Friday, 30 April 2010

Writing Out Of Sequence - Lucy Coats

Usually, I'm an orderly sort of writer. If I'm lucky, I have my 'brilliant idea' (usually a clear character and a vague notion of what they will do, and how). Then I write the first couple of chapters in a frenzied flurry of creative excitement, after which I do a synopsis and a detailed chapter plan which I stick to (mostly)--writing in a linear progression from start to finish, chapter by chapter. So far, so ordinary. But then I went to London Book Fair last week, and I listened to someone who shook me up a bit and made me see that the way I've been doing things is not necessarily set in stone forever and ever. More about him later....

You see, I've been feeling uncomfortable for some time about those moments when a scene comes into my head, fully formed, exciting, raring to go, saying 'write me, write me'. They are doing it more and more, and that's good, but nevertheless a cause of worry and wondering what to do about them. Because I am that orderly sort of writer, my usual response is this: 'Well, of course I'll write you--when I get there. Just hang on for a bit. You're fantastic. I love you. But I have to get through three more chapters before I reach the part where you come in.' Stupid, isn't it, when you really think about it? What is this idiotic, superstitious fear I have that writing a scene out of sequence will somehow make everything in the book go wrong? Why do I risk letting some of that excitement and energy and freshness leak away because of some ritualistic fetish about Doing It In Order?

If I didn't know before, I do now--the answer is to ask an Irishman. Yes, it was Eoin Colfer I listened to at LBF (and if you'd like to listen too, there's a video of him talking at the PEN cafe on Candy Gourlay's wonderful Notes from the Slushpile blog here). He said lots of funny things (he's a funny man), but the thing which struck me most in the present context was this: when asked by Julia Eccleshare 'Do you plan your books?', Eoin said he did--in detail, and he said that he used to stick to it religiously (so far, so like me) and write it in order. But then came the bit which made me sit up and take notice. Eoin now finds, he said, that the best bit of any book is where the plan changes and goes off track, and that if he has an idea he writes the scene straight away, even if it's out of sequence, to keep the buzz. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Sounds sensible. But it's taken all these years and another orderly writer telling me he's broken out and done it differently to make me realise that it's ok. Nothing about writing should be set in stone forever and ever--just because I've got a certain beloved way of doing things (and have had for years) doesn't mean I can't take a fresh look at it and make a change when I need to. Sometimes, I think, we writers get stuck because we are imprisoned in mental boxes of our own making. So my spring resolution is this--break free of the constricting mould, write exciting off-plan stuff then and there and don't be such a superstitious old stick-in-the-mud! PS: I'd love to know if any of you are writing stick-in-the-mud's too--and what your writing 'sticking points' are.

Lucy's website
Lucy's blog  (Shortlisted for the Author Blog Awards 2010)
Lucy's Twitter page
Lucy's Facebook Fanpage

Thursday, 29 April 2010

What They Really Mean Anne Cassidy

I’ve been writing books for over twenty years. It took me a long time to discover a simple truth about the world of publishing. People don’t always mean what they say. Once I discovered this I felt a lot happier.
Here are a few examples.

What they say
You’re a cult writer

What they mean
You don't sell many books

You ms is the next on my pile to read
Not sure where it is at the moment and in any case I have lots of others to look at first.

You’re a particularly British writer
Your books don’t sell abroad

Your books are accessible
You’ll never win any prizes with them

Your writing style is spare
You are not literary

You’re good at promoting your own books
You’re way down on our list for promotion

You are a dependable writer
You never surprise us

You’re a successful writer with a huge backlist.
You’ve been around a few years too long.

You are hugely popular in libraries
Waterstone’s will only take the odd copy and forget about WHSmiths

You were nominated for the Carnegie!
You didn’t make the shortlist

Your books are complex
Teenagers won’t understand them

Anyone else had these experiences?

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Woods - Sue Purkiss

Yesterday, I took our dog, Jess, for her usual morning walk. Instead of going up over the hill, as we usually do, we cut along the bottom, through a small wood. There's a special little clearing here - special because at this time of year, cowslips grow there. A little further on there is a patch of primroses: unusual in this part of the Mendips.

It was early morning. The sun shone through the trees and it was very quiet, very still. Something stirred in the undergrowth - a bird probably, or maybe a rabbit or a fox. Nothing remotely threatening.

As I walked on, I thought about another wood - well, not a wood, a forest: far away on the other side of Europe, in south east Poland, on the other side of the Carpathians. We were there last summer. The hills are much higher than the Mendips; when you climb up through the forest, you reach alpine meadows where great clumps of deep blue gentians grow, and mountains curve and dip like blue and lilac waves.

The forest is spreading. There used to be more villages in these mountains, but the villagers were forcibly removed in the war, some to Russia, some to other parts of Poland. Their homes have crumbled now, their fields and gardens are part of the woods.

The trees are tall, so light falls in columns. Some of them have a fierce kink at the bottom of their trunks; this is caused by heavy snowfalls when the trees are young. As far as you look, there are trees, dim into the distance. The path is wide, but if you strayed, it would be easy to lose your way. You could wander for miles and not see another soul. If you went up hill, of course, you would eventually come out into the open - but a small child might not think of that.

There are bears in these forests, and wolves. Real ones. We didn't see any, but we saw their leavings: paw prints and droppings, pointed out to us by Olek, the forester who was with us. He's a hunter, too. He cares for the forest creatures, but sometimes he shoots them.

This was the forest of the Grimm brothers' fairy tales: the forest of little girls in red cloaks, of gingerbread houses, of wolves, of huntsmen who may be heroes or villains, of beasts who may once have been men. Perhaps too, it's the forest of picture book stories where small creatures have great adventures, where the Gruffalo could be just out of sight, where safety is a cosy cave with a warm bed and a welcoming candle.

It was a shock to find out that it is a real place.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

It's only words by Lynda Waterhouse

About once every five years I go to a football match. I went on Saturday. Our team were doing badly and the three gentlemen in front of me were compelled to hurl advice to the players accompanied by a dazzling array of oaths and expletives. As the match improved so did their vocabulary.
The next day in a charity shop I found a book called The Future of Swearing by Robert Graves. It was the revised edition from 1936 – the original being written ten years earlier.
Graves maintains that ‘swearing has a definite physiological function… and that silence under suffering is sometimes impossible.’ The challenge for me as a writer is finding the right words to express those intense situations.
In the Sand Dancers series ,which tells the story of the mysterious sand sprites, my characters express themselves emotionally through dancing often accompanied by a chant or a song. When they are angry they perform a Rage Stomp’
‘Rat a tat rage
Rat a tap rage
Feelings surge like an angry wave’
They also do Frustration Flips' and occasionally a character will say ‘Galloping sea spiders!’ Influenced I think by Restoration fops and childhood sayings that I recall such as ‘crumbs and crikey bobs!’
Graves goes on to say ‘Words that mustn’t be used, have a natural fascination for children, as of magical power. ' He quotes an East End rhyme,
‘Pa’s out and Ma’s out, let’s talk dirt!
As a young child in infant class I have a vivid memory of a teacher reading the A.A. Milne poem, ‘Furry Bear’ and the whole class screaming with delight as the teacher read out the phrase ‘brown furry knickers.’ We made her repeat the poem again and again shaking with delight and anticipation. She explained the different meaning of the word but we didn’t care. We had got our teacher to say a rude word.
Graves ends the book with an account of a memory of a pirate story he had read as a child written by G.A Henty.
‘Caramba,’ hissed Diego, swearing terribly’
This word was so shocking to him that he didn’t dare wonder what it meant. Later on when he heard the word spoken by a priest it had the force and intonation of ‘Dear me!’ Job done!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Nasty, Brutish AND Short - Joan Lennon

The last time I posted on ABBA, I was commiting myself to a stint of whistling the devil's tunes. After extensive faffing about, I am able to report that I have indeed got stuck in. I've been up to my elbows in blood ... well, maybe not, but at least I've been making my characters unhappy and tipping the balance of their world pretty relentlessly askew. It's a big book I'm working on - 70-80,000 words - and so the threads that I'm pulling tighter need to be followed through quite a lot of cloth. It's the kind of work where you need to hold the long picture in your mind while still focusing on the pattern right in front of your eyes. It's the sort of thing I usually need to go away to do, but because it's a re-write instead of a first draft I'm managing to poke away even in the midst of family life. (Which at the moment includes being woken at 5 every morning by the birds getting on with THEIR family life.)

But because writers, like people, rarely get to do one thing at a time, I'm also doing a lot of thinking about short stories. Even short-short stories. It has become the Spring of the Writing Workshop. (I've blithered a bit about this on my blog already - The Long and the Short of It.) So I've been gathering up stimulating, playful writing exercises for producing pieces of short stories or complete short stories - and re-discovering, in the process, just how much fun you can have when you're NOT writing Lords of the Rings.

I rediscover the joys of writing short on a regular basis, and forget completely in-between. (The brain has finite storage capacity, as we know. Though sometimes we forget.) Before writing this post, I was trying to figure out WHY writing short stories is so satisfying. Maybe it's because it is so much more easily completed. Maybe it's because we really can polish every word to the shininess of a shiny thing. Maybe it's because the ideas that need short stories to express them have a tidy, attainable, holdable quality that long works don't. (Not so sure about that one.)

Help me out here. Why ARE short stories so - here I pause to look in my thesaurus for another word for "satisfying" and am given "cheering, convincing, cool, filling, fulfilling, gratifying, persuasive, pleasing, pleasurable, satisfactory" - all those things to write?

Meantime, back to being mean time ...

P.S. At first I had trouble finding images on Google for this blog's title. Then I realised I'd made a slight spelling mistake. I'd put an "i" instead of a "u" in the second word ...

Joan Lennon's website
Joan Lennon's blog

Saturday, 24 April 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

SO MUCH FOR THAT by Lionel Shriver. Harper Collins hbk £15.00

Lionel Shriver is best known for the award-winning and compulsively readable novel WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. This wasn't everyone's cup of tea but I thought it was terrific.
I've also read DOUBLE FAULT and A PERFECTLY GOOD FAMILY by this author and she's a writer whose work I look forward to greatly. I like her best in acerbic, sharp mode and in her latest, which is a diatribe against the health care and health insurance systems in the USA, she's on top form.
The novel concerns one Shepherd Knacker (sic) who has saved all his working life to be able to afford what he thinks of as the Afterlife: a pleasant time on an island off the east coast of Africa, near Zanzibar, where he can live an idyllic existence till the end of his days. He's got enough money to do this: go off to his blissful retirement, when his wife falls ill with mesothelioma. This cancer, which is caused by asbestos, is deadly and the health insurance doesn't begin to cover his medical costs. At the top of every chapter told from his point of view, you get a printout of his bank balance and it goes down alarmingly fast.
His wife's illness is not Shep’s only worry, either. He has an elderly father who needs care. He has a dreadful sister who sponges off him. His friend, Jackson, has troubles of his own which are both tragic and funny and totally wince-making. Jackson and his wife Carol have a daughter who suffers from a truly bizarre and horrifying disease called dysautonomia and to put it mildly, things are pretty unbearable almost the whole way through the novel. As well as telling a story, Shriver is posing questions, some of the answers to which don’t make for comfortable reading. For example, is it worth spending hundreds and thousands of dollars to prolong the life of a loved one for a few weeks of what is in effect torture? Or not? It’s not easy and she shows this very well.
Shriver could be said to over-egg the pudding, but it makes for a fascinating and energizing read because through the dreadful things that are going on in the book, Jackson provides a Swiftian commentary on everything around him. This is often funny as well as excruciating and makes you think more than twice about everything. Many books these days are "about" illness of one kind or another and even about death, but I've never read one that is so unsparing and unflinching and it’s definitely not for anyone of a squeamish disposition. We are shown how brutal, relentless and exhausting coping with terminal illness can be, but also how tender and loving it is too.
I did wonder whether the ending was too pat or unlikely but Shriver convinced me that it was entirely plausible, given the circumstances she'd set up and I think this is a brave and timely novel which rips along at a great rate. She's a writer who's never boring, and who mines her own life for material. She wrote movingly in the press recently about her failure to visit a dying friend towards the end of her life and the guilt that she now feels about this. One of the very best things in the book is Shriver's analysis of the reaction of people who are well to those who are mortally ill. Not an ordinary sort of book, but rewarding in very many ways. Do try it.

GREEK BEASTS AND HEROES by Lucy Coats Orion pbks £4.99 each
The Beasts in the Jar/ The Magic Head/ The Monster in the Maze/The Dophin’s Message

And now, as the man said, for something completely different. I mean: from the novel reviewed above. Lucy Coats’ series of retellings of the Greek myths have been reissued and for this readers have reason to be grateful.
That they’re good stories, we know already. The trouble with such things is, though, that they seem to have fallen out of favour. Fewer and fewer teachers know them well and pass them on, and so a set of books which will cheer up any school library (or home library, come to that) is most welcome. This series is a child-friendly way of introducing quite young readers to a treasure store of delights.
The stories are framed by the overarching tale of Atticus the sandal maker ,who has longed to travel to Troy for the great storytelling festival held there. He sets out at last, after many years of dreaming about it, with his donkey Melissa and as they travel, they hear stories about Gods, Monsters, Beasts and Heroes.
All the best known tales are there. Pandora, The Minotaur, The Gorgon’s Head, and many, many more. They’re told in a such a way as to be entertaining and understandable by a seven year old, but without losing any of the power of the originals. It’s also good to have the books coming out in groups of four because that will bring children’s collecting instincts into play and they’ll surely want the whole set as it appears. There are twelve books altogether with two more sets of four schedulted for May and August. They’re beautifully illustrated by Anthony Lewis and the way they’re produced adds greatly to their charm .There’s a helpful map and in between the stories, we can follow the adventures of Atticus and Melissa. A really delightful series which will keep parents and children entertained for a long time. It’s also useful to note that each story is just the right length for reading aloud at a sitting. A good time is guaranteed for the whole family.

JOHNNY SWANSON by Eleanor Updale David Fickling Books. £10.99

Johnny Swanson, the eponymous hero of Eleanor Updale’s latest novel, is a child with a vivid imagination. He is also a bit of a loner. He’s teased at school and would love to be stronger and taller. He lives alone with his mother Winifred, though his father’s photograph is still displayed proudly. We are in 1929, ten years after the end of the First World War, which is still vivid in the memory of the adults. Johnny has a newspaper round and works sometimes for Mr Hutchinson at his General Store and Post Office.. One girl, Olwen is friendly to him. When he sees an advertisement promising to make him taller, he sends off for the secret. This is the beginning of a novel with many twists and turns, much humour, lots of adventures and a good dollop of fascinating period detail and information about such things as the origins of the BCG vaccine. All through the book, the shadow of TB is there, a real threat to everyone. Even though the author tells us very firmly that this is a work of fiction, she’s so comfortable in the period and her detail is so convincing that within pages we’re right there in Johnny’s world. This is just the sort of story to appeal to anyone who likes both a good thriller (because the book turns quite dark in the middle with Johnny’s mother actually about to be hanged for murder: you can’t get darker than that) and the kind of story where the good end happily and the bad unhappily. There’s also a hint of romance. Altogether most engaging and entertaining: the sort of book that is blissfully easy to read without being mindless. Smashing fun.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Not in Front of the Children? Charlie Butler

So, what’s taboo in children’s books these days? Not sex – at least, not to anything like the same extent as it used to be. Bogeys and farts are virtually de rigeur on some shelves of the bookshop. Even death – which, having been a regular feature of Victorian children’s books was hustled from sight when I was growing up, in both books and life – has more recently been treated with full-frontal honesty in children’s books for all ages, from John Burningham’s Granpa and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia to Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book. What’s left? Drugs? Check. Homelessness? Check. War? The Holocaust? Check. Check. Emotional, sexual and physical abuse? Check, check, check. Very little seems to be out of bounds.
What about party politics? They hardly ever appear in children’s books - but maybe it’s because children find them dull rather than because they’re taboo as such? Oliver Postgate famously marked the General Election of October 1974 with an appropriate episode of The Clangers, but I’m not sure it was as thrilling a coup for his young viewers as it was fun for the grown-ups. William Brown once took part in an election too, designating himself a Conservative – but again, more for the amusement of Crompton’s adult readers than William’s own contemporaries. (I don’t remember the name of the story, though – can anyone help?) Budget Tuesdays, when men in suits sat discussing Income Tax and the IMF right where children’s afternoon television ought to have been, were an annual bane of my childhood during the channel-starved 1970s. The idea of having to read about such things too – and for fun! – would have appalled me.
It's not that politics in a wider sense have no place. There are plenty of books for children (both fiction and non-fiction) that deal, and in quite “messagey” ways, with the politics of the environment, or nuclear war, or race relations. They do get read, and few people seem to object to their existence very fiercely – but I suspect that would change should they declare any explicit alignment with a political party. That does appear to be taboo.
I well remember the outrage from parents when one of my primary school teachers – a keen Liberal, whom we will call Mrs H – “accidentally” scattered political leaflets on all our desks in the run up to that same 1974 election. I think she escaped serious trouble (it was a world with fewer disciplinary procedures than now, and more quiet words) but words were definitely said. I’m glad she got away with it, especially as she later taught me to use an air rifle – a source of much innocent pleasure. But for goodness' sake, what possessed you to do such a thing, Mrs H?
Didn’t you realise we wouldn’t give a monkey's?

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Teaching myself: N M Browne

What do you think of when you think of a creative writing tutor? I summon the figure of an older woman with wild hair and a ‘sensitive’ nature and come up with Margaret Rutherford’s medium in Blythe Spirit. I try again and produce Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney, in short, faced with the words ‘creative writing tutor’ I rather fear that my imagination supplies an image of a charlatan. Oh dear.
You see I now teach creative writing and I don’t believe that I am a charlatan. I may be heading in a Professor Trelawney direction sartorially, but I’ve got it under control. However, if responses to my new career are anything to go by, I am not the only one whose first instinct is to mistrust the very idea that creative writing is teachable. Those who write already are suspicious - I mean we all just write don’t we? We read lots of books and liked them so much we started writing them for ourselves - what is there to teach?
Rather a lot as it turns out.
‘Ah but you can’t teach talent,’ as several people have said rather sniffily. I think that is probably true, but you can encourage, stimulate, challenge and direct it. Most people have a spark of it and it is kindled by enthusiasm, by the opportunity to work with people who take writing seriously. Where can you get helpful feedback on a mss if not from my peers and teachers? Agents and commissioning editors rarely have time these days. Who cares enough to discuss whether something works better in first person or third but those selfsame teachers and peers?
It struck me recently that we treat writing as something quite unlike the other arts. There is nothing strange about being taught to dance, or draw or sing and yet people (often the same people who send their children off to tap and modern, piano and Saturday art classes) find it very odd that people should be taught to write. Could it be because people think it is easy? That yes indeed anyone can just write a book and it will be a good one? Maybe.
I fear I have fallen into the same trap. I used to believe that nobody taught me to write, which is of course ridiculous hubris. Back in the day I was encouraged to write all the time, story writing was an essential part of the curriculum. I wrote stories every day for years not just in primary school but at least until I was sixteen. Teachers read my stories out in class. I was taken seriously and I was encouraged, stimulated, challenged and directed.
I don’t know that many young people get that kind of teaching these days. I don’t know that creativity is valued as it should be.
I do know that the undergraduates and graduates I work with have things that they can learn and those things are, by and large, things that I can teach them. I must say I love it.
It is a cliche to say how much I’ve learned too, but it is true. I think the most significant revelation has been how little I have valued the part my own teachers played in fostering my creativity and taking my writing seriously. So it’s a bit late and some of them are probably dead - but thanks all of you! I would never have become a writer without you.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Brain Overload by Marie-Louise Jensen

I'm between books at the moment. not in the sense that I've finished one book and haven't started the next yet. Oh no. It's much more complicated than that.
First there's the Viking book I've written for publication in January 2011: Sigrun's Secret. That's been to my editor and I'm working my way steadily through the rewrites. It's not difficult, but it takes a lot of brain space.
Secondly there's the book I've written with a friend and colleague, which also needs rewriting. We're not actively working on it right now, but I keep having ideas at inconvenient moments, like the middle of the night.
Thirdly there's the book I started writing in February, but have now put aside to work on at a later date. I've tried very hard to put it out of my mind too, but the main character is Katla, named after the sister volcano to the one that's currently erupting in Iceland. And the story was going to be about a devastating eruption. So the news is rather making it hard to leave.
Then there's the story I've agreed with my publishers (the lovely OUP) that I'll write next. I need to get researching and planning on that one very soon, and had a plot idea whilst ironing yesterday.
So perhaps it's not surprising that I feel like on of those very slow computers that has so many background programs running that when you ask it to perform an every-day task, it responds very s-l-o-w-l-y.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Dreaming Things Up

I haven't got a title yet, which is my natural state, whether for a book or a blog. I was thinking of something chocolate based to draw the reader in but that would be a cop out as there is no chocolate in this blog apart from a (very) brief reference to pistachio chocolate, eaten in the second court of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Actually, that was it, there, the chocolate reference that is.

It's not about Turkey either, this blog, although I was in Turkey with my Mum after Easter. She is 80 and much better travelled than me, including jaunts with chapel to Welsh speaking Patagonia (I am dying to write the Welsh cowboy - guacho maybe - story in which Butch and Sundance drop in on Mrs Jones' tea rooms in Trelew).

I did get swept away in Istanbul, not literally, although my Mum leaving the boat at Uskudar was in danger of experiencing the Bosphorous rather more completely, and wetly, than is safe.

If any of you haven't been, it is fabulous, especially Aya Sofya which felt like nothing else but stepping into a real, tangible, Holy Roman past. It was so huge, that even among other gawpers, you were alone enough in the gloom with the dark red marble walls that you could imagine Empress Irene or Emperor Justinian, sweeping ahead of you and being one of a crowd of awestruck peasant worshippers, mouth open and eyes wide.

The best thing about it was, one night, sleeping fitfully between the muezzin's calls, I dreamt my new heroine. I have never had the experience of someone come - not quite fully formed - but named and in a kind of action, raring to go and be written into life. Perhaps it's a red herring and she isn't any use at all, we will see. But at the moment I'm in the almost ecstatic rushy state, a bit like love, where I can't stop thinking about her, and I am more than a little afraid to begin writing because after all it will never be as good as it is in my head right now.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Life, death and volcanoes - the bigger picture :Linda Strachan

Every day seems to arrive with a long list of things to do, some urgent and some that have lingered at the foot of my to do list for far too long. It is easy to get carried away with the minutae of everyday life and forget how precious every moment is and how suddenly everything can change.

I am just back from a much needed break in the lake district where we were blessed with wonderful weather and beautiful scenery.

We stayed in the delightful Lindeth Howe, a country house hotel which proudly displays photographs of one of the house's former owners, none other than Beatrix Potter.

Good fortune made us decide against a last minute trip abroad where, of all things, a volcano erupting would have disrupted our holiday plans as it did for many.

But unfortunately holiday plans were not the only things disrupted.

On 23rd May my son, Stuart,  is part of the 'Hairy Haggis' relay team in the Edinburgh Marathon  to raise funds for Marie Curie.  He is taking part in memory of a close friend Bruce McCulloch whose funeral was on Friday. Bruce passed away last Monday after a courageous battle with cancer and will be greatly missed by his lovely wife, Janet and little Zoe.  You can find out more about the run here Janet-McCulloch 

But unfortunately the volcanic ash drifting into UK and much of European airspace meant that some of Bruce's friends and family from France and Switzerland were unable to make it to Edinburgh in time for the funeral and worse still some were left stranded en route, not able to get home again.

Weather affects us all and dramatic weather events can be incredibly useful to a writer.  But if a thriller writer had written about a volcanic dust cloud halting all air travel most people might have thought it was an interesting idea, but fairly implausible.  As the cliché goes, fact is actually stranger than fiction! I wonder how many books will suddenly appear in the next year or so with this as the starting point- it offers so many possibilities.

As writers we look at all aspects of life but the sudden, unexpected and sometimes tragic happenings are often those that seem to dominate.  Tracy Chevalier recently commented when judging the short story competition for Myslexia Magazine that most of the entries dealt with death or sad subjects and she was desperately looking for something humorous and uplifting.  But writing about sad and tragic events has its place and at times we all need to dip in and sample emotions which is what fiction is all about.

Teenagers often seem to dwell dramatically on the deeply tragic, to explore emotions that they have yet to experience or perhaps to make sense of events in heir own lives.

My latest book for teenagers Dead Boy Talking is about a boy who has been stabbed and has 25 minutes to live - and the events that lead up it.  With Spider and now Dead Boy Talking I have found myself writing much darker books for this age group, but it was never a conscious decision.

I think that today is one of those days when I am happy to return to the delights of writing for young children for a while, I think Hamish McHaggis needs to go off on another adventure soon -   everything needs balance!

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

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Learning to Love Football - John Dougherty

I was always rubbish at football. In the school playground, I was invariably shoved in goal, which seemed to be the sporting equivalent of the slow readers’ group; and on the rare occasions when I was allowed out from between the jumpers, I didn’t have the skills - or indeed some of the concepts - which might have helped me to score, or at least to keep the ball away from the opposition for more than a nanosecond.

It probably didn’t help that the ball was actually a plastic bag filled with squashed-up newspapers, since we weren’t allowed to use a real one.

All that being so, I’d have much preferred to do something else; but there was nothing else on offer. Boys took up the entire playground (what little there was of it) playing footplasticbagfilledwithpaper; girls hung around inside chatting to the teacher. That was how life was. So I spent playtimes doing something I wasn’t very good at, and being constantly reminded by those around me that I wasn’t very good at it.

Given all that, I suppose it’s no wonder that, all my adult life I’ve been A Man Who Doesn’t Like Football. Can’t see the point of it. Never have.

And yet, suddenly, I find myself beginning to at least catch a glimpse of the point. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that recently I’ve had some football-related experiences which can only be categorised as, well, enjoyable. So: what has brought on this sudden transformation? The answer I can tell you in two words:

My son.

Noah, who’s now 9½, has developed a passion for sports; and one of the sports he’s decided he particularly loves is football. And when Noah loves something, he doesn’t keep it to himself.

He’s joined a team. He’d have liked to play rugby as well, but I like his nose the shape it is; and there are only so many hours in the week. So, after a bit of discussion, we found him a football team that plays on a relatively convenient evening, and off he went.

And it was on his second evening of training that it occurred to me: perhaps I do like football after all.

What made me realise that my view might be changing, was this: the plan was, I drop him off, hang round for a few minutes, then go and pick up his mum from the supermarket. But when it came to it, despite all my grumbles about not wanting to spend hours hanging about on touchlines - I didn’t want to leave. I was enjoying it.

Mostly, I was enjoying watching my son. As a dad, it’s part of my job to be proud of him; and it’s a part of the job that I’m pretty good at. Still, when I started really watching what he was doing - and, since he wasn’t playing alone, that also meant watching those around him - I began to see, to really see, what was going on. It wasn’t just a bunch of kids kicking a ball around; there was skill, and purpose, and... well, if you’re into football, you’ll already know exactly what I mean (and then some); and if you’re not, there’s no point in me trying. People have tried to explain it to me, and I didn’t get it either.

Then there was the match. Cardiff versus... someone or other, I think it was, on Easter Monday. Noah was keen to watch it, so - just for a bit of father-son bonding - I settled down in front of the telly with him. And for the first time, I found myself watching a match on TV and really understanding what was going on; because someone I love was taking the time to explain it to me - not in order to teach me something or make me feel inferior, but just because he was enjoying it so much he couldn’t help sharing it.

It feels a bit odd, at the age of 45, to be suddenly getting pleasure from something whose point has eluded me for most of my life. But what, I hear you ask, does any of this have to do with children’s books?

Well, as regular readers will know, one of my interests and concerns - all right, obsessions - is the teaching of reading; or rather, the learning of reading, and the learning of the pleasure of reading. And since I imagine you’re all sharp enough to work out the parallels for yourselves, I’m going to leave it there and see who runs with it.

John Dougherty’s website is at, and his latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom.

In more football-related news, John’s daughter is currently enjoying Helena Pielichaty’s Girls F.C series.

Friday, 16 April 2010

A Crimean Diary - Miriam Halahmy

I have just returned from Kerch in the Crimea.  Where? What? Who? That's the variety of reactions I had from most people, so I wrote a poem about it called Conversations.

I visited Kerch as part of a delegation from my synagogue in North West London. We are twinned with the emerging Jewish community of Kerch. Since the fall of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) all religions have had a revival and in the Ukraine ( where Kerch and the Crimea are situated) many liberal Jewish communities have started to emerge, reclaiming their former community buildings and developing religious education programmes, social, medical and welfare programmes. Our community has been twinned with Kerch for 10 years and they are very enthusiastic about receiving visitors.

Kerch is a very ancient city littered with Ancient Greek remains and was the most important shipbuilding city in the FSU. Brezhnev stayed at our hotel. During the war Kerch was occupied twice by the Germans. When they first arrived they gathered all the children into a school and gave them coffee and cake which was poisoned. 254 children died. It was a warning to the town not to resist. This is a monument in the town square to those children.

Then the Jews were rounded up and over a few days in November 1942 7,000 Jews were shot in an anti-tank ditch outside Kerch in Bagerov Ravine. The Soviets put up a memorial but as with all Holocaust memorials in the FSU they do not mention Jews, only Soviet citizens. The community will erect a new memorial on the site in May this year. I have written a poem using material I researched in the library at the Jewish community centre during my visit, Nobody understands this.

The Soviet army arrived in Kerch shortly after the massacre and defeated the Germans but the Germans returned in 1943. 140,000 people died in the fighting in and around Kerch. 25,000 soldiers and civilians ran away and hid in a quarry in the tunnel system underground. They were besieged for six months and ended up sucking water from the rock. Almost everyone died. As a result Kerch is named one of the thirteen Hero Cities in the FSU, including Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow. The town is very proud of its history but of course this has had a profound and disturbing effect on all the inhabitants.

We met some amazing people and all of the senior citizens had stories to tell that seemed to cover the entire history of the 1940s and 50s in Europe. This is Nahum Abramovitch, 84 years old, prize winning author. At the age of 18 he was a soldier in the Soviet army and fought his way right through to Berlin. He has written about the war and his experiences to educate the subsequent generations. He and his wife were both teachers. Another member of this group met Yuri Gagarin when he visited his ship in 1961.

The young people in Kerch are very aware of their history and are very proud to be part of the revival of the Jewish Community. They have a Youth Club and on the Saturday afternoon I was invited to run a creative writing workshop - in Russian and English! And I only had 30 minutes. But I was very keen that we create a group poem which I could take back to our community and hopefully inspire our youth club to write a poem in return.

I kept the subject simple. I showed a picture of a London bus, a picture of the main street in Kerch and an Israeli flag. Then I asked them to brainstorm in groups words associated with London, Kerch and Israel. Fortunately we had interpreters and the kids came up with some wonderful stuff including the rush hour in London, the 'crying' wall ( Wailing Wall) in Israel and pancakes in Kerch. All the women cooked the most wonderful pancakes. Then we came back together as a group and created our poem. We called it The Queen, Pancakes and the Wailing Wall.

Meeting the Youth Club of course gave me the opportunity to try and improve my limited Russian ( six words from the rough guide phrasebook) and I managed to add, Choot choot/ a little, shto/what and kruta/cool. Most of the kids could speak some English and listened to British music such as the Bombay bicycle club ( now even I'm sounding cool.)
I have never been to the FSU before and had no idea what to expect. But meeting up with this community and spending a week with them was very inspiring. I am working on more poems and another blog which will show more about the community and their activites. Meanwhile I have to take the youth club poem back to my community and see what our kids come up with.

The kids decided to sign their work and wrote in English letters, rather than Cyrillic.

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Thursday, 15 April 2010

Old Manuscripts - by Katherine Langrish

What do you do with old manuscripts?  I don’t mean crinkly old medieval manuscripts, I mean the manuscripts every writer owns, precious but useless piles of paper that represent months if not years of work – the forlorn not-dead-but-hardly-breathing remains of BOOKS THAT DID NOT MAKE IT.   I have at least six. 

I can’t bear to throw them out, yet there is absolutely zero chance of them ever being published.  Not only were they never good enough, they’re a stage of me which I’ve outgrown, like an old chrysalis, and I couldn’t fit back in.  On top of that, they’re too old-fashioned. 

Take a look at this:

An electric bell began to ring, violently, without stopping.  “Assembly!”
Another rush, this time for the classroom door.  No teachers about yet.  The corridor brimmed with people.  Tall arrogant prefects and groups of scruffy-looking blazer-clad boys.  First-form boys looking aggressive but clean, like choirboys playing rugger.  The little girls were being pushed aside in the rush: Linda caught sight of a frightened face near the wall. Noise and laughter echoed like sounds in a swimming pool, saturating the corridor clad in its dirty cream paint and pock-marked notice boards.
            The wide double doors to the hall were propped open: the flood surged in, slowed, broke into individuals who walked with more or less decorum to their places.
            Coughing: shuffling.  The slide of the khaki drugget underfoot.  Herringbone pattern of woodblocks showing through a split seam.  Mr Green, the music teacher, coming in talking over his shoulder to Miss Sykes: movement of interest among the girls.  Mr Green was popular: he was married but rumoured to be in love with Miss Sykes, and it made the older girls jealous.  He sat down at the organ, grinned at Mr Harvey who was up on the stage fixing hymn numbers, and made the organ groan breathily.  Then he made it squeak. Laughter interrupted the general chatter.
            The Head came in, wearing a black gown over his suit and banged for silence.  He was smiling with a rather forced cheerfulness.  The noise gradually faded into loud shushings from boys who knew the safe ways of being noisy. Precarious silence.

Yes, I wrote this – about thirty years ago.  It’s not badly written, and it was then a fairly accurate representation of the beginning of a new term at a completely ordinary grammar school.  Now – well, it’s just possible that some schools do still have blazers and prefects and electric bells, but I bet they’re not in the state sector; they won’t be holding quasi-religious assemblies for the whole school, the way it happened in my day; I don’t know when I last saw a ‘drugget’ (amazing word); and head teachers no longer wear gowns. 

So, sadly, even in the unlikely case that I do decide to write a new story with a school setting, I can never use this passage.  My personal memories and experiences of school are too out of date to be useful.  (A lot of amateur writers don’t realise this, and rely upon distant memories and – worse still – recollections of the sort of books they themselves read as children, and waste their time producing manuscripts that seem dusty and old-fashioned.  I’ve read manuscripts where it’s been quite obvious the only reason the action is set in 1975 is because that’s when the writer was a child. Unless there’s a valid plot-related reason to set your book in 1975, you had better not do so. )

All the same, I can’t bring myself to chuck the manuscript in the recycling.  (It was called ‘The Outsiders’, Reader, and was a supernatural thriller about an unpopular girl who attracts – erm – the wrong sort of friends.  The writing was good in parts, but the structure was a mess.)

Then there was the Alan Garner-y one about the children who meet a strange fugitive in the woods, who turns out to be on the run from the death-aspect of the Triple Moon Goddess (yes, her again) – and involved standing stones, unfriendly elves with golden faces, owls, ruins, and mazes.  And there was one about the girl who finds her way through a picture into a magical jungle.  I really loved this one for a few years, but looking at it now I see it’s appallingly overwritten.  The jungle found its way into my prose, and you could choke to death on the descriptive writing.  Only my mother could ever have had the patience to read it.  No one else will ever want to do so, nor would I wish it – so why can’t I throw the thing out?  Why?  Why?

There they sit, taking up much-needed space in the drawer, too embarrassing and poorly written to re-read myself, but once so worked over, so dearly beloved!  And so I ask again –

What do you do with old manuscripts?  What do you do? 

 Visit my website and my blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

What else do you do? - Anne Rooney

Katherine's post yesterday on why writers seek publication raised the possibility of publishing in order to be paid. No-one followed that one up in the comments. Profit is an unreliable motive in this job.

Philip Pullman began a talk at Cambridge Wordfest last weekend with reasons writers write, and the first was 'to put food on the table'. He reminded the audience that writing is a job and we should be paid for it. I wasn't there, so I can't tell you the audience's reaction, but I agree wholeheartedly. This is my job, I do it all week, I'm not too bad at it, and I expect to be paid a decent rate for it. But that's not really how the world works.

We all know most writers earn very little. We all know there are plenty of others willing to step into our shoes if we complain too much (though this is a bit of a red herring waved around to keep us in line). So many - probably most - writers do something else besides writing to put food on the table. We might visit schools, teach in universities or on adult education courses or residential writing courses; we might have a part-time 'real' job (ie one with a formal employer who deducts tax and NI) such teaching in a school or working in a library.

I write such a wide variety of things I can usually earn enough just from writing. I sometimes do other things - the odd talk or workshop, a bit of university teaching - and I've been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow (and will be again in September) helping students and university staff with their writing. These are all writing-related at least. The only completely different thing I ever do is building websites. I've worked in the high-tech industry and on its fringes since the early 1980s, and it's useful to have this to fall back on when the writing is on the wall rather than the page.

What do other writers do to keep the wolf a fair distance from the door? Please list all your extra activities in the comments. Are you an actor? A farmer (yes, K, looking at you)? A police officer? A civil servant, like Chaucer? Work in a library, like Larkin, or a bank, like Eliot?

And if you feel like having a rant about how we shouldn't need to have anything to fall back on, please do!

Anne Rooney blogs as Stroppy Author and is, well, a stroppy author.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Salinger’s Safe – Katherine Roberts

There is a rumour that in the years before he died, JD Salinger finished his manuscripts and locked them away in a safe so nobody could publish them in his lifetime. “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing,” he told The New York Times in 1974. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” This makes me wonder why I am so frustrated when I have a finished manuscript that – for whatever reason – is not published. Surely, if the work is the most important thing, then it doesn’t really matter what happens to it once it is finished? So why not lock your manuscripts away in a safe? Or simply burn them? Your work as a creator of stories has been done.

Looking at it from this perspective, and leaving aside any higher aims such as providing a service to readers (let’s face it, there are plenty of other writers perfectly capable of providing the same, if not better, service), then I believe the desire for publication must come down to two things: ego and money. If you have a private income and honestly don’t care about getting paid for your work, then it must be pure ego that makes an author submit a manuscript for publication. To egoists, the work is worthless unless someone reads it – and preferably loves it and praises it, though even negative comments are better then nothing if you are the sort of author who needs hordes of adoring fans in order to write. In fact, if you have enough ego and enough money, you’ll probably bypass the whole painful submission process and publish yourself so you can bask in the celebrity status it conveys. If, on the other hand, you need an income in order to write, then that can be just as strong a reason to desire publication. In fact, maybe it is those writers who have both healthy ego and need for income who are most likely to succeed in being published, because they have double the drive and double the reward at the end.

So back to Salinger and his safe. Death neatly removes both ego (unless you happen to believe in an afterlife where such things will matter) and need for money (assuming you are not leaving behind any dependents). In that case, the muse being satisfied and the work being complete, surely there would be little point in leaving those manuscripts behind for publication? It’s an interesting thought, and brings me to a third reason people might write – not for personal ego or money, but a very human desire to leave something behind us when we go. A passing on of the genes, which is something most people achieve through having children. So a writer, particularly a childless one, might write to leave part of their soul behind. That is the kind of manuscript I can imagine putting into my safe. Out of the books I have written so far, "I am the Great Horse" would fall into that category. On the other hand, I’d probably burn anything written specially for the market, particularly if it remains unpublished, because without readers that kind of manuscript has no reason for existing.

And before you all begin to worry I’m about to drop dead tomorrow, I will say here that as far as I know I’m not – unless I should choose to, of course, which is not an uncommon way for writers to go when backed into a creative corner. But at the risk of sounding morbid, you can’t escape the fact everyone dies sooner or later, and death seems rather more sure to me than taxes in this profession. So when the hooded figure with the sickle approaches, assuming he gives you a bit of time to plan, what would YOU do with your unpublished manuscripts? Or am I the only one thinking about buying a very large safe?

Visit Katherine’s website at
And find out what her unicorn muse is up to at

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Abundant Words - Dianne Hofmeyr

I’m contemplating the patterns under my feet on an Nguni skin next to my bed, thinking about the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem:

Glory be to God for dappled things-
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings …I love the words: dappled, brindled, stippled, studded, mottled, spattered, freckled and I wonder what Hopkins would have made of this pattern.

I own five Nguni. In Zulu terms if they were flesh and blood, this would make me a very wealthy woman. Each Nguni is differently and distinctly patterned. I know the name of each of them thanks to Marquerite Poland’s evocative book The Abundant Herds celebrating Zulu cattle naming, brilliantly illustrated by Leigh Voight.

The Nguni beside my bed is Stones in the river – a creamy beast with dark round patches circled by lighter rings like the tide-mark on boulders in an African river that is slowly drying.

The beauty of an oral language lies not only in its lyrical and tonal qualities but in the slight nuances, the imaginative combination of words, the rich metaphor, exaggeration, paradox, imagery, allusion and truth. It’s the language of young herdsmen who have spent their days in the veldt with nothing but wide open spaces and the stone-like palisades of ancient cow byres and nights next to flickering fires under huge star-strewn skies, to feed their imagination and idea of story – each herdsman knowing his beasts so well that every single one is praised by name and sung to as it enters the byre for milking - the names giving credit to human creativity, playfulness and story telling.
My four other Nguni are named:
Gaps between the branches of the tree silhouetted against the sky. A huge cream beast with black shapes that seem like trees in silhouette against a pale sky.
Flies in the buttermilk. A creamy animal stippled with small black dots that resemble flies swimming in a bucket of buttermilk. Soured milk. A cloudy mix of grey and cream and dun that resembles milk just beginning to clot and cloud and turn. Zebra, or it’s Zulu name Idube, one of the rarest patterns of all Nguni and strangely never black and white like a true zebra but brindled and striped, dark reddish brown with streaks of black.Names are inpsired by nature. A pure black beast is associated with thunderclouds and used to beg the spirits for rain. A creamy dun coloured animal might be Soured milk or The beast who holds the mushroom or Sand of the sea. A dark animal with a flash of red-brown is The Red-winged Starling. An animal with a dark top half and flecked hind quarters is The Martial Eagle. A pale animal with brown speckles is Egg of the lark or Seed of the Castor oil plant. An animal flecked with dark smudges is Caterpillars of the marula tree. A black beast with a white stripe down its throat is Beast which is part of the mimosa bark peeled back. There are humourous names too – The beast which is the woman crossing over, a dark animal with solid white on its underbelly that suggests a woman walking through a river holding up her skirt, and Beast whose thighs are like those of a lady. Irony comes through in the praises of Cetshwayo where the disparaging name Small red spotted calf of the whites is given to a British Officer at the Battle of Isandlwana. Hopkins with his double Firsts at Oxford, his friendship with Robert Bridges, his appointment as Professor of Greek and Latin in University College Dublin, would have had a distinct advantage over a young 19th century herdsman. But in discussing poetry Hopkins uses two terms: inscape and instress. By inscape he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by instress he means the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder.

The imagery used by a herdsman shows both inscape and instress. Nguni names confirm the power of the poet is no less rich and evocative in an oral language.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

An Awfully Big Hedgehog Adventure! Meg Harper

Way back in January, I landed a job with Creative Partnerships – now here I am, a short way into it. If you’re full-time writer with no interest in taking on one of the many para-writing jobs that exist, you may want to give this blog a miss. If, however, you wonder what on earth Creative Partners get up to, then read on!
I’m working in Blackbird Leys, the biggest council estate in Europe (apparently) on the outskirts of Oxford and my brief, together with Vergine, a storyteller and Lisa, a visual/spatial artist, is to see how we can use the outdoors to enable children in Foundation and Year 1 to express and communicate better and to make connections. What a challenge that is! We are all well outside our comfort zones – all experienced as artists in schools but none of us particularly au fait with the very youngest, all of whom are in the earliest stages of literacy or are pre-literate. I found myself reading the optimistic words of the literacy framework for the children I’m working with:
“... children in pairs or individually (possibly then working with a response partner) write their own simple patterned texts (on paper or on screen), developing their writing by adding a few further words or phrases from a given beginning, following a specific pattern or within an appropriate frame. Outcomes are then shared and discussed.”
and wondering which planet the writers are living on Nonetheless, believe it or not – we have actually hit that particular target and are very proud of our two poems about Rats and Rabbits who we all know live outdoors (and we’ve played some excellent outdoor games about them) even if we’ve never seen them in the wild. We might see some on our planned trip to the local nature reserve, though I’ve been warned we’re more likely to see (and carefully avoid!) litter, discarded condoms and worse!
Why, you might be wondering, why does the government think three artists none of whom have qualifications to teach very young children, can have any impact here? Why not just draft in some extra teaching staff? And why, you might be wondering, would any sane writer want to leave her garret to go and engage with this?
Because (hallelujah!) we are creative thinkers! For once there is some cheer! Researchers have worked out that the next generation will have to be flexible, adaptive, innovative thinkers to thrive – and which people have those transferable skills? Artists, of course! It’s true enough, isn’t it? Where do you get your ideas from? What made you think of that? How d’you come up with such interesting plots? And so the skills we have as creative writers are invaluable for pursuing creative enquiry questions because we will keep thinking outside the box, coming up with the quirky, considering any and all ideas before we progress. And believe me, we so need to!
Vergine, Lisa and I are on a steep learning curve working out what’s going to work, what’s really relevant, what will be fun at the same time as being educational, all inspired by the outdoors and, was often as we can, working with the children actually in the outdoors. We are almost literally a breath of fresh air. We started out with some pretty unrealistic thinking, all bright green grass and primroses, and are adapting fast to the inspiration of an urban outdoors and the well-equipped school areas, to using lots of stories, games and pictures based on the outdoors and to cudgelling our brains for more exciting ideas. But I’m used to that, as you all will be too – it is crucial to our success as artists. Our transferable skills have been rumbled and what fun and what a challenge it is to use them in such a very different way from writing at my desk!
The latest wacky idea on my part was to send two soft toys, Rabbit and Rhino home each night with different children so that they could take them outside and write a little and draw a picture about what they did. The children are loving this, dutifully taking the toys home (named Sharpay and Troy by the way if you’re a ‘High School Musical’ fan!) and, by their standards, doing a fair bit of writing about what happens. The only trouble is that, although they take them to bed and keep them close, few of them take them outside. We sat and chatted about it. Where could they take them outside? What would be some good places?
‘Tesco,’ said one.
‘To my friend’s house,’ said another.
It’s a limited environment and most of the children don’t have any where much to play or parents likely to take them further afield. And so another toy, Harriet Hedgehog has been staying with me all holiday and having Big Outdoor Advantures as you’ll see from the photos! She may be inspiration, the children may get vicarious pleasure out of seeing where she’s been, we may begin to write a story about her adventures. We shall see. And if The Adventures of Harriet Hedgehog go down like a lead balloon, then we’ll think of something else because that’s where our strengths lie. Don’t they? : D

PS. I've included a couple of nice literary photos!!! Anyone want to guess where they are?

Friday, 9 April 2010

What's Up? - Andrew Strong

I stop listening sometimes, and can hear only metaphors. Let me explain. Last weekend I went to party, it lasted three days, and I hardly slept. I wanted to talk to friends I hadn’t seen in months; I wouldn’t see them again for a long time, so I wanted to make the most of it. But as my ageing brain began to tire, I stopped listening to what people were saying, and heard only how they were saying it.

We started talking about keeping our dreams alive, not giving up, that how, whatever life throws at us, we battle on.

A friend from Yorkshire likes to say "what’s going off?"; friends from further south would say "what’s going on?" In the north, life is more explosive. In the south, things are more stable. Perhaps.

Language is laden with metaphor; it is impossible to write a sentence without one or two, however bland, creeping in. (eg ’laden’ ’creeping in’).

There are metaphors of direction - up, down, forward, backward etc: "things are looking up"; "don’t let it get you down".

And metaphors of inside and outside: "in love" "out of control".

Metaphors of journeys: "I don’t know where my life is going..." "we’ve come a long way together"; "you’ve lost your way".

I like the way technology influences metaphor. We 'grasp' something when we understand it, suggesting, perhaps, that hands and brain work closely together most of the time. Someone who can think quickly is sharp, someone with a quick wit is cutting.

During the industrial revolution, when machines replaced people, people became machines: the heart is a pump; the lungs are bellows; the kidneys as a filter; the skeleton is scaffolding.

And since the advent of the home pc, when computers are blessed with memory, brains are compared to computers. The internet has potentially given us another metaphor, the connected world as a brain, an electronic Gaia theory.

If we can imagine new technologies, we can imagine new metaphors and then, perhaps, revolutionise the way we think.

So I will propose a new technology: a thought filter... like a simple meditative tool, it knocks away thoughts, and we can adjust it to allow in just very positive thoughts, or, when we want to be sad, we can set it to sad mode.

I imagine these devices, circular, in any colour you like, placed on the nape of the neck. The controller fits on your wrist like a watch. Apple will be making them within five years, I guarantee it.

Once the thought filter exists, and is available everywhere, then it will surely give rise to new metaphors.

"You need to set your thought filter to one..." (concentrate)

"You should turn up your thought filter..." (wake up, take more notice of what’s going on)

"Lower the me mode on your thought filter..."

And so on.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Dog training for writers - Elen Caldecott

Yesterday, we had a new member join the family. Those of you who know me – or have read my home page – know that for a long time I have wanted a dog.
Well, yesterday she arrived!

She is some weird kind of mongrel, part Sharpei, part terrier; a woman I met in the park yesterday swore she could she a bit of Irish wolf-hound in her. At the moment, she has a few names and we’re waiting to see what she settles down with.

Now, this isn’t going to be a post about dogs. If you want quality animal blogging, may I suggest the LolCats Bible – hours of fun to be had there. Though of course, I want to shower you with pictures and tales of what cute things she did yesterday (learned to sit and only woke up twice in the night to check where we were).

Instead, this is going to be a post drawing a tenuous link between writing and dog ownership. Bear with me.

First of all comes the planning – it’s just an exciting dream. For a novel, you create characters and situations and it all seems inspired. With a dog you spend ages thinking about names and wondering what she will be like. Will you make your dog wear clothes? Go to dancing lessons? What about agility classes? Your imagination fills with images and all of them are rosy, rosy, rosy.

Then it gets a bit harder. You have to make some decisions. You have to discard the ideas that you just can’t see working. You have to get a bit tough. This is the doggy equivalent of walking along the kennels at an animal sanctuary and have to look a dog in the eye and say ‘sorry, you’re too big’ or ‘you’re too moulty’.

Then comes the big day, you know what you want and you’re ready to go for it. That first flourish of your pen, the first time you set your characters down on the page, it’s a bit like the moment when the lead is handed to you and you get told ‘here’s your dog, give her a good home.’
Then the fear sets in. Can you really do this? What if the dog goes mental in the car on the way home? What if she hates you? What if she pines for the kennel manager and won’t eat and you have to hand feed her roast quail just so she doesn’t waste away? This is the best time to ignore the fear. Plough on, it will probably be fine. With a book, this usually happens to me around chapter 9, when I start to think ‘this is awful. This is never going to work. What was I thinking?’
That’s when determination has to come in. The determination to see it through to the end, come what may.

Yesterday I took my dog on her first walk. For an hour and a half, she strained at the lead, with me saying ‘heel’ every three steps. I have lead-blisters on two of my fingers. That’s when I realised that this is going to take time. This is going to be a real project. Like a novel, she is going to need patience and hard work and she’s only going to get better in tiny increments. But those improvements will add up to make something we can be proud of.

And, if it doesn’t, any excuse to call Cesar Milan is fine with me.
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

So there's a spider, a labrador and Uncle Quentin...: by Gillian Philip

Tonight I was trying to work out what I saw when I first saw Kirrin Island. For the life of me I can't remember. I think it was a shadowy sort of rock, about the size of four large urban roundabouts, with Sanquhar Castle plonked on top. (How did that fit?) It was not very far offshore. I wasn't a very good swimmer so I wouldn't have put it too far away.

I was wondering this because it came up at bedtime. No idea why. I think it was a distraction from the Death of Marley (the labrador, not the singer).

'Just you snuggle down and listen to The Hobbit,' says I. (Yes, I know, I should be reading it myself, not leaving it to Martin Shaw and the CD player.) 'It's OK to be sad about Marley but try and think about giant carnivorous spiders instead.'

'OK,' says the Boy Kray. 'But he doesn't get the spiders' voices right.'

Now, to my certain knowledge, my very own reluctant reader has never sat and read The Hobbit in print. The lovely Martin Shaw has patiently read it to him every night for about three months, and only from this has the BK deduced that he doesn't get the spiders right. (Bilbo is fine, Martin. Gollum is fine. It's the spiders.) So I was wondering what the process is that transforms an audiobook into words or pictures in a boy's head, then gives the images and characters, as seen by boy, voices that aren't the ones the reader is giving them. Are you with me?

My misshapen, twenty-feet-from-shore Kirrin Island can't possibly be the one Enid Blyton intended, but it must have suited me fine, because I loved those books. Maybe Kirrin Island got a bit bigger as I did? Not sure.

'Nah. Kirrin Island,' says the Boy Kray, 'is like Colonsay.'

'Blimey. That's big,' says I.

'Yeah, but Uncle Quentin's study looks like our dining room.'

At which point the Girl Kray storms in, demands to be included in the insomnia party, and adds: 'And Kirrin Cottage is like the Tardis, only the other way round, because it's bigger on the outside and tiny on the inside, and Uncle Quentin's study is NOT in our house, it's the staff room at school. LOSER.'

'So, films,' I say, rubbing my sore head, 'they must be better than books? Or audiobooks? Because you know what everything looks like and you know what everything sounds like.'

At which point I get that withering Mother-you-idiot look (from two directions), and the Boy Kray says, 'Of course not. That's why books are BETTER. It is MORE FUN making it up in your head.'

Which is reassuring. And I think one of the loveliest things about sending a book into the world (waving goodbye with a wistful smile) is knowing that nobody, but nobody, will see that story the way you (or anyone else) saw it, and you ain't never going to know how they picture it.

Be sure that I will be remembering the 'books are BETTER' conversation next time I'm dragging Reluctant Reader away from the Xbox and throwing Alex Rider at him.

In the meantime, needless to say, both Krays are long asleep, and I'm sitting here past midnight with a brain like porridge in a liquidiser. I'll still be trying to work out that spider-voice-conversion process at two o'clock in the morning.

(Above right: And Bilbo DEFINITELY doesn't look like that)

Where Do You Do It? - Karen Ball

Come on, don't be shy. Okay, I'll go first. Here are some of the places I've done it:
  • On a train.
  • Beside the Thames.
  • At my parents' house.
  • Beneath the stairs.
  • In the back garden.
  • Surrounded by strangers at St Pancras International.
Interestingly, never in a library. I'm talking about writing, of course. I hear lots of stories and I've seen the pictures: of people writing from a sleeping bag, in their sheds, from cafes around the world and on planes. The Weekend Guardian ran a fantastic series, photographing authors' studies. How I envied each and every one of those rooms! The interesting piece of furniture from a far-flung part of the world. The letter from a famous friend. The rows of foreign editions. Why did no one have a wobbly IKEA bookshelf, a fluffly blue pen with a butterfly on the end or - as in my particular case - a little pile of make-up brushes in a chipped whisky glass? I take comfort from the fact that I don't need a room of my own, I can write anywhere. All I need is a pen and paper ... ah, here's the rub. I don't think I could write longhand if you paid me lots and lots of money. I left that talent behind at university and even then it was giving me wrist ache. So all I need is a power point, a netbook, a wireless mouse (keeping up?), a notebook, a pen, a table, a kindly waitress... But most of these things I can find. And I do.

Writing is one of the most portable activities there is. But do these different venues affect my writing? I recently turned up at a day retreat, battling through rain, and immediately hated the new venue. I spent a day making my main character really, really angry. My attempts to write at the Starbucks in St Pancras were sensationally disastrous. All those other people milling around, looking a bit lost and forlorn, on their way somewhere but not there yet? Every word I wrote at that venue was equally lost and may as well have been ripped up and used for confetti. But I've had successes too. I once sat in my back garden and gazed up from my empty laptop screen to the blue flowers at the base of the cherry tree. Inspiration! A few hours later I'd completed a short story that - yes! - would be published. And I love writing on trains, if not at train stations.

Daphne du Maurier famously wrote 'Rebecca' whilst living in Egypt. Egypt! Her novel drips Cornish beauty: the shoreline, that house, those storms. Could Emily Bronte have written about the dark passions of 'Wuthering Heights' if she'd been holed up in leafy Surrey? (I grew up amongst the Derbyshire moors. When visiting Surrey for the first time as a naive 20-year-old I looked around and declared, 'But it's so ... green.' Made my boyfriend's mum laugh a lot. I never did like her.)

Sorry, I'm getting distracted. Venues. In 1930s Egypt, Daphne du Maurier's imagination yearned for the coasts of Cornwall and she evoked them brilliantly in her novel. I suspect locations matter just as much or as little as you allow them to. It's your imagination that counts and I've discovered that once you're visiting that part of your brain, the rest of the world can go whistle. You're oblivious.

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Monday, 5 April 2010

Writing Going Feral: Penny Dolan

I know there are people who have learned all they need to know about writing from reading “real books”. However, I am a sucker for all sorts of books about writing. This may be because, for me, such books are a little like hearing someone talk about writing, which is often stimulating, interesting, informative and not always totally to be believed.

So I have been idling through a library copy of "The Sound of Paper", one of Julia Cameron’s books. This is not Julia Cameron the pioneer photographer, but Julia Cameron, ex-wife of Scorsese and author of several titles about nurturing one’s own artistic creativity, most notably “The Artist’s Way.”

I have to admit these books are not perfect. Julia’s writing style is American- Effusive with frequent showers of the Spiritual. Something about her artistic lifestyle grates more than a little when personal finances are tight, and the context is not how most people life. The span of the "Paper" book begins in a New York apartment overlooking the Hudson River and follows her to her second home in Taos, a highly artistic community in New Mexico. Not Leeds then.

I must admit that Julia’s occasional Artist's Way exhortations about searching for cheap but beautiful notebooks and pens does remind me of the sparkly, girly writing sets that fill what was once bookshelf space in shops, while her suggestions for listing five wishes for one’s future or ten things to admire about ones own achievements feels very un-English and possibly un-British.

All the same, dear Julia means well and her main mantras are good. Quick version: One. Begin each day by writing three “Morning Pages” to let out your worries and negativity so you are left free to work. Two. Taking yourself off alone for a regular “Artist Date”, which means doing something that will refresh and stimulate your own artistic ideas. Three. Walking for some time each day, as a way of freeing your thoughts for any creative project. These work. These help. Go and read about them for yourself.

Besides, I always get something useful from Julia’s books. From "The Sound of Paper" comes the following big warning about Writing Going Feral.

She suggests that if you don’t look after your current writing project by giving it time each day, by treating it well by using your best hours on it, by looking after the work and attending to it regularly, then your creative idea will wander away and be hard to find when you return to the page. Your work will have Gone Feral.

Procrastinators, take note. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Me, I'm reaching for the kitty-bowl right now.