Monday, 30 November 2009

Playing Devils's Advocate: N M Browne


In an earlier blog post there was the suggestion was that one of the aims of education might be to encourage children to love reading. Now I believe passionately that every child should be taught how to read, but that is about it. This is a dangerous thing to say here, but I’m not sure that people who love reading are actually that much use.
Now I am talking specifically about reading fiction here and not the great jewels of English literature either, because great writing and great thinking is always needed. A small number of precious books have changed the world and every child should have the chance to read them. However, if you walk into any of the (remaining) grand emporia of the written word the greater proportion of material on the shelves isn’t particularly great and I suppose it must be what most of us are reading ( if we are reading at all) or they would be in even worse trouble than they already are. This stuff is the OK stuff with which I have filled too many of my waking hours. The kindest thing that could be said about my writing taste is that it is eclectic.
I was a mal coordinated child, egotistical and narcissistic as all children are and not good at making friends. From the first time I managed to read for myself a whole sentence of story ( written by the much maligned Enid Blyton ) I was hooked as surely as if fiction were crack cocaine and story has been my addiction ever since. I read my way through my infant school, closeted in the book cupboard, I read my way through a whole year of maths in junior school and never did learn long division. I read through most of my adolescence, living only in a kind of lucid dream My children’s infancy were the years of sleep deprivation and door stop fantasy read against the background drone of Ringo Starr narrating ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. The sound of the theme tune even today induces instant catatonia and dreams of elves. How many conversations have I not had because I was lost in a book? How many times have I been absent when I ought to have been present? In fiction I could be anyone, do anything and what I could do in fiction I didn’t have to do in life. And there’s the rub. Why bother to change the world when you can read about other people doing it (and succeeding,) why bother to change yourself when in fiction you can be anyone you want to be?
My children quite like reading and that’s fine by me, I actively don’t want them to love it. I don’t want it to be for them what it has been for me, my addiction, my obsession, my crutch and my refuge. I want them to love living not reading about it.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Kids Lit Quiz Final by Marie-Louise Jensen

Apologies for a second post on this topic, but I’d written this before I saw Lucy’s piece. And it was my first Kid’s Lit Quiz event, so I wanted to give my impressions.

I was one of the many authors privileged to attend the final at Oxford town hall yesterday, to watch the final 15 teams battle it out for a place at the Edinburgh world final on the 14th of August.

The rounds of questions were very varied, ranging from mythology to super heroes, to contemporary fiction and back to classics. The teams guessed books from opening lines, pinpointed authors from details about their lives and identified characters from ancient Greek tales. Their knowledge was impressive and what was even more awesome was the speed at which they buzzed and gave their answers – often before my brain had even taken in what the question was. It was wonderful to see such a hall full of knowledgeable, well-read and quick thinking 10-13 year olds.

Each school had been allocated two authors from those present and had been in communication with us with email author questionnaires beforehand. It was exciting to cheer for the school I’d been in touch with (City of London School for Girls in my case) and even more exciting to see them come second and win a place representing England at the final.

The event was brilliantly organised and run by a dedicated team, led by Jacky Atkinson, and we were all treated to tea, rolls and cakes afterwards too –  a chance to meet children, librarians, authors and supporters. All in all, a wonderful afternoon, with a real buzz (forgive the pun) around children’s literature. Congratulations to all the competitors and the organisers.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Banging the Drum for Kids' Lit Quiz - Lucy Coats

I make no apology for the fact that I am posting much later than is usual, because all this week, (and especially today), I've been involved in something marvellous and important for children's books, and I wanted to share it with ABBA readers. (picture is of Oxford KLQ author team members Lucy Coats, MG Harris, Dennis Hamley, Julia Golding, Mark Robson and Quizmaster Wayne.)

Let me introduce you to the phenomenon that is Kids' Lit Quiz. It was all started 19 years ago in New Zealand by Wayne Mills, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland , who in 2008 was awarded the Margaret Mahy Medal for services to children's literature. For all this time, Wayne and his amazing posse of volunteers have organised this annual quiz for students aged 10-13 years in New Zealand, South Africa, China--and Great Britain. 370 UK schools take part, and this last week I have been a member of two of the author teams taking part in heats for Central England and Oxford. I haven't had so much fun for ages. After all, what could be more fun for a children's author than answering questions on books she knows and loves--and in my case on mythology too? The kids were brilliant--and incredibly knowledgeable about children's books. They didn't quite beat the Central authors--but in Oxford, Wheatley Park School (of whom more later), beat the authors by 1 point to score the 2nd highest ever total in the competition. We were all stretched and challenged by the wide ranging and often difficult questions set by Quizmaster Wayne.

Today was the National UK Final, held in Oxford Town Hall, compered by comedian Harry Enfield. 15 schools--all winners of their regional heats--came from every corner of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland, filled with enthusiasm and armed with many mascots. There was huge applause when Cockermouth School in particular arrived. They made it to Oxford on time despite the challenges they have faced during the terrible floods of the last week. Thirty-two authors were there to cheer them on, and each team was allocated two authors to support them. These questions were MUCH harder than those in the heats--and opinion among the authors was that this time we would certainly have come last. The eventual--and very well-deserved winners were local favourites Wheatley Park with a team of four very well-read boys. They--and their school librarian--deserve many congratulations, and I was surprised and shocked to hear that the school is subject to 'special measures', especially since this week other pupils there have won a prestigious regional award for geography. I did ask why the school inspectors had made this decision, and I have no hesitation in sharing what I learned. The inspectors had an issue with the identity badges for some of the staff, citing that they did not have the right documentation. The school was apparently given no chance to correct this, simply being told--and I paraphrase here--'You've failed. Tough.' I have no reason to disbelieve this--and I think it is disgraceful (yes, disgraceful is the word I want to use here) that this should be so. Identity badges have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of education a school gives--and from what I have seen today, where reading is concerned, the school is triumphing, not failing at all.

So, back to KLQ. If you have a school near you which is not taking part, please ask them why not, and direct them to the website so they can enter. It is a chance for young readers everywhere to show what they are made of, to meet authors--and to show, above all that books are cool. It should be on every school's calendar, in large red letters. The World Final is taking place in August in Edinburgh, during the Book Festival--and I hope that the BBC (who didn't bother to turn up today) get their act together and give it some publicity. My goodness, it deserves it.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

What is a Children's Book? - Linda Strachan

Following on from Katherine Langrish's excellent blog a couple of days ago Writing for children - is it difficult? I thought it might be worth exploring what exactly is meant by a children's book.
As children’s writers we know what it means, almost instinctively, but to the wider world out there I think there is a lot of space for misconceptions. This can be confusing for aspiring writers who want clear definitions, and who can blame them. It reminds me of a comment made to me recently by a chap who can't cook. He said the problem with most cook books is that they are written by people who know how to cook and forget that people like him don't even have the most basic skills.

Many adults see children's books as a single category, books for people who are not adults! This reaction is one which almost all writers for children have encountered at some time, and shows the level of ignorance that does exist in the general population in this regard. (Oh, you write for children, how nice! But when are you going to write a proper book - one for adults?) They never seem to stop and ask what kind of children's books - picture books, novels, mid range?

Some dedicated children’s book awards have different age groups -such as the Royal Mail Awards for Scottish Children’s Books, where the categories are Picture books/ younger readers 8-11 and older readers 12-16. But where children’s books are represented along with awards for adult books the short list is almost invariably novels, and often novels that are generally on that fine line that they could be what some publishers call ‘crossover’ books.

So does that mean that picture books or books for younger readers are not worth considering along side these 'almost adult' novels - it might seem from these awards that in some adult readers' view they are not really important enough? Perhaps 'important' is not the best choice of word, but I am sure you know what I mean!

I realise it is almost impossible to compare a picture book with a 50,000+ word novel, any more than it is possible to compare apples and bananas. But where they are looking at the skill involved in use of words, and the creativity... I know many writers of novels who retreat in haste at the thought of writing a picture book. They understand that 'short' is not just another word for easy!

I know no one reading this blog is likely to think that this is the case but it was interesting that in the comments on Katherine's blog was this one 'Any writing has a target audience.' This is even more so for children's books where, for the younger children especially, levels of reading ability and understanding of the world are among the first criteria to be considered - which is not to say the story idea does not come first, but somewhere in the back of your mind there is the knowledge that this particular idea would find it's best home in a particular age range or length.

I firmly believe any good and well-written children's book should be just as entertaining for adults who read them and this goes for picture books and younger books just as much as novels.

But when we talk about novels for children, what makes them for children not for adults? Some writers of novels are adamant that they do not write particularly for children - but if so why do they consider themselves a children's writer and not a writer for adults? Why are their books published primarily for children by a publisher who (although happy to market them to adults as well) is a children's publisher? It is a very difficult question to answer and I would love to hear what you think. I think this is a question that many aspiring writers ask because they are not quite sure where the line is or if there is a line at all.

I would suggest that it might be that we have an inner almost instinctive feeling for what works or doesn't work for children (even older children) which becomes more imbedded in our minds as we gain experience, but perhaps it is that almost always a young person is at the heart of the story.

Linda Strachan is the author of Writing for Children a writing handbook for aspiring and newly published authors. See more information on her website

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Why our children need electoral reform - John Dougherty

An odd title, I know, for a post on a blog to do with children’s books; but bear with me. It’s entirely relevant to the ABBA brief. And please, forgive both the length and the polemical nature of this piece; but I’m angry, and I’m concerned, and I need to get this off my chest.

A primary school literacy co-ordinator recently told me about a project she’d done with her previous class which had been extremely successful - and, in terms of today’s primary system, quite radical: firstly, she’d gone off-timetable for the week; secondly, believe it or not, she’d used a book (yes, an entire book, not just snippets!); and, thirdly, and most daring of all, she hadn’t used any learning objectives.

For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of learning objectives: the prevailing orthodoxy in what passes for education in UK plc is that, even for quite young children, the teacher should begin her planning for every lesson by deciding exactly what the children are going to learn, and then devise a lesson whose aim is to teach it; she should at the beginning of the lesson put the learning objective (or objectives) on the board so that the children know what they are supposed to learn from this lesson; and at the end of the lesson she should have a way of checking whether or not they’ve actually learned it. Job done, box ticked.

It’s a very mechanistic approach to learning, ignoring all kinds of teensy-weensy trivial little factors such as, well, what children are actually like, how they develop, how they learn, and the difference between appearing to understand something and actually understanding it. A lot of teachers are unconvinced of the wisdom of this approach, but as they’re equally unconvinced of the wisdom of giving OFSTED an excuse to put on the hobnailed boots of punishment and stamp on their heads, they mostly hold their noses and get on with it.

This brave teacher, though, decided - just for the week - to do it differently. So: the class read a chapter, they talked about it, the discussions drove the next bit of learning, and so on for the rest of the week. And, she told me, the writing the children did for her during that project far, far surpassed anything else they produced in that year.

But, she went on, she can’t do that often. Instead, she has to spend precious time telling her class the meaning of phrases such as ‘subordinate clause’ - not because she believes that at 10 they need to know what a subordinate clause is, but because their writing has to use subordinate clauses to be marked at Level 5 in their SATS, and the only way to ensure they do this is to tell them (a) what a subordinate clause is and (b) that if they don’t use them they won’t get a Level 5.

There are not words to describe how furious, how utterly, impotently enraged I am that good teachers are forced to reduce the beauteous thing that is language to a series of components that, if assembled according to the Official Plan, will tick the correct box on some faceless, brainless imbecile’s clipboard. This is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s the same thinking that is now leading culture-free, drivellingly anti-intellectual philistines to suggest that it’s possible and even desirable to programme a mindless, soulless, heartless, garbage-in-garbage-out computer to recognise and mark good writing.

But that’s not all. The same week, a librarian told me of how she had gone off to buy new stock for the children’s library and was, on her return, asked by her boss: “But did you get what the children want?” By which, apparently, was meant: shelffuls of pink sparkly fairy books and countless copies of Horrid Henry. Not that I’ve got anything against Horrid Henry or fairy books as part of a balanced reading diet; but if I want to see shelves full of nothing else I’ll go to Waterstones or WH Smiths. I don’t need my library to look exactly like a branch of a bookstore chain; in fact, I want it to look quite different. I want to find there the books that Waterstones won’t take a chance on, the books that may not make a fiscal profit but that it will profit me to read.

And when libraries are trying to compete with bookshops to get the latest will-be-bestsellers in, regardless of merit or quality or anything but marketing budget and celebrity name on the front, but can’t get me a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses - and I don’t mean they don’t have it on the shelves, I mean my local library couldn’t find a copy anywhere in the library system - then something’s badly, dangerously, civilisation-threateningly wrong.

I suspect that it’s down to those by-our-lady tickboxes again. Libraries are measured not on the service they provide, but on how many people they provide it to. I’ve visited at least one library where they have a counter that notes how many times the automatic door opens in a day, divides it by two, and makes that the measure of success. What idiot, what absolute dummy-sucking moron thought that was a good way to measure our public library service?

Then there’s the publishing industry. It’s a business, and you can’t blame publishers for trying to make money - especially in these rather crunchy times - but it does sometimes seem that the sales and marketing people have more power than the editors to decide what to publish. As Philip Pullman once argued, though, books are not an ordinary commodity, and to treat them as such, putting all efforts into chasing the Next Big Thing (or, more often, the Same As The Last Big Thing) and the celebrity branding, will have a negative effect on the quality and range of what’s available for young readers.

All of these issues have been concerns of mine - and, probably, of yours - for quite some time; but it was only when I found myself having conversations about all of them within a short space of time that it really, forcibly struck me:

Reading is important. Books are important. Good books are important. They help to develop basic and advanced literacy skills, thinking skills, value systems, critical and logical faculties, imagination and creativity... The list is probably endless. If we want what’s best for our children, then we want them to learn to love reading. And so we need a culture which enables and encourages that love.

But if what we have is a school system which reduces reading to a set of mechanical decoding skills, then fewer of our children will learn to love reading. And if those children who somehow begin to learn that love of reading then find that both libraries and bookshops are filled with the same narrow range of books, which - if nothing is done - is more and more likely to be the literary equivalent of junk food, then how is that love of reading ever going to develop? And what will that mean for our society in forty years’ time? It doesn’t bear thinking about - but we have to think about it, and we have to do something.

So: what has all this to with electoral reform?

My argument is this: the prevailing political orthodoxy states that:
  • teachers are not trustworthy, and therefore must be controlled and monitored centrally
  • the prescriptive, targets-focused methodology which has stripped the creative heart out of our education system is necessary to provide accountability and Raise Standards
  • libraries should be run according to the whims of the market without any particular thought for knowledge or literature
  • the market is always right.

Under the current system, only two political parties have any chance of forming the next government, and both of these apparently hold unquestioningly to this orthodoxy. The barbarians are not only at the gates; they’re in the seats of power. And the only chance we have of unseating them is to reform our electoral system so that our votes actually make a difference even if we don’t live in a key marginal, renewing parliament so that it becomes once more a check on the executive rather than an expensive rubber stamp.

That’s why we need a referendum, and why we need it before the next election - so that we can reverse the decline in our culture before it’s too late. Have a look at the Vote For A Change campaign, badger your MP, do whatever you can to get us a system in which our votes have meaning; and then use that vote to fight against this untrusting market-driven philistinism, while we still have a culture worth saving.

John's website is at His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Writing for children - is it difficult? - Katherine Langrish

I’ve been reading an essay by Peter Hunt, a well-known academic and former Professor of English at Cardiff University, author of a number of critical studies of children’s literature. The essay is in a new on-line periodical, Write4Children and begins provocatively:

“Writing for children is more difficult than writing for adults, just as reading children’s books (for adults) is much more difficult than reading adults’ books.”

I read this and blinked. While it’s nice to come across a corrective to the all-too-common view that writing for children is so simple that any celebrity can take a crack at it, this did seem to be rushing to the opposite extreme. Maybe he’s trying to redress the balance? Hunt continues:

“Somewhere in the equation is a child, or the idea of a child, or a group of children, or some amorphous mass defined as children, or a specific childhood, or the culture’s idea of childhood, or the publisher’s idea of childhood. Then there is our relationship with these various childhoods and our motives and our needs and their needs…

“All of these things have to be reflected in what we choose to write, and how we write it. It’s a complex business…”

Blimey! It’s enough to make you wonder how any of us ever manages to write a children’s book at all. The essay is a long and interesting one and deserves to be read in full, but I would like if I may to offer some personal reactions to Professor Hunt's opening salvos.

First off, I don’t find writing for children ‘more difficult’ than writing for adults. I’ve written very little for adults, perhaps a short story or two; and if I found writing for adults easier, I imagine I’d write for adults. And anyway, what does ‘easier’ mean? Hunt appears to suggest that the ‘difficulty’ he sees as inherent in writing for children has something to do with bridging the experiential gap between the child reader and the adult writer – so does he assume that writing for adults is in some way less effortful, involving less mediation and more shared assumptions? I’m not sure that’s a valid assumption. Adult readers are pretty diverse.

Second, I don’t find reading children’s books ‘more difficult’ than reading adults’ books. I love narrative and colour and a certain directness and unfussiness and clarity, and I love these things in literature wherever I find them, and children’s literature happens to be especially rich in these areas. But children’s literature can also be subtle and poetic and complex. I don’t analyse things as I read them – though I may analyse them later. When I read a book for the first time I read it, so far as I can tell, in pretty much the same way as when I was a child – with an open mind and an open heart and a desire to find out what happens…

Hunt’s essay makes it sound as though, before you write a book for children, you sit down and have a good think about who and what they are, how to reach them, what to include and exclude, and carefully examine one’s own motives for writing: ‘the good children’s book comes about from a respectful mutual negotiation of the ground between adult and child, taking into account needs and understandings’. I don’t see how this supposed process can be ‘mutual’ – children are not generally consulted in the writing of children’s books – and you would imagine on hearing this, that writing for children is as complicated as passing a resolution through the United Nations.

I never – consciously anyway – give any thought before writing, or while writing, to who my readers are. I don’t believe in any imperative to do so. It would get horribly in the way, and would feel irrelevant. While I’m writing, I’m focussed like every other writer on telling a particular story as well as I can. I have plenty of technical stuff to consider – how to make the writing sharp and focussed, deciding in what order things should happen, what episodes to include and which to cut – but I can honestly say that I’ve never, ever felt the fact that my readers will be (mainly) children as an added layer of difficulty. I’ve never modified my vocabulary, never worried about my ‘tone of voice’, never felt the need to censor anything. I write ‘for’ children merely because the stories I naturally write happen to appeal to them – as well as to some teens and adults.

It’s a good thing to recognise children’s literature as worthy of academic attention; it’s important to scrutinise what is being written for children and to distinguish the good from the mediocre, and to celebrate the best. Criticism has its place, the academic approach its interest, but Hunt’s account of the process of writing for children is so constructed, so dry and cerebral, so foreign to my own experience, that I have to wonder who are the people who would find it useful?

If I tried to do it his way, I’d end up like the centipede:

A centipede was happy quite,
Until a frog, in fun
Said ‘Pray, which leg moves after which?’
This raised her mind to such a pitch
She lay distracted in a ditch,
Not knowing how to run.

A Reading Revolution - Anne Rooney

I hope I manage to get this post uploaded – I’m in the wilds of the Wirral (I think), where I’ve been sent for a week to learn how to read. Huh? Not quite. I’m here with eighteen other past and present RLF (Royal Literary Fund) fellows to become accredited ‘reading facilitators’. The course, run by The Reading Organisation, aims to create a ‘reading revolution’ in the country, getting everyone – really everyone -reading. We’ve only had the Sunday afternoon session so far, so it’s too early to say how it’s going to go.

TRO facilitators set up reading groups – but not as we know them. Instead of each person reading the book at home and coming to discuss it, the participants read the book aloud together and discuss any issues (personal, literary, cultural) as they emerge. It takes months to read a long text in two-hour chunks, especially stopping for discussion whenever anyone has something to say. Each session ends with a poem, which they also discuss. It is all about personal response – there is no aim to teach, no literary theory, no right or wrong responses. It’s the kind of reading that writers expect and want for their work, not the kind university departments necessarily encourage.

The members of a group generally have something in common. They may be single mothers, elderly people with dementia, offenders in prison, people with mental health problems… They may also be just people who feel like it.

We’ve already heard from participants, and the stories of other participants. One woman I spoke to so loves her Get Into Reading group that she uses her annual leave to take two hours off every Thursday afternoon so that she can go. She is 34. She said that for a year she turned up and said nothing, and the group welcomed her presence. Finally, she began to take part in readings and flourished. She had been suffering anxiety attacks and was painfully shy, and prone to depression but this looked like an unthreatening social activity to get her out of the house. She no longer has anxiety attacks and seemed full of confidence. Yesterday, she spoke to a room full of strangers, nattering on without stopping. She credited the reading group with the transformation. Other people have coped with bereavement, or difficult children, or recognized their own problems and experiences reflected in literature. There was the woman who realized her husband was Iago, and the violent criminal who would discuss Heathcliff’s behaviour. So far it’s sounding rather like therapy, but the organizers insist that it isn’t. The object, they say, is to enable people to use literature as a tool in their lives, to help them make sense of their experiences and to give them a pleasurable focus to the week. It seems to work.

Most of this is incredibly obvious, of course, and we all do it already. My last post here was about how I turned to books during a terrible (ongoing) time. I buy books for my daughters that relate to or reflect their current concerns and leave them lying around where they may be picked up and read, perhaps helpfully. But many people don’t know books can provide that kind of comfort, endorsement, refuge and lifeline. TRO aims to show them that – and to show them the pleasure reading can bring. There are no concessions: the first text a group tackles might be short, but then it’s straight into the classics. They tackle Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Milton – anything and everything. TRO believes that people are not necessarily scared of hard texts, but that they often feel these are reserved for the intellectual elite and are pleased to be allowed to reclaim them. If that’s what it’s about – giving literature back to the people for whom it was written – I shall be proud to be involved.

Before we came, we had to choose ten poems we could use with a reading group, but knew nothing about the make-up of groups or the way the system worked. (The photo is of my poem-choosing session, on Saturday night.) Here, there is flaky wifi, poor mobile signal, no decent coffee (aaargh!), towels like rags and rooms the size of prison cells. There are no shops, no post office, no pub (but there is a bar), no time off – just us and the books. There are quite a few other children’s writers here – some names you would certainly recognize, but I haven’t asked their permission to reveal their whereabouts so I won’t name them (own up in the comments if you like!). One gave a little shriek of joy when she saw her own book listed in TRO’s recommended books for juvenile groups. We are the first group of professional writers TRO has ever trained, so it will be interesting for all of us. I’ll give an update after the week, but just now I have to grab some rubbish coffee go and learn how to read all over again…

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Death of Venice is Dead – Michelle Lovric

Don’t Look Now. Yes, it’s another Venetian post, and suitably sinister.

You’ve probably read about it, heard the grim pronouncements on the radio or seen a clip on television: last Saturday, November 14th, Venice staged her own funeral.

At least that’s the version that appeared in the international press, which likes nothing better than to bury Venice.

But I was there, and I want to explain that it wasn’t quite like that.

For some time, the people behind the passionately pro-Venice website have promised that they would do something to show their pain if the city’s population dropped below 60,000. The exodus of real Venetians is recorded weekly in an illuminated display – the Venetian-counter – in the window of the Morelli pharmacy at Rialto. This month, for the first time, we are down to 59, 984. The streets of Venice each day now hold fewer Venetians than tourists. maintains that Venice has not died a natural death but been assassinated by mismanagement, greed and stupidity. It comes down to housing. If the city does not provide houses for young couples, how can young couples provide new Venetians for the city?

In response to the sinking numbers, decided to do what Venice has always done in extremis: throw a masked party, in which the macabre would mix with the ironic, the burlesque with the profound. A furious discussion breaks out in the city. People start sending ‘telegrams of condolence’ for the dead city to

November 14th dawns moody grey and morbidly humid. Grim-faced locals and stupefied tourists swarm at Rialto. The deceased city, represented by a hot-pink coffin draped with the Venetian flag, is floated up the canal on a balotina, in which stands the black-cloaked actor Cesare Colonnese, his face made up in a deathly pallor. Even so, it cannot express quite enough tragedy: he carries another mask of pain mounted on a stick. The balotina follows a barge in which a grand piano is played by Paolo Zanarella, his black cloak flowing behind him.

At 11.55 the riot police arrive and arrange themselves under the portico of the town hall. (City officials, who have scoffed at idea of the funeral, are nowhere to be seen). At 11.55 the international press disembarks from crowded taxis, for has caught not just the city’s but the world’s imagination with its gesture. At 12.00 the funeral procession arrives at Rialto, escorted by police boats. As they pass under the bridge, the rowers raise their oars in solemn salute to the crowd. The coffin is lifted on the shoulders of the chief mourners and carried along the passarelle into the portico, accompanied by a funeral bouquet in the Venetian colours of yellow and maroon. There’s another huge bouquet made of slivers of paper – the telegrams of condolence. Gilberto Gasparini reads out a long poem of lament and betrayal. Cesare Colonnese pronounces the funeral oration in Venetian.

And then the surprise. From two yards away, I hear the tone of Colonnese’s voice change. He asks, ‘Who says Venice is dead? It’s time to stop lamenting. Rise up! Rise up! Do something! Yes, you too! … And stop saying that Venice is dead!’

The caped organisers jump on the coffin and joyfully smash it to bits. From the splinters, they pull out a painting of a golden phoenix rising from the ashes. ‘Long live Venice!’ they cry.

This is not a funeral. It is an exorcism.

The death of Venice is pronounced dead. Venice is reborn. Everyone in the crowd cries, including me. The organisers shake the prosecco bottles and spray the press liberally with foam. Perhaps they already know what kind of wordbites will betray their intentions to the world. Who among these reporters will faithfully transmit the fact that this funeral has actually been staged by Venetians who refuse to let the city die?

After the ceremony, pure-blooded Venetians – whose grandparents are also Venetian - are invited to donate cheek swabs so that the DNA of this endangered species can be analysed. But one little irony is that the funeral has wreaked havoc with a wedding due to take place at the next-door Palazzo Cavalli. The bride and groom, no doubt planning to personally repopulate Venice in the near future, have to jostle through the crowds to get to the register office on time.
While waiting for the ceremony to start, I’d begun chatting with Venetians around me. As usual, within moments we discover mutual friends and circles of interest. A pretty woman introduces herself: ‘Mariliva Mattiolo.’ She’s wearing crystal pendant earrings, which, she explains, are ‘teardrops for Venice.’

I suddenly recognize Mariliva’s name. She’s one of the dozens of people who sent the impassioned ‘telegrams of condolence’ to I’d been reading them that morning. Her piece had been poetic and moving. Now it was one of the petals of the paper bouquet that accompanied the funeral procession.

For my fellow writers, I’m including translations of a tiny selection those telegrams, warm as blood from the hearts of real people. For me, this was the beauty of the day. Who can fail to be inspired by a city that can voice and write its own death and legend? That mixes Commedia dell’arte with serious social commentary, pathos with provocation? And which turns a funeral into a rebirth?

The morning I saw the Venetian-counter light up the number 59,984, I, an atheist, was surprised into making the sign of the cross. As when a corpse passes. The residents ... from that moment, were fewer than the mountain gorillas of Uganda, a species declared to be at the highest risk of extinction by the WWF.Pierluigi Tamburrini

Poor Venice, like a prostitute, you were used and loved by many, and now your charms are washed up, your pimps have abandoned you ...
Martina Lasioli

Venice killed, but not dead
Killed by the arrogance of the politicians, by the self-interest of the powerful, by the indifference of the Venetians …
Killed by her own children, those Venetians who thoughtlessly exploited her, violated her …
Massimo Andreoli

Even the plague couldn’t empty Venice the way commercialization has ... My condolences, Serenissima. R.I.P. Amen.
Principe Maurice Agosti

As a captain sinks with his ship, I will sink with you!
Natale Vianello

Among your streets, I have wept, I have laughed for joy, I have given passionate kisses. The poetry of your squares and your bridges is for those who know how to inhabit them in silence and with discretion, without stealing your sou …I don’t have any other words and no desire except to weep … because they are killing a part of me.
Mariliva Mattiolo

Disappeared civilizations: The Mayans, the Etruscans, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Incas ... the Venetians.
Renato Pedrocco

There are more Venetians at San Michele [the cemetery island] than in the historic centre. But this city is too beautiful for us to be pessimists here.
Gianantonio De Vincenzo

Here lies Venezia, whose name was writ on water
Here lies Venezia, a defeated city that has never surrendered
Venezia? The best is yet to come
Lorenzo Marangoni

As long as there will be water, Venessia will not die.
Mauro Dardi

She who has no earth cannot be buried.
Alberto Toso Fei

The re-awakening will be with a kiss, like all the loveliest things.
Cecilia Foresi

Michelle Lovric's website's website

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Tip of the Storyberg - Katherine Roberts

Before my first novel was published, I used to write short stories. After a few years of sending out my work, I realized I was selling about one story in every ten. Often “selling” merely meant publication in return for free copies of the magazine it appeared in, but I’m not talking about money here, I’m talking about an editor liking my story enough to publish it and bring it to a wider readership (which for short fiction is often as good as it gets). So for every story of mine that made it into the wider world, there were another nine hopefuls that saw only the inside of my computer. Other writers talk of their bottom drawers, but I prefer to think of my published work as the tip of an iceberg, or – because ice seems too cold for creativity – the tip of my “storyberg”. The unpublished stories make up the much larger chunk below the waterline that nobody can see.

Since I have published around 50 short stories, that means 450 unpublished ones floating around below the surface… a fair amount of work! Was it wasted? Out of interest, I recently went back and re-read a few. Some of my earlier efforts clearly deserve to be drowned in the depths for all eternity, but others aren’t so bad. They just didn’t fit the market at the time, or (more likely) never found the right market because I gave up sending them out. But those 450 unpublished stories were clearly necessary in order to write the 50 that did make it into readers' hands. Every single one of them needed to be written, or the tip of my storyberg would not exist.

These days I write books, and the process is similar. “Song Quest” was my twelfth novel, but the first to be published. Since then I’ve had 12 more books published, but have about 100 other projects in various stages of progress in my files, most which will never see the light of day. At certain stages of an author’s career, it seems necessary to grow the storyberg below the waterline rather than above so that the whole thing can continue to float when the next project makes it into the sunlight. Sometimes it seems as if no progress is being made, and other authors' storybergs seem to be growing so much faster than mine - but, of course, I cannot see how much is lurking below their waterlines and I suspect the author who publishes everything they write does so at their peril, since top-heavy storybergs will not stay afloat for very long.

Friday, 20 November 2009

A Google-eyed slant on the world - Dianne Hofmeyr

As a break from editing the bare breasts and sex out of my Egyptian novel Eye of the Moon for a US publisher, I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Jeff Jarvis’s What Would Google Do? simultaneously. The three make very odd companions while I shift from 1500 BC to the 16th century, and then on to the digital world of now.

In What Would Google Do? Jeff Jarvis suggests we have to kill books to save them. He says they’re dead because they’re frozen in time with no means to update except by new editions, they’re a one-way relationship – the author seldom benefits from the reader, they’re expensive to produce, they rely on ‘blockbuster’ economy – few winners/ many losers, they’re subject to ‘gatekeepers’ (do we know this!), they aren’t read enough (according to Jarvis, 40% of printed books are never sold) and then there’s the problem of ‘returns’.

On the other hand books that are digital can be linked and updated, can find new audiences and can grow and live on beyond the page because of interaction and discussion.

I can understand that literacy may be ‘rekindled’ as a result of the Kindle and similar devices being able to offer a rebirth of books that are out of print. But I’m not sure about rekindling ‘visual’ literacy. The fact that we all carry favourite picture book stories around in our heads suggests a strong interaction with the page as a child. I doubt this kind of engagement and a development of visual literacy is possible in a digital format picture book.

So on reading what Jarvis had to say generally about books being dead, my first thoughts were – Why does everything have to be so interactive? Can’t a book just be a book? Why this clamour for digital interaction? Can’t a book, like art, or theatre stand alone? A work of art is still a work of art with only one person viewing it. How would we experience the ‘redness’ of red if we did away with real art and only viewed a Mark Rothko digitally. And theatre doesn’t expect comments to be thrown at it from the audience (except in Shakespeare’s times). Do writers really need interactive audiences drawing on the opinion of everyone, to survive?

Then I reread parts of what Jarvis was saying. And came back to the word ‘re-invention’ – rather than killing the book. What about putting the book online in full for a few weeks? Or serializing extracts from the book for a limited time? (some ABBA bloggers are doing this already and may be able to give feedback). Or putting up a free PowerPoint or video version of the book? (I’ve tried the visual PowerPoint route as a marketing device to get publishers interested but generally they’ve been lethargic and haven’t seen it as a tool to market the book publically.) What about ads in a book?

He cites Paulo Coelho who says ‘blogs’ have given him a different voice that attracts new readers. Coelho invites readers to make a movie of his novels or movies of his books’ characters (easier to do if your fans are adults but some schools have film and photographic clubs). He asked fans to take pictures of themselves reading his books for a virtual exhibition at the Frankfurt Book Fair which was also put on Flickr (it helps to be famous first). The suggestion is that creativity creates creativity. Find a relationship with your readers and you’ll sell more books.

So on first being anti the concept of ‘the book is dead’ I came around to Jarvis’s idea of ‘re-invention’. His suggestion that through the Internet, publishers and authors can reach a huge audience that never goes into a bookshop and can find new ways to bring books into conversation, appeals.

Right now I still believe in ‘print’ but anything that offers hope for the book is fine by me! But for the rest of the day I’m back to editing breasts.
My revamped website is at:

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Doing Moral Outrage - Meg Harper

When I was young and dreamt of being a children’s writer, I never imagined it would take me to China but that’s where I have recently been, invited by the British Schools of Beijing and Guangzhou to do my author/drama practitioner stuff for 3.5 days. Of course, by the time I’d added a couple of days sight-seeing in both Beijing and Hong Kong plus my time in transit, the whole trip took 11 days and I doubt if I’ll have made much profit but I have had an amazing, mind-expanding trip, moments of which I’ll never forget (especially three of us crammed into a motorised rick-shaw built for two, being driven down three lanes of heavy traffic in the Beijing rush-hour. Or my encounter with a taxi driver who, quite typically in Beijing taxi drivers doesn’t know where anywhere is but isn’t going to lose face by admitting it!)
This, however, is not the place for a travel blog. What of all of this, is relevant to children’s writing? Well....possibly the books I read. Late at night and on journeys, there was the luxury of time to read. On the flight out, I sweated my way through ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Very gripping. I would like to write gripping books for children, but without making readers nauseous with terror, without depicting scenes of violence degrading to women, without having a mind which pictures these things. I see from the sequel sample that the opening chapter is more of the same. Thanks but I think I’ve got the message!
With some relief I turned ot ‘The Roar’, the summer choice of my children’s book group by newcomer Emma Clayton. I enjoyed it. I had issues with the structure and the ending, all too frustratingly set up for what I expect will be a trilogy, but there was much to admire, not least the terrifyingly convincing picture of another world where the rich have quite literally built on top of the poor, condemning them to a life in the dreadful ‘Shadows’, a subterranean world of mould and darkness and squalor.
And then there was Leslie Wilson’s ‘Saving Rafael’, a refreshing spin on the holocaust novel – which I dropped in the bath! Really sorry, Leslie, but at least I was so gripped that I carried on reading and kept it in a plastic bag!
What connects there 3 books? Well...moral outrage, I think. It’s there in all of them. Steig Larsson, though I question his methods, is quietly ranting about violence against women and fraud, the strong terrorising those they perceive as weak. Emma Clayton is outraged by what we are doing to our world, both physically and socially. And Leslie, of course, is outraged by the holocaust – by our inhumanity.
We bloggers are all creators of story. We are all entertainers. But so many of us are also something else. Reflectors. Commentators. Prophets. Preachers. Voices crying in the wilderness?
So what, as I turn to story making again, be it on page or stage, should I be writing about? I could do moral outrage a-plenty after this trip. I have been treated with the utmost respect and courtesy throughout my stay in China – but supposing I had been a Chinese writer during the cultural revolution? Hmm. And Chairman Mao is still hugely honoured as a great hero by the ordinary Chinese. In Hong Kong I found a market full of stunning tropical fish, hung up in plastic bags, terrapins and turtles in tiny crates and puppies for sale in Perspex boxes measuring about 60cm beneath little dog jackets bearing the words. ‘We love all pets.’ Not far away, another market sold caged birds by the hundred.
A couple of weeks before I left, I stopped a child from kicking a plastic water bottle around during our break at Youth Theatre.
‘You need to look after that,’ I said. ‘When the oil runs out, we won’t have any more.’
The child looked at me, bewildered. She is eight and I am sure is re-cycling with the best of them. But she didn’t know about the oil running out. Nor did most of the others. Nor did they know where plastic comes from. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a plastic water bottle, discarded on a less well-trodden part of the Great Wall of China. In my hotels, I was given two water bottles a day. The teachers I was mixing with told me how bad they felt that their drinking water all comes in plastic bottles as the tap water is not safe. That’s right across China and Hong Kong. I don’t want to think about all those water bottles – nor the idea that you can see the Great Wall from the moon but not vice versa because of the pollution – which was certainly very evident in smoggy Beijing.
I am not surprised that Steig, Emma and Leslie are doing moral outrage. More power to their elbows. I have done it myself in the past. But after this trip – well – where do I even begin to start?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Judging readers by their covers - Elen Caldecott

Book covers. We all judge by them. And so we should; the sales and marketing and art departments of publishing companies want you to judge the contents based on the packaging. They’ve put good money into it.

You can tell the genre of the book simply by the font, in many cases.
Pink and swirly? One for the ladies, perhaps to read with a frappachino in a pair of knock-off Manolos.
Gold and Bold? One for Dad at Christmas, especially if it has ‘Eagle’ or ‘Force’ or ‘Bravo’ in the title.

The images too will plonk a book right in the middle of a demographic. Black and white photo of a young child? Middle-ages ladies who like a good cry. A red flower on a black background? Teenage girls who like a good cry. A dragon and a sword? Fanboy geeks who only cry when no one is watching.

We all know which books are aimed at us.
But what happens when we want to read outside our marketing profiles?
I would suggest that it is easier for some of us than for others.

I have a friend who is a female poet, she lives in a small village and shops at the WI weekly sale. She is also a massive fan of the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. And there ain’t no font more gold and bold than those. She can quite happily sit on a bus with one of those on show for all to see.
Would the same be true of a male poet carrying a Sophie Kinsella?
I doubt it (though I would love to be proved wrong! Let me know in the comments if you know for a fact that Andrew Motion is an outted Marian Keyes fan!)

Now you might think that this doesn’t matter; an adult’s reading habits are their own affair and people can like whatever they like.

But how much of this is nature, and how much of it is decided much earlier on, in the children’s section of a bookshop (I couldn’t fit the word ‘nurture’ into this sentence)?
Would men like Aga Sagas? They might never know, especially if they were never encouraged to pick up a Jacqueline Wilson.
Women, on the other hand, are happy to give Lee Child a go, because they’re not embarrassed to read Anthony Horowitz.

We can judge books by their covers, but it’s a shame that we are then judged by the covers we own.
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Fates Worse Than Death : Gillian Philip

I knew it. I knew he couldn't leave her like that. I mean, look at her! She's fab!

I'm still recovering from the Doctor's character development of Sunday night (I'm sorry, it's breathless-fangirl time. If you don't know what I'm talking about it's probably best to move along... but I should add, I'm not giving away any spoilers about Sunday night's episode). My heart was thumping, my kids were going, 'Mum, what just happened?' while I snapped unmotherly things at them about keeping QUIET.

It was a stunner of an episode. It wasn't a weepie, though. It wasn't like the Doctor being separated from Rose forever (BAWL!) in the tradition of Will and Lyra. It wasn't like... Donna Noble.

I would say *Spoiler Alert* at this point, but I think if you want to see Series 4, you'll already have seen it...

The 'death' of Donna Noble at the end of Series 4 was up there with the saddest things I've seen on TV. Oh, heck, it was one of the saddest things I've seen on film or in books or anywhere. 'Worse than death,' says Russell T Davies in The Writer's Tale. He cried when he was writing her fate. I've done that. But that was only when I killed them.

How do you cope with doing what he did to Donna? Killing your darlings, that's one thing. That's nice and final. You can have a good session with the Kleenex and a second bottle of red, go on Facebook and blub (virtually) to your mates.

But taking from your darling everything you've put them through, every experience, every bit of character development, and restoring them to how they were? Like restoring your laptop to factory settings? I don't know how he did it. I mean, I admire him, because what a story! What a tragedy! (I howled, I did.) But I don't know how he could bring himself to do that to her. Oh, it must have hurt.

And then I saw the trailer for the Christmas denouement, right after Sunday's episode. And she's back (or seems to be). Oh joy! I knew he couldn't leave her like that, I just knew it. (Though I probably won't be so delighted when I see what he has in store.) (And if it's just a tease, I'll never forgive the trailer director.)

The funny thing is, Donna's story wasn't meant to happen. The Writer's Tale begins with the chaos of what RTD calls the Maybe in his head - the place where he's planning a life, a history and a future for a new character called Penny. (He describes the Maybe so beautifully - all those ideas roiling away in a stew in the writer's head.) But when Catherine Tate's Runaway Bride makes an unplanned return as the Doctor's companion, it's Penny who dies.

She never really existed, of course - she never got that far -but you can sense RTD mourning her anyway. It was Penny who was supposed to have the stroppy attitude and the stargazing grandad, but she never got the chance. There's a sad little sketch in the book, done by RTD, that shows Penny walking past the Tardis, on into a Doctorless future, never knowing what she's missed.

RTD wonders if Penny does still exist, out there in the Maybe, living a life that isn't the one he planned. I've had characters like that; I'm sure we all have. Now, I often wonder how the characters who lived are doing. (I don't just mean the ones who didn't die, I mean the ones who came into existence on the page.) I wonder if they're still together; if they're happy or tormented or still alive, even. But how often do I think about the ones who were strangled at birth?

OK, there were the characters who just didn't work. Somewhere they're preserved in jars of mental formaldehyde, freaks and mutants and ugly failed experiments, poked and prodded occasionally by brain gremlins who shake their heads and move on, knowing there's nothing to be done with them.

But what about the minor characters who could have lived and breathed, but just didn't have a plot to do it in? What about Will, rudely elbowed out by Nick who I liked better? I told myself it was a name change; it wasn't. Will was a different boy (probably a nicer boy). And how about the lovers from those failed romance novels, the ones that (fortunately) never saw publication? Did they not get their happy-ever-after, then?

I'm never going to know, because they don't belong to me any more. They walked past in the rain, and went off to live out their lives in the Maybe.

But don't mind me, I'm just melancholy from having to wait till CHRISTMAS! to find out what happens to Donna, and the Master (gasp!), and most of all, the alarmingly altered Doctor...

Monday, 16 November 2009

Writing, everywhere - but not a story writ -with apologies to the Ancient Mariner - Linda Strachan

At times it seems the only kind of writing that doesn’t get done is writing the book I want to write.

‘Can we have 100 words about when you were ten? Can we have a short biography for our website or a blurb for the event you are doing for us next year- we need it next week!’ Updating my website, or writing a blog, or a guest blog or emails, (I don’’t twitter… yet) but still the list is pretty much endless.

Writers are always being asked to write this or that, the day to day little bits of writing that we agree to because they don’t seem like huge tasks but eat into the creative writing time. When you are already feeling pressured to meet a deadline these little pieces that need to be right are enjoyable just because they are short, and often they are challenging also because they are short.

Personally I am sure it is often because despite being desperate to get down to writing the novel (or whatever it is I should be writing), and I do often wake up in the morning with ideas buzzing in my head, by the time I get to my desk I get distracted and before I know it an hour or two has vanished so it is time for another cup of coffee, to put the washing out and try once again to make it out to ‘Tuscany’, my shed, where I long to be.

I can imagine those who have a ‘day job’ wishing they had that freedom to choose but it is so much more difficult to drag myself away from my ‘house desk’ where all these distractions are, than to go straight out to Tuscany – however delightful that sounds.

Some months ago I joined in with some other SAS writers to try a Na No Wri Mo (ie write a novel or 50,000 words in a month) and I did find the challenge of putting up our word count on a specially designed site was good for making me start each day, or at least get to the shed each day. Because of other commitments I only managed to do it for just under three weeks, but the 30,000 words I wrote formed the basis for my new teenage novel which is coming in the spring of 2010, so it really did work.

So with renewed determination I am starting off with a challenge to myself, to get to Tuscany every day - BEFORE I do anything else – for the next three weeks. Starting tomorrow of course, because today… you see, I had this blog to write…

Find out more about Linda on her website

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Garbage storytelling, by Leslie Wilson

I’m in a school, but not as visiting author this time. I’m with a group of waste management specialists (including my husband) who are visiting the Recycling School in Moqattam in Cairo. It’s an unusual, but exciting school. It caters for the boys of the Zabbaleen community of informal recyclers – they used to be informal garbage collectors – what we’d have once called rag-pickers - but things have moved on.

The Zabbaleen originally came to Cairo from the countryside, and started to work sorting through the refuse of the more prosperous neighbourhoods, picking out whatever could be recycled, and selling it to middlemen. They lived in shanties, with heaps of waste lying in front of the dwellings. Here the families sorted the refuse and the pigs rootled through to pick out the organic matter and eat it. It wasn’t a bad system, especially not the input of the pigs, who produced both meat and fertiliser, but it wasn’t very healthy, and child mortality was high. Enter Laila Iskandar, who started off the girls’ school here. The girls recycled clean paper and textiles and learned, at the same time, literacy and basic hygiene. Nowadays, you may well buy the handmade paper they make in outlets in the West – lovely paper in beautiful colours and patterns. Their textile products – recycled from industry’s offcuts - are selling to fashion outlets in Europe. The Zabbaleen are intelligent, resourceful people who have taken every opportunity that’s been given them and run with it. Some of the first graduates from the girls’ school have gone on to university.
So, twenty-seven years on from Laila’s first visit, things look very different. The Zabbaleen now have brick-built houses, from whose windows and balconies hang beautifully clean laundry. There are still people sorting refuse, but that is done, largely, in workshops, separate from the dwellings. And now much of the actual recycling is done in Moqattam, which means the Zabbaleen can sell plastic pellets on to factories, though in some instances they make plastic products too. We visit one of the recycling workshops, where a £50,000 machine melts the plastic into an endless sausage of curiously pleasing hot gunk and feeds it into an extruder, from which plastic spaghetti spews out into a cooling trough. The plastic pasta is then chopped up into pellets. This work was initiated, twenty years ago, with a grant from Oxfam.

The pigs, alas, have gone, sacrifices to official fear of swine ‘flu, and in their place goats forage among the rubbish instead, attractive animals that look interestedly at us with their slot-pupilled eyes. The goats aren’t as good converters as the pigs were; I get the feeling they’re on probation. The death of the pigs has been a heavy blow for the community. There are cats and dogs everywhere, sleeping in the noon sun, waiting for the darkness when they’ll hunt rats. I see a rat, sun-mummified, plastered on the middle of the street. In western landfill terms, the dogs and cats are rodent control.
And there are children everywhere, quite small children, who are workers. Some of them are carrying racks of puffed pitta bread off to shops and small cafés, some of them are helping their parents. To get these kids to school, you have to give them an incentive. You can’t just drag them away from work and impoverish the family. That was why the first school, for girls, did the paper and textile recycling. Hence the Recycling School for the boys. The work the boys do is to sort plastic bottles. There’s a huge, crude faking industry in the developing world. Empty shampoo bottles get refilled with Nile water and detergent and sold as the original product. For this reason, if the bottles are ground up, it’s great news for the producers, and they’ll pay for this to be done. In addition, the school sells the plastic chips on to the recycling workshop.
The boys come to Recycling School when they can. They learn Montessori method, incidentally. Their incentive to learn to read is to enable them to read the labels on the bottles; ‘Head and Shoulders’ is their starting point. The incentive to learn maths is that they need to keep a tally of how many bottles they collect in order to get paid. But they don’t just add them up – they make Excel spreadsheets. Other learning happens along the way. It’s hoped that boys, too, will carry their education on to university level.

The first time I heard Laila Iskandar was in 2005, when she was talking to a conference in Sardinia about the Zabbaleen’s problems. The trouble is that the Cairo municipality would like to do away with waste pickers, with their messy carts (formerly pulled by donkeys) piled with mixed refuse, and replace them with nice clean refuse vehicles and wheelie bins. The foreign companies who are operating this system use a smart modern landfill and recycle, we’re told, less than the Zabbaleen, who achieve an 80% recycling rate (compare this with England’s average of 36.8% and best figure of 60%) This has put huge pressure on the Zabbaleen because their source material is being schlepped off to landfill. It’s also a huge shame environmentally and a shame to us in the industrialised North for the false ideas of what is desirable that we’ve passed on to developing countries. But with the help of a generous grant from the Bill Gates Foundation, it’s hoped that they will be able to negotiate with the municipality and establish themselves as viable contractors.

But why do I feel so excited about the Zabbaleen and concerned about their future? Because of Laila’s superb storytelling skills. I went on the trip to Moqattam because she’d engaged me when I heard her in Sardinia. Meanwhile her niece, Mai Iskander, has made a film about three of the community’s boys, Garbage Dreams which has won an Al Gore award. I’ve seen it and it’s totally engaging and fascinating. More storytelling. That’s why I’m blogging about them today, because it shows how important storytelling is, not just to entertain people, but to tell stories about people who’d otherwise go quite unheard. I hope I haven’t got anything too drastically wrong, but I’ve sent Laila the link for this blog, so if I have, she can correct me.
Photographs by David Wilson

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Dare You Take The Brownie Challenge? Karen Ball

There’s something in the air. Actually, not just in the air. It’s printed on mugs, emblazoned on T-shirts, celebrated in blogs and adding to a certain nervous energy on the streets of my city. It’s NANOWRIMO month. Dark rings appear below eyes, colleagues stagger into work grasping lattes, questions are called across desks. Everyone asking the same thing: what’s your word count? Once a year, anyone from around the world can sign up to a challenge to write against the clock, finishing a 50,000-word novel in a month. ‘Thirty days and nights of literary abandon.’ No room for self-editing or navel-gazing, careful plotting or redrafting. The aim is pure – to get to the end of a first draft by midnight, November 30th.
Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed the joy, energy, excitement, fear and fatigue of friends and colleagues as they scurry out of the office on winter evenings to retire to cafes or bars in a collective effort to create. I’ve seen the photos; people crowded around laptops, peering intently at screens or nervously smiling at each other over the top of their monitors.
NANOWRIMO’s basic principle of clocking up a word count, quality be damned, is transparently liberating. It’s enabled a whole community of new writers to just have a go. And that word – community – seems crucial to this collective effort. I’ve heard so many stories of writers who spend years isolated from others striving towards the same goals. Then, through organisations like the Scattered Authors Society, they find soul mates. Oh, I’m not the only one juggling a day job and a novel? You struggle with the middle acts too? Hurrah – someone else eats chocolate at their desk! Now, NANOWRIMO has enabled many writers to connect and enjoy the support of others, cutting out those lonely first years. This can only be a good thing; writers no longer have to learn alone.
But do I think I’ll ever attempt 50,000 words in the space of a month? Are you kidding! I’m too old, too tired, too grumpy. If I write 4000 words in a stretch, I’m pleased with myself. 12,000 words in a week? No way! I know myself well enough to understand that I’d crumble under that pressure. I need the thinking time. I work best when left alone, to mull quietly, to stare into space. I’d be a total NANOWRIMO loser. So I’m really pleased that others are finding the motivation to write their first, second or third novels – but for myself? I’m thinking of setting up a National Brownie Eating Month (NABREAMO): ‘Thirty days and nights of calorific abandon.’ All I need is a sofa to loll on and a hotline to a supermarket. And after that? A girdle*.
* When DID women stop wearing girdles?
Photo courtesy of Albert Cahalan.
Visit my website at

The golem – Michelle Lovric

In Jewish tradition, a golem is a monster brought to life by a magical force in order to serve its creator. In my opinion, this is pretty much an exact definition of doing publicity for one’s publishers.

In Hebrew legend, there are various recipes for making a golem. But they all seem to involve the modelling of shapeless inanimate materials into a form that approximates a human being. The result: a body without a soul. But when the name of God is invoked, the golem comes to life. When its mission is over, the name of God is removed and the golem returns to dust.

In publishing, you make a golem this way: an author labours in obscurity for months, even years, to write a book. ‘Shapeless’ certainly applies to the cardigans, dressing-gowns and other writing-wear worn by most authors when crouched over their computers.

Then one day the manuscript is pronounced ‘a live one’ and the name of marketing is invoked. ‘This book could really sell,’ is the mantra. ‘Get a good photo!’

How many authors really look like their publicity photos? My publicity golem and I stopped resembling one another about five years ago. That’s because the photographer’s secret brief is for an image of the author ‘that could really sell’. The author is peeled out of the shapeless cardigan and tucked into something he or she would never wear, because he or she is rather fond of breathing, and also because of the authorly tendency to spill coffee and pasta sauce on most garments. The author poses in positions of extreme unnaturalness, to get that natural look. The author gapes like a kitten, in order to achieve that thoughtful gaze into the profound nature of things.

The publicity department chooses the least embarrassing image from the embarrassing contact sheet. The golem is born: a creature that has vaguely human form but is not inhabited by the soul of the writer.

The golem’s body is tipped, blinking, out into the glare of the world. The publisher accompanies the protégée golem to launches and parties (see photo above from Paul Wegener’s 1920 film, Der Golem).

From talking only to the cat, the author must suddenly become proficient at entertaining 80 children and their teachers. The author sits in front of microphones in those tiny self-serve studios at the BBC, scintillating about the book to remote radio stations. If the book is a success, the golem appears on television. (This sometimes unmasks the golem: the publicity photo can come unstuck at this point.)

This blog is not blasphemous, by the way, because the author never really becomes the golem. The golem is a separate creation, son or daughter of publicity and marketing, animated by an arcane formula: a body without a soul.

And that’s probably ok.

On a long publicity tour, a soul is not much use to an author. My soul, had it been present, would have run away and hidden in the ladies' lavatories when I had to do a signing of my Love Letters book at Men’s Night in Lingerie at Macey’s in New York.

The modern Hebrew translation of the word ‘golem’ is ‘cocoon’. But there are other meanings. They are usually variations of ‘fool’.

Golems have been known to run amok. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague created a golem to defend the Jewish community against a blood libel. But his golem began to misbehave and so the rabbi had to deactivate it.

I guess this happens to authors too.

My golem went severely rabid, for example, when it was sent to Fox Studios to be interviewed alongside the true star-guest of the show: a dog who wore shoes.

But that’s another story …

Michelle Lovric’s website

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Answering Back : Penny Dolan

One of the small problems about flying off next week to tell stories at Delhi's Bookaroo Children’s Book Festival(with surrounding holiday) is that . . . . er . . er . . . part of me quite wants to stay home here in Yorkshire working on Tome Two.

I’m behind on my personal deadline. This Autumn’s run of visits tore into the energy I need for my writing work. This is not a complaint, especially as the schools and libraries were really great, but the big fact in most author's writing/earning balance. Visiting is essentially “Out There”; Writing is “In Here”.

I know I should be up and at the Tome every spare second, but my creative mind doesn’t work like that, and before anyone quotes inspirational tales of Messrs Trollope or Archer or even the feted Miss Price, I have no servants, assistants or anyone else writing down my book words.

However, the enforced silence was useful. Returning to the Tome, I suddenly saw that a certain light and subtle story twist was actually constructed of a material somewhat heavier then lead. It required, and will require, strong and severe plot-wrangling.

There is also another problem to solve. The small matter of X, a secondary character: a pale, pitiful creature doomed to arrive at a poignantly early end.

X has decided to be nothing of the sort. In true Jasper-Ffordean manner, she is stomping on furiously, full of life and health and wanting to have her own way. Just now I can’t see how or if I can ever take her in hand, let alone what she will do to the main characters. So much for the power of the synopsis! She cannot be trusted alone.

So I have decided that in Delhi, home of the power-cut,I must keep writing, but it will be - aagh! - by hand. Even though that means facing up to my awful over-excited scrawl. Even though I need the protective “writing distance” my computer screen gives me. I considered the lap-top option, but that adds weight and safety issues. Hand-writing sounds so much more reliable, doesn’t it?

I fear it will all come back to me: the stained fingers, the gloom as the paper is covered in more and more deletions, the awful over-writing, the sense of homework badly done. Ho hum. I must try to be positive.

Will my back-to-scribbling plan work? It's essential that it does, because I’ve reached a significant point in the making of Tome Two, a moment that ABBA writers may recognise, and it is joyous. When I sat down to work this last week, the writing had begun speaking back to me.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips (Virago)

Before you read this review, just to get yourself in the right mood,please cut and paste the link above into Google (I haven't been able to make it live, I'm afraid!) and listen to this clip from Youtube of Gillian Welch singing a song called Annabelle from her album Revival. I had Gillian’s voice (and particularly singing this song) running through my head as I read The Well and the Mine. The book was published by a small press at first, having been turned down by several mainstream publishers and then went on to win the coveted Barnes and Noble award in the USA. Now it’s here and I’m recommending it highly to anyone who wants a novel that’s well-written, involving and full of characters we grow to love in spite of their flaws and weaknesses.
It’s the story of a family in hard times. Carbon Hill is a small mining town in Alabama and the book begins in dramatic fashion with a young girl hearing someone...well, here’s the first sentence: “After she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash.” The whole novel, as well as solving the mystery of who threw the baby into the well, describes a community and the relationships between the individuals in it brilliantly well. The members of Tess’s family tell the story in a kind of relay of narration: handing the point of view baton from one to the other. The result is a slow-burning but consistently interesting and engaging story. The mother of the family in particular, is a wonderfully- realized character and the descriptions of such things as food and clothes and furnishings are outstanding. You really do come away from this novel feeling as though you’ve joined the family as one of its members and lived another life for a while. When you surface, it takes time to forget where you’ve been, and I went on remembering what it was like in Phillips’s world for a very long time after I’d finished the book. It’s a terrific first novel and I’m already looking forward to what this writer does next. Buy the book and also the Gillian Welch cd while you’re at it.

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill (Profile Books. £12.99)

My top tip for Christmas for anyone who loves books is this small volume (HEIOTL from now on!) by one of our best and most reliable writers. Susan Hill writes everything, pretty well: literary novels, detective stories, ghost stories of course and essays too, as this book proves. She also blogs at the Spectator and runs a publishing house called Long Barn Books. HEIOTL began when Hill went looking for a book and, in the course of a search through the intricacies of her house, came across a whole number of volumes she either hadn’t read yet or else wanted to revisit. So she made a resolution to buy no new books for a year and simply read what she fancied from her own shelves. What she finds and how she finds it and what these discoveries bring to mind turns into a huge treat for us, her readers. It’s exactly like having a friend sitting with you, chatting about books in a most civilised and also gossipy and personal fashion. You find out not only about her tastes, but also about her education, her brushes with such people as E. M Forster, Edith Sitwell, Benjamin Britten and lots of others. You learn about her life, a little, and most importantly, you learn about the house itself. It is described in small glimpses, but by the end, you feel you know it, every corner. And just as you can envisage famous houses in novels, Susan Hill’s house comes to life as a character in these pages.
One of the best things about reading HEIOTL is that you are almost bound to disagree with some of Hill’s judgements and jump up and down and yell: YOU CAN’T THINK THAT! But yes, she can. Of course she can and why not? These are her books and her opinions and there isn’t a single thing in the world which pleases everyone. We all have our bêtes noires, don’t we ? And we each have our own taste. Most of the reviews for this book have been kind and more than kind, but I did see a sort of luke-warmish one which said something along the lines of: all very nice if you discount her Middle England tastes....or some such. I nearly exploded. You have the taste you have, and if you can write about it as well and as delightfully as Susan Hill, then that’s fantastic. You’ll find here, by the way, three pages of some of the best writing on Dickens that I’ve ever read and which nails completely and succinctly what it is that is so magical about his works.
As a bonus, the book is beautiful as an object. Hill is fussy about fonts and quite right too. Her cover is perfect and, as I said at the beginning of this piece, would look good gift-wrapped under a Christmas tree.

Alice in Love and War by Ann Turnbull (Walker Books, £6.99)

Ann needs no introduction to readers of ABBA, I’m quite sure, but for those of you who have strayed here from somewhere else, you ought to know that she’s one of the very best historical novelists writing today and has not had nearly enough written or said about her books, which are in a different class from most children’s historical fiction, and indeed most children’s fiction being written today. I should declare an interest here. Ann and Linda Newbery and I collaborated on the Historical House series of books and she’s a friend of mine, but even before I knew her, I admired her work and she’s kept up a very consistent standard. I ought also to point out that Leslie Wilson has written about this book before on ABBA, but (slightly adapting the words of the creator of another Alice, who advocated three times) “What I tell you two times is true.” In the words of Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
Alice in Love and War is a good title. The book is about exactly that. It’s the story of a young woman called Alice Newcombe, and begins on a farm in the West Country in 1644. Alice can read and write. She’s the daughter of a herbalist. Her father is dead and she lives with her uncle and aunt, but her uncle is after her with his pawing hands and slobbering lips and she’s very unhappy with her situation. When the Royalist troops are billeted on them, she falls deeply in love with Robin and when given the chance to accompany him, with the other women camp followers, she seizes it and the adventures that ensue are heartstopping, moving and will keep readers turning the pages eagerly till the end of the story. Women have always followed armies, and Ann Turnbull’s depiction of the relationships and friendships among them is particularly well done.
I’m not going to give anything away, but will say this: any teacher who’s presently embarked on teaching the Cavaliers and Roundheads (do teachers still do that? Are they still called Cavaliers and Roundheads, even? ) would immediately interest her class in the politics, the dates and the battles with a book like this in her arsenal. We learn so much about the English Civil War and we learn it in the easiest and best way possible: through the medium of a cracking story told in prose that’s as clean and refreshing as pure water. This book is a real achievement and anyone who enjoys reading about the past will love it. It is also a crossover book, so one for adults too. Marvellous stuff.