Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Top Five School Stories - Keren David

Happy second birthday to this blog! To mark the occasion I am kicking off a month of top fives – children’s authors list their personal playlists for all sorts of subjects.
I’ve chosen my favourite Top Five school stories inspired in part by the brilliant recent time travel story Beswitched by Kate Saunders, in which 21st century Flora finds herself at a 1930s boarding school. It's funny, clever and there's a lot of feminism smuggled in there too.
A good school story makes you feel as though you're in the classroom with the characters. Many are set in boarding schools - an enclosed society, perfect for authors, although I did find myself wondering why there was no series that I could think of set in a modern comprehensive. Here's my top five, in reverse order.

5 Yoko and Friends – Rosemary Edwards. Some people find the kittens and other creatures in Rosemary Edwards' picture books too cutesy, I just love the very human tales of classroom life that lie behind the fluffy exteriors. Poor Yoko, for example, is mocked by her schoolmates because her lunch is traditional Japanese sushi. ‘Raw fish, yuk!’ they say. Well-meaning adult attempts to help are doomed to failure - an international lunch ends with everything eaten except Yoko’s spurned sushi. But help is at hand, thanks to a very hungry classmate with an adventurous palate.

4 Growing up in the 1970s I loved the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent Dyer, already classics written 40 years before. A boarding school in Switzerland, where the girls come from all over Europe and speak French one day and German the next. Adventures that involve skiing and Nazis. A rolling narrative, through book after book, in which an awkward spiky outsider learns to become a true Chalet girl. It’s easy to mock these stories now- and true, it does get a bit silly when everyone begins having multiple sets of triplets – but their vision of international co-operation and the information they gave about mainland Europe was quite inspirational, growing up in monochrome 1970s England. When my children attended an international school, I was often reminded of the good old Chalet School.

3 I have no doubt that much of the success of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is down to Hogwarts, her fabulous pastiche of almost every English boarding school story trope. Eccentric teachers, dormitories, letters from home, a kind but stern matron, a fatherly head teacher, priggish prefects, rabid inter-house competition - it’s all there, with the magical elements woven in.

2 The thinking reader’s school series, Antonia Forest’s books about Kingscote School (Autumn Term, End of Term, The Attic Term and Cricket Term) and the related books about the Marlow family are the best examples of the English boarding school genre I know. Every character is nuanced and rounded, and the author is equally confident with the details of boarding school life - the cricket matches, school plays, scholarships and with huge themes like bereavement and religion. I must have read each one hundreds of times, and every reading is just as satisfying as the first.

1. But my absolute favourite school story is not about an English school at all. Masha by Mara Kay is set at Smolni, the famous St Petersburg girls’ school set up by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century for noble Russian girls. Masha, aged 9, wins a scholarship and that means leaving her mother and home for nine long years to travel to St Petersburg, far, far away.
Poor Masha’s loneliness and longing for home, amid girls who tease her for her unsophisticated country ways is heartbreaking, and every detail of school life in early nineteenth century Russia is fascinating. At Smolni the girls had their hair shaved off when they arrived. For three years they were in the Brown form, followed by the Blue and then White, named for the colour of their uniforms.
One of my favourite scenes comes the first time Masha sees a Christmas tree: ‘something green and tall, ablaze with candles, smelling with pine, resin and melted wax.’ Masha, overcome with amazement, falls to her knees in front of the tree. ‘Fraulein Knappe exclaimed, ‘Fredericks!’ The Browns stopped short, falling over eachother to get a better look at Masha. The Blues and Whites who entered the ballroom, kept asking; ‘What is it? What has happened?’
It was Madmoiselle Neighardt, appearing from nowhere, who jerked Masha up, not too gently. ‘You really should teach that child more restraint, Mademoiselle,’ she snapped, and was going to say something more but at the sight of the French woman’s elaborate coiffure words seemed to fail her.'

Masha and the sequel, The Youngest Lady in Waiting are inexplicably out of print - and copies are now highly sought by collectors. The hardback that my parents bought for me on my tenth birthday (after I'd borrowed Masha from the library week after week) must be worth about £300 by now. But I’d never sell it. My favourite school story is actually my favourite book of all.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Please Look After this Bear - Charlie Butler

Immigration is a hot political topic at the moment, both here and in the States. In the wake of recent immigration laws in Arizona, which many see as legitimizing racial profiling, the image above gained a certain notoriety. It's shocking because Dora the Explorer, the inquisitive Latina created by Nickelodeon, lives in a world that is not only geographically imprecise (is she Mexican? American? South American? Her makers are careful not to say), but blissfully free of violence, or even significant conflict. For all her exploring, Dora will never have to scale a 14-foot metal fence on the north shore of the Rio Grande. To put her face on a mug shot is thus a grimly-effective way of saying, "This is what 'Homeland Security' really means." Dora may seem out of place here; but she also reminds us that a good many of the immigrants, refugees and displaced persons in the world are children.

The poster works, in fact, by crossing another kind of border - the border between Dora's safe world and the decidedly dangerous one inhabited by many of her viewers. No one goes to Dora the Explorer looking for life at its seamiest; for many, indeed, her adventures may offer welcome escape. This isn't, of course, to make a case for children as innocents whose minds must never be intruded upon by real-life unpleasantnesses. Children's books have frequently taken on difficult topics - and novels such as Gaye Hicyilmaz's Smiling for Strangers, to name just one, deal realistically with the hardship and prejudice faced by children who find themselves living as illegal immigrants.

However, the republic of children's literature has many provinces. Elsewhere, particularly in the regions of the fantastic, different rules have tended to apply. Many fantasy stories involve long quests and journeys between different lands and even worlds; but these journeys are seldom conceived of in terms of immigration, legal or otherwise. Did Lucy Pevensie obtain a visa to enter Narnia? I'm afraid not, even if her brother Edmund got official permission to send for the rest of the family. ("You let one Son of Adam in, and before you know it they're running the country!") Similarly, Frodo Baggins spent a long time finding ways to sneak into Mordor, a very determined immigrant indeed. The Black Gate would have put even the Department of Homeland Security to shame; but Tolkien is unlikely to have seen it in quite those terms.

Closer to our own world, Paddington Bear's adventures often involve minor brushes with officialdom, but on his initial journey from Peru to England an absence of immigration papers doesn't seem to have been a problem. A simple luggage label was sufficient; or perhaps he just gave the immigration officer a Hard Stare? Then again, perhaps Peruvian immigration just wasn't such an issue in 1958. The past, after all, is another country.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Mythanthropy: N M Browne

I like myths: I depend on them. They are the source of much of what I write and the foundation of my writing. My personal myth is as necessary to me as the air that I breathe or the coffee that launches my writing day. My personal myth is that writing is easy, fun and unimportant. ‘You just sort of sit down and type and eventually something will happen and then a story sort of arrives and you just write it. I quite like it, but you know it’s not essential to me. I haven’t always written and I was perfectly happy back then and you know I’m only part time so I’m not really a writer...’ I’m not saying I don’t believe this because, as we all know, myth expresses truth, but the deeper truth is that I know that if I allowed myself to admit to caring about my work, to taking it seriously, I would be unable to do it it all.

I don’t know but I suspect that we all use little personal myths to help us write, odd takes on the world that allow us to keep doing something which I have to see as essentially ridiculous. Some people use the myth of the struggling artist to inspire them. They buy into the necessity of pain in order to produce something worthy and sometimes see the value of a thing as being directly proportionate to the amount of suffering involved. Some wannabe writers seem to believe that to be ‘real’ writers they need to develop a borderline personality disorder, alcohol/drug dependency or a problem with personal hygiene. Others see writing as a battle in which their self worth is tied to their personal courage and grit, their ability to absorb all the difficulties and disappointments this business throws at them in order to come back bloody but unbowed and still fighting.

Writing is difficult because it requires skill, persistence and luck. It is hard to earn a living, it is hard to gain respect: sometimes it is just bloody hard. It is not glamorous, it is often isolating and isolated. Is it any wonder we need our personal myths to protect our egos, to make our daily struggles more heroic? Or is that it just me?

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Lancashire Children's Book of the Year, 2010.

Well, it's that time of year again! Yesterday Narinder Dhami accepted a cheque for £1000 and a cut-glass decanter from one of the young judges and became the winner of the Lancashire Children's Book of the Year award for 2010 for her novel Bang Bang You're Dead.
The Council Chamber at Preston was as impressive as ever, with its green marble columns and its fearsomely throne-like chairs up on the stage. I was sitting at the top table, so to speak, and in front of us, the ranks of parents, children, librarians, teachers and short-listed authors were ranged in a kind of semi-circle. Some of the young judges spoke about their experiences and the shortlistees came up and told us what it had meant to them to be shortlisted. Then after the ceremony, the authors signed copies of their books in an adjoining cabinet room and then we all went off to have a splendid buffet lunch.The sun was shining throughout, which added to the sparkliness of the occasion.

I'd been there since the night before. UCLAN, who sponsor the prize, hosted a wonderful dinner at the University and it was good to meet Anna Perera, Cathy McPhail, and Vat Rutt, and to see Lesley Wilson and her husband and Joseph Delaney who is regular on this shortlist. The sticky toffee pudding was marvellous! Narinder Dhami and her husband arrived early on Saturday morning, and it was good to meet them, too.

Many thanks to Jean Wolstenholme and Jake Hope for being such a fantastic organizational force. With a cohort of terrific librarians to help them, and good teachers to oversee the reading in the schools, they manage, year after year, to create a buzz and excitement around this prize that makes it truly special. The young judges are amazing and argue for the books they love best with passion and great intelligence and good humour; a reminder, if any were needed, that teenagers are not the dumbed-down, spoiled and ignorant creatures of some of the worst tabloid headlines, but lively and interesting and altogether delightful.

I won't be living in Manchester next year, but I'm going to make the trip three times a year from Cambridge, (where I hope very much I will be living) to be the chair of the judges again in 2011. Please, all you writers of teenage books out there, do urge your publishers to send your book in for consideration by the the most discerning Year 9s in the county.

And if you're shortlisted, I'll see you at the dinner. I will lobby for a repeat of the sticky toffee pudding!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Cortes and the Conquest of Central America

Or something. That's close enough to the title of the book I'm thinking about. And this isn't a review or an encouragement to rush out and buy it. This is about guilt.

This is a time travelling post. Imagine stepping through one of those wibbly wobbly time vortex things, stepping out again, and it is 1972. No punk for four years, no Channel Four, no Nutella. No lycra either, school uniform is green check dress with ties at the back which can be left loose for playing horses, although at 10 I am rather too old for this and am more concerned about the debate raging over which is better - The Osmonds or the Jackson 5.

I am in 4JX (Year 6) at Tetherdown School in North London, and my class teacher is Mrs Salter that is her in the photo, my Head Master is Mr Walters and Mrs Shelley is the deputy head who plays the piano for assemblies and school plays. Later on this year we are going to do Chanticleer and the Fox (I will be one of the chicken chorus)at Hornsey Town Hall, but that is another story.

We have come back to school after the long holidays, a very long holiday during which I have been in Wales and not at home at all.

I love school. My hand is up always up first, or nearly first, jointly with Linda Hoinville, (we are horribly competitive about everything, from spelling tests to making felt animals). The only hands that come close to being up as first as ours, are those of the Songaila twins and Malcolm Mantz.

All is well in my world.

Or it is until I walk to the office on an errand. On a table outside the office is a display of a project I did last year. I had bought the black art card from the stationer's in the broadway and cut the gold letters out of shiny paper. CORTEZ it said in fancy letters, AND THE AZTECS. It still, three months after I had done it, looked fabulous.

I was about to knock on the door, smiling smugly at my beautiful work, when the cold hand of terror gripped my insides. Indeed, I believe Eleanor Updale, in her new book, Johnny Swanson describes this feeling, as a 'klong'.

I am snapping my virtual fingers and, one two three, you're back in the 21st century. I had a 'klong' this week when I found I had double booked myself in to do two events, one in Dulwich, one in Mile End, at the same time. And of course there are worse things that can happen, one million times worse. But this was entirely my own fault and nobody else's.

Back in 1972, the klong was the result of something equally unimportant in the scheme of things. But the agony and mortification was almost tangible - even though nobody else found out. I remembered looking at the display,and that I hadn't returned the book about Cortez that I had borrowed from the school library and should have bought in before the holidays. It was too late now, I thought, a whole three months later, there was no way I could bring it back into school, not now, not so long after I should have. What on earth did I imagine the dire consequences would be?

So I said nothing. But I avoided thoughts of the Aztecs and the Conquistadores for some time, just as I will avoid thinking of Dulwich for the near future.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Green Incarnations - Ellen Renner

It’s one of the most powerful images in British folklore: the head of man who seems to be made of the very oak leaves from which he peers. But who is the green man? Herne the Hunter, a British version of the horned god Woden, with his wild hunt tearing across the night sky? Or the Gaulish deity Cernunnos, transformed in Wiccan mythology into the Holly King and Oak King? Herne makes his first literary appearance in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, but many writers have been drawn to this story of death and rebirth. I’ve recently read or re-read four children’s books which adapt the myth in different ways and for different age-groups.
Lob, by Linda Newbery, a beautifully illustrated book for newly confident readers, introduces the concept of the green man on its most basic and positive form. A green man for gardeners, Lob is a nature spirit of growth and regeneration. Newbery uses this theme to tackle the important subject of death and loss. A young girl learns to cope with the death of a beloved grandfather, while the green man who inhabited the old man’s garden must renew himself and find a new home. It is a story of hope and continuity.
Bereavement is also the theme of the Sally Nichols’ Season of Secrets, intended for slightly older readers. Nichols uses the Wiccan myth of the Oak King and the Holly King, twins who wax and wane with the seasons, taking it in turns to hunt and be hunted, to die and be reborn. This cycle of life and death is literally played out before the eyes a child mourning her newly dead mother. One wild night, Molly is caught up in the hunt and befriends the dying Oak King. In Season of Secrets Nichols addresses the dark side of the myth with directness and honesty. She balances loss with joy as we journey with Molly towards the inevitability of change and the necessity of growth.
A book I regularly re-read is Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones. In her version, Herne is hunted and devoured by his own dogs in a never-ending ritual. There is a melancholy edge, a deep sadness to her portrayal of a being both hideous and beautiful. A creature of the dark, hidden away inside its mother Earth in a modern world which neither remembers nor wants it. A being ‘cruel and kind at once’, who longs for freedom for the wild magic which is his essence: ‘My ancestors came out by day and didn’t frighten or puzzle people. I want to be the same.’
Here light and dark are not simple good and evil but existence and its opposite. Light is ‘the movement behind movement ... the stuff of life itself’, while darkness is that which cannot alter and derives its power from ‘things as they must be’. In this story Herne is stronger even than the luminaries; he possesses the power of death, the passing of time, which in the end must overcome the very stars themselves.
Last year I was delighted to discover the complex and intriguing use of the huntsman myth in Katherine Langrish’s Dark Angels. Her embodiment, Halewyn, is a far cry from the Oak King. He is a trickster, a manipulator; always predator and never prey. He is less to do with seasonal cycles than the darkness of the human soul for, as he says: ‘Out of all Creation, only men and devils know how to be truly wicked. Isn’t that so?’
Halewyn’s mythic origins are not clear cut: is he Herne the Hunter, the Welsh Arawn or the Lord of Misrule? Is he the King of the Elves, a demon or the very Devil himself? He seems to be all and none of these things, as Langrish draws on rich and various sources from folklore and myth. Here we find the payment of a living soul to hell every seventh year, as in the legends of Tam Lyn and Arawn, combined with a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The book begins and ends with the wild hunt. A mortal wolf hunt prefigures the final climactic scene, where Halewyn sprouts Herne’s antlers and leads his Wild Host over the edge of the world itself – the Devil’s Edge.
Langrish’s huntsman is the darkest of all these portrayals, mercilessly trapping a human soul every seven years to seize and carry down to hell. This is the fee which allows for his existence and that of his kingdom of rejects and misfits: ‘The mad old beggars on the roads, they’re my people. The cast-off children nobody wants. The babies abandoned in ditches. The guilty, the lost, the wanderers, the refuse of Heaven’. But even here there is ambiguity, for Halewyn is a devil with a sense of humour and in the end metes out a wickedly apt justice.
Four very different books written with different ages and audiences in mind, but four rich incarnations of the green man which I have greatly enjoyed.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

With a launch or a whimper? The birth of a book - Linda Strachan

As I write this my latest book Dead Boy Talking has just been launched and sent into the world by an enthusiastic bunch of 13/14 yr olds from North Berwick High School.

When Dead Boy Talking was written, edited and away to be printed my thoughts turned to the day when it would make its first appearance.

There is no particular right or wrong way to launch a book but it seems a real shame to have laboured over writing it, fighting with your characters and your muse for months, just to allow it to enter the world completely unheralded.
As you send your latest precious offspring off on its journey you need to fortify yourself, because it is a very scary business this; laying your work out there to be examined and criticised or (heaven forbid) to be ignored.
So this is your chance to celebrate its arrival.
I am a firm believer in having some kind of a book launch.

It doesn't need to be an expensive, sparkling, celebrity affair paid for by your publisher (in fact this is very unlikely unless you are a megastar or multi-million selling author). It may be held at a local bookshop, a restaurant, a gallery or just about anywhere with particular significance as regards the plot or theme of the book - with your publisher hopefully contributing to the drink and some nibbles and possibly helping out by emailing or sending out the invitations (although they may not offer to do any of this, there’s no harm in asking!).
It might be just the author inviting a few friends round for a party - but celebrate it you should - after all you have worked hard for it and as all those who long to be published will tell you; you are incredibly fortunate to be published at all – especially in the current economic climate.

But how to go about launching this new teenage book.
I have had all sorts of book launches some were open public affairs - for children and families -in bookshops and in castles such as Edinburgh Castle, Glamis Castle and

like this one, with Illustrator Sally J Collins actually on the Falkirk Wheel

Some were more private for invited friends, family, fellow writers and other interested parties and held in restaurants or other venues.

But I wanted to try something different for this book and get some  teenage readers and their school involved.
It’s by no means a new idea, it has been done before, and how it works really depends on the book and the theme, but most of all on the school and of course the teenagers themselves.
With the new Curriculum for Excellence about to be rolled out across Scotland’s high schools after the summer promoting cross curricular work, it seemed to be a project that might appeal to a school if they were to look at all aspects of publicising the book, of organising the launch itself and also examining themes within the story.
I will be writing in more detail and blogging about the project, the book and the teenagers, over the next few weeks but here are a few of the things they did:-

Their first job was to devise a company name and so they became  Platinum Pages Publication Promoters
  • They helped decide on the book’s cover, designed posters and invitations – finding printing companies and costs.
  • Found out about the publishing industry and how publishers work to produce a book.
  • Contacted the press and media about the project and the launch,
  • Created a blog
  • And a Facebook page for Dead  Boy Talking
  • Living in a rural location, a small group met up with a peer group from a city school to discuss the book and its themes.
  • Organised a launch for their entire year group in school time - which included a visit by a local police superintendent talking about the realities of knife crime.
  • They wrote and performed a short drama sketch based on a scene from the book
  • Produced a powerpoint display of the project for display at the launch
  • Produced name labels for the launch
  • Hosted the evening launch event in the school, welcoming guests, introducing the elements of the launch and interviewing me.
It was a great day and both afternoon and evening launches went well with only a few minor glitches. So from me a huge thank you to all at Platinum Pages Publication Promoters for a job well done and a fantastic book launch!

 Dead Boy Talking published June 2010  
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Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Sense and sensibilities - John Dougherty

Imagine pitching the following story, aimed at the pre-teen market, to a publisher:

A girl and her two brothers, left alone while their parents are at a party, are enticed from their home and taken to a faraway island by an amoral and egocentric stranger. No sooner do they arrive than the stranger’s accomplice attempts to have the girl murdered by enticing another child to shoot her.

The girl survives, and she and her brothers join the community there - a community entirely made up of abandoned children (of whom the stranger is the leader), surviving without adult assistance. After many adventures the girl and her brothers decide to return home, but before they can do so the entire community is captured by a band of criminals.

The criminals attempt to murder the children, but the tables are turned, and the children slaughter the entire gang, stabbing most of them to death one by one. The girl and her brothers return home.

If all this isn’t enough to put the publisher off, add in the descriptions of the parents at home, lamenting the loss of their children, and follow it with the eventual death of the kind and beautiful mother. And, just to confuse them, throw in a fairy or two.

Now: is any publishing house in their right mind, in the present day and age, going to publish such a story?

As you might have gathered, I’ve just finished reading Peter Pan to my kids. My goodness, but it’s dark.

Not unremittingly - far from it. There’s a lot of humour: some of it poignant, some of it merely well-observed. But there are enough threads of darkness running through it to terrify any modern editor looking for a potential best-seller for the young reader.

Not only that, but the language is not always easy. On a single page (263, if you’re interested) we encounter a bountiful selection of words including: industrious, essence, commonplace, pathetic, infinitely, fount, unconscious, bulwarks, miasma, prone, mechanically, unfathomable, tabernacle, bellied, elation, gait, sombre, profoundly, dejected.

What’s my point? I’m not entirely sure; except perhaps to say that it’s easy to set rules for what will and will not do in children’s fiction - and that in doing so, you may miss out on a classic.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Writing is like lifting stones - Miriam Halahmy

You must have lifted stones as a child and marvelled at the wonderful world hidden below. Beneath some innocent rock is an entire society of wriggling, living, breathing creatures, bustling about oblivious of the world above them. Annoyed by the interference from some curious child they are sent into a spin by the sudden change of light and temperature. They disappear in seconds and the entire landscape changes. But if you return the rock and leave if for a few days then a new world will appear very quickly.

I have been lifting rocks and collecting them all my life. We brought our children up in the city but made sure we took them regularly to the wild and wonderful outdoors. My husband preferred the sea and so we had several holidays hunting for fossils on the beaches at Lyme Regis. As a result our home and garden is littered with chunks of limestone, imprinted with leaves and ammonites at least 80 million years old.

It seems to me that writing and the tuning in to the writer's creative flow is like lifting stones. Where do I find my ideas? Well, it's like lifting a stone, anything can trigger me, a pair of shoes, a word, a look, a box. The moment comes and I take time to stare into the world revealed, letting my imagination wander over the wriggling, bustling, breathing life beneath my gaze and ideas begin to form in my mind. What if....? Who is....? Why doesn't it....? That's a good .....
There is no doubt that I am much more receptive at some times than others and that is the mystery of inspiration. Picasso says, "Inspiration is there but it has to find you working."  As writers we reach a point of engagement with our craft when we are practically always working and so we are always receptive to new ideas. I find that my creative flow is pretty constant and I am jotting down ideas for stories, poems, articles, blogs, most days, as well as keeping a regular journal and of course a flow of notes in relation to  my current novel.

But there are times when my creative flow peaks. Coffee is my best stimulant, well the only one I'm prepared to risk. But when I drink coffee I have a tremendous surge of inspiration as if I have just lifted a large rock. I  love the environment of coffee bars and have been writing in them since my student days. Travelling is another time when I am often in full creative flow, lifting rocks over new terrain.

Seamus Heaney, one of our greatest living poets and an inspiration to me since my teens, speaks about the mystery of where poems come from and has no answer. All he can tell us is that they do keep coming. Larking stopped writing poems for the last twenty years of his life so Heaney considers himself very lucky. But he says that if he is driving his wife always knows when a poem comes to him because he starts to drum his fingers on the steering wheel.

The better half stays I stare fixedly into the distance, which can be a bit embarrassing if someone sees me and thinks I am staring at them. I have been staring all my life, lifting rocks, letting my creative flow find its own path across the sand towards the sea, weaving, wriggling, bustling, telling me stories and demanding answers to all the questions thrown up. My job is to catch them before the world disappears and I have to wait for a new one to gather under the rock.
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Monday, 21 June 2010

Being a mum...and a writer - Savita Kalhan

Being a mum...and a writer - Savita Kalhan

June 14th to June 18th

As a mum, my working day is defined by the school run, after-school activities, and other general motherly duties. Drop off is at eight-ish, then it’s straight to the gym, as it’s on the way home so there’s no excuse, and then to work at my laptop in whichever room I feel like working in (usually one of the two overlooking the woods). It has been that way for a long time, almost a decade. The school day shapes my daily routines and working habits, just as it used to when I was a kid.

But what happens when you’re not required to be a mother for a week? A whole week! This is a real first for me. I’m sure it will be the first of many such weeks, but at the moment it is a novelty. This week, the Geography teachers are taking over. They’re in charge of 70 very excited kids, who, my son reliably informs me, have every intention of having a blast, whilst, of course, doing a rigorous study on coastal defences, another study on rivers and erosion, after the storming of Rochester Castle en route. I’m pretty sure there will be lots of stories that will be told at the end of this trip, and I’m hoping I’ll get to hear at least a few of them, or at least the ones deemed suitable for parents!

My first thought is – freedom. I can work for as long as I like. I can even stay in my pyjamas all day if I want. There is no pressure to be anywhere at 8 o’clock in the morning; there are no time limits, no constraints, no turning the computer off at 3.30 sharp and rushing to school. I usually aim to write a thousand words a day. Some days it’s double, triple that. On bad days it’s barely half. I wonder what will happen this week. Will all the extra time allow me to write more? Or will the lack of structure in my day mean that I lose my self-discipline?

It’s only the first day and already my routine has gone out of the window. The gym is now a special trip out. I still intend to go, but at some point when the flow of writing reaches a natural halt, or that’s what I tell myself. Suddenly there seem to be hundreds chores and errands that need to be done while I have this extra time on my hands. My mother-in-law phones: Selfridges sale starts today, and isn’t it only sensible to shop when everything is reduced to half of its original price? And there is no school run to rush back for.

So I have a lovely day at Selfridges – although I’m not hurrying back there on the first day of its sale again unless I’ve sharpened my elbows or prepared myself for serious battle first. After witnessing a few skirmishes, my mother-in-law and I take refuge in a coffee shop. So Monday comes and goes without a word being written.

I decide not to bother with a word count this week. Why should I? I still have four days. My novel is more than two-thirds of the way through, and zipping along nicely. I have time to write thousands and thousands of words should I wish to do so.
But it doesn’t work like that, does it?

On Tuesday I have promised my mother that I will take her to a doctor’s appointment. So after a brief trip to the gym, a quick check of emails, a glance at the chapter I am working on, I dash off. I promise myself I’ll work in the evening, only to remember a tennis doubles match that I’m playing in. So that’s it for that day.

On Wednesday I discover the fierce urgency of (long deferred) gardening, and I spend the day weeding, digging, and planting vegetables. I begin to get a guilty, nagging feeling....

Is there life after school for me, I wonder, or does the school day work so well for me that without it I am like a lone boat adrift on a calm sea? There are oars, there’s a rudder, there’s even a motor. But will I switch it on? Do I need to? The endless stretch of time and space is inviting, reassuringly tranquil, and although the first few days are odd, I’m enjoying it now. Boredom will creep in eventually, I am sure.

By Thursday, I’m determined to come to grips with a new, school-free, routine, and I decide to go back to doing my word counts. Of course, it’s not really about the word count. For me, as a writer, a little bit of discipline is essential. Usually, I really enjoy being immersed in my story so it rarely feels like a chore, or even like work. I quite like being the lone boat adrift at sea – but only in the hours between the school run. I’m breaking out of the mould I’ve created for myself, and by Friday I’ve realised that there is life after school and finally manage a productive day, working a double shift to make up for lost time.
The school coaches return well before kick-off time - no one wants to miss England! We have time for a lovely dinner and great catch-up, the stories of various antics and midnight feasts begin to trickle out. There is laughter and much hugging, and then the match begins - no comment needed.

But now it’s Monday again and that week is over, and for now, it’s back to normal, back to running the gauntlet of the school run, back to a proper working day. I breathe a sigh of relief.

The Long Weekend – Savita Kalhan

Saturday, 19 June 2010

And is the book dead this time? - Anne Rooney

The other day I was on the bus from Cambridge to Oxford. The bus has wifi (on a good day), and when I got fed up with working, I downloaded free samples of a few books from the Apple app store to look through on my iPad.

I liked the book; I went back to the app Store. There it was, price £8.99 as an e-book. Or I could buy the paper book from Amazon, discounted to £6.59. Of course, I couldn't read the paper book on the bus, there and then. But I would have a paper book that I could flip through, swat flies with and lend to friends. So I ordered the paper book to be delivered for when I got home, and downloaded another free sample for the journey. And that has become my standard pattern. If a book has a sample as a free download, I'll look at it and then buy the paper book if I like the sample. Free downloads serve the purpose of browsing in a bookshop, and far better than Amazon's Look Inside feature ever did. I've actually bought more paper books over the last few weeks than I would have done without the iPad. The only problem for booksellers is that I've bought them all from Amazon. The problem for Apple is that I'm using the iPad to browse, then funding Kindle/Amazon rather than buying from the app store.

I know this might be a transitional behaviour. I might go over to reading more on the iPad (though not while the e-book costs more than the paper book), and other people might never do this but jump straight to reading only on screen. But it might last. I hope so.

I still believe an e-book should be given away with a paper book - if you buy a paper book on Amazon there should be a box to tick at the checkout to say you want to download the e-book immediately, or a unique code printed on the receipt if you buy a book in a shop that gives you 24 hours to download the free copy. That would be a way of keeping paper books at the forefront, and would cost practically nothing if there is already an e-book version. This is important because we need paper books. We need them not to help the publishing industry but for cultural and social reasons.

But I think the most important lesson for publishers is that a free sample in the app store or for Kindle is absolutely essential in promoting books to the book-buying customers who have an iPad and have the disposable income to buy books on impulse. If there is no free sample, I don't even consider the book unless it is something I know I want. And as for Wolf Hall, which I said I wasn't going to read - I've downloaded the free sample, so it's getting a chance.

(Related posts:

Eighteen months ago I blogged on ABBA about the Sony e-book reader; a few weeks ago I blogged on Stroppy Author about writing a picture book app: Going digital - with 26 crows and a bucket.)

Anne Rooney

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Murder Notebooks Anne Cassidy

This week I have agreed to write a series of four books for Bloomsbury called THE MURDER NOTEBOOKS.

These are crime books which feature the same characters and have a story arc which spans the four books. Each book has a stand alone crime mystery but discoveries therein will contribute to the overall mystery of the series. While being a fantastic opportunity for a writer to develop a long and complex storyline it also presents some particularly interesting problems.

A detective series (Ian Rankin, John Harvey, Sue Grafton, Ruth Rendell) has a main character who is a detective. This character faces crime after crime and there is personal storyline which develops book to book. If you read book four before book three (as I did with the gruesome Mo Hayder books) you find out stuff about the main character that isn’t known in book three but that ‘stuff’ doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of book three.

Are you still with me?

When the series has a ‘story arc’ then you have a dilemma. You cannot ‘order’ readers to read the series book one through to book four. You have to shape the whole story on the basis that a reader may pick up book three and read that one first. (Interesting that publishers never put numbers on these books.)

So if a reader picks up book three of The Murder Notebooks there will be information there that is not known in book one and two. The task for the writer is to present that information without giving away the method or the mystery of how that information was uncovered.

Hence the reader is prompted to read books one and two (in the right order please) in order to find out.

I hope.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A SUMMER STORY - Dianne Hofmeyr

Words have escaped me today. This was done on a playful day in summer when images and sound took over... stills taken on a small Lumix camera without any thought of a video until last night ... my first attempt at using Windows Movie Maker. When you click to view, activate the sound button as well. (the sound stops for a while in the middle but its not the end) The setting was the background to my novel Fish Notes and Star Songs

THE WHALEBONE – a summer story

CHARACTERS: Family and friends of my sons.

SETTING: Imagine a peninsula of primeval rock so old it has been part of the earth for 130 million years. Picture people living here thousands of years ago. A cave pounded by giant Atlantic rollers. Milkwood trees and ‘fynbos’ stunted and shaped by the wind. Imagine the first footprints falling on the tombola of sand that joins the rock to a small island. Rock, bone and light and off we go...
Fish Notes and Star Songs

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

On the importance of a good diet - by Leila Rasheed

A year or so ago I was in a critique group for published writers. We included authors of non-fiction, literary fiction, memoir, drama and poetry. I was the only children’s writer, yet the others seemed to like my writing, so much so that one day I received the thought-provoking comment:

“This is too good for a children’s book.”

A compliment? Well, I’m sure it was meant as one. But the more I think about it, the less I like it. The assumptions within it remind me of the extraordinary British attitude to school dinners. Healthy, tasty food? Far too good for children! They’ll do just fine on deep-fried e-numbers and cardboard pizza with a side of chips.

I doubt there are many people who would deny that children are a country’s best investment, that they are, literally, our future. Most parents instinctively put their children’s interests before their own. We know that how a person is treated as a child will affect how they behave as an adult; the echoes of affection or violence, of support or scorn, carry far into adulthood. Recently, our society has also woken up to the fact that feeding children on sugary, salty rubbish creates just as many echoes: obesity, heart-disease, eating disorders. And yet when it comes to feeding the mind, it seems that even some writers still consider children scavengers rather than honoured guests at the table of literature. What echoes are created when the mind is fed on second-rate stuff?

Why should people assume the best writing must be for adults, any more than the best food? Isn’t it children who need it most, who need to be fed on fresh, vitamin-rich, mouth-wateringly delicious words and sentences? If they don’t get these things as children, how can we expect the adults they become to read anything but rubbish? How can we expect them to have a healthy, discerning attitude to books? How can we expect them to care about reading at all?

Children’s books should be different, yes. Children are not adults; a children’s novel is not just a shorter version of an adult’s novel. Different but not worse; if anything, better. Because if adults are content to toss the skin and bones of writing to children, keeping the meat for themselves, by the time those children grow to be adults it will be too late: their reading palate will have been destroyed forever.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

And then...and then...and then... Meg Harper

My Creative Partners project is all over bar the shouting – I have to attend something called a wash-up meeting next week! Don’t you just love modern management jargon?! I have learnt a great deal from the project and could rant at a few politicians about a variety of educational and social issues as a result. But as a writer who works in schools I am fascinated by what I observed about little children and what, for them, constitutes a story. Tomorrow I will be working in a different school and will work with gifted and talented children from years 1-5 but the teacher, although she wanted me to work with year 1 and 2 wasn’t quite sure what she wanted me to do with them – something about writing stories and having fun – but she wasn’t sure what. And suddenly, I didn’t know what to suggest. I explained that from what I have observed, small children have nothing like such a strong sense of the structure of a story as adults do. This ought to be obvious, I think. We presumably learn the structure of story gradually over the years as we read and hear more and more of them. Some of us enjoy stories that break the rules, where the basic structure is experimented with and the ‘rules’ are broken – I do myself. David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ is brilliant in my opinion – Sarah Water’s ‘The Night Watch’ is less successful but I admire the attempt to subvert the structure. Others hate all that – many are the moans I have heard about the ambiguous ending of ‘Atonement’. But when I was 5 or 6, I was still absorbing how stories worked – I certainly couldn’t have explained that a story had a beginning, a middle and an end, let alone that there was something we could call a ‘build-up’ and a ‘resolution’. I know I wrote stories that went on until I got fed up with them and then they just stopped. And why not? Stories are entertainment and for little children, lots of action is entertaining – so they make up stories which go ‘and then...and then...and then...’ and that’s fine. When they get a bit older, they start noticing that things have got a bit ridiculous and so there are a lot of ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ endings. To me, all this is a natural part of the process of absorbing a norm of our culture.
So why on earth are younger and younger children having ‘story structure’ drilled into them? I am part of the process because I am frequently asked to talk about story planning and I co-operate because I am always happy to share my experience of my craft and to try to meet the needs of those employing me. I can do a good, fun and memorable workshop on story planning and story structure and I think it’s perfectly appropriate for children who have had a rich and lengthy experience of story. But for younger children? No – surely it is better to let their idea run riot, their imaginations roam freely, for them to enjoy the glories of ‘and then... and then...and then...’. My 5-7s youth theatre group is devising a delightful little play this term in which Monkey meets the Emperor Master in the jungle and is taught Kung Fu because he is being sent on a quest to save the moon which is being eaten by the Astro Rat. On the way he encounters the Crocodile King, Howler Monkey and his friend Marmaduke, a mad Scientist and some helpful Stars. As you do. My adult brain has been much challenged by encouraging them to bring this amazing quest to a satisfactory conclusion which makes sense! I don’t think they would mind at all if it didn’t! They are simply enjoying the journey, adding in more and more adventures for Monkey.
So that’s what I think I’ll be doing with the Year 1s and 2s tomorrow – enjoying a story journey and not worrying about structure. How much does a story need it anyway? Do I only enjoy the satisfaction of a story that sticks to the traditional structure because that’s what I’m used to in my small corner of Western civilisation? I wonder. What do you think? Anybody out there an expert on the theory of narrative?

Monday, 14 June 2010

Normality - Andrew Strong

I live in a remote spot and rely on a borehole in the garden for water. Last week the pump packed in - result: no water.

I spent Saturday morning in the attic, trying to make sure it was the pump that was faulty and not something else. I'm no technician; I just hit everything with a hammer once or twice and hope the result is a sudden gush of water. Nothing.

Then I received a letter congratulating me on winning first prize in a competition - a fifty-inch, high definition plasma TV.

I have no water, but I’ll soon have a cinema in my front room. Making crap bigger doesn't make it better, though. It's still crap. I wondered whether the same technology would make books better – a massive iPad displaying books six feet wide, every word as big as your face. Is music better if it's louder? Is food tastier if you get more of it? I don't care: I'm thirsty. I just want some water. I'm going to sell the TV; it'll go towards the cost of a new pump.

And this afternoon I found a bat in my pants. Yes, a real, living, squeaking bat. I have to add I wasn't wearing this particular pair of pants, they were in a pile of other washed and unsorted clothes. The bat was nestled there, having flown out of the open hatch to the attic and lost its way. It's a long eared bat - easy to recognise: it has long ears. You have to whisper when they're around; they can hear everything.

I put the TV up on ebay and within minutes received an email from ‘Tom’ - a Ukrainian. He asked me to call him. “My brother will come up from London and pick up the TV,” he said, his accent intensely Ukrainian. I tell him I live in remote mid Wales. “No matter!” he replies, “my brother will pick it up at six forty-five on the way to Gateshead.”

I try to explain that my home is not en route between London and Gateshead. He laughs. He isn’t the slightest bit concerned.

'Tom' puts seven hundred quid into my account. He’s extremely trusting. I wonder if I’m getting myself into some sort of money laundering scam. How will his brother find my house? Curry’s and Comet can’t find it, how will a diverted Ukrainian?

At six forty-five exactly, the brother turns up, flips open the back of his estate. We carry the TV out, and with a soft hiss, it slides into the car snugly, perfectly.

An hour later than he had arranged a guy comes with a new water pump. “Sorry,” he says, “couldn’t find your house.” I tell him I won a fifty-inch TV, that I didn’t want it, and had sold it to pay for the pump. A Ukrainian on his way to Gateshead just came and picked it up. I told him I’d found a bat in my pants.

"You're dehydrated mate," he said. "Causes hallucinations."

And then he turned into a heron, gobbled up three of my goldfish, and flew away.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Mad Mags - Elen Caldecott

After writing my previous blog post about magazine memories, it seemed like a good idea to go and find out what girl’s magazines are like these days. So, I went to my local Tesco’s aircraft hanger to find out.

Finding the girl’s magazines was the first challenge. The tiny tot’s rack was easy to spot – various Disney and Nickelodeon characters grinned on every cover. But I wanted the mags for young girls – the Bunty and Mandy equivalents for today. They were hard to find, as they were actually disguised to look exactly like the Cosmos and MarieClaires with which they shared a shelf. Each one was glossy; cellophane-wrapped with multiple free gifts. The covers were a busy riot of JLS, Justin Bieber, TV soap stars, swirls and hearts. I went for one called ‘Go Girl’, my free gift was a pimp my mobile phone kit.

What has happened to girl’s magazines?

This one was definitely aimed at 8-12 year old girls (there were no boyfriend tips, and the fashion spreads were from Tammy@BHS). But the tone of it was like a lobotomised TV Quick. The content was patchy at best. Most of it was the kind of quizzes that categorise you into three Goldilocks groups (mostly As, you’re lazy; mostly Bs, you’re OCD; mostly Cs you’ve got just the right attitude, girl). There were true life stories (share your cringiest moments), crosswords, spot the difference (both based on pop music knowledge) and finally a few celebrity pull-out posters.

There was no fiction of any kind.

I find that incredibly sad. I know the same thing has happened to adult magazines; we are no longer reading short stories in our wimmins weeklies. But it seems a shame that girls have followed our lead and are happier to consume celebrity gossip than stories.
And it is just the girls. At the same time as buying ‘Go Girl’ I bought the Beano and, bar the shinier pages, it is pretty much exactly as I remembered it. The boys are still happy to be boys. The girls on the other hand, have one eye on the mags their mothers are reading.

Over the past few days, I’ve been wondering why this is. I can’t help feeling that women my age are somehow to blame. Not only are we the mothers of these young girls, we are also the editors and journalists who write these mags. However, there’s also something more fundamental. I think, growing up in the 1990s, we felt that there were no barriers to what we could achieve, there were no limits as women. All that feminism stuff was just silly. So if there was nothing to fight against, it was OK to let our brains switch to standby, conserve battery, do a Justin Bieber wordsearch. Until adult women ask more of themselves, the girls who emulate them won’t either.

Pass me the Beano, at least Minnie the Minx is standing up for herself.
Elen's Facebook Page

Friday, 11 June 2010

Advice to ALL Artists...

"Tell your own story and you will be interesting. Don't get the green disease of envy. Don't be fooled by success and money. Don't let anything come between you and your work."

Louise Bourgeois: Advice to young artists.

This seems to me to be excellent advice to artists of any age and discipline. Louise Bourgeois died at the end of May. She was 98 and still making art. She finished her final pieces the week before her death. I draw tremendous inspiration from her and from artists generally. I admire their clarity of vision, their excitement about what they do, their obsessions and their commitment. Sometimes, I feel that I have more in common with visual artists than with writers in my own field. Louise Bourgeois is one of my heroines. She is best known for her giant spider sculpture, Mamam, exhibited in Tate Modern Turbine Hall in 2000. Her work is visceral, challenging, bold and innovative. All her life, she refused to bow to stereotypes, whether of women, sexuality, or age. She is regarded as an inspiration by much younger artists, like Tracey Emin, and she frequently worked with them. I like the idea of the old and the young working together, feeding off each other.

Her work is challenging. "I really want my work to worry people, to bother people," she said. I think that this should apply to all artists, writers included. The best writers in all fields have always done this, but there has been growing pressure on writers, especially writers for young people, to conform, to be responsible, not to write anything that will upset or disturb. Some writers stand out as refusing to compromise or to accept that they have to write differently because they write for a young readership: Robert Cormier, Alan Garner, Aidan Chambers, Melvin Burgess, Mal Peet have all been prepared to worry and bother. There are no women on list, I wonder why that is?

I'm always ready to learn from other artists. That's why I'm pinning a picture of Louise Bourgeois to my notice board.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Oops, What Have I Said Now? Gillian Philip

I dunno. As a writer, should I keep my sensitivities honed, always bear in mind the offence I might cause, and avoid it like the plague (or like a cliche)? Or should I accept that every reader will bring their own sensitivities to a book, their own issues, and make allowances for myself and my characters and my story, and, just possibly, my own hyper-sensitivities?

It's a live issue for me right now. Recently I read a blog about rape in novels. It was thoughtful, insightful, sensitive, and followed by comments from women who (I surmise from what they said) had had their own traumatic experiences of rape or near-rape. Some of the posts pulled me up short. Some readers threw a book aside immediately when a writer 'used' rape as a plot device. The simplistic or offensive treatment of such a subject made their blood boil, said others.

Too right. I've binned a book myself - just the once, when I got the clear sense that the author was getting a real kick out of what he - via his serial killer - was doing to a group of nameless girls.

I don't know myself where I drew that line. I have a fairly strong stomach and I like gritty crime fiction (up to a point). There are men who kill women, and get a kick out of it. Some writers should - must - write about those characters. So I'll never know what edged this particular writer beyond the pale for me. It was instinct, that's all.

But I'm sure I, too, cross lines in reader's minds. Should this character light a cigarette? Should that one thrill to cruelty? Should the other have conscience-free, unprotected sex, and love it?

The rape blog made me fret because one of my characters is raped, and her reactions might well be offensive. It's not the defining moment of the plot. It's not (in her perception) the worst thing that happens to her. She worries it was her own fault. She laments her lost virginity. (Heck, she's a sixteenth century peasant girl.) I can't overlay her reactions with my 21st century sensibilities, but I know she'll offend. That's not my intention, but I know it will happen.

I've had the same dilemma with violence. I'm not a pacifist; I believe in the concepts of just war and national self-defence. But my depictions of violence have offended and upset people. I wouldn't go out of my way to offend, but should I go out of my characters' way not to offend?

A friend of mine once came under huge pressure to change a moment in her novel when her pregnant heroine drank alcohol. This character was ambivalent about the baby, and the drinking reflected that, but editors worried that readers would be offended, indeed horrified; that they'd instantly lose all sympathy for the heroine. My writer friend stood firm. The heroine drank. And the characterisation works really, really well. I'm sure it offended a few people who have strong opinions on, or experience of, the effects of foetal alcohol syndrome. But for the novel, for the heroine, it was honest and true and it worked.

Sometimes I tone things down when my conscience is pricked. But truly, I'm not sure I should. I certainly wouldn't change the fundamental heart of the story.

It's like I said at the start: I dunno. But I'd love to hear how other writers handle their own conscience when it might conflict with someone else's - and no, I don't just mean the Daily Mail's.

As for politics in books? From all sides? Oh, don't get me started.

(The image is the cover of a book by war correspondent Anthony Loyd, just because I admire (and envy) his uncompromising honesty.)

Look, Mum - I'm Writing Karen Ball

Nothing Like Riding A Bike

Starting a new novel is never easy. During the zillion drafts of your previous book, you've almost convinced yourself you can write. You know your characters (they're so well-rounded!), the plot is stonking (even if you say so yourself) and you can recite the first chapter with your eyes closed, you've read through it so many times. Job done! Time to pat yourself on the back, put your feet up, accept the nice reviews, ignore the bad ones, cash your royalty cheques and plan the holiday of a lifetime. Isn't it...?

After a well-deserved break, either boredom, a creative impulse or your accountant will remind you that you need to write another book. What? You mean, I have to come up with another unforgettable opening line? But I don't even know what the book's going to be about! If you're anything like me, you will drift from one idea to the next, convincing yourself that, 'Yes! This is the one!' Only to wake up a week later and groggily think, 'Huh? What was that thought I had?' Oh dear. You forgot to write it down.

Eventually, you'll be invited to a party. Innocently, you'll accept, forgetting that parties are an author's conscience. Someone will ask: 'What are you working on, now?' You gulp, turn red, stutter. That's when you know it's time to put the martini glass down and drag yourself back to your desk. Crack the knuckles, shake out the shoulders, dust off the keyboard and turn off the Internet.

Some people start by gathering research, even going on trips. Others write a detailed outline. Still more people stare at a blank screen and listen to the sound of their brain frying. Ever wasted hours staring at a computer keyboard when you could have been outside, enjoying the sunshine? I have.

I wish I could say that I carefully plan each of my books, but I don't. I just start writing and see what comes out. Then, at least, I have something to mould. An opening chapter can work wonders for a writer's confidence, not least because you can see what's not working. Which means you have an idea of what might work. Which suggests you know what you're doing and where you want this story to go. I greatly admire the simple advice to write 1000 words a day and before you know it, you'll have a first draft. I love the moment when you pass the halfway mark, when you know that whatever else you write is taking you towards two golden words: The End. During all of this process, you've reclaimed your identity as a writer. This is me. This is what I do. Look, Mum - I'm writing!

Writing isn't like riding a bike, you can't always just get back on. Every novel is a brand new learning curve during which you will stumble and go down wrong paths. This much, I can guarantee. It's a very humbling experience and not one suited to everyone. The next time you meet a famous author (Hey! Because that happens a lot, right?) and find yourself trembling, don't imagine them naked - imagine them writing the first line of their next book. I bet they find it every bit as scary as we do.

Look, Mum - I made a poll! Vote here and allow us a unique insight into how most authors start a novel. There are no right or wrong answers here. Which option would you choose?

Please visit my website at

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

When is a Book more than a Book? : Penny Dolan

Came across this 10th Century riddle* in Dublin’s Book of Kells Museum a fortnight ago:

One of my enemies ended my life
Sapped my world strength, afterwards staked me
Wetted in water . . .

Set me in the sun where soon I lost
The hair which I had.
And then the hard knife edge cut me . . .

Fingers folded me, and feather of a bird
Traced all over my tawny surface
With drops of delight . . .

Then, for trappings, a man
Bound me with boards, bent hide over me,
Glossed me with gold and so I glistened
Wondrous in smith-work, wire encircled.

Say what I am called,
Useful to man. Mighty my name is,
A help to heroes, and holy am I.

Can’t quite see the e-reader being written about with such awe, can you?

(Wish I wasn't posting this on a day when such grim "plans" for libraries are being broadcast.)

*The poem is about the making of a vellum book.

Monday, 7 June 2010

More Research by Marie-Louise Jensen

I love researching a new era. It's one of my favourite things about writing historical fiction. I'm not a history expert and my knowledge of history is patchy and based largely on my fiction reading. So I have to do a great deal of research.
If I'm researching British history, my first port of call is the library. And once I've staggered home with more books than I could sensibly carry (or that I can realistically read in the three week loan period) I confess, I often feel pretty daunted. But then once I get two or three book into the era, I'm usually captivated, fascinated and engaged. And inspired too - and for me this is the very best thing about historical writing: the historical details themselves often provide inspiration for all sorts of story details.
Admittedly they occasionally block what I thought was a good plot idea as well, because some things turn out to be quite different to how I'd imagined them. But the research definitely gives more than it takes.
A tip for anyone about to start researching an era, especially of you're writing for young people: include a selection of children's history books as well as weighty adult tomes. They are so much more accessible and give you the big picture very quickly and easily. And they often include child-friendly details omitted from the scholarly tomes that often become bogged down in the political details of the times.
I've been amused this time around, by the fact that each time I've opened a new (adult) history book on the Georgian section, I've found exactly the same piece of writing, even though the books have different publishers. Someone's obviously done well for themselves, selling the same text to a number of publishers. They didn't even bother to tweak it....

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Wise Words Passing Through: Penny Dolan

Always on the lookout for wise words to help me through an "Aaaagh!" writing phase, I caught these, passed on by Adele Geras. They came to her via the Romantic Novelists' Association e-group, with instructions to share. So now they have been shared twice!

"How Successful Writers Maintain Confidence

Self-confidence is the single most essential ingredient an author needs to succeed, since good writing is never quick or easy. To write well requires energy, discipline and a sense of humour.

The most accomplished and productive writers I work with are able to sustain a level of assurance and optimism. And that's even when they¹re feeling blocked, burned out and unappreciated.

There are no universal, cookie-cutter techniques writers can use to keep up their hopes and dreams. Each writer is unique, with an individual temperament, culture and developmental process. But here are some general suggestions all writers can consider to help soldier through periods of doubt.

Stay Connected
Withdrawal and isolation can debilitate and reduce creative energy. Writers can work with other people doing research, brainstorming plot ideas, and building characters, but, ultimately, writing is a solitary occupation, with hours alone facing a blank screen or empty notebook.

Consequently, a conscious effort to reach out is the only way to prevent isolation and loneliness. Maintain contact with other people, loved ones, family, friends and colleagues. You don¹t have to ask for help, just engage as much as possible in regular human relationships. Look for people who can make you laugh out loud. Get out of your head, get out of the house, go and talk to another person. You don¹t have to be alone. I repeat: You are not alone.

Keep Writing
Even if you don¹t love what you¹re turning out, keep putting those words on the screen or down on paper, regardless. What may feel like a massive writer¹s block may be only the need to pause, or to work out the story on an internal, unconscious level. You can always polish or delete what you¹ve written, but sustaining the discipline will be encouraging and ultimately valuable. You will actually build confidence by sticking to the task at hand.

Revive Your Passion
Go back to the source of your motivation, your real reason for writing and the thing you are determined to produce. Whether it¹s a novel or narrative non-fiction, a well-argued polemic about something important, a love letter to a lost relationship, an angry response to a perceived hurt, or a desire to understand and make meaning out of your life, be honest about it and renew your devotion to this mission.

Maintain Good Mental Health
Some writers exercise, while others maintain a spiritual practice like meditation or positive visualization. Others devote themselves to a righteous cause, or become passionate about domestic arts like gourmet cooking or building beautiful things with their hands. Many paint or make music to relieve their creative tensions. Some go to therapists, either regularly or on an as-needed drop in basis. Whatever it takes, do it.

Get Editorial Help
The best writers I know use developmental editors. Not family and friends who love you no matter what, not other colleagues who may have a personal agenda, such as flattery or competition, but professionals with proven experience. Writers under contract may already have an editor at the publishing house. Other writers can engage an editor on a freelance basis. Choosing the right editor is crucial, so track record and compatibility are a top priority.

Good writers love and appreciate other good writers. It¹s inspiring, not necessarily as a direct literary model,, but as a process example and goal achieved. It can be done!

Expect Rejection
Even the best writers have their work sent back as unacceptable, in some cases after acclaim and riches. Bad reviews, a fickle market, unpredictable changes and abandonment from their publishers-- it¹s a jungle out there!

Get used to it. Agents and editors don¹t always behave rationally, and they occasionally say things that just don¹t make sense, like ³This isn¹t a good fit for us.² What does that mean, anyway? Learn to distinguish constructive criticism from glib and thoughtless remarks. For a reality check, consider the fact that Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 140 times before a publisher finally took a chance. So take heart!

Be Patient
All evidence and historical example shows us that it takes many years of rewrites and heroic perseverance to endure the creaky, slow, risk-aversive decision-making process of the book business. To get published, it¹s essential to have realistic expectations about how long it will take. Think years, not months.

Embrace Irrational Exuberance and Obsessive Compulsions
During the course of writing a book, it¹s okay to be a little over-the-top in your focus and devotion to the work. What may seem to others as a bit crazy can actually serve you well. Many writers succumb to an extreme level of behaviour that really keeps up their confidence during the hard work. Then, when it¹s done, they relax, wind down, take a vacation and enjoy their time off--at least until they are compelled to start again.

By Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons."

There! Don't you feel at least a little bit better now? I did. Thanks, Adele.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Shut up and kiss me - Michelle Lovric

I’m fed up with love songs that tell people not to use words.

And why is it so often men who sing them, to women?

I just heard Ronan Keating’s ‘You Say It Best When You Say Nothing At All’. Hardly a tribute to the lover’s eloquence. To the meeting of true minds, it is surely an impediment if the woman is not allowed to speak.

And what about my personal bugbear, ‘I Like You Just the Way You Are’ … the bit where Billy Joel warbles that he’s happy with this woman because ‘I don’t want clever conversation’?

And don’t let’s get started on Elvis and conversation.

My least favourite film is The Piano. I’ve always been suspicious that it’s acclaimed as an erotic masterpiece precisely because the central female character cannot talk.

And then there are mermaids. Liz Kessler, Mary Hoffman and I have all written mermaids who are quite keen on chat. But the official legend is that when a mermaid wants to marry a human man, she has to give up the power of speech. What’s that about?

Women are guilty too. Empress Catherine of Russia, when asked how she communicated with her strapping foreign lover, is said to have answered smugly, ‘Speech doesn’t happen to be his language.’

(Sadly, the scholar Virginia Rounding assures me this is apocryphal, but I am including it as it is the kind of thing people think Catherine would say.)

Even the otherwise estimable Mary Chapin Carpenter sings ‘Shut up and kiss me’.

All very well, but when the 18.6 months of physical passion is over (according to the biologists), what is left?

Conversation, that’s what.

And without conversation (to paraphrase and abridge Alice) what would be the point of books?

Michelle Lovric’s website
Mary Hoffman’s website
Liz Kessler’s website

Friday, 4 June 2010

This Is Where We Came In

My parents weren’t very good at organising their leisure time – maybe because they worked so hard at their jobs. My father worked for the YMCA – how he would have hated that song! and my mother, as well as teaching, studied first for an external BA Hons from London University, then for an MA, part-time. Amusements used to happen, when my father wasn’t away organising courses and my mother could be dragged away from her books – on a highly ad-hoc basis. Thus, if we were going to the pictures, we just went, regardless of the show time. That wouldn’t work nowadays, but in those days (late 1950s, early 1960s) you paid for entrance to the picture house and left when you’d had enough. People often arrived halfway through and then went when they’d got to the place where they came in. It made for a lot of moving about. Maybe audiences were more tolerant in those days. I have the impression that we always arrived just before the end of the picture, and then left just as things were moving to a climax.
I think that’s part of my becoming a writer, actually. It’s probably also the reason why, to the anguish of many (I can’t quite understand why, it doesn’t hurt THEM), I often look at the end of books and then read on happily. It’s interesting to see how they get there.
I did mind leaving before the end of the picture, though. I don’t think my brother did, or my parents, but none of them were inveterate re-readers as I was (and still am). I always wanted to see how the ending, that had seemed so mysterious when we first came in, linked to what I was watching. Anyway, I didn’t have a chance. I was the youngest. I went, reluctantly, trailing after them.
The cinema was always fuzzy with cigarettes in those days, it was a miracle you could see the screen and I remember the curls of smoke rising up in front of the film. There was an advertisement where someone called ‘Aurora!’ I seem to remember a cartoon child with plaits. ‘Aurora!’ the voice called again, coyly. ‘Kia-Ora, Aurora!’ And the Grecian columns announcing the Pearl and Dean adverts, an exciting gateway to a boring sequence of stuff, apart from the intriguing Kia-Ora one, because who was Aurora? Where did she come from? And why did perfectly ordinary orange squash thrill her so much?
There was always a B-Movie. Sometimes these were terrible, but they were often interesting, experimental things, films my parents would probably never have brought me to see if they’d been shown on their own, and they too helped form me as a writer, though I can't remember the names of any of them. I remember seeing endless Disney films; ‘Snow White,’ I remember, but also a lot featuring animals and kids, starring Bobby Driscoll? Would that be right? And Hayley Mills, of course, as Pollyanna or the twins in ‘The Parent Trap’ – though when I read ‘Lottie and Lisa’ I thought that was much better than the movie. I was fascinated, though, by how one girl could be made into two on the screen. And I saw ‘Ben Hur,’ when I was older, ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ with Peter Ustinov, fat, wobbly, and decadent; ‘Spartacus’ ‘We’ll free every slave in Italy.’ I saw Peter Sellars in various comedies – he was great, but somehow upsetting, probably because I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the black humour.
My father took me to Westerns with James Stewart, who he adored, even ‘Destry Rides Again,’ though my mother didn’t approve of Marlene Dietrich. By contrast, she adored Greta Garbo, but I had to wait for the Nottingham University Film Club, after we moved, to see her in ‘Queen Christina.’ The cinemas in Kendal, where we lived when I was youngest, were ‘The Palladium’ and ‘The Roxy.’ My parents thought the Roxy was common, though looking at the films they showed there, in old issues of the Westmoreland Gazette, I can’t imagine why. Maybe it was something to do with the décor.
There was something about those cinemas, with their plush seats and the back row for the snoggers, that the modern multiplexes don’t have, though I’d hate the smoke nowadays. Maybe it’s just because I was a kid then. I don’t like that ubiquitous smell of pop-corn. But I still do love going to the movies. I went to see 'The Picture of Dorian Gray, recently, at the BfI. It was great. And seeing a film often moves me on with my writing, opens doors in my mind. Is it the music? I don’t know. Anyway, films are marvellous.