Wednesday, 31 March 2010

An Excess of Books - Lucy Coats

Headline News....Author's Book Buying Addiction Out of Control--Bookshelves Overwhelmed 
It's been a long convalescence since they chopped me and my back up at the beginning of February.  I'm not a terribly patient person, and lying in bed 'resting' for days and weeks and months is something I find quite trying.  Nevertheless, there have been consolations.  Apart from precious time to write, I have had 'bednet' to keep me in touch with developments in the outside world, and I've had books to read, which is the best legal way of passing time that I know of--and I didn't even have to feel guilty about doing it in the daytime.  Many beloved old favourites have featured in this reading fest, of course, but also piles and piles of lovely new books, which I have been buying lately with the sort of gay abandon Imelda Marcos used to use on  her shoes.  It's all got a bit out of control, really, and while I am not quite as overwhelmed as Arnold Lobel's picture book character (see above) who had 'books to the ceiling, books to the sky', I'm not far off that happy state of affairs. 

The trouble is, I am a book hoarder.  I'm not quite sure how many books I have, but it must be close to the 10,000 mark and growing.  Yes, you did read that right. TEN THOUSAND, mostly divided into subject matter and section, all in alphabetical order by author so I can put my hand on what I need immediately (I am also a librarian manqué).  There is no room for ornaments in my house.  Shelves are for the storing of literary stuff and nothing else.  I have built-in bookcases (here when I arrived), bought bookcases, and bookshelves I have put together myself with much swearing and bashed thumbs.  The Billy shelves from Ikea which live in my office are double and sometimes treble stacked, and now I am running out of room.  The picture below shows a mere fraction of the problem, and I'm not even mentioning the overflowing attics and the floors. 

My husband, the long suffering Wanton Toast Eater, has now issued a decree.  Books. Must. Go.  But which ones?  This question induces complete panic in me.  After all, I might need to refer to any of them at any time--even the old family ones I inherited from my grandmother and great-aunt which haven't been opened since 1953 or possibly since 1853 (hey, they might be valuable or have useful information in them).  I'll probably get around to filling one small box to placate his need for tidiness. Someday. With a great deal of snarling and begrudgery.  And by that time I will probably have bought more than enough to fill four large boxes. I see it as my citizen's contribution to ending the recession. But I'm beginning to wonder (in an idle sort of way) if we really need all those pictures on the walls.  After all, book spines are decorative in and of themselves. Aren't they?

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Monday, 29 March 2010

The Story of Captain Gray: Sue Purkiss

We hear and read stories all the time, don’t we? From each other, from TV, radio, and online, from books and films. But why is it that most of them will swiftly slip out of our minds, while others settle in and make themselves at home?

I have a story coming out in August. It's called Emily's Surprising Voyage, and it's set on the ss Great Britain – Mr Brunel’s beautiful ship. Built in 1843, this was the first ship to have a screw propeller, an iron hull, and a massive 1000-horsepower steam engine. She broke the previous speed record, and travelled thirty-two times around the world and nearly one million miles at sea. She was finally abandoned in the Falkland Islands, in 1937, after more than 40 years use as a floating warehouse. In 1970 an ambitious salvage effort brought her home to Bristol, where today she is conserved in the dry dock where she was originally built.

A couple of years ago, I had a friend staying, and we went to look round the ship and see how far they’d got with the conservation effort. It’s a fascinating experience, which really gives you a feel for what it must have been like to be on the ship; you get the sounds, the sights, the history – and you get the stories. Stories from long dead passengers, recorded in diaries and letters, echoing down the years – as fresh and vivid as if they were written yesterday. They tell us what it was like to travel in steerage and in first class. They tell us about the food, the entertainments, the storms, the births and deaths, the romances which blossomed among passengers thrown together, in the space between their old lives in England and their new lives in Australia.

But the story that lodged itself in my mind concerns Captain Gray. He was a very popular captain, tall and burly, with a powerful voice. He concerned himself with the well-being of all of his passengers, and would personally go down to steerage to chivvy the passengers into keeping their cramped, closed-in quarters clean and fresh, telling them to go up on deck for fresh air, telling them it was for their own good, and they must look after their health.

One morning, however, the Captain did not appear on deck. His officers went to his cabin to look for him. The window stood open; of the Captain, there was no trace. He was never seen again.

There was no means of contacting his wife and children, so when the ship arrived back in England, there they were, lined up on the quay, waiting eagerly to greet him. Imagine their faces, how their expressions would have changed; from excitement, to incomprehension, to grief.

The Captain appears in my book, but this part of his story does not. It's not essentially his story; it’s that of a boy from steerage and a girl from first class. (And no, it’s not a bit like Jack and Rose on the Titanic!) A few weeks ago, I went to see Rhian Tritton, the Director of Museum and Educational Services for the ss Great Britain, and we talked about the importance of stories in making a visit to the ship meaningful. I mentioned the story of Captain Gray, and how it has stayed with me.

And then the story continued. She told me that recently, the museum managed to discover a portrait of the Captain in Melbourne, Australia. They raised the money to buy it, and it was put on a plane – just ahead of the fires which were devastating the area. On the day the portrait was to arrive at its new home, everyone who worked at or on the ship wore grey, in honour of the kindly and much-loved Captain. And so now his portrait has a place of honour; he has come home. And his story has a face to it.

Let’s call a trousse! Objects speak louder than words by Lynda Waterhouse

This year I have been spending time at the Wallace Collection in London with fellow author, Bridget Crowley, devising and running creative writing workshops using the collection as inspiration. Bridget was looking for artefacts for a Myths and Legends workshop when she found this object….a trousse.
Beneath the ornate sheath lies a set of knives that a hunter would use to eviscerate prey. The stag being overwhelmed by a pack of hounds is the handle of the largest knife. This trousse belonged to a legendary figure in British history- Bonnie Prince Charlie otherwise known as The Young Pretender or Prince Charles Edward Stuart.
Charlie had contacted Frederick the Great of Prussia asking for support with his plans to invade England and reclaim the British throne. He was probably hoping for some troops and a large bag of money.
No troops or bag of money arrived. Instead Frederick sent him this trousse.
I imagine there was no accompanying letter. That would be too incriminating if it fell in the wrong hands.
What was Frederick showing rather than telling him?
Was he warning him to keep his plans under wraps?
Was he suggesting that a soldier like a huntsman needs to be prepared?
Was Frederick using the stag imagery to remind him of the fate of Actaeon the hunter who accidentally stumbled across Artemis bathing with her nymphs? His punishment for this was to be turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds.
For me the message of Frederick’s gift shouts out, ‘Beware of your own ambition.’ Misplaced ambition can tear you apart like a pack of baying hounds.
I don’t know what it said to the Bonnie Prince. In 1745 he began his doomed invasion attempt turning back at Derby. He was pursued by the Duke of Cumberland who took his revenge by eviscerating many of the Prince’s supporters along the way to Culloden.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Devil Has the Best Tunes (Part Two) - Joan Lennon

Last week on my own blog I nailed my colours to the mast - and the colours were blood red and battle black. (All right, I know this is a picture of the Angel Gabriel, played by the delectable Tilda Swinton in the distinctly odd movie Constantine, but she's not a nice Gabriel.) As I explained there, I'm trying to re-create myself as a writerly version of "Devil Woman/Old Testament Mobette". Goodbye Mary Poppins - Hello Typhoid Mary. I'm going to grab my characters by the scruff of their little necks and make them suffer. Big time. Put 'em in danger and leave 'em there - that's my motto ...

So, one week in, how's it been going?

Oh dear.

So far, I've done laundry and tidied my desk and bundled a bunch of old clothes off to the charity shops. I've been to the dentist. (I went in no pain at all, and have had toothache ever since. Surely that's the wrong way round?) I've renewed my prescriptions. I've even taken a mole to the doctor that has been worrying me slightly for about a year. (Nothing sinister.) I've written emails and letters and, here we are, a blog. I did the last of this year's World Book Day events. And I've googled pictures of Tilda Swinton.

Procrastination, thy name is Devil Woman. Let's see if a public confession gives me the push I so obviously need to get stuck in to making life hell.

This week, there'll be no more Mrs Nice Guy ...

Joan Lennon's website
Joan Lennon's blog

Friday, 26 March 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

PAPER WINGS by Linda Sargent. Pbk. Omnes books.

Anyone who was at Charney Manor in 2005 will remember Linda Sargent. She held us spellbound in the solar ( doesn’t that sound like the title of a book?) as she told the story of the Pedlar of Swaffham. Now she’s written a short novel which is equally enchanting. Linda is a friend of mine and though I feel I have to disclose this right at the start, I also have to reiterate that what I’m doing when I write about books is a kind of tugging at people’s sleeves to say: hey, read this, you’ll love it. Here is a link to the blurb,
Not only does this tell you the basic facts about the novel, it also shows you the cover image by Hannah Firmin, which is both beautiful and appropriate. Firmin gave the Ma Ramotswe stories by Alexander McCall Smith their distinctive look and this novel ,too, is very well-served by her.
Linda Sargent shares a background and something of a biography with her ten-year-old heroine Ruby. She, too, was born in Kent. Her father was a hop drier and Linda remembers going down on her bike with his lunch in her basket to wherever he was working. She also remembers reading books in the bunk room of the oasthouse, and these memories give authenticity and a solid base to a tale which has its fantastical elements as well as being a ‘realistic’ story. It also, incidentally, makes a nonsense of age-banding - it really is suitable for “everyone from eight to eighty.”
Ruby and Peter are friends. More than anything in the world, Ruby longs to fly. Peter and Ruby make a pair of wings using body parts from a dead swan. She tries them out by climbing a tree and leaping off it and of course she injures herself. She’s helped by Gabriel, who up till then has been an unseen, hidden presence in the nearby wood. The children have previously thought of him as a ghost. From that day, keeping Gabriel secret and helping him realize a totally impractical dream becomes their main aim, all through the days of this long summer. Gabriel is haunted by his past. There are gipsies camping nearby, one of whom, Oby, is a friend of Ruby and Peter’s. A man named Stan is a sinister and baleful presence around the farm and the horrors of the Second World War cast long shadows over the events of the novel.
The writing is both direct and poetic. Reading this short novel, you’ll be reminded at different times of fairy tales, or traditional folk stories, or even writers like Robert Westall and David Almond, but Sargent has her own very distinctive voice and it’s one that deserves to be heard. The last sentence of all is especially effective and stays in the memory for a long time after you’ve finished reading the book.

GOOD TO A FAULT by Marina Endicott Pbk. Windmill Books.

A single, law-abiding, churchgoing, respectable woman called Clara accidentally drives her car into another vehicle. No one is seriously hurt, but Clara is shaken by what she’s done. She feels responsible and guilty. In the other car are Lorraine and Clayton, their three children and Clayton’s mother, Mrs Pell. Clara takes them to the local hospital where it’s discovered that Lorraine has terminal cancer. Clara then invites the whole family to stay in her house with her while Lorraine undergoes treatment. The novel progresses from there.
If you feel you’ve read too many books already which deal with death from cancer, don’t be put off. This Canadian novel is quite different from what you might be expecting. It has in abundance a quality that is probably underrated and yet is at the same time the real acid test of a book: you cannot stop reading it. You HAVE to turn the pages. You MUST find out what happens next. Sometimes when books have this quality, it’s at the expense of literary merit, but not here. Endicott writes a simple, very elegant, very emotion-packed prose and best of all, her characters, (quite eccentric, some of them, especially the grotesque Mrs. Pell) are completely believable, human, flawed, loveable and real. All three children are brilliantly described and imagined. There’s a priest called Paul who’s one of the most sympathetic clerics you’ll ever meet. He has a tendency, almost a tic, of quoting from the poets (and Endicott tells us in an afterword where the quotations come from.)
I’m not sure the title is right for the book, though it’s true of Clara. Nor is the cover image exactly what you’d expect, but none of this matters. Endicott is a marvellous find. This is her second novel and the first to be published in this country. I was very much hoping for the novel to be on the Orange longlist and I’m sorry it’s not. I reckon it’s a real corker and one which constantly surprises the reader. I’ve been telling everyone I know about it and recommending it in comments boxes all over the blogosphere. Please try it.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Support Your Local Serif - Charlie Butler

There’s been some behind-the-scenes conversation at ABBA Towers in recent days about the fonts we like to use when writing. Perpetua, Times New Roman, Calibri, Hoefler Text, Kristen ITC, Comic Sans MS, Garamond and even good old Courier have had their champions. Personally I’m still a longhand kid, which means that I favour Biro Scrawl 12pt for my first drafts. When it comes to writing things up I tend to default to Times New Roman, though I’ve been known to flirt with Garamond when TNR was looking the other way.
Does the choice of font matter? Certainly, it can help set the mood. A fun-loving, bouncy font may engender a book with the same qualities. Conversely my Garamondian flings have tended to coincide with attempts at historical writing, appropriate to that time-honoured typeface. If I ever wanted to set a story in the office of a hardboiled L.A. private eye, I’d be seriously tempted to write it in typewriterish Courier. Fonts are useful in editing, too. As Penny Dolan pointed out in a previous ABBA post, a change of font can be an effective distancing technique, helping writers achieve the necessary detachment from their own words.
If fonts matter to writers, they’re no less important to readers. Would the US Declaration of Independence, for example, have been taken as seriously had it been printed in Courier, Boopee or Planet Benson 2? That the answer is "No" I hold to be self-evident. Publishers (with or without the cooperation of authors) spend a good deal of time agonizing over choices of font, just as they do over covers, strap lines and everything else that goes to make a book the memorably sensuous and tactile experience that it is.
This may be changing, however. With the advent of e-books and other new technologies, readers are likely to have more control than before over the appearance and “feel” of the books they read, choosing their own fonts and layouts according to personal comfort and taste. Arguably this is to be celebrated as a democratization of art, a welcome shift in power from producer to consumer. But how far we can push this idea? Does it matter if we prefer Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Photoshopped into a different shade of yellow – or maybe pink? Perhaps we wish to hear Beethoven’s 5th in A minor instead of C minor? Or shall we watch The Battleship Potemkin in colour? Digital technology is there to oblige. This is all very exhilarating, but Van Gogh chose his palette, and Beethoven his key, for reasons that seemed good – and perhaps fundamental – to them. Who is to say which aspects of a work of art are “essential” and which mere “decoration”? When it comes to books, whose is the last word?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

A Book Review by Marie-Louise Jensen

I've struggled tothink of anything to post about today. I've written another rant about bleak children's books that is more likely to annoy people than anything else, so I've merely filed it.

My own writing is in a state of uncertainty as I may be about to put a book aside that I've been working on to start a completely different one, but I don't know yet. And I'm busy with rewrites on a previous manuscript, but rewrites are really not interesting to anyone but the author.

So instead I'm going to review a book I really enjoyed a while back, which doesn't seem to me to be getting the attention it deserves in the UK.

I review a number of books a year for Write Away and get interesting and varied reads. Some of these are eagerly awaited (the latest Mary Hooper, Sally Gardner or Ann Turnbull for example) and others are books I might not otherwise have come across.

My favourite unexpected read of last year was a debut novel called The Agency: A Spy in the House, by Canadian author Y.S. Lee.

Set in murky Victorian London, this is the first of a series. The main character, Mary, was rescued from the gallows at a tender age by a group of unorthodox women who run a charity school. When Mary reaches her teen years, she is recruited to The Agency, a secret organisation which offers women of enterprise and courage a chance to do more than repressive Victorian society usually offers them: spying for a detective agency.

I thought this was a wonderfully subversive premise and it grabbed my attention at once. The adventure that followed didn't disappoint. Mary was a strong and engaging heroine, the writing was great and there was a charming romance, including an unexpected and amusing scene in - believe it or not - a wardrobe. There was also the added interest of Mary's dual heritage and her search for her mysterious father. The story was set up nicely for the sequel which will follow later this year: The Body at the Tower. I'm looking forward to it.

If you enjoy historical adventures, or know any teen girls who do, you should definitely give this one a try.

Everything Marvellous! Miss Catherine Johnson

In the spirit of Nicky Browne who has taken us back to AD 50 and Roman werewolves, I would like to share my own world, a thousand or so years closer to our own, which starts here with this poem,
originally printed in the Bath Herald June 1817,

OH! Aid me, ye spirits of wonder! who soar
In realms of Romance where none ventur'd before;
Ye Fairies! who govern the fancies of men,
And sit on the point of Monk Lewis's pen;
Ye mysterious Elves! who forever remain
With Lusus naturaes and Ghosts of Cock Lane;
Who ride upon broomsticks, intent to deceive
All those who appear pre-disposed to believe,
And softly repeat from your home in the spheres
Incredible stories to credulous ears;
With everything marevllous, everything new,
We'll trace a description of Miss CARABOO.

Princess Caraboo, that's her actual portrait up there, was a real young woman from Regency history. I have taken her as a starting point (truth, as usual, is stranger than anything I could invent and in real life she ended her days as a successful Bristol business woman who sold medicinal leeches) and she has led me into a world of posture clubs, honour lost, honour restored, and thigh slapping, thoroughly nasty cads.
Every time I wander off course from my story I come back to this poem. I have so nearly squeaked to the finish I could sing.

And because she was real and I have taken liberties with the truth, (I am sure Caraboo herself would approve of that) I have told my story from the point of view of a completely and utterly worthless young man; Mr Frederick Worrall, 18, just out of Westminster school, woman hater and horrible snob.

I have almost got a title - The TRUE and MARVELLOUS story of the UNMASKING of the PRINCESS CARABOO.
I am at the final chapter. OK I'm a month late but let's forget that shall we? Let's also forget that as yet my lovely story has no publisher (another story) and lets hope someone is interested in empire line frocks, deception, demi reps and beau nasties.
All together; "HURRAH!"

Monday, 22 March 2010

Histrionics: N M Browne

I’ve always liked history - reading historical novels, studying it ( in moderation) and now writing it ( in slightly modified form.)I’m not a real historian - not remotely - and even when I studied it, I liked the ‘what if’ questions much more than the facts. I’m not that keen on facts to be honest. They are generally inconvenient and gritty; lumps in the smooth cake mix of my imaginary confections. Fortunately I write historical fantasy or sometimes alternate history, (depending on who is writing my book blurb) so you would think I could discard them at will. I can’t. Unfortunately, it’s the grittiness of fact that keeps my fiction grounded and authentic and I am just as bound to the damn things as if I were writing real history.
This might be mad. I mean if a story is going to feature were wolves or magic perhaps angsting about the exact type of helmet a soldier might wear is a little neurotic. But I do angst about that. I am currently battling a major panic that my current story, set in AD 50, has my main character ( a seeress) too ignorant of battles down south to be believable. (She’s a seeress, Nicky, she can see the future she’s never going to be ‘believable’.) I am also worried that her companions would be wearing lorica segmentata rather than, the altogether more convenient, mail shirts. I pore over maps to try to work out how far my heroes could realistically cover in a day and track down details of the kind of provisions you might be expected to find in a first century Roman’s pack in mid winter. OK one of the Romans then turns into a wolf, but at least he eats the right kind of food.
I have of course rationalised this absurd incongruity - an obsession with this small stuff and a tendency to rewrite the really big stuff - the laws of physics for example: I believe that when I am asking readers to suspend disbelief and accept the impossible, it helps to go the extra ( Roman) mile to establish credibility, to build a story world that is grounded in verifiable truths. I also believe that I cannot write any other way. My perfectionist streak, which is otherwise indiscernible to the naked eye, will not allow me to just make everything up.
I am occasionally urged to write stories set in other times and places and I wonder if the people doing the urging appreciate how much time is involved in researching a book. I don’t particularly like research, I don’t get lost in it, I do it with a clear purpose in mind and only cope with it at all by choosing periods about which little concrete is known so that even being picky about the facts leaves me vast amounts of interpretive wriggle room. I don’t think I could write a story set in well documented periods because I would be paralysed by the vastness of what I don’t know.
I have tremendous admiration for people who write real historical novels, who take me to another place that is as tangibly foreign and bizarre as the past would have been.The past is not like the present without lycra and with poorer hygiene, it should feel like another planet not just another country.
For me the research is worth while when one small discovery brings that strangeness home, because fact is stranger than even fantasy fiction and nothing I can write can ever do justice to real history. I love it that the Romans had a tradition of were-wolf stories and that the condition of my poor benighted character was understood. In honour of that delightful fact my new book is called ‘Versipellum’, skin changer, or at least it will be when I finish writing it.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

short stories - long books- does size matter? - Linda Strachan

Surely a book should be as long or as short as the story demands?

I know we as writers have to work in the commercial world of publishing if we want to see our work in print. But does this mean writing longer and longer books because there is a perception that a book needs to the thick enough to sell?

This line of thought was prompted by  an article in the Guardian yesterday .

There are some amazing books that are short, sharp and work because of their length, and others that are a delight because they are long and involved.  As a reader I know there are times I want to get lost in a long book, or even a series of lengthy novels, to live with the characters for a longer time  but there are also times when I want to dip into something that will charm and delight me because of the pared down prose.

When Spider came out it got some great reviews but the occasionally someone would mention that it was a short novel for teenagers, as if that might be a problem.  It is short, but as far as I am concerned it is the right length for the story and for the way it is told.  I could have added padding to make it a longer book, but  would that have made it a better read?  I don't think so.

My new book Dead Boy Talking will be a similar length.  Some readers have said they like that length because it was less daunting and they felt confident they would finish it.  Others just enjoyed the fast pace that might be difficult to sustain in a much longer novel.

Personally I feel that if publishers are pushing for longer books because it seems like they might sell better I think that is a dangerous road to go down, a similar avenue to the thinking behind publishing celebrity authors whether they can write or not.

The writing, the plot, characters and the story have to be what dictates length, or am I being naive in this commercial world?

Do you think length matters?

Read my blog  - Bookwords -
Visit my website - to find out about
my new book Dead Boy Talking - published June 2010- Strident Publishing

Friday, 19 March 2010

The Perfect Job - John Dougherty

Ask some people to define the perfect job, and they’ll start by describing the salary. Ask others, and they’ll begin with working conditions, or colleagues, or sense of purpose, or flexibility. There are as many perfect jobs as there are types of people; and there are as many types of people as there are... well, people, probably.

So to anyone who’s just dropped by for some careers advice: sorry. Can’t help. Whatever your skill-set, you’d be better going and asking a careers advisor. No, what I’m musing about today is why writing is my perfect job - or, at least, the perfect job for someone with my particular well-defined and carefully honed flaw-set.

For a start, I’m a procrastinator; and I’d imagine there are very few jobs which suit the procrastinator quite so well as writing. When you’re a writer, you see, you start work on a story long before you actually realise you’ve started work on a story. By the time you get round to thinking it might be time to procrastinate, it’s too late. You’ve started work.

Procrastinators - assuming I’m typical of the breed, of course - are daydreamers; and there’s no telling which bits of your daydreams may end up sparking off a story, or changing its course, or providing a resolution, without your having the slightest intention of doing any work. The characters form, the plot builds up, the dialogue begins to whisper, all inside your head and long before you ever consider putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard. It happens while you thought you were avoiding making a shopping list, or doing the washing-up, or paying the bills. And once the story has firmly taken root in your imagination, and is expanding by the day, well, you might as well sit down and tap out a few ideas. It’s not as if you’re actually going to do the whole thing. Not at once, anyway.

And then: well, disappearing down to your shed and writing the next bit is a great way to avoid all those other tasks you’d otherwise have to be doing, isn’t it?

So much for procrastination. But I also suffer from its equal and opposite flaw: a fear of finishing. A dreadful drawback in most spheres of work, I’m sure you’ll agree; but the thing about writing is, you never really finish. Not properly.

You get to the bit where you write the closing sentence, of course; but you never know if that really is the closing sentence. No, you send the MS off to your editor safe in the knowledge that it really isn’t finished yet; that she’ll get back to you sooner or later (later if you have a procrastinating editor who should really have been a writer but never quite got round to it) with lots of helpful suggestions about how to improve it. Finishing the first draft really isn’t finishing the story at all, because there’ll be lots more to do.

Even when you’ve finished the rewrites, in all probability there’ll be more rewrites, and maybe even more. At no point do you send back the re-re-re-re-redrafted work knowing that that’s it, and it’s all done. In fact, the first glimmer you sometimes get that your story is finished is when a package arrives from the publisher containing a book, all neatly bound and illustrated and full of things you’d have done differently if you’d known it was your last chance to change them.

And, really, I sometimes wonder if there’s any personality flaw that writing as a career can’t accommodate. Addiction to tea? Easy. Propensity to get distracted? Almost a requirement, the way I work. Predilection for mass murder and world domination? Not one I suffer from, I hasten to add, but who knows: perhaps if the first edition of Mein Kampf had sold more quickly or won a major prize, its author might have been too busy being lunched by his publisher and working on that difficult second book to remember to invade Poland.

John’s website is at His most recent book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Hearing Voices - Katherine Langrish

If hearing voices is a form of saintliness or madness, all authors are mad saints. Creating characters means knowing them from the inside out and being able to ‘hear’ how they think and how they talk. An out-going, confident character will reflect that in his or her speech. A nervous character will sound diffident, hesitant, or perhaps more formal. The goal is to create a distinctive voice for each of the main characters. They should not all sound alike.

This is important even if you are writing in the first person. First person narratives can be in danger of sounding anonymous and samey. I’ve read a few first person teen novels which, apart from the names, you could be forgiven for assuming were all about the same heroine, a sort of generic ‘15/16 year old modern girl’. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s an expert at work:

You know that old film they always show on the telly at Christmas, the Wizard of Oz? I love it, especially the Wicked Witch of the West, with her cackle and her green face and all her special flying monkeys. I’d give anything to have a wicked winged monkey as an evil little pet. It could whiz through the sky, flapping its wings and sniffing the air for that awful stale instant-coffee-and-talcum powder teacher smell and then it would s-w-o-o-p straight onto Mrs Vomit Bagley and carry her away screaming.
(“The Dare Game”, Jacqueline Wilson, 2000)

And we know this girl. She’s exuberant, imaginative, funny, a rebel – Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Tracy Beaker’. It looks easy, but it’s not. It would be VERY easy to write something similar but far less engaging:

There’s an old film they often show on the telly at Christmas, the Wizard of Oz. I’ve always loved it, and my favourite character is the Wicked Witch of the West. I like the way she cackles, and her green face, and all her special flying monkeys. I’ve always wished I could have a wicked winged monkey for a pet…

This has lost all its energy and sounds written down, not spoken.

Then there’s the pitfall of dialects and regional accents. Here, a little goes a very long way. Unless you yourself are steeped in a dialect or accent, it’s easy to get it wrong and sound phony. Avoid “begorrah’s” and “eeh, by gum’s”; avoid too many dropped ‘h’s’ and rhyming slang. Of course, if you are really at home with an accent, it can add enormously to your writing. In this extract, an eighteenth century Yorkshire drummer boy walks out of a hill – and out of his own time:

“I wasn’t so long,” said the drummer. “But I niver found nowt. I isn’t t’first in yon spot; sithee, I found yon candle. Now I’s thruff yon angle, and it hasn’t taken so long, them bells is still dinging. It’s a moy night getting. But come on, or they’ll have the gate fast against us and we’ll not get our piggin of ale.”
“Who are you?” said Keith.
“I thought thou would ken that,” said the boy. “But mebbe thou isn’t t’fellow thou looks in t’dark.”

“Earthfasts” William Mayne, 1966

If you’re not this confident (and most of us aren’t), be sparing in your use of dialect words. The reader will be able to use a few subtle pointers to ‘fill in’ the accent from his or her own experience, and that’s better than getting it wrong. Slight changes to grammar will sometimes help. A nineteenth century servant girl might be likely to say, “What was you thinking of, talking to the missus like that?” rather than, “What were you thinking of?” Be consistent, though. If she starts out talking like this, she has to keep it up.

If you are writing historical fiction, it’s better for your dialogue to sound timelessly modern, than to wallow in a sea of what Robert Louis Stevenson used to call ‘tushery’: peppering your dialogue with phony “forsooth’s”, “tush-tushes” and “by my halidom’s”. Modern writers are less likely to make this mistake, but note that ‘timelessly’ means you cannot use modern colloquialisms. Cavaliers and Victorians cannot convincingly use 20th century idioms like ‘OK’. Check the Oxford Dictionary if you’re not sure. There are always surprises. ‘Kid’ for ‘child’ goes right back to the eighteenth century.

Then there’s a disease to which fantasy writers in particular are terribly prone. I call it ‘Wizard’s Waffle’, and it involves using grammatical inversions and a stilted, archaic vocabulary in an attempt to make your character sound wise (and sometimes to conceal the fact that neither you nor he actually have very much to say.) It’s partly Tolkien’s influence: he uses deliberately ‘high’ or heroic language when he wants to emphasise the importance of an event. At the end of “The Return of the King”, characters sound positively Biblical. Aragorn, accepting the crown of Gondor, says:

“By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head…for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory.”

It’s grand, but it’s dull: Aragorn’s character is completely submerged by the style. If he talked like this all the time, we would soon lose interest in him: fortunately, for most of the book, he doesn’t. But at least Tolkien, a Professor of Philology, knew how to handle archaic grammar and cadences. Many modern writers don’t – so if you are irresistibly tempted towards the ‘what-say-the-elves-on-this-matter’ type of dialogue, get the grammar right. The verb ‘to be’ used to be conjugated thus:

I am
Thou art (familiar singular)
Ye be/you are (polite singular)
He/she/it is
We are
You are (plural)
They are

This, of course, is why the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ with its thee’s and thou’s is actually the familiar way of speaking to God – not, as I used to think when I was little, a special dressed-up sort of way.

Two more often-misused verbs:

I have
Thou hast (familiar singular) 
You have (polite singular)
He/she/ it hath
We have 
You have (plural)
They have

I do
Thou dost (familiar singular)
You do (polite singular)
He/she/it doth
We do (plural)
You do (plural)
They do

Commit all this to memory and you will be preserved from Monty Pythonesque dialogue along the lines of, “Fair knight, I prithee tell me if ye art Sir Lancelot? For the omens doth foretell that only he canst save me.”

Mind you, in the right hands, all these rules can be creatively bent, twisted and broken. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld characters frequently say things like ‘OK’ and it doesn’t matter a bit, because Discworld is really our own world in a carnival mask – and Pratchett has wise and wonderful things to say about it.

When I was writing the Troll series, set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, I tried my best to make the characters sound fresh without being too obviously modern. Vocabulary was one way. It may sound obvious, but you can’t have ‘battleship grey’ at a time before there are any grey battleships, for example. Angry people may ‘shout’, but should not ‘explode’, centuries before any grenades or bombs. At one point I thought very hard before allowing myself to use the verb ‘corkscrewed’ to describe a twisting underground passage. Clearly, Vikings didn’t have corkscrews. But I decided that, in context, no image of an actual corkscrew would spring incongruously to mind. I don’t mind the occasional anachronism – so long as I know it’s there…

In my latest book “Dark Angels” (“The Shadow Hunt” in the USA), set in the 12th century, there’s one character who sounds more modern than the others. His name is Halewyn, and he is – or masquerades as – a wandering jongleur, a sort of intinerant juggler-cum-minstrel. The boy, Wolf, is angry because Halewyn has brought an unguarded flame into the stables where the mysterious elf-girl is kept.

Halewyn stood in the glimmering drizzle, hanging his head so extravagantly that the donkey-ears on his cap drooped.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. He pounded his thin chest. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Anything you’d like me to do in penance? Turn a somersault? Do three cartwheels across the yard, dodging the puddles? Sing a song standing on my head?”
Wolf couldn’t help laughing. “No, it’s all right. Just remember, flames are dangerous in stables and barns.”
“Oh, I will. I’ll be very, very careful.” Halewyn perked up. “At least I saw her,” he said buoyantly. “And now, take me to your leader.”

‘Take me to your leader.’ Why would I put such an iconic modern phrase into the mouth of a 12th century character? And the answer is: Because Halewyn isn’t quite what he seems. He is  – well, I'd better not say, but he’s immortal – and being immortal, I think he can transcend time and speak ‘out of turn’ and out of his century.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Writing's a Beach - Miriam Halahmy

My parents moved to Hayling Island, opposite the Isle of Wight in 1971 during my first year at college. They bought a house a minute's walk from the beach at Sandy Point, right down the bottom of the Island where a well known yacht club is situated. They lived on Hayling for over twenty years and my brothers and I and our families all came to love this quiet little backwater. Hayling Island is completely flat, twenty five miles square and before the steam train, the Hayling Billy was built, the only way to reach the Island was by boat.

Hayling Island has been settled since the Iron Age and there are wonderful chalk and flint beds around the site of the old oyster beds. Oysters were once a big industry on the Island.
There was also another way to reach the Island at low tide before the bridge was built and that was on the Wadeway. The Wadeway is believed to be a thousand years old and is a rocky footpath which has been laid out at the top of the Island right across the treacherous mudflats to the mainland. You can't use it now because the channel has been widened in the centre for sailing. I've tried walking along the top end which is uncovered at low tide but its incredibly slippery and if you slip into the mud you can sink up to your waist. The coastguards have to rescue one or two people a year.

You can just make out the line of the Wadeway in this photo which also shows the old mill and the Royal Oak pub on the mainland, facing out into Langstone Harbour towards the Island. Nevil Shute wrote one of his novels while staying in the mill and swans and ducks swim about in the sea and on the ponds behind it. Smuggling was rife around the Island in the eighteenth century and local gossip claims there was once a smugglers' tunnel between the mill and the pub. But its unlikely as the sea would have flooded it.

My life has been linked to Hayling Island for over thirty years and therefore I decided to set a children's novel on the Island. I was walking on the beach one day and wondered what would happen if a couple of kids found an illegal immigrant washed up on the beach. I had just had a short story accepted by Tony Bradman for his anthology, Give me Shelter, about child asylum seekers. My story, Samir Hakkim's Healthy Eating Diary focused on a ten year old boy smuggled out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq to save his life. Samir finds himself abandoned at Heathrow airport by his escort, a regular occurrence for unaccompanied child asylum seekers and taken into care. I have worked with refugees and asylum seekers all of my working life, first as a teacher in London schools and then as a writer with Exiled Writers' Ink!, the Medical Foundation and PEN. There seemed to be much more to say about Samir than I could write in a short story. So I picked him up four years later, now aged fourteen. Walking on the beach on Hayling with his friend, Alix, they come across Mohammed,thrown out of his smugglers' boat and nearly dying of cold. Samir persuades Alix to help him hide Mohammed to save him from being deported. My novel, HIDDEN, will be published by Meadowside Books, March 2011.

But I loved writing about Hayling Island so much there are now three books in the cycle. A minor character in the first book becomes the major character in the second book and so on. I am writing the third book now and have decided to set it around the old oyster beds. These have become absolute havens for the huge range of bird life which the Island hosts. When I was there last Saturday the terns and gulls were kicking up a terrible row as they jostled for nesting rights. The Brent Geese who come every winter from the Arctic Circle were bobbing about on the sea, diving for the eel grass under the water and boats were scudding about across the Solent.

Hayling Island is a perfect setting and coming back to the Island, walking the beaches, taking photos and writing in my notebook,has given me a whole new world of writing which I know I will return to again and again.


The wind, the greydeep sea.
Gulls, shots of white light
meeting still water
hunt for fish.

She is digging now
heaping sandcastles expertly in a line,
pointed rainhood, yellow spade.

She is the relief
on the flat edge of loveliness
dimenstion on the straight line of content.

She fills the space between
horizons, empty days.
"Watch me mummy,"
keeps at bay
the fierce dogs of night
snapping in my face.

(c) Miriam Halahmy

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Tuesday, 16 March 2010

On being stupid - Anne Rooney

OK, I posted my blog post on Sunday when I should have posted it today. This was pretty stupid as it means there will be no post today - except this one!

Being stupid is no barrier to success as a writer (luckily), as long as you are stupid in the right ways. So I thought I'd share some of the ways in which I am stupid that don't seem to have a detrimental effect on my career.

1. Counting double-page spreads. Now, this should be really easy. The number of working double-page spreads in a picture book or illustrated non-fiction book is simple to calculate if you know the page extent (usually 32 or 48pp) and what will go in the prelims/end matter. I have an 'A' level in maths - why am I perenially incapable of sending the right number of spreads? There's always one too many or one too few. My editors are very patient, so this hasn't done me any harm so far. I think it's a bit like not being able to tell left from right - it should be really easy, there are only two. But I just have a mental block about it (except when it relates to double-page spreads.... how strange - verso and recto are really easy to tell apart).

2. Leaving things until the very last minute. I know how long it takes to write a book, I know when the deadline is, I know I never miss deadlines - so why can't I ever start writing early enough to finish without a last-minute panic?

3. Being completely incapable of writing an outline (fiction) in advance of writing the book. If a publisher insists on an outline, I write the book first and then extract an outline. Then I pretend I haven't written the book and sit on it for months. (I do edit it a bit in that time :-) Once, I wrote the book, extracted the outline and the book was rejected because it was too similar to something else in the series. I had to write another book and do another outline...

4. Being too honest. As in 'Can you suggest some cover images for your book on XXX?' 'No, I know f*** all about XXX.' Or 'Can you write this series for me?' 'Yes, but it will be a bit late. My life is in ruins.' 'Your life is in ruins? Is there something I missed?' [For some reason, neither editor took the books away from me, so I am assuming this is not career-wrecking stupidity even though I would have assumed it should be.]

5. Being too informal. As in ''ere - have you read that story yet?' which is not the approved method of following up a submission.

6. Making stupidly bad decisions. As in, I have no time, no powers of concentration, too many other things to do, and am struggling to write anything - so why have I just agreed to do something insanely hard in a short space of time for practically no money? Because I can't turn down a challenge...

And, of course, there is having to write a second blog post when I have no time, no powers of concentration, bla bla...

Ways in which writers should not be stupid are many and varied and most have been treated at length in other places, particularly by my fellow stroppy/crabbit colleague Nicola Morgan at Help! I need a publisher. So if you are thinking of becoming stupid, take care picking the areas of stupidity you wish to explore.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Please Miss, what shall I write? - Anne Rooney

I remember other kids asking that question when we were set free composition exercises at school. I never had to ask - I always had something to write about. But now the tables are, if not turned, at least tilted and I am asking it - most immediately about this blog post, then about Ian McEwan's Solar (reviewed to death before it's even been published) and, like a 10-year-old, about my next story. Creativity is at a low ebb. It has been winter for too long, too many terrible things have happened, and all my creative energy has gone into putting pieces back together. But I can't go for too long without writing something imaginative, and now I'm restless.

Writers are used to the perennial question asked by non-writers, 'where do you get your ideas from?' Many of us find the question deeply irritating, or intrusive, or just stupid. Ideas are in the ether, all around. It's a bit like quinine - some people can taste the quinine in tonic water and it makes the stuff unbearably bitter. Others can't taste it at all. Some of us are bombarded with the ideas that are lurking everywhere; others seem to walk oblivious through the blizzard without seeing any of them. I can't taste quinine, but find the world crawling with ideas. They seep out of every surface and pool on the floor. Usually, there are far more than can be dealt with. But not now. There is a bit of an idea-drought around here. This is not the same as writer's block - brillliantly discussed here by Lucy Coats and debated by several other SASsies and the WB-denier Susan Hill. If I had something to write about, I could write, at least badly - and bad writing can be improved later. But I can't quite settle on an idea I care enough about. Writing is often an effort, but there must be excitement to fire the effort. It's like an engine that can't start without a spark.

I do have a bit of an idea now, but it hasn't come about in the usual way. Usually, I'll be walking or talking or reading and a phrase or an image will spark something. From this tiny germ - often words, sometimes a picture - a story will start to unfurl. I won't necessarily know where it's going when I start writing, but it will hold enough promise for me to have faith in it. This time it's different. This idea is cobbled together from tracks, footprints left in the mud. Shadows of events, words, images rather than the real thing, a hint of a pattern emerging from the mess.

When I was a small child, I used to play with mercury. I know, that's dangerous. I remember chasing tiny blobs of mercury around on the carpet (mercury is good on a carpet - it doesn't stick to the fibres, but rolls over them). I would break my mercury pool into lots of tiny globules and then coax them around, herding them like sheep, until finally I'd group them all back together into a single pool, my mercury flock reunited. It's like that, this time. The story is bits and pieces. They need herding together, but my muse won't play the demeaning role of sheepdog. I can push the mercury blobs around, but they don't stick together. Maybe a story can't be made this way. Maybe the bits will never stick. It's not my way of writing - which is no reason to reject it, but it means I don't know how to do it. I don't want to have to learn how to write all over again, like the victim of an emotional stroke marshalling different parts of the brain to do once-familiar tasks. Do any of you write this way? How do I do it? Do I have to start writing a plan? Help!

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Calling up our Giants - Dianne Hofmeyr

Horatius was never my hero. Give me Lars Porsena any day. Low exposure to Roman history as a child might’ve been to blame. I was too busy with Zulu wars, Chaka, Dingaan and the battle of Isandlwana. Roman history only emerged years later when I was studying Latin.

I loved the idea of Lars Porsena so much that I can still quote the opening verses without stumbling. It wasn’t who or what he was that appealed, it was the sheer joy of invoking Macaulay’s words… shame on the false Etruscan who lingers in his home when Porsena of Clusium is on the march fro Rome. What was an Etruscan? And who or what was Tarquin? And where was Clusium? I absolutely didn’t care. Magical too were Ocnus of Falerii, Lausulus of Urgo, Aruns of Volsinium and Lord of Luna… never mind that they all died. They were my invocation of power. I shouted the words at the ceiling from my bed, in front of the mirror, brandished them at the trees with my stick-sword whipping through the air and whispered them into the grass until my sisters were sick of me.

Last week I went to see the play, Jerusalem, with the mesmeric award-winning performance by Mark Rylance playing Johnny (Rooster) Byron, a drug-dealing hell-raiser who lives in a forest in Wiltshire. There are a few more weeks left of its run at the Apollo, London, so I won’t spoil it by saying too much. But he tells a story of meeting a giant on the motorway when staggering home one night and relates it with such conviction, even his doubting listeners are reluctant to bang the drum that he says will awaken the giants and bring them from the four corners of the earth. I think it was The Guardian newspaper that said: he tells stories with the touch of an enchanter… someone who sees everyone but seems to be looking only at you. Life is conjured so vividly that wafts of wild garlic seem real.

At the end with only him and his young son who has crept back on stage, he invokes his brothers, every Byron who has ever lived, and all the giants of this earth, Magog, Og, Anak, Havelock, Beowulf, Goram… (I wish I could remember the litany) He shouts their names and drums incessantly louder and louder… a giant of a man infusing his son with bravery. (Brave too the young boy actor who has to witness such an invocation!) I couldn’t move. I was totally gripped… spellbound.

It made me think about my own struggle with words in telling a story and whether the words we choose to give children are invocations? In our stories are we daring children to be brave? Are our words rousing up their inner giants? Do we stir up giants like Macaulay did with me with Lars Porsena… not just by action but by the sheer enchantment and power of the words

Friday, 12 March 2010

If You Didn't Agree With the Guardian's Choice of Children's Book Heroes....

I took exception to the Guardian choices today, and decided to run my own survey of who children's book people would choose as their s/heroes. If you've got five minutes or so for a bit of procrastination, please join in with your own choices in the comments page at  Scribble City Central When all the choices are in (it closes Friday 19th March) I'll run 2 polls with the top female and male contenders, and there'll be a competition to win signed copies of my first 4 Greek Beasts and Heroes books at the same time. Have fun!

Being Nice by Meg Harper

Ahah! It’s Monday and this is Schoolvisitville-on-sea! Hurray! It only entailed a last minute change of travel plan when we realised that my husband really did need the car, so I have arrived in the civilised way by train. I only had to stay with my sister over night in Birmingham and get up at 5.45! Yey! I’m raring to go. Where’s my pick up?

Ahah! So really they wanted me to go to a different station! Fine. No worries. The nice taxi man takes me to my first school and we have a jolly nice chat. First rule of author visits according to Penny Dolan’s Survival Guide is Be Nice. So I am. I have been being Nice since 6.15 when my brother-in-law took me to the railway station.

Ahah! The teacher taking this session didn’t know I was coming. Neither did the kids! No worries – we have a great time anyway – except for the three who don’t come back after break because they don’t want to miss PE and ‘Miss said it was OK’. Wounded? No, no. I am far too Nice.

Ahah! Lunchtime! I am famished. It’s a long time since breakfast. A taxi whisks me across town to the next school. This taxi driver is Not Nice. He does not want to talk so I am Nice and Quiet. Phew.

‘Ahah!’ says the Nice receptionist. ‘We’re so glad you’ve arrived. We’ve got two classes waiting for you in the library.’
‘But I haven’t had any lunch yet,’ I say Nicely.
Looks of horror.
‘We’ll try and get you some. But the children are waiting for you in the library.’
‘Yes, I do understand how difficult it is,’ I say very Nicely indeed, ‘and I’ll go and start the session – but I do need some lunch please.’
The egg sandwiches and biscuits look enticingly Nice, sitting on the desk while I talk to the children. In the end I ask a Nice teacher to read a draft for me while I stuff them down my face (nicely).

Ahah! Two schools and three workshops down and it is time to go to my B&B. Oh goodie.
‘So where do you need to be taken?’ asks the very Nice Head of English.
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘The agency said you were booking it.’
‘No, they said that they were.’

We are both very Nice about it, especially when the agency lady is not at work and we have to wait while enquiries are made. I am especially nice when the phone goes and it is not the agency but the Head of English’s little boy’s nursery – he is throwing up violently and needs a parent RIGHT NOW!

The agency sorts it out. The Head of English (who deserves the Nice Woman of the Year Award) sends her husband to collect her son and takes me to my extremely Nice B&B and I finish my day with a nice hot shower, a very Nice tasty meal and an incredibly Nice walk on the beach under the Nicest sunset I’ve seen for a long time. My face aches a bit from my Nice smile but I cannot deny that I have had a Nice day.
Penny is right. Be Nice. Then you can cope with absolutely anything on a school visit. (Well – maybe not – nobody’s wiped their nose on my skirt (I wear drainpipes just in case!) or thrown up on me yet!) It’s as well, really. I’ve visited ten in the last fortnight! Can I be horrible and grumpy for a bit now please???  Seriously, though – it’s been great fun – and if you haven’t read Penny’s post on the ten reasons for doing them, please do! Now I’m really looking forward to some quiet time in my study!

PS.I'm not stealing a baby in the picture - just taking part in my Princess Amelia workshop for Reception and Year 1!

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Good Luck - Andrew Strong

Noel Edmonds wrote down his wish on a piece of paper and put it under his pillow. What was his dream? World peace? A cure for cancer? No, he wanted to present a prime time TV show. Some time later his 'cosmic ordering' produced the goods: he fronted "Deal or No Deal".

This wasn't a miracle: it seems quite obvious to me that any celebrity whose cosmic ordering didn't produce results would not be eager to shout about it in the press, and nor would the press be interested in such a miserable outcome. How many other celebrities of Edmonds' generation have wished their careers could be resuscitated, worked hard, and got nowhere? (Remember BBC DJ Mike Read? His musical "Oscar Wilde" closed after one day. "Hard to feel anything but contempt," was one review.)

You cross your fingers, you look for a sign, something that will confirm what you already believe: the message could come as a picture in the paper, a bird on a wire, an advert on the TV. Others may say it's coincidence but you know better - it's an omen. When things get desperate these portents come thick and fast. A car overtakes - its number plate spells out an important message: or a song on the radio confirms what you already thought.

I enjoy this when it works at the most trivial level - "if I can throw this bottle top into the bin from the other side of the room then my book will be a run away success" - sort of thing.

Synchronicities abound - you are reading a word in a magazine and someone says it. You go on holiday to a distant place - the first person you meet is someone with whom you were at school.

We want reassurance that the future is not completely and utterly contingent. We turn to star signs or dreams, tarot cards, palm reading, or, as my crazy grandmother once did, studied tea leaves. She lived to ninety, so it must have helped. Didn't it?

But life is luck: the very fact that you were born is just luck. That you were born in this time, not in a time of famine or plague: it's just luck. There are more human beings on Earth now than there have ever been, so the chances are if you are going to be born at all, it's going to be now, but even so, the chances are still pretty stacked against you. And if you you're dead, or haven't been born, then it's unlikely you'll be reading this.

I think it's this astonishing fact - that we are here at all - that fills us with a sense that life must have a meaning, and that there must be meaning all around us. We expect the present to roll gently into the future. But anything can happen. Anything at all. Stories are smoothing irons, they take out the wrinkles and creases in the contingencies of time. If a book begins, it's probably going to have a middle and an end too. How reassuring. It won't just stop after a few paragraphs.

In my book, "Oswald and the End of the World" Oswald's father believes he can control the future. He sees signs in snail trails and seaweed. But for Oswald's dad, he begins to think this means only one thing - the end of the world. And just like Noel Edmonds, he could turn out to be right, fortune telling might work for him. But the chances are it won't work for you. And when it doesn't, make sure everyone knows, just for the purposes of balance.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Permission to be Awful - Elen Caldecott

Those of you with long memories might remember that the 1st February this year was officially the start of my new book (though one commenter did suggest starting a day early in order to creep up on it and take it by surprise, which I thought was fabulous).

So, I am now about six weeks in to a new project. And whenever anyone asks ‘how’s the new book going?’, I am forced to answer truthfully: it’s awful.
Then I get sympathetic grins, and I’m-sure-it’s-not-as-bad-as-you-thinks.
‘Oh no,’ I say with a smile. ‘It’s really bad. Worst thing ever. Like a microwaved dog’s dinner with hundreds and thousands on top. Like a compost heap tipped onto your dinner table libated with vegetarian gravy. Like school dinners rolled in mouldy parmesan and deep fried in snail slime.’
It’s awful.

But that’s actually OK.

This will be my sixth novel when it's finished (though two of these live under the bed, never to be seen again). And I have come to learn that the point of a first draft, for me, is to give myself permission to be awful. I might start with a plan; I might have all the best intentions. I will scribble a list of scenes and possible chapters. But by page 30 the plan will be in ruins. The first draft is just me slinging random ideas onto a page until I hit a fairly arbitrary word count.
Then, I will stop and take stock.

It is draft two where the story takes a proper shape. Which does mean that the word count in my ‘deleted scenes’ file tends to be longer than the final novel. I was talking to a documentary film maker recently and he told me that he will film hours and hours of footage ‘just to see what he gets’. Most of this will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor; the story is only decided once he sees what material he has. My first drafts provide me with those hours of footage.

Drafts three, four and five are where the refinement comes in. That’s when I worry about whether the jokes are funny, whether the metaphors work and whether I’ve spelled the characters’ names the same the whole way through.

But draft one? That’s a ramshackle, teetering, uncoordinated mess. And I've learned that I can't do it any other way.
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Monsters, under the bed and in your head: Gillian Philip

Uh-oh, I thought as I picked up the next competition entry. Inanimate object develops emotions and thinks like a human being. I am SO not going to like this one.

So there I was, five minutes later, using the hem of my jumper to dry my sodden face and pretending to the cat I had something in my eye, and thinking ‘That’ll teach you to rush to judgment, you cynical old bat.’

I’ve just got home from Erskine and the annual conference of the Scottish Association of Writers, where I’d been asked to adjudicate the competition for Unpublished Authors. It was tough ranking the runners-up, but the tale of a Little Christmas Tree who has her roots cut off was my unchallenged winner from the start. (To check I wasn’t just hormonal, I gave it to my big ruffty-tuffty husband, who cleared his throat as he passed it back and pretended he had something in his eye. And when the winner read out her story at the adjudication ceremony, a surprising number of hardened writers had eye problems, so it wasn’t just me.)

Anyway, my winner (M.T. Kielty is her name) approached me afterwards to question something I’d said in my written adjudication, which was that it would possibly (but not necessarily) make a Christmas story for children. Wasn’t it a bit too harrowing for children, she wondered?

Well, I sort of knew it wasn’t too harrowing for children, but I had to ask myself why. A child would certainly have found the story affecting and understood what it was saying about Christmas, about love and family, about how grown-ups behave and misbehave; but I don’t think a child would have got unbearably upset. Possibly a child wouldn’t even have cried the way adults did.

When my kids were little and I was reading them picture book stories, I occasionally used to get quite choked up (Debi Gliori’s No Matter What, anyone?). One in particular came to mind: it was by Chris Wormell, it was called The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit, and I’m going to have to get another copy, because I’ve either lost it or it’s fallen apart. It’s an incredibly sad and beautiful story about a monster who is so ugly even the weather rejects him; his only friend is the little stone rabbit he carves. The story ends as the monster dies, still all alone, and flowers begin to grow where they wouldn’t before. My children found the book sad, and it raised a lot of questions, but they weren’t ‘upset’ by it. They took it, and its subtle and delicate ‘message’, in their stride.

Not every adult does. The book gets eight 5-star reviews on Amazon, and a single one-star review from an adult who missed the point in absolutely spectacular fashion and had the book removed from their child’s school library. (Forgive my shocked italics. He or she had actually convinced the children this was the right thing to do, had talked them into misunderstanding the book.)

It’s not that a child can fully comprehend the occasional awfulness of life and the inevitability of death; that’s our job. But isn’t it also our job to introduce them to concepts of unhappiness, and despair, and the consolation of friends, and superficial judgements, and fear, and mortality?

I wish I’d sneakily kept a copy of that winning story. I’d like my children to read about a little dying Christmas tree, just as I’d want them to read the sad tale of a lonely monster: it’s how a child starts to understand. It’s what the best books have always been for.

It’s not the whole story of life – who ever wants the whole story written on the first page? – but it’s an introduction: it’s the springboard for questions and the beginning of wonder. We don’t have the right to deny it to them.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

More Than One - Karen Ball

Charney 2009: Some of the people who contributed to my latest WIP.

How many people does it take to write a novel? More than one, I can tell you that much. I've been working on my current project for about 18 months now. Phew - that sounds like a long time, doesn't it? But this was definitely me raising the bar for myself, charting new territory, having a go at something I'd never done before. I wanted a new challenge and, my goodness, I found it. So I'm not going to worry too much that it's taking this amount of time or this many drafts. I'm learning. And I'm definitely not learning alone.

So much is said about the solitary nature of writing, but I thought I'd take a moment to credit some of the mystery contributors to my latest WIP:
The bloggers
When I first began my YA novel I had some general rules in mind. I knew an approximate word count, what to leave out, how to excite. I had an idea. But without some of the advice that came to me via the blogging community, I'm not sure I'd have managed my first draft at all. I'd like to give particular thanks to Nicola Morgan, whose blog -
Help! I Need A Publisher - should be required reading for all aspiring authors.
My agent
I feel really lucky to have signed with an agent, Jenny Savill of
Andrew Nurnberg, who did two things that were important to me. First, she took me on. Second, she fed back. And fed back, and fed back. Her editorial guidance and patience have been invaluable as I felt my way forwards, stumbling sometimes. I now understand why so many authors talk in reverential tones about their agents.
A writing group
When first invited to join one, I shuddered. Read out extracts of my work in progress? Not on your nelly! But I was reassured that wasn't how this writers' group worked and so I nervously signed up. How glad I am. Limited to a group of four, we meet once a month. Not only has the feedback on extracts proved invaluable, but I have become heavily dependent on the emotional support and understanding that comes from peers doing the same thing. I hope I give back as much as I receive.
The Scattered Authors Society
Once upon a time I existed in a world that didn't include the
SAS. Er, how? Since signing up, I have attended the Charney retreat where I spent time polishing my first draft prior to submitting to an agent. I did a bit of napping there, too. I have made several good friends through the SAS and felt buoyed up by a writing community that shares so generously and often in a very practical manner. Where would we be without each other?
My long-suffering other half
Cups of tea. Cups of tea. Cups of tea. Oh, and the occasional order to get back to my desk and get writing! We all need a whip-cracker in our lives.

I have no idea where this manuscript will end up. If I think about it too much I get scared, as I know that the bottom drawer is a very real possibility. When I started writing I tried not to care, reminded myself how slim the chances were of publication. At some point during the process I realised that care had crept up on me - that I cared deeply. 'Blast,' I muttered. 'I'm going to be really upset now if nothing happens.' But that's the way it has to be, really, isn't it? We have to care. And the people around us have to care.

Publishing is often painted as a hard-nosed, ridiculous industry, with corporate accountants leading us all through the gates of hell as book chains crumble around us. That's not the whole picture - not by a long way. I know editors who are inspiring, authors who are generous, agents who don't scare me and publishers who are human. Crazy! Oh, and I know people who are kind.

How many people does it take to write a novel? More than one. Wherever the journey ends, I'm glad I set out on it. I wouldn't have half as many friends otherwise.

Who are the other people who contribute to your writing?

Visit my website at

The Lancashire Book of the Year, 2010.

For the third year running, I'm involved with the Lancashire Children's Book of the Year and last Friday I went to Preston where, in an impressive cabinet room in the Council building, 24 young judges, (2 from each of 12 schools in the county) met one another and discussed the books they'd been reading since September from which the shortlist is chosen. Months of work and reading and talking have gone into the choice you see listed below. All the schools take their task very seriously and both teachers and children work very hard and energetically and also have fun during the process. They're helped in this by a cohort of helpful librarians. The whole thing is spearheaded most efficiently by Jean Wolstenholme and Jake Hope and more and more publishers are sending their books for teenagers in for the prize. The University of Central Lancashire is again a major sponsor of the Award. This year the longlist had something like 60 titles on it. This is the shortlist:

Numbers Rachel Ward
Stolen Lucy Christopher
Saving Rafael Leslie Wilson
Are these my basoomas I see before me? Louise Rennison
Bang Bang You're Dead Narinder Dhami
Bloodchild Tim Bowler
Grass Catherine MacPhail
The Spook's Sacrifice Joseph Delaney
Guantanamo Boy Anna Perera
Out of the Blue Val Rutt

Anyone who feels gloomy about young people today should have been there on Friday. You could not hope to meet a livelier, more chatty, more friendly and intelligent bunch of Year 9s. They were marvellous, and the meeting at which they will choose the winner will be amazing, I'm quite sure. The teenagers are the only ones who get to decide the outcome as they decided the shortlist and they are very passionate about their favourites. Adults are simply consultants of a helpful nature and have no influence on the outcome.
One of the questions I asked the judges was: "Which book were you sorry not to see on the shortlist?" and the answer from quite a few of them was: Lady in the Tower. So take a bow, Marie-Louise Jensen!

I'll post about the Award again when the winner is decided. There's also an adult panel shadowing the Year 9s this year and I'm intrigued to see whether they come up with the same winner or a completely different one.

I've now got weeks of delightful reading ahead of me. I've read and enjoyed Leslie Wilson's Saving Rafael and Val Rutt's Out of the Blue. The hunt is now on for a winner.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

10 Rules of School Visiting : Penny Dolan

After the Guardian’s “10 Rules of Writing” article, I was going to post my “10 Rules for School Visits”. However, they were mostly things like “don’t wear trippity shoes or “take your own lunch, because you probably won’t get any and if you do, you might not want to eat it”. In other words, those rules that are all about being prepared for what might go wrong. So, here, in no particular order, are my 10 Rules for Why I Do School Visits.

One. I travel through different landscapes. I have visited foreign schools, but here I’m thinking of places within the UK: the green hills of Denbighshire, the terraced railway housing in York, the faded Victorian pomp of northern towns, the tiny village school overlooked by windswept Pen y Ghent . . . All places I wouldn’t see stuck at my desk.

Two. I see education as it is working now. I am interested in the child’s experience of school, of reading and writing and art and the whole learning environment. Schools are often bright highly-purposeful places where teachers work wonderfully hard, but sometimes I do have to bite my lip: “Yes, that’s a lovely display of parts of speech you have on the wall there. Must be inspiring! And as for that list of official WOW words – how tremendously, fantastically, surprisingly, amazingly witty. That’s how I work all the time!”

Three.I actually get to introduce MY books and stories to the children and teachers. Three times out of five, nobody beyond the booking teacher has heard of my name or books, but I do not let that bother me. I may not be Morpurgo the Many-Shelved, but by the end of my visit, we will all have had a good time together over my stories, and maybe that’s how they’ll remember me and maybe that’s why they’ll read my books.

Four. I am forced to connect with people other than my family. Sad fact. Writing is an “internal” activity, and when you write deeply, you live in the world of your own mind - for a long, long time. It is good to connect with the real world again.

Five. I am allowed – within reason and quite lightly – to Show Off. No, not quite Oscar level, but I can act my characters, their moods and emotions as I talk about the books. I can show how a small idea can grow into a fantastic creation, or read aloud so that children listen for the rhythms of writing. I can use all this to show children that writing is not a dull dimly-lit sitting time, waiting for the next words. Writing has excitement and energy. And a bit of the dull stuff too.

Six. It helps with the ideas, although not as many as people imagine:“ Please Penny, will you make a story about our school?” - but the many oddities I see and hear keep the creative mind alert. (The half-eaten cake left in the teacher's fridge for five years? )

Seven. I can sell my books. Well, er, maybe. I like to sell my books. I want to sell my books. Furthermore, a hundred life-long blessings on the teacher and school that understands that fact, especially if they’re not organising a cheap book sale of other people’s books, sparkly pencils and pink pens at the same time. I – and any other visiting author - needs to sell books to stay in print. Think of it as a charitable act.

Eight. I earn money. Yes, money. This is an essential and at times overwhelming reason. Money buys me writing time. Money keeps the roof overhead, just about. Sometimes the balance between being Out There and At Home Writing is very difficult and more than one season I’ve got it wrong. No Writing Time means No Books.

Nine. I learn about the books children are reading now. On World Book Day this week I was working in a well-stocked primary school library. (The joy, the joy!) Seeing the books, and even the names of writing friends up there on the shelves made it feel a very happy place.

Ten. Easy-peasy. Despite all the little pinches to the ego, the triple layer of security checks, and the deep after-visit energy drop, I do school visits because I enjoy them.

And because I've got a free weekend for writing ahead.

Penny Dolan

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Good News from the Book Liberation Front – Michelle Lovric

I opted out of the Google Book Settlement for the same reason I became a vegetarian: not for my personal well-being, but because I couldn’t stomach the exploitation of innocent creatures.

Sometimes I worry that compassion fatigue has set in, now that everyone knows about the Google Settlement, by which the internet supremo (annual profits of $21.79 billion) seeks to ‘streamline’ the copyrights of authors (whose annual profits rarely trouble the tax man).

And if Google does get away with a ‘peaceful liberation’ of the frontiers of copyright, what next? History teaches us that appeasing Google will only inflate Google’s power. In a darkened future, Google might end up deciding which literature is fit to live – the criterion logically being whether its continued existence is profitable to Google – and which literature is to face … well, another fate.

But who cares?

After all, the only people who stand to be hurt are authors?

I believe not. Something that seems to be largely forgotten is that whatever is taken away from authors by Google might also be ‘liberated’ from publishers and booksellers. Google’s streamlined access to copyrighted works will inevitably – because of the complications and obscurities about what constitutes ‘an edition’ or 'an orphaned work' – include books in print, books that are in publishers’ warehouses and in bookshops.

What do we authors and publishers and booksellers have to help us in this situation? We don’t have might or much money, but we have wit. And creativity. Even if Google were to devour all our rights and spew them out digitally on flat screens – we still have a trump card, an option, a way forward.

This is for the publishers to make printed books that are indispensable to people’s happiness. Printed books can survive if we emphasise and reinforce the positive difference between on-your-screen and in-your-hand.

How to do this?

Not with price. Each printed book is a palatable pellet that distils years of work by many individuals: writer, illustrator, designer, editor, copyeditor, picture researcher, publisher, production team, printer, transporters, warehousers, sales reps and booksellers. All these people physically and mentally handle the printed book along its way. Therefore a printed book can never compete on cost against an automated free download, with the ‘sale’ supported by online advertising.

So the way forward – for those who want to preserve printed books – is to emphasise the value and desirability, rather than cheapening the price.

Beautifully produced books are easier for booksellers to hand-sell to three-dimensional human beings, many of whom, bless them, still love to feel a book in their hands, turn the pages, sniff the paper, and display them proudly on a shelf, curl up with them, take them to bed, even.

It really makes sense. Are books not the pathway to the imagination? Shouldn’t that pathway be a delight to go along? Shouldn’t it appeal to the senses? Shouldn’t it show, not tell, about the promise of pleasure inside the covers?

My background is in book packaging. I’ve spent most of my professional life designing and producing books. Lately, I’ve noticed with delight that fiction too is receiving a makeover in the hands of certain publishers. I’m lucky that my publishers, Orion and Bloomsbury, are thinking this way.

The cover of The Undrowned Child is printed on paper so soft that it seems to have been aged by floating the book down the Grand Canal for a couple of centuries before being hand-dried by blind nuns in the shade of an ancient convent. Orion didn’t work with the usual stock photo of Venice. They commissioned brand-new cover art in unmistakeable Venetian colours. They gold-embossed the lettering in a font that perfectly recreates the 1899 setting. The flaps are satisfyingly – no, wantonly – wide. The pages are a classy cream. The boards are 3mm thick.

Almost none of the above can be experienced on screen or as a download.

And that’s not all. Inside, Orion gave The Undrowned Child marbled endpapers. There are illustrated chapter-heads. They added the luxury of a specially drawn map, on which I worked with the artist for many weeks. There’s factual endmatter that could be material for a school project. Nearly all of these extra values are also embedded in the paperback.

And for my next novel for adults, The Book of Human Skin, Bloomsbury is black-dipping the fore-edges, a luxury in production terms. It’s a book about the nature of evil, something made strikingly apparent in design and production. The Book of Human Skin is set in Venice and Peru. So the main part of the cover simulates a Peruvian folk fabric in rich matt-laminated red. This fabric is ‘torn’ to reveal glimpses of flesh, selectively UV-glossed so it glistens in the light: an effect that perfectly expresses the many different fates of fragile human skin in this novel.

Such production values are coded messages to us authors, telling us that we are worth something to our publishers. More importantly, they make a difference in the bookshop, where an author’s commercial reputation stands or falls by the caring hand of the bookseller.

It is that crucial bit of difference that makes a bookshop delightfully different from the internet. There are book-loving people in bookshops, hand-selling books to other people.

Beautifully produced books are worth almost nothing to Google.

That pleasure is reserved for human beings.

Michelle Lovric's website

PS Apologies for the accidental premature posting yesterday, especially to those who were kind enough to leave comments that were lost when I deleted. Note: this post is slightly different from the draft.