Monday, 31 May 2010

Lancashire Book of the Year, 2010 by Adèle Geras

The final judges' meeting took place on Friday, May 28th and after a long debate, with much good argument and many disagreements of a literary kind, the votes were counted up and by a very narrow margin indeed, the winner was declared to be BANG BANG YOU'RE DEAD by Narinder Dhami (Corgi pbks) So many congratulations to Narinder who I believe is coming to the actual award ceremony on June 26th. I'm looking forward to meeting her and to seeing other shortlisted authors too, like Leslie Wilson and Tim Bowler. All the shortlisted books had their passionate advocates as well as readers who didn't like them quite so much. That's to be expected. I don't think argument and debate have ever actually CHANGED a person's impression of a book! The young judges were, as usual, intelligent, lively, loquacious and funny. It was a treat to be there.
As usual, the whole event ran like clockwork thanks to the good offices of Jean Wolstenholme, Jake Hope and the wonderful librarians of Lancashire. Long may they flourish!

PS: I forgot to say when I wrote about the award: we had an adult panel shadowing the children and reading all the books on the shortlist. The book which won the adult vote was GRASS by Cathy McPhail. It's an economical, exciting and moving thriller and I was happy that it got the recognition it deserved. It's published by Bloomsbury in pbk. Do give it a try.

Dance with Words by Lynda Waterhouse

I have been feeling heartsnipped lately. Heartsnipped is a sand sprite word for when you feel as if a bit of your heart is missing and you can never feel completely settled or content. This feeling comes over me when I have to go into to school meetings and talk about ‘Impact and percentages of progress towards meeting targets’ rather than about children.
The pain eases when Chantal Joseph our dancer teacher comes in each week and I watch the children dance. Everyone is included and the children work hard and literally stretch themselves. Children who have additional needs and struggle with language or dyslexia suddenly become fluent and expressive. Experiencing the joy and delight that dancing brings inspires me too and has a big influence on my Sand Dancers series. It got me thinking about how I could turn dance into words. The results so far are exciting and I am developing a blog called danceintowords to share the ideas. During the last literacy session I ran with a year three class there were only two instructions; write or dance your idea if you are stuck for words. The boys in particular loved this and one boy produced four pages of lyrical writing expressing his feelings about being caught in a sandstorm.
Last Friday Chantal and I were invited to run a ‘Dance into words’ workshop at the fabulous WriteAway Annual conference which was called, ‘Read, play, think, create: generating delight in learning. I was nervous at first. What if the group refused to dance or no-one came? As is says in the sand sprites guide book, The Sands of Time,
‘A Sand Dancer is never afraid
Of facing the music and dancing’
The session went well and afterwards I realised that my heart was feeling much less snipped. The second book in the Sand Dancers series is called Blue Moon Ballet and is available now.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

iMuck up: N M Browne

I have been without my iMac for a week and I am afraid I missed my spot here. I have been quite bereft.
This is weird because I have never much cared what I wrote on in the past. I wrote all my essays as a student longhand and didn’t really start using a computer for writing until the late eighties. For a while I wrote on a palm pilot and have used a variety of machines since, but it seems those promiscuous days are gone. I have lost my adaptability.
I find that I can’t actually write longhand any more. I can’t make my hands do those wiggly bits. I have got to that wonderful stage of life when my handwriting, always illegible to other people, is now completely impenetrable to me. Notes in the margins of manuscripts could mean anything at all. I have spent hours trying to decipher words which turn out to have been scribbles trying to bump start my pen.
I have to type and I am a dreadful typist. I did go on a course once - but I only lasted the first few lessons. I know where the main keys are but I didn’t get to the lesson on capitals, tabs, numbers or punctuation. Occasionally I will offer to type something for my kids only to find myself wilting under their criticism. I always type ‘hte’, ‘form’ and ‘stroy’, hell, I even mistype my own name as ‘Nikcy’ and my old computer always welcomed me as ‘Nicole’ due to an unfortunate mistake early on in our relationship that I was too incompetent to correct: besides it made me feel exotic.
Anyway, (or as I prefer to type it ‘anywya’) I like my iMac because it has a big clear screen that shows me my mistakes. I don’t have to squint at it or crane my neck. It looks beautiful and my heart lifts a little when I see it. Without all the various boxes and wires of my old Dell, I have much more room on my desk for excessive clutter and it emerges like an elegant sculpture from the detritus of my disordered workspace, a paragon of modernity. Without it I have found myself unaccountably at a loss.
I confess that I could have written my blog if I’d really tried. I have a small notebook on which I could have worked, but it has a tiny screen and a rather unfortunate tendency to stick like an old fashioned typewriter. It is fine as long as I don’t type words with ‘m’ or ’l’ in them or sentences with that all important ‘.’ Even I, a stranger to sophisticated punctuation, recognise that as a problem. It might have been an interesting challenge, but I couldn’t face blogging, or more properly, bgging without those letters.
So I’m sorry I didn’t blog on my day. I’m sorry that I appear to have become dependent on a particular type of machine, that I am in thrall to a US based multinational that is taking over the world. I will fight it I promise, but not until I’ve finished my next book. (If it sells I might have to buy an iPad.)

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Brain Bone's Connnected to the Nose Bone - Joan Lennon

I know that my brain is an astonishingly complex thing, with richly elastic and innovative ways of using that complexity - neurons fire like Hogmanay over Edinburgh Castle every time I want to do anything from not falling over to punning to distinguishing one pizza topping from another AFTER I've taken a bite ... I love my brain. Really, huge respect. (And this isn't just personal - I love YOUR brain too. I'm just a down-right all-round brain-loving kind of gal.)

So why is it, I have to ask, that this A-one amazing piece of kit is such an entire wuss when it comes to the all-too-common cold? WHY???

I have a cold. I also have a deadline. Why can't these two facts co-exist? And if they can't, what hope is there for the nations of the world?

Why does having a cold not make me better at writing about distress or disease? Or unhappiness? Or things that are unpleasant and wet, like swamps? Having a cold doesn't make me better at writing ANYTHING.

I'm fed-up and (pause to blow nose) well, I have to say, disappointed. Your report, brain, will now include the dread words:

Could do better.

Visit Joan's website.
Visit Joan's blog.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Childish Things - Charlie Butler

Exhibit A: One of the more annoying adverts I've seen on buses in the Bristol area was paid for by my own university. A few years ago, they tried to attract students with the slogan "Real life starts here!" The implication, I suppose, being that childhood is merely a kind of marking time, a training on the (literal) nursery slopes for real - that is, adult - life.

Exhibit B: an official sign spotted recently affixed to a local lamppost: "Do not feed the seagulls. They annoy people and children."

What is one to make of it all? That children are but half-formed adults, and childhood meaningful only in so far as it points the way to better things ahead? What could be more calculated to make one march down the street shouting "Children are human beings too!"? This attitude affects children's writers as well, who are notoriously grouchy at being asked when they are going to start writing "real" books - that is, books for real people - that is, for adults.

Prompted by all this, I've been thinking about the ways children's books portray the transition from childhood to adulthood, and I've come up with one of my trademark taxonomies:

1) Avoid it! This subdivides into two categories:

a) The School of Death. From Helen Burns to Leslie Burke, there are heroes and heroines (the latter rather more than the former) who have cheated adulthood by dying before it could get its clammy grey hands on them.

b) Supernatural Solutions. Peter Pan is the obvious example here. But of course, he is a slightly tragic figure, who can stay a child only at the cost of forgetting people and events, and by being excluded for ever from the embrace of a mother. I might mention Pippi Longstocking, too, who at the end of Pippi in the South Seas gives herself, Tommy and Annika a pill that should keep them children for ever. Alas, for jaded adult readers this is clearly a case of whistling to keep her spirits up. The book closes with Pippi blowing out the single candle that sits on the table before her, and we all know what that means.

2) Accept it as a painful necessity. This is the Christopher Robin solution. We much prefer childhood, but there's nothing to be done, and so we must reluctantly leave the Hundred Acre Wood behind. Sometimes, we might hint to those still on the near shore of childhood that it's not so bad when it comes to it (Peter Pevensie says something on those lines when explaining to his younger siblings that he'll never be able to return to Narnia) but while we appreciate the thought, we don't believe a word of it.

3) Celebrate it! This approach is appealingly optimistic, but can sail awfully close to the dismissive attitude towards childhood with which I began. Perhaps the classic instance in modern chidren's literature is Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and its sequels, in which the old polarity which saw childhood as an idyllic time likely to be ruined by the onset of puberty was reversed, and Lyra's entrance into sexuality was shown quite literally to save the universe. (Caveat lector: losing your virginity isn't always that cosmically significant.) But I was bothered by an exchange in the first book, in which the "settling" of a person's daemon was explained in terms of discovering "the kind of person you are". The implication that children have shifting, unformed personalities (even feisty Lyra?), and that adults are "settled" from puberty onward in an unchanging and unchangeable form, seems pretty insulting to both parties, and not much like life as I, at any rate, have experienced it.

Which leaves me with my favourite category, which is that of the books whose authors recognize that "growing up" isn't an event, even an extended one, that takes place some in one's teens, or when one leaves for Prep school, or decides one is ready to sleep outside the Nursery. It's a lifelong process, carried out on many different levels, and different rates, and sometimes in different directions. I won't list all the books that do this, because luckily there are quite a few, and they don't tend to be seen as books that are "about growing up " at all. But, because I don't want to leave the category entirely empty, let me just say that hallowed name of Tove Jansson (whether writing for children or for adults) and leave it at that.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Walking London - Keren David

Which park did Mary Poppins visit with the Banks children? Where was Dick Whittington buried? Where was the antique shop run by Paddington Bear’s friend, Mr Gruber?
All these questions and many more are answered in a book which should be a must-have for families in and around London, or anyone thinking of visiting the capital with children. London Adventure Walks for Families, by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis has 25 walks in a handy pocket-size paperback, along with maps, suggestions for snacks and games; information about museums and monuments, poems, pictures and loads of fascinating facts.
Many of the walks are inspired by classics of children’s literature. There’s a 3-mile 101 Dalmations romp around Regent’s Park, which starts at Mr and Mrs Dearly’s rather grand house in the Outer Circle, and takes you around the park - including the arched bridge where Pongo fell in love – ending up in Primrose Hill, where you are helpfully directed to a café, a book shop and a pet shop.
A Charles Dickens walk is a great introduction to Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield. I’d forgotten that Clerkenwell Green - where my agent has her office – is also where Oliver and the Artful Dodger pick Mr Brownlow’s pocket. Reading the details of the walk reminded me of the thrill of coming to work in London after growing up in a new town. I worked near Chancery Lane and I'd recently studied Bleak House, so Dickens' characters seemed to walk beside me as I explored the Inns of Court. The layers of history and literature everywhere made me fall in love with the city.
For young readers, seeing the real places described in books can be magical, helping them visualise characters and places better than any film. It also gives them insight into the craft of a writer who borrows from real life. And if you pick one of the walks that takes children somewhere they've never been before, it could be a good starting point for creating stories of their own.
But even if the children are not interested in literature and history and only care about the ice-cream at the end, a family walk is well worth doing. It's an opportunity for exercise, talking and sharing, away from the distractions of everyday life.
I must admit that I was pre-disposed to like this book - I’m in a writing group with one of the authors, Becky Jones, and we share a publisher, Frances Lincoln. But it wasn’t until I got a copy in my hands that I realised what a gem it is - and how useful it will be over half term. I’m already planning some walks for next week – Dick Whittington and the City of London one day, perhaps and Coram Boy another.
And if it rains, well, Mary Poppins always did have an umbrella.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

BAD FAITH by Gillian Philip Strident Publishing Ltd pbk £6.99

When I say that Gillian Philip’s novel is hard-hitting, I’m not indulging in clichéd critic-speak. I ought to flag up a warning here: this book is not for those of a tender disposition. It’s not ever gratuitously violent but Philip is too honest a writer to gloss over the detail of the terrible crimes that do occur. ‘Hard-hitting’ is what goes on in several places in a literal sense, but there’s much more to this book than the physical acts which are committed in it. It’s a dystopia of a most unusual kind. The world is recognisably ours in many ways but the One Church now rules supreme, under the sway of one Ma Baxter who sounds cosy and as though she might be part of the Baxter soup empire but who is very sinister indeed. No one is safe from religious spies and thugs and the reach of the One Church goes everywhere and runs counter to anything good we’ve come to expect from Christianity. In this atmosphere, Cassandra and her dear friend, Ming, together with Cass’s beloved brother have several very urgent matters to deal with, involving not only murder in the present day, but also terrible family secrets and revelations from the past, both distant and recent. To say more would compromise the thriller aspect of the book, which is very exciting and involving but what can be said is that Philip’s writing is terrifically engaging throughout: both colloquial and fast and at the same time poetic and lyrical when it needs to be. And she has a cracking first sentence which makes you want to read on. “Before I slipped on the mud and fell over the Bishop, our family didn’t have a lot to do with murder. A little, but not much.”
Well, you have to find out what’s going on, don’t you? And if you do, you’re in for a roller-coaster of a read, full of believable and likeable characters, horrid villains of an unexpected kind and the effects of violence given their proper weight and not glossed over, comic-book style. It’s the kind of book that holds your attention throughout and Cassandra, whose first person account it is, is a heroine we come to care for during the course of the book. Also,(and this is something I always appreciate in a novel) Philip writes about places so that you can really see them and imagine yourself there. I enjoyed Bad Faith enormously.

WASTED by Nicola Morgan Walker Books pbk £6.99

Here’s a novel from Nicola Morgan, another writer from Scotland who also deals honestly with matters which might cause squeamish people some alarm. I still haven’t quite got over the beginning of her Fleshmarket which depicts an operation without anaesthetic carried out on a woman. Nothing in Wasted will make you look away, however. It’s a very well-written and well-structured story which depends for its effects on a clever device. Jack, for reasons explained in the story, conducts his life by the toss of a coin. He lets this coin make all his decisions for him and this leads to several places where the outcome is hanging on this gamble. At various points in the text, Morgan outlines the different results that might follow, depending on whether you get Heads or Tails. The reader is therefore somehow complicit in what happens to the characters, rather in the manner of a game. This could become too clever for its own good or simply tricksy, but the strong and likeable characters whose fates we actually come to care about prevent this from happening. The plot, even stripped of its gambling element, would be engaging in itself. It’s a story of young love, of rivalry, and of guilt and young people will be fascinated by it. Like Philip, Morgan is good at sense of place and the way she sometimes switches perspective from her main narrators (Jack and his friend Jess) to, for instance, the cat means that the book is constantly surprising you. Every so often, Morgan stops the novel in its tracks and asks the reader to choose the outcome and the pages are interspersed with quotations from philosophers and scientists about chance, fate and so forth. Intriguing and fast-moving, this is sure to be a favourite with boys as well as girls. Morgan has written non-fiction about the brain but here it’s the heart she’s mainly interested in and what can happen when the emotions have to cope with the vagaries of chance. .

PS...Further to my quilts post, I had a very nice email from Susan Prichard to whom I sent the link and she says this: "I read your blog with interest - just to let you know the shop does
indeed stock magnets, which you can also buy on line. Follow this link:

Many apologies to Sue and the V&A.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Summer Reading

Lately I have been mostly going to the Lido very early in the morning to avoid the crowds, and after the slightly euphoric last post in which I dreamt a new heroine I have been knee deep in re-writes which has been alright, but not ecstatic.
But what is ecstatic is my forthcoming holiday and the decisions to be made about books to take.
I love my French holidays. That's me there on the balcony, well my feet anyway. I do nothing but stand in the shallow end of the pool with a book, until my top half gets so hot I just have to swim.
There's only so many books one can take, which does make me start to see the advantages of an e reader, or even an I-phone which has a readable screen. But as my phone is current;y suffering badly from a dunking (not in the pool ahem hem) then God knows what the pool would do to an e reader.
What I do is scour bookshops, second hand shops and Amazon for a selection of adult, YA and children's and non fiction. I amass great bookpiles which are all over my secondary desk - my writing desk is too covered with gack to put much down I'm afraid - then these piles are sorted and sifted, not unlike auditionnees for some tv talent show, until I narrow them down t the final ten.

At the moment my list looks like this;
Jason Goodwin's Lords of the Horizon - non fic bout the Ottoman Empire
The Snake Stone - second in his series about Yashim, historical Ottoman empire set dectective tales.
The Bellini Card follow on from above
Penny Dolan's A Boy Called Mouse in proof - don't worry Penny Jo at Vicky Park Books was sent two proofs!
William Nicholson's Rich and Mad
Celia Rees' The Fools Girl although this is in Hardback which is most annoying
Kate Thompson's Creature of the Night
Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to The Dogs Tonight Memoir of growing up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe/Malawi
Nobody's Girl By Sarra Manning
Unsticky by Sarra Manning
Byzantium by Judith Herrin non fiction
Jerry White London in the 19th Century non fiction
The Italian Boy Sarah Wise non fiction
In the Driver's Seat Helen Simpson short stories
The Silver Blade Sally Gardner...
Oh I'm going to stop there, who wants to read a list of books? BUT if you have any recommendations for me I would love to hear them.
Happy reading and enjoy the sunshine,

Sunday, 23 May 2010

More Parading Elephantoms -Dianne Hofmeyr

This is a late-edition Sunday 'extra' Elephant Parade to celebrate the summeriness of today... but don't miss out on Adele's marvellous Quilt blog from Saturday 22nd May.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Quilts 1700-2010 by Adèle Geras


... from my usual book reviews. I’ll be going back to those on Wednesday May 26th, when I’ll write about Nicola Morgan’s latest, Wasted and Gillian Philip's Bad Faith. Meanwhile, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to a most wonderful exhibition at the V&A . It’s called Quilts, 1700-2010 and it ends on the 4th July, which gives you a few weeks to get there. If this is your kind of thing, it’s very much worth your while, because it seems to me to be a real example of how to arrange and curate an exhibition. This link will take you to the V&A site where you’ll find a few more details about such things as how to get there, book, etc. There’s also a link on the V&A site to curator Susan Prichard’s blog, which is fascinating. It’s worth booking in advance as this is an enormously popular show.

There’s everything here you could possibly wish for to look at. Not only domestic quilts, made by (mostly) women for practical purposes, but also very elaborate ornamental patchworks and quilts, patchworks for display and commemoration and (most moving, these are) quilts made in times of adversity. Convict women sailing to Australia in 1841 made the Rajah Quilt on the journey and I give notice to all Sassies that I’m bagging that story as the basis of a future book. Then, echoing that, there’s a quilt made at Wandsworth prison by present-day male inmates, who were helped by a most unusual and interesting charity called Fine Cell Work to create a piece which describes their thoughts about being in gaol. It’s inspiring to see the effect that needlework has on men who’ve never had a chance to express themselves in such a way before. See this link.

Sailors and soldiers have made quilts. Women and girls in a Japanese prisoner -of- war camp made a most beautiful piece on which each of them has embroidered her name. There are bedspreads, cot blankets, bed curtains, decorative pieces and in some what’s touching is the lack of skill of the maker. That’s beautiful in its own way. Contemporary artists have added pieces which give their take on the art of patchwork and quilting. I loved a piece called Liberty Jack which makes a Union flag out of thousands of bits taken from Liberty prints. That’s by Janey Forgan.. There’s a quilt made of Chinese bank notes. Grayson Perry’s contribution is characteristically striking and Tracey Emin has provided a contrast to her famous unmade bed in a really beautiful four-poster hung with velvets and satins and embroidered with slogans. But these are not the real highlight of the show, which for me was the wealth of memory and imagination on display from all kinds of people through the years. Traditional patchwork and quilting is still flourishing. Below I give a link to a most gorgeous book by the excellent Jane Brocket which will guide anyone who’s interested in pursuing the art of patchwork themselves.

I’m a knitter rather than a needlewoman, but I’ve always thought of patchwork as a kind of metaphor for life and one of my very earliest books is about an elderly lady who tells stories from a patchwork she’s made to a child in bed under that same quilt. Barn Owl Books rescued this from oblivion for a while and I was delighted to see it back in print but now it’s out of print again. I’m providing a link anyway.

The exhibition shop is full of things, most of which are very expensive and some of which are annoying. Why is it that you can never buy postcards of the very things you love best? Still, a pack of 20 cards for £7.50 is good value. I just wish there were a fridge magnet because I collect those. Still, never mind. It’s a tiny criticism of a really marvellous exhibition. Do visit it if you can. Hurray for the V&A and congratulations to Susan Prichard and everyone who helped her put it on.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Doing the Deadline Dance - Linda Strachan

There's this dragon who sits above my desk - WATCHING me,  especially when I am not writing.

He's quite a benign dragon, most of the time, and with the open book and quill in his hand it is obvious that he knows a bit about writing.

Then there's the little researcher sitting on a pile of books at his side.... At times I envy them their diligence and wish I could join in the discussion, as they debate the work in progress.

Writing can be a solitary business and there are times when I am easily distracted by the internet, emails and to be honest almost any other little job that needs doing and will 'just take a moment' but then takes most of the day.

Why, when writing is the one thing I want to be doing, is it always the most difficult thing to settle down to?

 Give me a date as a deadline and I will be stretching the minutes before midnight so that I can meet it, knowing that if I had started earlier ...

But for some reason it doesn't matter how long I have I still find I am rushing at the last minute. In fact a short deadline is better because I procrastinate less, there just isn't as much time to waste before getting started.

So I sit here once more, as one day turns to another, trying to ignore the growling from my impatient dragon as I do my latest Deadline Dance to get this blog written, promising him I will try to do better tomorrow.

Do you have any tricks to beat the Deadline Dance?  I would love to hear them.

My latest book Dead Boy Talking is published June 2010  
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Thursday, 20 May 2010

But Seriesly... - John Dougherty

I like series fiction. Or, at least, I like the series fiction I like: Discworld; Jeeves and Wooster; Narnia; The Church Mice; The Sandman... It’s a lovely feeling when, browsing the shelves in the library, I come across an unfamiliar volume of a well-loved series.

And I like writing sequels. Zeus on the Loose and Zeus to the Rescue will next year be joined by Zeus Sorts It Out, and I’m currently working on a couple more ideas about the egocentric deity and his long-suffering high priest. Jack Slater, Monster Investigator returned last year in Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom. Bansi O’Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy is soon to be followed by Bansi O’Hara and the Edges of Hallowe’en.

I would, however, hate it if someone decreed that from now on series fiction was the only legitimate form and no-one was allowed to read, write or publish anything else. Just imagine a world in which such a law had always existed: a world in which Hardy’s The Return of the Native came between The Native and The Native Returns Again; in which Watership Down was followed by Watership Up and Watership Left A Bit; in which Treasure Island was but one book in the Treasure Archipelago series. A world, in other words, which had no room for the stand-alone novel.

Of course, that would be ridiculous.

And yet... it would appear that something not a million miles away from this is happening in children’s books, or at least in books aimed at the newly-confident reader. It seems as if, no matter what I submit at the moment, the question comes back: “But does it have series potential?” A quick glance at my ‘recent rejections’ file comes up with this sort of thing:

“We all enjoyed reading this... The writing is really good... pitched at the right age range... very much like Roald Dahl... the main problem was that we can't see this working well over a series”

“utterly charming... truly very funny... loved the concept...What we’ve had a little difficulty seeing past is how to truly make this into a series.”

This can’t be right. I know there are economic imperatives to consider, but surely there are also cultural imperatives? Should we be teaching newly confident readers that all good things come ready-branded; that no story is self-contained; that one is never enough? Can’t we make children into readers without also turning them into consumers?

Worse, I suspect that for certain publishers the ideal is a series which can be pitched in a maximum of three words, and which combines two concepts from a limited and familiar range. Superhero Pirates! Football-playing Dinosaurs! Vampire Fairies! Ponies in Space! Better yet, slap some vapid celebrity’s name on the front and pretend that (s)he wrote it. What could be better?

For the publisher’s bank balance, probably nothing. I just can’t help feeling that someone’s being short-changed.

John’s website is at

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Reading with the Purple Poets

As writers we are always looking for new inspirations and materials for research.
Earlier this year I was invited by Kim Morrissey, Canadian Poet and Playwright, to participate in a 'Found' poetry project to commemorate four hundred years of the Quaker Peace Testimonies.
Found poetry uses the actual words and phrases in original historical documents to capture the essence of the text. The aim is to encourage the reader  to go back and read the text again. This is a very inspiring and fresh way to approach poetry and I thoroughly recommend it. Also history is a great passion of mine and so any excuse to go and read original texts is very welcome.

We met in the library of Friends' House, the well known Quaker centre in Euston to study material for our poems. This is a wonderful place to read and study, silent as libraries used to be in my childhood, with just the ticking of a grandfather clock in the background.
Kim asked me to produce a poem from a pamphlet, 'The Boy, The Bayonet and The Bible,' written in 1912 protesting about the rise of militarism in our schools. "I want a long poem," she said her eyes twinkling at me.
 We were preparing for a reading later that month at Friends' House. I therefore managed to write a two page poem called, 'We do not close our eyes'.

However I was also preparing for a trip to the Crimea at that time and asked if there was any relevant material. The librarian, David Irving, found a book called, Sleigh Ride to Russia, which was an account of a Quaker delegation to the Czar of Russia in January 1854 to try to avert the Crimean War. I was intending to write a series of poems, A Crimean Diary, around my visit and now I had some wonderful material to start me off.
I therefore wrote a poem, 'Letters home from Russia', using material found in the letters home quoted in the book.

I  invited Leslie Wilson, SAS member, Quaker and author of several novels, including Saving Rafael, about Quakers who hid Jews in Nazi Berlin, to come and read a poem with us. Leslie read out a beautiful poem called, 'The Bridge', with a refrain When ,when, Peace, will you Peace.
All the poems read out on the day can be found at this link.

Leslie and I read alongside the Purple Poets, a group of poets facilitated by Kim Morrisey. All the poets had worked hard on  a series of pamphlets found in the library on the voices of women from the First World War and their pleadings for peace The voices were not just British women, but women from all round Europe, including German, Hungarian and Swiss women. 

This is taken from the words of a German woman 
Where is you voice
sowing seeds of Peace?
are you only great
in suffering and patience.
Come together!
Protest with all your might
The murdering of nations.

 Geoffrey Bould  read his own anti-war poems written  after his experiences of fighting in the Second World War. I found these particualrly moving and reminscent of the work of the First World War poets, of whom there were so many more, perhaps because of the long hours they were crammed in the misery of the trenches.

Kim of course has the most experience of all of us at this work and has written a very moving series of poems based on the Letters from the Boer War, by Emily Hobhouse. Emily inspected the concentration camps during the Boer War when the British were denying the existence of such camps. After Emily's reports on the conditions in the camps, the British had to admit their existence. Here is an extract :
Cape Town 31 Dec 1900

My hand shakes with heat
I find it difficult to write
There is so much to say

Mr Scmulz speaks of 4000
women and children
in some sort of camp prison.

Not many people would read the history of the concentration camps in the Boer War but poems like these can open our eyes and can also be the foundation for further writings on these subjects.

(the Quaker mission, 1854, to try and avert the Crimean War)

The Emperor receives us with great kindness
we take the hopeful view
and in cheerful spirits
venture to approach

We the undersigned
in deep conviction, religious duty
uniformly uphold a testimony against war
O Mighty Prince

I am certainly inspired to engage with historical primary sources in this way again to develop poems which could lead people back to the texts and hope to do further work with the wonderful Purple Poets and Kim Morrissey. Why don't you have a go?

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Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Fabulous Kids of the Fabulous Book Award

I recently attended my very first award event and was bowled over, not by just how well the whole event was organised, but also with the enthusiasm and commitment of everybody involved. It was a real eye-opener for me, someone who tends to hibernate most of the year round with either a laptop or a notebook and pen, either will do. I've met kids who have read my book before, and it is always wonderful to meet your readers. But I have never met so many in one go, and when they whooped when I entered the room it almost made me cry. I was stunned. I have enthusiastic readers, fans even!

The kids recognised me from my website – a website a friend had set up for me because everyone kept saying that now you’re published you must have a website. Of course, I never looked at it again. The kids, however, had checked it out. I have since added redoing the website to my increasing list of must-dos. (It's now almost done) I also vow never again to hibernate all year long and deprive myself of the pleasure my readers gave me that day.

So how did I end up in Tooting at nine o’clock one morning? Well, my novel for teens, The Long Weekend, was nominated for the Fabulous Book Award – a high honour as it was kids across south London who voted their favourite books on to the short list. The librarian organising the main event sent me an inquiry email, using the contact page on my website, and asked if I would like to attend.

What was amazing about the award was the kids’ desire to set up a new award which reflected the books they wanted to see on the short-list. Over the years they had shadowed the Carnegie Award, but had become frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t vote in it and they felt their voices should be heard.
Their desire was turned into reality with the help and support of the Librarians of Wandsworth – the school librarians of the schools involved, and the local librarians. It took a lot of hard work to co-ordinate the event across such a large number of schools, but somehow they managed it, and managed it very well. A logo competition was set up, which kids entered and a winning entry selected, which you can see here.

The kids met every week either during school or after school and discussed all the books on the long list. They then read them all – some of the kids even coming in early to school to read. That shows you how keen and committed they were!
The kids then voted the short-list. Each school picked a book or two to champion and the kids began work on their presentations, which included reviews and Powerpoint presentations for each book on the short-list, and their views on why they thought their book should win. On the day, they would be presenting, not just to their peers and to the librarians and teachers, but also to three of the authors of those books. So a daunting task.
The librarians co-ordinated the whole event which included discussion groups, to which the authors were invited to partake, and proved to be not only fun, but also very enlightening. Some probing questions were asked by the kids and I did my best to answer them as best, and honestly as I could.

Having never shared a platform with other children’s authors until then, it was great to meet Rachel Ward and Alexander Gordon Smith. The final item of the morning before the announcement of the winner, was the authors’ talks, for me a forbidding prospect and a first to address so many people, but the kids were a real inspiration and I wanted to give them the best of me. Rachel Ward and Alexander Gordon were experienced and dynamic, and I wish I hadn’t hibernated for as long as I had as that old adage is true: practice does make perfect.

I came in third behind Rachel, the winner, and Alexander, but I learnt a lot that day. An author has certain responsibilities, certain things are expected of them. It’s not enough to just write the book. Kids demand more than that and they deserve more than that, and the rewards are incredibly satisfying.

So thank you Fabulous Book Award kids, librarians and teachers, for opening my eyes, and opening more doors. Special thanks to the fab kids of St. Cecelia's School, who did an amazing job of championing The Long Weekend.

(Photographs kindly provided by Susan Morgan Jones from Ashcroft Academy school, which was one of the secondary schools taking part in the Fab Award)

The Long Weekend
by Savita Kalhan

published by
Andersen Press

Monday, 17 May 2010

Why I won't read Wolf Hall - Anne Rooney

I have nothing against Hilary Mantel or Wolf Hall. But the time has come to be more discerning than just reading something because everyone else has read it, it's piled high in Waterstones and I'm mildly curious.

How many books can I read in my whole life? Or, more usefully, my remaining life? Of course, that depends how long is left. Looking at my family's record, I might have another 50 years. If I read a book a week, that's about 2,500 books to go. Some of those books haven't been published yet.

I can probably list many hundreds of books I know I want to read, or re-read. Wolf Hall is long, so I might have to swap out a couple of short James Joyce books and a volume of poetry to give it a slot. Or never re-read the Moomintroll books or Alan Garner. Worth it? I don't know without reading WH, but I'm guessing that, for me, it's not. If I have to choose between Tolstoy and Wolf Hall, Tolstoy will get the gig.

Some things I have to read for work, or to keep up. On the list for work at the moment are re-reading Plato's Timaeus and Critias, CP Snow's Two Cultures, IA Richards' Practical Criticism, maybe a quick refresher on Empsom and Leavis, and finishing (for the first time) Francine Prose's Reading like a Writer. Actually, I wasn't counting the work reading in the book a week, so these don't need to take any of the 2,500 slots. But these books are relevant as I'm (re)reading them in preparation for my new role as Royal Literary Fund Lector (title may change), which starts in September. And that's also why I'm thinking about which books are worth reading.

Lectorships are a new departure for the RLF. All professional writers, the lectors will run reading-aloud groups in the community. Initially, there will be groups in Cambridge, London, Sussex, Somerset, Yorkshire and Glasgow. The idea is to encourage the development of critical reading skills. The groups may target specific groups - elderly people, single parents, dentists, accountants, ex-convicts, people with ginger hair - it can be any kind of group. Or they may be open to anyone. How the group is advertised and made up is left to the discretion of each lector. All lectors have previously been (or currently are) RLF fellows. That means we've all done at least one stint in a university, and this is a chance to work with people outside an education setting.

The model for the sessions is Socratic dialogue, with a good deal borrowed from the tradition of Cambridge practical criticism. Each session (one and a half to two hours long) starts with participants reading aloud the selected text – a short story, a poem, or a piece of non-fiction - and then discussing it: what effect does it have? how does it work? does it work? It means reading slowly, savouring the choice of words, pausing to see how the punctuation works, following the thread of each sentence and unpicking it, learning how writing works at a detailed level. We hope it will help people with their own writing, and enjoy literature more fully. Becoming a critical reader will also mean they are better equipped to read all texts with an eye on how their response is constructed and how they might be being manipulated. A country filled with critical readers would give our political leaders and large corporations a much tougher time.

But that’s not all. It’s likely that many people who come to the groups will already be readers. The groups will – we hope – introduce them to a wider range of literature than they might have found on their own. If someone comes to a group after reading Wolf Hall, maybe they’ll read Raleigh’s letter to his wife on the eve of his execution, or some of Wyatt’s poetry, or something else from Tudor England that will enrich their earlier reading. One of the larger aims of the scheme is to give literature back to the people – you don’t need a degree to read John Donne or James Joyce, you just need time and to know it’s there. The key to the success of the sessions depends in large part on picking texts that are sufficiently accessible to the group, sufficiently rewarding to keep people engaged and sufficiently varied, week on week, to win the hearts of the readers. It’s an exciting challenge.

So apart from which 2,500 books should I read before I die, I also need to think about which 50 or so texts I want to share with my Cambridge reading group (demographic undecided so far). Any suggestions?

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Serendipitous Oxfam - Katherine Langrish

A few weeks ago, Susan Hill launched an attack in the Spectator on Oxfam bookshops which she felt were posing unfair competition to independent new and second-hand bookshops.

I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't agree.  It seems to me that selling books for charity is no different from selling clothes for charity.  If I buy a skirt from an Oxfam shop, it’s always an extra, not something I’d set out to get.  It’s like beachcombing. You don’t go into an Oxfam bookshop looking for something specific: often you don’t even find anything you remotely want. But if you do find something, it’s totally serendipitous. You end up with a book you had never heard of, never dreamed existed, and could not possibly have found elsewhere. This – if you are like me, anyway – will not affect your other book-shopping activities.

Here’s an illustration. A few weeks ago, I noticed that Wantage Oxfam had a number of books about folklore displayed in the window. Of course I went in to look, because folklore is one of the subjects I’m passionate about, and I came out with a wonderful book by Duncan Emrich, published in 1972, called ‘Folklore on the American Land’ – which I blogged about here. (Do go and look, if only for the proverb about owl-shit.)

Besides this there were other titles which cried out to me and so I succumbed to a book of Japanese folktales, and a book called 'Patterns of Folkore' by Katharine Briggs, some Bantu myths, a scholarly two-volume set called ‘Peasant Customs and Savage Myths’, and a Norse saga I hadn’t come across before - and then, when I got them all home (hugging myself with glee) I noticed that some – by no means all, but several – of these books had the rather beautiful name Hélène La Rue inscribed on the flyleaf in elegant, sloping handwriting.

So I was curious. So I looked her up on Google. And this is what I found.

Hélène La Rue (born 1951 and died 13 July 2007), was a musician, musicologist, and curator of Oxford University’s Bate Collection – a wonderful collection of musical instruments dating from the medieval times down to the present. She was also a staff member of the famous Pitt Rivers Museum, the one dedicated to ethnography, full of curiosities. (This was the one my daughter, as a child, used to walk around with hands held up like blinkers to protect herself from the next appearance of a skull, mummy or shrunken head. I remember best the huge Pacific North-west totem pole, the models of ships and river craft: and the atmosphere, as of dusty Victorian collectors still hovering ghost-like in the wings.)

According an obituary written by her friend Mary Dejevsky, Hélène was a warm and delightful lady: “As a student, she appeared elegantly old-fashioned, and not only because she went up to Oxford in the aftermath of the wild Sixties. She retained a fondness for hearth and home that owed much to the intimacy of her French-Canadian background. And while she seemed quiet and shy, among friends she displayed a wicked sense of humour… cheerfully batting around ideas with the best of them, from current affairs and politics, through abstruse points of theology, to medieval music and the purpose of strange objects she thought just might once have served as musical instruments.”

Do the sum, and you can see she died tragically early. She sounds like a wonderful person, whom I would love to have met and talked with, though most likely, even though I live near Oxford, our paths would have never crossed. And at some point, some friend or family member had to perform the sad task that will have to be performed for all of us at some point – and dispose of the books that she had so lovingly collected. Oxfam must have seemed a good option and a good cause. And perhaps some person would buy and value them and love them.

I’m glad that person was me, and I’m glad that, though belatedly, I found out something about the owner. I hope she would be glad to think her books have found a good home. Viva Oxfam…

Friday, 14 May 2010

Elephantoms… or going on an Elephant Hunt? – Dianne Hofmeyr

This week the streets of London have been full of surprises – parades of Prime Ministers and Parades of Elephants. It’s all been a little surreal. Are you hunting them and how many have you spotted? (elephants… not Prime Ministers, even if you include Nick underscore Clegg). The Elephant Parade is the biggest outdoor art installation yet seen in the capital. There are 258 of them. (spot Albert riding in his howdah)
Boris Johnson says: 'Bring on the elephants! Elephant Parade is a brilliantly innovative way of using public art to benefit conservation. Not only will the parade brighten London’s streets and enhance our public spaces, it will play a vital role in building a new generation of conservationists.'

And Goldie Hawn says: 'Anyone who loves elephants, and I do, will love Elephant Parade. It is not only the most beautiful, colourful and fun campaign, it also holds the key to saving the majestic species from extinction. What a magical adventure with a real purpose.'

I can’t help thinking that the organisers missed a beat though. Where is David McKee’s Elmer or where are Lauren Child’s elephants? I would have clamoured to carry off a prize like one of them from the auction that will take place to raise funds to help the conservation of the Asian elephant, whose numbers have fallen by 90% in a hundred years. I love Lauren Child’s elephants (and her pink-milk-drinking tigers too). So shame on the organisers for not considering even ONE childrens’ illustrator as a good option… or have I missed an elephant somewhere amongst the 258?

What is it about elephants? They’re cropping up in ABBA titles too. My real love is the statuesque African elephant. My Desktop image is a photograph I took of an elephant walking through an ancient ebony forest in Zambia. Unlike the Elephant Parade this elephant looks just as elephants should… totally remote and yet totally at ease with its environment.

I grew up with a row of carved black ones that walked across my bedroom window ledge from large to small. And I wish I still had that tiny, ‘smaller than a baby’s fingernail’ elephant carved from vegetable ivory that fitted into a hollowed-out red lucky bean seed that was bought at a rail-siding in Palapye when Botswana was still pink on the world map and called the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

My Desktop elephant has been with me for over a year now. But I’m not hunting for a replacement. To remove him would be like killing off a well-loved character in a novel. Right now he’s staying, not even to be replaced by a pink Lauren Child elephantom. what do you put up on your Desktop for inspiration when firing up your laptop every morning? Any favourite elephant pics or stories out there? One of mine is The Elephant's Pillow by Jude Daly.
(I spent yesterday at a social media event called Being Social run by mashup* and apparently no blog should be longer than 300 words… so have failed horribly!)

Thursday, 13 May 2010

What I did on my Holidays

I am in Snowdonia, staring at sheep. I believe sheep to be unfairly represented in the media. Their public image is of slow-moving creatures with the figure, appetite and intelligence of a Hoover bag. But the animals I see stare keenly back at me, assessing my relevance before choosing to bound, agile, away over the slippery slates. They look quite capable of herding sheep-dogs. Each bleat has a different tone – some sound like a human mimicking a sheep, others are bleak as foghorns.The lambs look at me, look at their mothers, look at me, look back at their mothers. Some bolt. Others freeze.

I am thinking about sheep and how long humans have farmed them for. What is natural about a sheep? What is natural about our countryside? Very little, even here, after generations of breeding and clearing and husbanding. We call a natural landscape like this one unspoiled, untouched. As if to touch something were to spoil it. That's why naïve writers resist editing. But it happened this way. But that’s exactly what they said. Of course, the first thing any writer has to learn is that real life is much better if it's fiction.

It strikes me that writers are just like farmers but without the benefits of lots of fresh air and exercise in their daily employment. After all, what is natural about the readable book, the elegant sentence? They look so easy, but they're the result of long hours of hard work. We are herders of words, sowers of sentences.Farmers kill weeds, we kill our darlings. Farmers breed for meat or fleece, we weave plot and theme and character together into a unique whole. We dam the story and let tension pool, we foreshadow in the beginning the traits we wish our ending to show. We choose and train and grow words. Farmers set a process in motion – growing a sheep or a cabbage to maturity – then guide and train it. The process writers set in motion is the story: what happened, and then what happened, and then what?

I am no longer in Snowdonia. I am in the Dee valley, staring at the ruins of an abbey. Turner, a plaque informs me, painted this. I look at the picture and think how natural it looks, how much like real life. But, the plaque goes on to tell me, the artist conflated two view-points, so that he could show the ruins of Dinas Bran above the abbey’s shoulder. The view he presents does not exist, it is a layered ghost, a prototype Photo-Shop, an impossible made up of two possibles. What looks so natural is actually nothing of the sort. I can't help feeling slightly cheated, and then I realise I'm like the person who reads a book and says to the author I never knew you thought that, or You based that character on me, didn't you? Why wouldn't Turner also know that real life looks much better if it's fake?

I am no longer in the Dee valley. I am at home in Birmingham, it is just gone 10 p.m. and I am wondering what on earth the point I'm trying to make is, and how to conclude this blog post. It's too late to try and salvage it, so I shall end where I began, with sheep. Noble creatures!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

One of those weeks! Meg Harper

Oh dear, here I am at 11pm and I still haven’t managed to write my blog! The life of the writer cum general free lance arts practitioner sometimes falls apart!
The week started badly with 3 hours stuck in a jam on the M4O when I was supposed to be at a day of my Creative Partnership in Oxford – I had to give up and go home in the end as the motorway was closed and no way was I going to negotiate narrow roads and the Banbury bottle-neck with three lanes of motorway traffic that had been shunted off with me!
Yesterday was one of those days where you juggle the rest of your life – dentist, flooring man to fix the new floor that’s not right, hospital appointment, counselling (I’m the counsellor but it’s beginning to feel like I need the counselling!), rush home to cook tea before racing off to the theatre where I’m taking gang of kids from my youth theatre to see a show. (See it if you can – ‘A Handful of Henna’ – currently on tour with the Oxfordshire Touring Company – it’s brilliant!) Part way through cooking the tea I realised I’d be much better off staying with friends after the theatre trip, rather than coming home, as today was another Creative Partnership day and the theatre is half way to Oxford – and I really didn’t fancy another miserable motorway morning! So that’s what I jolly well did – one big problem – no Internet access till I got home again – and tonight’s been a mix of making tea, sorting out stressy exam-burdened daughters and all the usual joys of living with teenagers!
Blog? What’s that? Writing – is that something I did, once upon a time?
So.... this is an apology for a blog! But I do wonder how many of us struggle with the problem that writing is the thing that can always be squeezed out. Its great virtue is that’s it’s so flexible – we can almost do it anywhere and anytime – but that is also it’s great vice. We can always do it later! Well – not endlessly later in my case as yesterday I did also manage to post a signed contract back to my agent. I’ll be writing a short biography of Elizabeth 1st for Keystage 2 over the next few months. It’s a new challenge for me but an interesting one. Which is much what I can say about this week so far – challenging – but very interesting! However, I do apologise for the resulting lateness of this blog and the fact that it’s neither one nor the other! But it’s a very real reflection of how the life of a children’s writer often is, I think!

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Beyond Hope - Andrew Strong

I won't go into too much detail, but I’ve just had to undertake a psychometric test. I’ve always been more than a little proud of my refusal to see the world in the way that others see it, and if anything, was hoping that this test would confirm I was on the spectrum that ranges between eccentric and beyond hope.

There were something like one hundred and seventy questions in the test, ranging from "I enjoy theories" to "I hate parties". As the test proceeded, so my positive responses were clustered together, as were my negative answers. So things I like (books, people, singing and watercress) all appeared in the same question, forcing me to make a distinction. Similarly, all the things I hate (golf, getting up, Wotsits and rabies) were thrown together to make me differentiate between them.

Imagine if you were asked whether you hated Wotsits more than rabies, could you decide? Rabies is nasty, but is thankfully uncommon. Wotsits, they pop up all over the place, those horrible, disgusting, floury, yellow puke pods.

At the end of all this psychometric twaddle, I had to sit in a room with an expert who told me how nuts I was. She laughed until she cried as she described the huge variations in my responses. "You are a silent loner," she said. "You sit outside of the circle, looking in. You hate Wotsits more than rabies. That's very weird."

"Ah," I replied, "but I love watercress more than singing!"

She filed my report away and told me, no, I couldn't have a copy. For once in my life, I wish I could have been normal. It must feel so good. To like parties more than poetry, and sunshine more than stationery. I can only wish.

But as I spend hours alone, making things up, it is unlikely that the outside world would consider me a balanced, rounded human being. I am not, and I don’t want to be. I want to be the eccentric that I am, because in that way the world is an endlessly entertaining series of the bizarre, the surreal and the utterly incomprehensible. If I were organised and rational, possessed of that dubious quality ‘common sense’, then I am certain I would be incapable of doing what I enjoy doing most, making things up.

From what I’ve come to understand, psychometric tests are used more and more often in business and especially in the civil service. I suppose the logical consequence of all this is that eventually the world will be controlled by robots, and the imaginative, the bizarre, the curious and the quirky will be designated ‘unnecessary’ and consigned to the rubbish tip of history.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Another Blast from the Past - Elen Caldecott

Wednesday afternoons, throughout the eighties, meant only one thing to me: Comic Day. My Gran would buy the current issue of my latest addiction and a Wispa. I would devour the comic; she, the Wispa. It was one of the happiest hours of the week (she used to slice the Wispa like a loaf of bread to make it last longer).

The object of my addiction changed with age, but the love of illustrated stories remained the same. I began with Twinkle (a name which sounds unfortunately euphemistic to my ears now); I moved through Bunty, Mandy and Jackie. Finally, with Just Seventeen, I gave it all up for proper books and Wednesdays were sadder for it.

I recently got hold of the Mandy annual for the year I was born (1976, just in case you all want to do some quick maths). A lot has changed. It was like opening a writing time-capsule. Right from the very first page, I realised my own past really has become a different country.

Take a look at this beach scene in the endpapers. All the kids are white. It looks like the BNP have taken up art direction. Even my little corner of North Wales wasn’t the monoculture depicted here. The only black character in the whole annual is a visiting American Jazz singer, playing her gran’pappy’s lucky piano. In fact, even when you’d expect to see a non-white character - for example, Valda, the Asian demi-god - you don’t. Valda (the one leaping the ravine in the picture below) lives in the Himalayas, but she looks more like she lives in Halifax.

There’s also a slightly disquieting theme which occurs again and again in different stories – girls taking responsibility for others: sick animals, small children, waifs, strays and incompetent boys. This is best illustrated by the Victorian girl with a broken leg who’s first concern is keeping the littlies out of the poorhouse. You’ve got a broken leg, woman, and it’s 1860, worry about sepsis, not siblings!

There were a few more gun-ho characters that tempered this girliness. I particularly enjoyed Fay Fearless ploughing through the bad-guys with her long-jump skills.

And Fay wasn’t the only thing I quite admired. Take another look at that beach. There’s not an adult in sight, no parents, no teachers, no lifeguards. And those kids are building a fire that’s almost as big as they are. Personally, I’m also a fan of the dog roaming around on the sand, which they aren’t allowed to do round these parts in summer.
Now, I’m sure that without sunhats and suncream those children on the beach will spend the night blistered and crying; but there is something quite appealing about the freedom that represents.

So, the class of ’76 was blind to the other cultures that made up Britain at the time; but it’s (white) girls were mostly caring and occasionally powerful. And none, not one, of the pages was a splash of pink and glitter, which I was very glad to see.

I wonder what I’d notice if I bought a magazine for girls now? I see a Wednesday afternoon project coming on.
Elen's Facebook Page

Saturday, 8 May 2010

A Seriously Grown Up Book for Teenagers: Celia Rees

I recently re-read Alan Garner's The Owl Service. I am at the 'gathering' stage for a book and have been reading stories which feature two boys and a girl. I thought that I remembered The Owl Service well but found that I didn't at all. I had forgotten how very, very good it is. This is a grown up book for teenagers, the kind that some of us think we write, but in reality we are getting further and further away from that goal. I'd also forgotten how short it is, only 156 pages. In this time of big, baggy never mind the quality feel the width books, the longer the better, it is practically a novella but so much is unsaid, unexplained, unstated that it seems much longer than this.
The book engages the reader in a particular kind of way, so the action is happening inside his or her head, requiring the reader to use his or her own imagination, to supply the scenery, fill the gaps in the narrative, pull strands together, draw conclusions. Nothing is spelt out. The style of telling is elliptical. In other words, the reader is required to think, to work at the book. Nothing is given away. And every word counts. Every single word has been weighted and carefully selected, there are no fillers and no cliches. Much of the story is carried through dialogue; a surprising amount, far more than I remembered, but again this is spare but dense with a distinct lack of authorial adverbs and sparse indications of who is speaking. Readers can work this out for themselves.
There are no simple answers in The Owl Service. The book is complex, as enigmatic as the myth from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion that underpins it. The story tells how Math and Gwydion, two powerful magicians, make a woman from flowers. They can not cannot control their creation. The forces they unleash result in inevitable tragedy. It is a story of love and rivalry, of forces so powerful that the myth will be played out from generation to generation, down through the centuries. Down to the modern day, where Garner takes up the story.
His book is no simple re-telling. It resonates. It is freighted with the power and depths of meaning that the original myth contains. It drives along. Garner creates almost unbearable tension. It is over before you expect it, leaving you with a sense of regret but also with a sense of completeness, a sense that you have read something that you will not forget.
The Owl Service was published in 1967. As it says, in the 1983 Fontana Lions Edition, 'Alan Garner received both the Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal for this outstanding novel.' These prizes are given to recognise outstanding literary achievement in children's fiction. For once, the awards went to a book that actually met that criterion. A book of enduring literary quality.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Chancers: Gillian Philip

I haven’t actually flipped a coin since I finished reading Nicola Morgan’s haunting new book WASTED. I haven’t had one on me at a particular moment, or I’ve been driving, say. But (and especially when I’m driving, as it happens) I have spent a lot of time thinking about the workings of chance and luck and fate. It’s WASTED that’s done it to me. It’s that sort of book.

Everybody has stories of what might-have-been, and there are some downright chilling ones at Nicola’s blog for the book, (Have a look at the post for 4th May, Claire Marriot’s story of the lock that jammed on 7th July 2005, and say you don’t have shivers in your spine).

(On a less sinister note, I was remembering - because of election day - that had I not decided at the last minute to go to a party in 1987, where I met and fancied an SDP supporter, I wouldn't have gone to work for them at election time and I wouldn't have met my husband. And so the examples go on.)

WASTED examines concepts as diverse (or maybe as close; don’t ask me, it makes my head spin) as quantum physics and the myth of Oedipus. It’s the story of Jack and Jess, and Jack’s Game – the coin he flips to sacrifice to luck before he makes any decision. Jack has had two mothers, both of whom have died, and he can’t believe he hasn’t used up all his ill luck – so he trusts to the coin to make his decisions now, accepting its verdict whether it looks good for him or not. There’s a scary passage when Jack plays his game with street corners in the middle of the night, and ends up in a very dodgy neck of the woods, and so loses his ‘lucky’ coin. Contrarily, Jack doesn’t treat this as a message from fate, but finds a new coin... and so the complex game of luck and chance continues, with drastic results for both himself and Jess.

It took me longer than I expected to read WASTED, because I kept having to double back and re-examine an incident, a decision, a concept. It’s that kind of book – it makes you think, and it makes you shiver. Sometimes fate diverges into two chapters; the eerily omniscient voice of the narrator gives us the variables, and a tiny butterfly-flutter of chance is shown to lead to wildly different hurricane-sized outcomes.

It’s haunting because it makes you wonder, even as you make tiny decisions of speed or direction on the school run, just what parallel universes are splitting away from you at each second, and what’s happening there. I’m really quite glad I never seem to have a coin to hand, because Jack’s Game might be a little too tempting, and then what does one do? Defy the coin?

But if you read WASTED – and you really, really should – you have to play Jack’s Game at least once, because it’s how each reader must choose the story’s outcome, and it isn’t quite as simple as life and death. Honestly, WASTED is a corker. Try it.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Not Waving But Writing - Karen Ball

Hello, writers-I-mean-voters. By the time you read this you may have voted already, be rushing out of the door to vote, wondering where the heck you put that polling card, what time the stations stay open until, how much you remember from the live debates and - oh god! I need to pick up the dry cleaning. Voting in a general election is likely to be just one more task you squeeze into a busy day. The future of my country? I'll decide that after I've walked the dog.

We're told that MPs work an average of 85 hours a week. Another great unprovable is that women are better multi-taskers than men. Oh, please. Whoever mooted these theories clearly has never met an author. We laugh in the face of an MP's workload and shake our heads in wry dismay at any claim that multi-tasking is a gender issue. As far as I'm concerned, the people who have to spin the most plates in this world are authors and illustrators. Our profession is what we do when everything else on the 'To Do' list has been done. A room of one's own? I'd kill for an hour to myself.

Several years ago, The Society of Authors produced a statistic that the average author earns £7000pa. That's not a liveable income, so most of us are also doing another job, either full or part-time. Many of us have families, commitments, a home to run and - dare I suggest? - other interests. Weekends become a blurred concept for a writer. That's when I do my writing. So does that mean I'm working seven days a week or indulging my interests in my spare time? It's a fine line sometimes, especially when a deadline is pressing. There's often an assumption that authors and illustrators will work weekends when schedules are being drawn. That Christmas is a great opportunity to nail a revised draft or that Bank Holidays are God's way of stopping you from going insane. Great! Another day for that rewrite. Of course, this flexibility is also the beauty of the craft. Some of us love writing in the wee small hours and wouldn't have it any other way. 9-5? Hell will freeze over first.

But, still. It's a lot to juggle, isn't it? Today I have to blog, vote, drag a suitcase to the office with me, do a morning's work, run to catch a train, do some work on the train, then... Ahhhh. Catch a plane, lie in the sun, read novels (for fun, not research!), drink cocktails, do nothing. Oh dear. I can see boredom on the horizon. A few days into my holiday, I'll probably start thinking about my next manuscript. I've already decided to pack my netbook for the break. Might I become the mad woman in large hat and sunglasses, squinting at a monitor when all around are sipping their Tequila Sunrises?

It's an affliction, you see, this itch to write. Why else would we do this to ourselves? I love being a writer almost as much as I enjoy being a martyr. Now, where did I put that polling card...

Do you squeeze writing in alongside another job? Do your children moan about monopoly of the family PC? It's not just me, is it?

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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

A Thing Of Beauty

I’ve been investigating websites on and off lately, because my own has grown distinctly ragged and deformed. And I’ve found out that writers are at a disadvantage compared to illustrator’s websites and blogs.

A demonstration.

If I was to show you my work in progress I could write this:
Dr Styrax circled his room, thinking, and each time he passed along polished table. On that smooth surface lay a full sat of playing cards. Each time Dr Styrax passed, he ran his long pale fingers over the table, spreading the cards.
Anyone watching would have seen the cards somehow change.

And then I could follow it up with a more recent version:

Doctor Styrax circled his room, deep in thought. Each time, he passed the long polished table where, across the smooth surface, lay a full set of playing cards. As Dr. Styrax passed, he ran his long pale fingers lightly over the table, spreading the cards.
Anyone watching would see the cards somehow change, observe how the cards rearranged themselves into different sets and suites.
Kings, Queens and Knaves.
A flutter of intriguing Numbers.
And, of course, a Joker.
Dr Styrax created a different pattern every time.

Maybe in between you could glance at the image at the top of this post, to add to the tension? But I saw that yawn. Blocks of text don’t really lift the heart, do they? Engage the eye? Yet these cunning illustrator folk can show you the whole damn thing in a few glances, and that makes for an exciting site.

For example, Joanna Troughton’s site, mentioned by Adele yesterday, has slideshows that move from first sketches through to finished artwork, a process I absolutely love to see.

A very favourite blog, Lynne Chapman’s “An Illustrators Life for Me” mixes “everyday” sketches with images from works in progress and lots of other stuff besides. And a good webite too!

Not all illustrator sites go for such depth or process or closeness. Some go for the simpler approach: Peter Bailey, the illustrator for my novel A Boy Called Mouse (out in October) shows a selection of his completed artwork that speaks for itself.

Why I am I so into pictures at the moment? Maybe it's because last weekend I went to see an exhibition of original artwork by Gillian MacClure at Newby Hall, on its way up to Seven Stories. All those roughs and sketches and sketchbooks reminded me of the boxes of pens & paints hidden under the dust on my shelves.

On the other hand, painting with words is so much easier to correct.

Come on, do tell. What illustrator sites and blogs do you love?

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Rewriting by Marie-Louise Jensen

I'm rewriting a manuscript at the moment. It's taking a very long time. Perhaps because I wrote the second half of the book quite quickly, I seem to want to make endless changes on every single page - over and above what's been requested by my editor. The story is also several thousand words too long. So the word count button is in constant use. Great - it's down three thousand words! Oh no, it's back up again - how did that happen?
How is it that changes nearly always add words rather than removing them? A bit like the sock moster in reverse: no matter how careful you are, more come out of the wash than went in.
My mini computer goes everywhere with me at the moment. It makes its appearance in cafes, on the bus, in waiting rooms, and very frequently in the car while I'm waiting for my sons. They are banned from all activities over 2.5 hours, which is how long my battery can last. But no matter how long I spend, I can't seem to get to the end of the manuscript.
My consolation is that I really feel the writing and the story are improving. That makes it all long as I still think so when I read it through afterwards.