think about this a lot.

The night before last it was my turn.

I should feel blessed because nothing was taken but part of me wonders, What if? What if he had entered my house? What if he had got past the dogs and come upstairs? What if my husband had got into a struggle with him? What if I had been alone?

Need I say more? My imagination settled in the corner of a dark place and stayed there all day.

The housebreaker didn’t steal anything from me except my feeling of security. Looking at it like that, he stole the most important thing I had.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

In Praise of Punning Dads - John Dougherty

Did you have a Punning Dad when you were a kid? I did. Still do, as a matter of fact. No pun is too poor, no wordplay too weak, no flippancy too feeble; if there’s a double meaning to be found, my dad will dig it out.

Of course, when you’re little, you don’t mind. In fact, it’s rather nice to know you can rely on your father to say something silly several times a day. Small children relish it, and it gets you extra points with your friends - especially the friends with Serious Dads.

But when you get older... well, it’s just embarrassing, isn’t it? You don’t know why; it just is. Even when nobody else is around. And, of course, you don’t realise that every other boy your age is now embarrassed by his dad. All you know is that your dad keeps making jokes that were funny when you were four but aren’t funny now. So it was with me; and so my dad spent the best part of a decade suffering enormous amounts of teenage eye-rolling and dramatic sighing as an accompaniment to every pun. But did it stop him? Did it heck.

And to be fair, even now that I’m forty-five (can I really be forty-five? Twenty-seven seems like only a few minutes ago!) a lot of my dad’s puns meet with a vestigial eye-roll and a bit of a groan. But today - for reasons that will become clear - seems like an appropriate day to reappraise the role of a Punning Dad in the life of a developing writer; or, at least, in the life of this developing writer.

You see, without my Punning Dad I wouldn’t have become a writer of comic fiction for children. In fact, I wouldn’t have become a writer at all.

What you don’t appreciate, when you’re growing up with a Punning Dad, is that knowing almost anything you say might be punned upon gives you an awareness of language that other kids don’t have. You become alert to the meanings of words, and to their possible reinterpretation; you become conscious that what you mean to say might not be what is heard by the hearer or read by the reader. You develop a growing understanding of the subtleties of language; of its shades and tones and twists and tricks. You grow to recognise its strengths and limitations, and to love it for what it can do. And all this happens without anyone sitting you down in a classroom, or writing on a blackboard, or reading from a textbook. All this happens because you have a dad who loves language, and who passes on that love to you, with love, in a way that a four-year-old can understand - by being silly and making you laugh.

My dad taught me to love language in many other ways, too; but it’s the punning that sticks in my head. And now he’s a Punning Grandad (or, since he lives in France, a Punning Pépé); and I in my turn have become a Punning Dad; and my children - still a few years away, I hope, from the eye-rolling and sighing and “Daaa-ad!”s - are learning in their turn to play with this marvellous toy, the English language, and to love its shades and tones and twists and tricks.

So: happy 80th birthday, Dad, with all my love. Thanks for all the puns - even the really bad ones - and thanks for the much greater gift they held, wrapped up in secret inside them.

John’s website is at

His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom (Young Corgi 2009; ISBN

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Women and Men - Sally Nicholls

Before you read this post, take a look at these statistics from women's writing magazine Mslexia:

authors of books published 1991 65% 36%
authors of books reviewed 1991 73% 24%
authors of reviews autumn 1991 77% 23%
authors of books reviewed autumn 1998 68% 32%
authors of reviews autumn 1998 73% 27%

and these:

Nobel Prize for literature (1902-1997) 96% 4%
Booker Prize short-list (1969-1995) 65% 35%
Booker Prize winners (1969-1998) 69% 31%
Betty Trask Award for romantic fiction winners (1984-1995) 62% 38%
Whitbread novel winners (1971-97) 67% 33%
TS Eliot Poetry Prize winners (1993-8) 100% 0%
Forward Poetry Prize winners (1992-8) 92% 8%
Whitbread poetry winners (1971-97) 90% 10%

Scary stuff, no? Other evidence in the article linked to above suggests women's work is likely to be underrated simply because it is written by a woman - in a study in which pieces of writing were given to readers to rate, identical pieces of writing were consistently rated higher if they had a male name attached to them.

But children's fiction is different. Isn't it? There certainly seem to be a lot more women floating around children's fiction - I don't have precise figures, but a glance at any children's writer's forum, conference, or organisation shows an overwhelming female predomince. Look at publisher's catalogues and you'll see the same phenomenon. "Oh yes," someone at my publisher (Scholastic) said when I asked about this. "Most of our authors are women, definitely."

Fantastic. (Though rather sad for all the male authors and readers). Or is it? "Of course," my source continued, "All our highest selling authors are male. Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, Terry Deary ..."

A look at children's prizes shows a similar female focus. The Branford Boase has been won by 70% women and 30% men and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize by 59% women and 41% men. Only the Carnegie Medal - considered by some to be the Children's Booker - strikes a discordant note, with 53% of medals awarded to women - still a majority, but a much smaller majority than the number of women writing for young people would suggest. Also the Children's Laureateship, which to date has been held by four men and two women, although the sample size is much too small to draw any conclusions from this.

I don't want this blog post to imply that I'm against men writing for children. I'm not. I think children need as wide a range of writing as possible, something that can only be provided if the are given writing by as wide a range of authors as possible; male, female, white, black, Asian, British, European, American, poets, scriptwriters, comedians, tragedians, whatever. I think male writers for young people should be encouraged. Nor do have a problem with any of the men chosen as Laureates or awarded Carnegie Medals. I think children's fiction is in a much better state than adult fiction, and has a lot to be proud of.

I just think it interesting that in an industry so dominated by women, with so many successful women writers, male writers are still disproportionately recognised at the highest levels.

I'm Just a Girl Who Can't say No

For those of you not au fait with Rodgers and Hammerstein's oeuvre, this young actor here is Gloria Grahame playing Ado(pronounced Aydo rather than ado) Annie off of Oklahoma, who sang the song and famously couldn't say No. Not a good attitude, some may say. But what can you do, if you want to avoid a proper job and still put food on the table, you have to be accommodating.
And being accommodating has led me down some very interesting paths. some of which include Albanian breakfast TV, learning to drive a horse and cart down Bethnal Green Road, a Barnardo's shelter for exploited teenagers and sharing the platform last week with a young Grime star and I don't mean Aggie off How Clean is Your House. Everytime he shifted in his seat the whole audience screamed. It was like a mini slice of Beatlemania.
I've had a lot of maybe jobs this summer too, work for film and TV which may, or may not come to anything. Some of the stories are wonderful, joyous things, one set in early seventies London; imagine a soundtrack that mixes Knock Three Times (yes, yes, I know, Tony Orlando and Dawn) and Pressure Drop by Toots and The Maytals, although not at the same time. The setting makes me think of my childhood, hot summers and a pre regeneration London which still had empty spaces, bomb sites, derelict factories and suburbia.
I would love to go back and write more of that one.
And then there's the audition piece I'm writing for a TV soap - hard work but strangely obsessive and resulting in a knowledge of whizzy surgical procedures.
And the meeting I went to yesterday about another project, I should have walked away, I should have said no.
But it sounded so interesting, and I'd learn so much about American prisons and Angela Davis. And of course there's the carrot of money. So my lovely girl in her high waisted frock and interesting headgear is sulking until I get back to the book. I will soon. Just as soon as I've finished in the 1970s.

So altogether now...........
I always say 'Come on Let's Go!' Just when I oughta say 'Nix.'

Catherine Johnson

Monday, 12 October 2009

Divided by a Common Language - Charlie Butler

One of the most exciting things to happen to me as a writer, apart from getting published in the first place, was hearing that my first book had been sold for publication in another country. In fact, The Darkling sold in two, which while hardly spectacular was still very pleasing. In Danish it appeared as Skyggen Masker (which means, I think, “Shadow Masks”). Being a monoglot I can’t comment on how well the translation was done, although a Danish friend of mine claims to have enjoyed the result. Either way, I was not involved in the process at all, and that seems to be fairly typical for translations into foreign languages.
On the other hand, I was involved in translating The Darkling into American English for the US edition – very much so. I was quite surprised how many changes were requested or required by my American publisher. Most of these were minor. Changing “paper round” to “paper route”, for example, caused me few qualms, and there were scores of “translations” into American at that level of inconsequence. But there were trickier issues, too. One central scene was set at a Bonfire Night firework display. Could I change the setting to something more familiar to US children, they asked? Er, not really. Or at least add a few lines to explain Guy Fawkes to a US readership? Oh, okay, then. I added a few lines.
And what about money? Would it be all right to change “50p” to “a dollar”? No, it wouldn’t! But why not, I asked myself? Admittedly, it would be odd for my English heroine to be using American currency, but not that much odder than having her tell her story in American English, surely? I’m not certain I ever sorted this out satisfactorily in my own mind. My rule of thumb, in so far as I had one, was to keep to a minimum those occasions when readers would be forced to notice my word choice, rather than the story that the words were there to tell. I wasn’t very happy about that, though: after all, as a writer I rather like readers to notice my word choices – and to admire them!
I recalled this experience the other day, after hearing from a colleague about the long-running battle in Translation Studies (yes, it is an academic subject) between “domesticators” and “foreignizers”. In brief, domesticating translators are happy to change texts to make them familiar and easily comprehensible to their audience, leaving readers with as little work to do as possible. Publishers of children’s books are domesticators by instinct – as too are Hollywood producers, with their long record of taking books set in Britain and relocating them to California, and the like. Foreignizing translators, by contrast, want their readers to be aware of the alien nature of what they’re reading, and to appreciate it. Part of the pleasure of reading a book from another culture lies precisely in learning about that culture and the ways in which it differs from one’s own, they argue. Publishers, unsurprisingly, tend to consider this a risky commercial strategy, unless the foreignness takes the form of a cliché that is itself familiar. Harry Potter’s Britishness was acceptable, and could even be turned into a selling point, because it played into a set of ideas about Britain that were already current in American popular culture. (On the other hand, some early readers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone were bemused to read that Harry was wearing a jumper – which in US-ese is a sleeveless dress. In later editions I believe this was changed to “sweater”.)
Publishers will perhaps claim that their domesticating approach makes commercial sense, and that readers who relish the alien will always be in a small minority. I’d love to counter that they’re wrong, that they’ve sadly underestimated the curiosity and open-mindedness of US children – but since I have no evidence other than a general-belief-cum-pious-hope that people will be open-minded if their minds haven’t already been glued shut, I can’t say it with absolute conviction.
What I do feel I can grump about unreservedly are those clumsy translations that seem stuck in mid-Atlantic – in which children talk about baseball but deal in pounds and pence, or take a Greyhound bus to Scotland. Such books (no names, no pack-drill) are not authentically foreign, since they depict a place that has never existed, but they’re no more comfortingly domestic than Frankenstein’s monster.
Of course, all this happens in the reverse direction, too – with American books ineptly rendered for the British market. But my impression is that British publishers expect children here to be fairly familiar with American life anyway. And with good reason: on UK television, for example, there are far more television dramas set in American high schools than in British secondary schools. But that’s a rant for another day.