Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Chains of inspiration by Lynda Waterhouse

I received a CD in the post the other day and I get a mention in the credits. The CD is called Unravelling and it’s by Suntrap. Track six is the song ‘Just like a bird ‘and it is is NOT, to paraphrase Carly Simon, about me. It was written by Sara Byers and is dedicated to her sister Susan. But I am delighted to be a part of the chain of inspiration.
This occurred when my goddaughter Molly Jamieson then aged 11 made a speech at my wedding which began,
‘To me Lynda is like a nightingale, although brown and normal on the outside, she has a strong and beautiful song.’
This one off personal and touching tribute inspired Sara to come up with the lyric,
‘Just like a bird who is brown on the outside
She sings the most beautiful song.’
She had taken something personal and made it universal.
In turn Sara has been a source of inspiration to me. She made a beautiful shell and water sculpture which triggered an idea for a setting for the Sandringham dancing Academy in my Sand Dancers stories published by Piccadilly Press. Tracing the link back one step further it turns out that Sara had been inspired to create the sculpture by some shells in New Zealand.
I feel stronger when I am in a chain of inspiration, surrounded by people who are having the courage to express their feelings through their words, art, dance or music. This in turn sparks my creativity and so the chain continues.
That is why groups such as the SAS and my writing group are so important to me. They provide the spark.
It is also why I passionately believe that children should be given creative experiences and opportunities (without learning objectives and measurable outcomes) to work with artists, musicians, dancers, writers in schools.
Now I’m off to listen to my song! I hope you allow this brown bird her peacock moment.

Monday, 30 August 2010

The Formidable SAS

by Savita Kalhan

My first novel, The Long Weekend, was published in October 2008, the contract with my publisher signed almost a year before the publication date. I had no idea then that it took as long as that from signing a contract to seeing my book on the shelf of my local bookshop. I found out later that it could often take much longer than that. That’s just one example of my complete naivety at the time. I stumbled through an alien quagmire of contracts, edits, proof-reading, strap-lines, tag-lines, blurbs, AI sheets, and so many other mysterious things most of which I had never heard of and didn’t know if I had a say in. My agent was good and experienced, but, still, I would have loved to have been able to run a couple of things past another published children’s writer. I had no peer-group support network whatsoever. Even though I had been writing for a number of years, I had not been bold enough to call myself a writer until I was told the publication date for my book. So I was a writer in isolation, and I felt it keenly.

One January, in 2010, I was looking at some writers’ websites, surfing and browsing, and letting the double-click take me where it willed. I had become a little more au fait with the internet and even gone as far as setting up a Facebook and Twitter account, which I had yet to do much with, when I stumbled by pure chance on something called the Scattered Authors’ Society, the SAS. It took me a while to find out what it was. Every time I put SAS into the search engine, you can guess what came up. I knew it wasn’t any of the offerings Google presented me with but a very different elite, crack group. I persevered. I found their entry on page five of my Google search.

I was amazed and excited. I wondered what the criteria was for joining the ‘other’ SAS, and whether they would accept someone like me. On February 8th I contacted Damian Harvey expressing an interest in the SAS and requesting more information about what it was and how to become part of it. This is a small section of what he sent back to me:

What is the SAS?
In 1998 a few children’s authors got together to form a self help group. We had been writing for children and teenagers for a number of years and were experiencing feelings of isolation.

We decided to seek each other out. We advertised and were contacted by about thirty writers who were keen to meet and talk.

We organized a number of lunches across the country. These were purely social events but writers got a chance to talk to others about similar problems; agents, publishers, deadlines, new technology, working routines etc. We had a residential weekend where we had discussions about the world of publishing and the business of being a writer for children. We found shared problems and possible strategies for overcoming them. We gained much needed information from each other. We found working contacts and friends.

I thought – WOW! I had no idea anything like this existed. I had, of course, heard of the Society of Authors, but hadn’t yet sent my application to them, and that was about it. The SAS sounded too good to be true. Damian went on to tell me about the internet chat facility where I could pose questions, queries, share thoughts and ideas, and he also told me about the Awfully Big Blog Adventure, which I started reading every day. I joined the SAS, and within days my name and details were up on the SAS website, and sent out to all SAS members. Within a week I had an email from a local author who had read the new member memo and wondered if I would like to meet for coffee. That was Miriam Halahmy. Within a few months, we tentatively decided to think about forming a local Children’s Authors’ Roadshow, (CAR) and met with a few other authors.

At our next meeting there will be ten children’s writers, poets and illustrators, all interested in talking and perhaps doing a number of different events together. Even if it turns out that we do very little together as a group, the benefits will still have been enormous. We’ve met, shared experiences, shared our books, exchanged ideas, and perhaps forged a few friendships.

Within a few months of joining the SAS, I trepidatiously (my favourite made-up word!) put my name up to do a monthly blog for The Awfully Big Blog Adventure. I had never done a blog, was still not internet savvy, and wondered what I would write about, if I would have enough to say, what other Sassies would make of it, and of me. Now three months on since my first blog, and having done a few, I know I was worrying unnecessarily. Some idea about what to write about has always materialised at the time. The blog is sub-headed “the ramblings of a few scattered authors,” and that’s exactly what it is.

I sent the link to the English teachers who asked their pupils in Year Seven and Year Five for their top reads for my blog in July. The teachers had never heard of it, but were very interested in anything that might be a valuable resource for them and of interest to their pupils. I sent the link to the librarians and schools in south London when I wrote my first blog about the Fabulous Book Award, which The Long Weekend was shortlisted for. They had never heard of it either, but again were very interested. They wanted to read the ramblings of a few scattered authors, and why wouldn’t they? They had read and admired/promoted many of those authors’ books over the years.

The Awfully Big Blog Adventure is a precious thing and far more than “the ramblings of a few scattered authors”. I look forward to its continued development and hope that ultimately it reaches a far wider audience, which it deserves, which we all deserve, but also hope that it retains the essential “rambling” quality that makes it so unique.

I wholeheartedly thank the few writers who met in 1998 and set up the marvellous SAS, and I wish I had known about the group before January 2010. There were many things I could have asked for advice on – how to do a successful book launch, how important the pre-publication and post-publication time is, how to get book reviews and when you have them, how to use them effectively, how to promote my book and give it exposure so that it doesn’t get lost in the time tunnel, so many things that perhaps a long time ago the publisher would have taken care of for you or advised you on, but which is now left in the hands of the author. I wish I had known...

Now I am part of the SAS. I know where to go if I need advice or need to grumble about the essence and pitfalls of being a writer. I know someone will listen, I know someone will help if they can, and I know I’m no longer a writer in isolation. And let’s face it, in today’s environment the business of being a children’s writer needs all the help it can get.

The Long Weekend by Savita Kalhan

Saturday, 28 August 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

THE SECRET INTENSITY OF EVERYDAY LIFE by William Nicholson. Quercus pbk. £11.99

SAS members probably know William Nicholson best for his very successful and popular Wind Singer trilogy. He wrote the script for the movie Gladiator and also for Shadowlands. He’s a chap with copper-bottomed macho credentials, therefore, and also a man with a great deal of emotional intelligence. He’s recently written a novel for young adults called Rich and Mad which I haven’t read but which they say is very good, though apparently not for those of a nervous disposition when it comes to frankness about sex.

In The Secret Intensity etc, he takes a group of people who live in the Sussex countryside near Glyndebourne and interweaves their stories in a fashion that’s both skilful and absorbing. Recently, on Nicola Morgan’s blog (http://www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com/)
and elsewhere there has been much discussion about the importance of pace and excitement and incident in novels, about page-turnability and this book is extremely page-turny without anything like an exciting plot to drive it forward. When I say that, I mean you’ll have to look to another book for abductions, vampires, dastardly plots against the government of the day, races against time, death bed reversals of fortune and wild chases in fast cars. You will not find heroic feats of strength, nor impossible puzzles. What you do get is exactly what the title promises: the sadnesses, regrets, longings and epiphanies of normal everyday life.

Laura is awaiting a visit from an ex-boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen for more than twenty years. Their love affair was incandescent, all-consuming, mad and life-changing. Her husband, Henry, is making a film for television about iconoclasts. He’s got a star to deal with whom he can’t stand and is worried because he can’t stop himself from fancying almost every woman his eye lights on, in spite of loving his wife enormously. Several other adult characters are also highlighted and it would be tedious to list them all, but into these people’s lives come the day-to- day concerns of their children, too, and Nicholson deals with subjects like bullying and peer pressure and the inner world of childhood in a most sensitive and imaginative way. Just as it’s unnatural sometimes to eliminate adults from children’s books, it’s also very refreshing to see children take their place alongside their parents in a novel for adults. This is the way things are in the real world. Ask any mother or father what their main interest/focus/ object of devotion is and you’ll find it’s their children but this truth isn’t something you find reflected very often in fiction.

Not knowing the whole truth about something, having to understand more before you can grasp what’s truly going on, and what a person is like is probably the main theme of the book. It’s very perceptive about a writer’s angst, secret fears, and unacknowledged doubts and terrific at describing love of every kind but there’s also a lovely scene in which Laura is searching for an outfit to wear to Glyndebourne. Nicholson understands perfectly the strange phenomenon of women going shopping and there are very few male writers who’ve nailed that properly. Zola was good at it, and so is Colm Tóibín but I can’t think of others offhand. [Please do leave some recommendations in the comments box if you know of any.]

Readers who are averse to characters who are middle-class and quite well off would do well to steer clear of this book (and in another post I may address the subject of the scorn that many reviewers seem to feel for literature about the upper middle classes and their concerns) but for everyone else, it’s a hugely enjoyable and satisfying read and I am eager to get hold of the sequel which is being published very soon.

THE ANATOMY OF GHOSTS by Andrew Taylor. Michael Joseph hbk £18.99

Andrew Taylor has been one of my favourite thriller writers since I read the Roth Trilogy (The Four Last Things, The Office of the Dead, The Judgement of Strangers) some years ago. If you’ve not come across these before, by the way, you have real treat in store.

His latest book, (published on September 2nd) is a historical novel, set in an invented Cambridge college called Jerusalem in the late 18th century. It’s a ghost story, a crime story and a love story, beautifully and cunningly combined. Taylor has produced a richly atmospheric and exciting tale, which will keep you happily enthralled to the last page. By contrast with William Nicholson's book, this novel has almost everything you could possibly wish for by way of plot: drowned people, terrible happenings in the past, mysteries aplenty in the present, academic machinations, adulterous longings, abuse of one kind and another, and the whole thing written so well that you feel yourself instantly drawn into the time and the place. Here's another real page turner, and one which would make a terrific film or television series. If only Andrew Taylor and William Nicholson in his scriptwriting mode could get together on such a project...what fun that would be! Do try and read it. The hardback is a bit pricey (though less than the cost of some restaurant meals and totally calorie-free!) but this is a good chance to bombard your local library branch and make sure they order at least one copy.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Slightly Jones' Big Day - Joan Lennon

Today is a big day for Slightly Jones, Detective-in-Training. For one thing, it's the very first Slighty event, taking place at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I'll be introducing the series, especially the first book - THE CASE OF THE LONDON DRAGONFISH.

Not only that - it's also the launch day for the brand new Slightly Jones' website - SLIGHTLY'S NOTEBOOK!


It'd be great if you came and had a rummage round her notebook - and maybe you know someone who'd like to become part of the Slightly Jones Detective Team. There are mysteries to be solved and stories and pictures and ideas to be shared. Hope to see you there!

Visit my website.
Visit my blog.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Blog! What is it good for? (* with apologies to Frankie goes to Hollywood)

I really liked Karen Ball’s post a few days ago where three different kinds of 21st century book buying and reading were identified. It seemed to me to get right to the heart of the matter: variety is what characterises the habits of book buyers. Since we have recently been having a discussion among ourselves about the possible future directions of this blog, I thought it would be interesting to copy her model and look at my own blog-reading habits as a representative example.

Why do I read blogs?

Blogs such as Cake wrecks are not going to expand my intellectual horizons (though I did learn a lot about different kinds of icing), but they are so funny. I usually don’t look at Cake Wrecks for weeks, then I go back and have a binge, reading back through pages of posts. I laugh and relax and feel happier afterwards. The thing that obviously makes this work is not so much the photos of cakes gone bad, but the author’s fantastic voice – she could write a teen novel if she wanted. Angus, Cakes and Full Frontal Icing?

We all know writing is a lonely business, and for me, the real value of blogs such as helpineedapublisher is that when I read them I know that there are other writers out there, coping with the same problems that I am. I shall not walk alone! Nicola Morgan’s blog works so well for me partly because it deals honestly with subjects that are really important to me, but also, importantly, because of her voice. You feel that a real person is talking to you, a real conversation is being had. The fact that she’s in Scotland, I’m in Italy, and we’ve never met, becomes unimportant. Helpineedapublisher is one of maybe two or three blogs that I actively look at daily.

There is really worthwhile and important information out there on the internet. People are giving it away for free. Most news sites, for example – BBC or the Guardian. From a writing point of view, I can go to The Greenhouse Agency’s blog to hear from the horse’s mouth what you should look for in an agent, or to find out what kind of writing they are looking for. I can go to Emma Darwin’s blog for a thoughtful piece on the technical skills of writing. People hoping to be published have more sources of free information available to them than ever before.

Obviously these three blog functions overlap. Ideally, I suppose a blog should be entertaining, give you a great sense of community, and be instructive as well. Helpineedapublisher does all three, I think.

When do I read blogs?

In a break from work, when I’ve finished typing up a section of my novel in progress, or done something else that makes my brain feel as if it needs a rest. I don’t sit down to read blogs as a duty – I do it in my spare time, for relaxation.

I think, therefore, that blogs are best compared to newspapers or magazines. The same things make both work: being written in a strong, entertaining voice, issues that affect the readers (or that the readers believe affect them), information that they need or want. Just like newspapers or magazines, they get cliquey; people stick to the same blog and want their opinions reinforced more than challenged, as is human nature. But the flip side of that is that they create a sense of lively community.
It seems that we writers should be in a really strong position to make the best possible use of blogging technology. We know how to write in a strong voice, we understand about writing for a specific audience, we know how to make novels readable and gripping – so the blogosphere should be our oyster. All comments on how we on ABBA can make the most of that oyster will be gratefully received below!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Frittering - Andrew Strong

I hate wasting time. I hate queuing, traffic, train stations and airports. I get irritable just waiting for images to load on my web browser. More and more items on the BBC News website have that horrid little 'click to play' icon: I do not want to watch, I want to read. I can read faster than I can watch. I can scan the headline, and then move on if I’m not interested. For that reason I shun YouTube, and get shirty when people send me email links to ‘amusing’ videos. I am unable to sit through a full length movie; I have to watch in thirty minute bursts, usually from the seat of my rowing machine. This way I can get fitter as I fritter.

Time is the most valuable commodity on Earth: more valuable than air, water or food. Without time you would not be able to take a breath, a gulp or a bite. Yet, although we know we are all busy recycling bottles and boxes, there is nothing whatsoever we can do with time once we've wasted it.

Taking foreign holidays, going shopping, doing the gardening, or worst of all, watching television are forms of time-frittering that get on my goat. Nothing on television is worth one hour of my life. Nothing!

I picture myself on my deathbed, with just one more hour left to live. Shall I watch that jolly bird programme with Bill Oddie? Or how about dropping in on 'Fat Families' before I shuffle off? Nothing, not even an earnest documentary, or live coverage of Nick Clegg eating his own face would make me watch TV if I had just sixty minutes left to live.

I’ve tried living every hour as if it were my last. I soon became a hopeless, jibbering mess. “What’s the point of doing anything?” I hollered. “I’m going to die!” So instead I tried to refine my time wasting and came up with this exceptionally brilliant idea: use every hour as a means of saving time in the hours ahead.

To do this I live my life like an air traffic controller, with thoughts constantly streaming in, diverted, put into holding pattern, or some of them acted upon and brought down safely onto the runway.

So, even as I make breakfast, I’m planning when will be the best time to unload the dishwasher and, perhaps take the bins out. Should I do those first, or fill the kettle? Then there’s some post to be opened, and the hens to be fed. As I am slicing the bread, I am considering in which order to tackle these immediate chores, and at the same time, in holding pattern, are the thoughts about the things I will act upon when breakfast is cleared away.

Of course, because I'm thinking ahead, the task I am presently engaged with tends to be less than well done. Toast gets burnt, tea goes cold, cutlery ends up in the fridge, hens starve to death, I slice my finger off. I am always moving one step ahead of myself, but rarely do I know where I am. Even as I write this sentence I am juggling with the next paragraph. As I finish my third book I'm half way through the fourth and plotting the fifth. And as every writer knows, planning your next book is a hundred times more exciting than writing the present one.

Another time saving measure is to undertake two activities simultaneously, always ensuring that every wasteful element is counterbalanced by a useful one. I can watch dvds as I row myself fitter, read Proust as I struggle to eat my morning muesli and listen to opera as I'm having a bath.

In this way I get to lead three or four lives in parallel, and keep in shape, too. With my accumulated years I will be the fittest one hundred and eighty year old on the planet. I shall also be a mumbling, foam-spluttering idiot, who doesn’t remember one thing of any quality he’s done in his over-long life. But I won’t have wasted a second.

(Oh, and that bit about Clegg. It's not true. I would have to watch that).

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Blood on the Streets - Dianne Hofmeyr

This morning there was a body on the Fulham Road.

The first line of a thriller? Wish that it were. I can’t get the image from my head.

I rolled out of bed, pulled on my yoga clothes, tucked my mat under my arm and set off. As I came around the corner red and white tape sent signals. Before I had a chance to alter my pace I saw the huge pool of fresh blood… more blood than I’ve ever seen in one place. Things were scattered across the pavement. A discarded rucksack. Bits of cloth. A pair of trainers completely soaked in blood.

The body had been placed in a blue body bag. It lay against the wall of a shop like a rough sleeper stretched out for the night… except there was blood escaping it. There was no one there except a single young police woman taking notes and another policeman fixing up the cordon.

It was the blood-soaked trainers that got to me.

I kept struggling to breathe. In the yoga class it was difficult to still my mind and fill my body with life-giving prana.

A skin too thin. A writer’s eye too developed. Visceral imaginings too developed. I was glad it was August and the usually busy Fulham Road was empty of fathers wheeling their bikes next to boys bound for school or mothers tugging and herding sleepy children.

I thought of Gillian’s post about the school visit and the story that began with a body. Three of my novels begin with a body. One is a drowning, one is not really a body but the bones of someone being returned to her ancestral homeland, and the third is a very brutal knifing that takes place in the Temple of Karnak in the first chapter of Eye of the Sun.

It’s to this knifing that my mind keeps returning. Would I have written this scene so easily, so cavalierly, had I seen a real knifing, real blood and real bloodied clothing lying strewn across a pavement before I wrote it?

At the time my 36 year old son said of this passage – ‘Too much information, mum.’

In the moonlight the dagger is sharp and hard and unforgiving. The blade finds the soft spot just below his ribs and angles upward, seeking his heart. Two quick thrusts. Hard and brutal. The blows make him gasp with their suddenness. No words are possible now. He feels the sharp burn of the blade as the dagger is swiftly withdrawn.

I left it. And so did the editors. Why? Was I trying for sensation - as
a tabloid might try to draw readership?

But a real life lost, very real blood spreading across the pavement and a pair of bloodied trainers has tripped me up this morning. If my first reaction was … thank goodness there are no children here to see it, why have I been so callous and cavalier in my writing for young adults?

We write of the real world, of knife crime and blood and what commercialism dictates and I don’t want to say I’ll never write of a murder again, but the body on Fulham Road this morning has pulled me up sharply. When I look at the shelves in a bookstore now I must ask, is the shocking reality of brutality too real to fictionalize again and again for the sake of commercialism in a young person’s novel? Are we encouraging readers to be inured? Are we inured?

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - Elen Caldecott

I live near an urban cemetery that is a gothic mix of briars and brambles and burials. Just now, the brambles are coming into fruit.

I wondered if it’s OK to eat blackberries that grow on top of graves. It seems a bit macabre; puts me in mind of an Asian horror. I fretted about it for a while. Then I ate one. It was too sour, so the decision is postponed until next week.

I mentioned my cannibalistic concern on Facebook (as you do). Suddenly, everyone was telling me about their own people recycling experiences – damson jam in Highgate; cider from orchard-burials; Ellen Renner kindly pointed out to me that if I drank the water in Bristol, it would have been through countless bodies before mine (thanks, Ellen). It got me thinking about how much is recycled in our lives and, as creative people, how much we re-use what’s come before.

I’ve written an urban misery-fest that will hopefully come out next year. In it, a young girl is reunited with her father. I couldn’t resist giving her the line ‘Daddy, my daddy’ when she sees him. I expect you all recognise the quote. It never fails to bring a lump to my throat and I felt that my story is enriched by the borrowing. I love to stumble upon these recycled lines, phrases and images in other peoples work. Not only does it make me feel clever, because I recognise a bit of re-hashed King James when I see it, but also, it makes the writing we do now seem like part of a longer tradition. It gives literature a kind of stability. I especially enjoy it when I find it in unexpected places – I was reading a bit of chick lit the other day and the heroine moaned about a day being a suffering of ‘slingbacks and arrows’. Some novels borrow minor characters from other works and bring them to the forefront; I have Adele Geras' Dido on my to-read list for just that reason. It turns out – having read yesterday’s post – that Celia Rees has been busy recycling too. On a larger scale is the classic retelling, such as Mal Peet’s interpretation of Othello in ‘Exposure’.

Words, phrases, plots and blackberries all come around again to make our lives that bit richer. Do you have a favourite example of literary recycling? Or failing that, maybe a good bramble recipe in case I get over my squeamishness.

For those who like to see a good quote in situ:

Elen's Facebook Page

Friday, 20 August 2010

Serendipity - Celia Rees

I'm not superstitious. I walk under ladders, I stroke black cats when they cross my path. No, I'm not superstitious except when it comes to my writing. I carry amulets, I get very upset if they disappear. I don't tempt fate with loose talk about what I'm doing and I believe in serendipity. I have this in common with my friend, Linda Newbery. Her book, Lob, is on the Guardian children's fiction prize longlist, and richly deserves its place. She explains in an interview: Following the Walking Man, guardian.co.uk 9th August, 2010, how this book was inspired by seeing a man walking the roads between her home in Northampton and Oxford where she was working. He appeared at different points in the book's life: on the day she proposed the idea to her editor, the day after she handed in her typescript, her last sighting of him was at a bus stop in London. She called him Lob. I remember talking to her about this before the book was published and telling her that I used to see the same man, or one of his tribe, walking the main road between Birmingham and Coventry. I said I'd look out for him. Linda keeps a look out, too. She carries a signed copy in the glove compartment of her car, ready to give to him when she sees him again.

I have to report a sighting. The day after I read her interview I saw him walking up Putney High Street, swathed about with bags of different sorts, pushing a trolley, making his way between the shoppers and the buggies. Putney High Street was the old road to Portsmouth and that was the way he was heading, out of the bustle of the town, up onto the ancient heath. I hope it's a good sign for Linda.

I have my own examples, which is why I could identify so closely with Linda and her walking man. My latest novel, The Fool's Girl, was inspired by Shakespeare's play, Twelfth Night, and has Feste as a character, the Fool of the title, The first time I had to talk about the book in public, in Cambridge on a warm spring day, I saw this street performer on the way to the venue. My own serendipity. I can't pass a street performer now without giving him or her some money. Feste would never forgive me.

I'm hoping that serendipity is still working for me. On the day I was thinking about writing this blog, I went to the library and on the notice board there, I saw a flyer for something that was a clear message about the book that I plan to write next. I'm not going to say what it is, because that would be tempting fate.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

How does your mind work? Lynne Garner

I’ve always assumed everyone sees the world as I do. They see what I see, hear what I hear and then ask themselves questions. I was amazed to discover recently not everyone does.

Now a week or so ago whilst sitting in the sun outside a local family friendly pub with friends, I watched as kids played, dogs panted in the shade and people generally enjoyed each other’s company. As I watched the scene the words of Rudyard Kipling popped into my head:
“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who”

(From his "Just So Stories" (1902) accompanying the tale of "The Elephant's Child")
The Five W’s (also known as the five W’s and one H) is a formula for creating the ‘full’ story. Used as a checklist it ensures you ask all the right questions:
  • What took place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • When did it occur?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Who was involved?
  • How was it resolved?
Now as I watched an old man share his crisps with an even older canine friend I began to ask myself these questions.

Who was involved?
Our old man and his canine friend.
Where did it happen and what took place?
A house fire.
Why did it happen?
Faulty electrics.
When did it occur?
Just days before in the early hours of the morning.
How was it resolved?
The dog woke the old man from his sleep and led him through the smoke to safety.

I also added a second how, how did they meet?
The old man had found a puppy at the side of the road years before and it had obviously been 'clipped' by a car. Taking pity on it he took it home, cared for it and they've been inseparable since.
I was then rudely pulled back to reality by a sharp elbow in the ribs. “You see the world differently don’t you,” said a friend smiling, “your brain is wired differently. You ask yourself questions and then make up the answers.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” I asked.
“Really?” I asked, admittedly a little surprised everyone doesn’t ask themselves questions and create new worlds for themselves.
“We see stuff then shrug it off. I can see you mind ticking, storing things for one of your stories,” was the reply.
“How do you not ask questions?” I asked, “don’t they just pop into your head?”
“Then how does your mind work?” I asked.
“Not like yours,” came the reply followed but a broad smile, “but then I’m not a writer, am I?”
I hate to admit it, but my friend’s right. If I didn’t ask questions I wouldn’t have little mice dealing with issues of friendship (A Book For Bramble) and the pains of growing up (The Best Jumper) running around in my subconscious. I wouldn’t have trolls dealing with up-set stomachs (Dog Did It – due March 2011) or sleep issues (a title I’m working on at the moment). If I didn’t ask questions and come up with my own solutions I wouldn’t be a writer.
Now if you’ve reached this far and want to write but are now thinking ‘questions don’t pop into my head. I’ll never be a writer.’ Thankfully this is one of the few elements of writing you can learn. Simply write down Mr Kipling’s words on several sticky-notes and place them in prominent positions, so you see them every day. Write them on the first page of a small note book and take it with you where ever you go. You’ll soon train your brain to ask those questions. Once you have you’ll surprise yourself with the new worlds and characters you create, the problems you set and the ingenious ways you resolve them.

And finally my musings on that sunny day featuring the old man and his dog will be used, they'll slot nicely into a story that's rattling around in my head. Hopefully they'll give a little more depth to the relationship between two of the three main characters an old man and his faithful canine friend.

So go on ask yourself some questions, you never know where they'll lead you.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Event: Edinburgh International Book Fair 2010

Members of the Scattered Authors Society are performing at Edinburgh this coming week. Do come along if you can, or forward this to friends in the north …

On Saturday 21st August,
1pm, Mary Hoffman will talking about the latest volume in her best-selling Stravaganza series – City of Ships

2pm, Nicola Morgan will be explaining how to make publishers say ‘yes’.

7pm, Michelle Lovric will present her novel The Book of Human Skin and be discussing ways to write about Venice with Katie Hickman.

And on Friday 27th August, Gillian Philip will be launching her new novel, Firebrand.

Details of tickets and venues can be found on the Festival website

Call Me Irresponsible: Gillian Philip

I'm going to apologise in advance because this will be short, and much of it is based on this post from Pete Hautman, which is an incredibly interesting account of another author being 'uninvited' from a teen literary festival, and how Pete Hautman himself withdrew in solidarity. It isn't just the post that's interesting but the comment thread (I love it when a comment thread is smart and fascinating instead of just abusive).

The reason this is rushed and half-stolen (bear with me while I explain my tortuous train of thought) is because I've just arrived at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which is just as fabulous as always. Anyway, my new book FIREBRAND was published just in time to be on the shelves, and will be launched here at an event on the 27th, so I took the chance to vandalise some copies with a signature or ten. As I was doing this, along came a curious 9-year-old, who wanted to know if she could read the book. And since I won't let my own 9-year-olds read it, I said I didn't think that was a good idea. (Which wasn't that virtuous, actually. I sold one to her older brother and said she could read his copy in a few years.) But the point is that my (many would say underdeveloped) sense of responsibility did actually overcome my commercial instincts. I think all YA/teen authors would say the same. Wouldn't we?

This brings me back to Pete Hautman's post. I was uninvited once. I'd been asked to speak to primary pupils - just about the business of writing, and what was involved in doing it for a living, and how I went about it. I'd already explained that my work wasn't suitable for younger children, and they'd understood that, and agreed I'd simply talk about being a writer, and the invitation stood. But then they panicked. What would the parents say if they googled me? So the invitation was withdrawn at the last minute.

I'm still not sure how I feel about that, and I'd love to know what anyone else's perspective would be. I sympathise with the nervousness about a pack of angry parents; but I can't help feeling they were confusing me and the writing profession with my characters and storylines. Are we simply not trusted if we address certain issues in our work? Should organisers capitulate to a vocal minority (or even the prospect of them?)

Answers on a postcard, or possibly the comment box. And now I had better get this posted...

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Naked Emperor - Karen Ball

Following on from Nicola's fascinating post yesterday, I thought I'd take a snapshot of publishing as it is right at this moment, for a typical book buyer - me! The above photo reveals three purchases that reflect what my money is being spent on, why, and what this means for our future as authors.

The hardback reference book
I read about 'Merchants of Culture' by John B Thompson online. In a blog or on Twitter, I can't remember now. I ordered it from Amazon UK - and then waited four weeks for it to be delivered. (I think it's a US edition that probably needed to be ordered in.) Wow, this book is fascinating. As soon as I tore open the box, I had to start reading. As my computer's desktop sluggishly opened, during my lunch hour, on the tube home. It's an assessment of the publishing business in the 21st century. Undoubtedly, it became out of date the moment it hit the printing press but it is the first study of its kind in 30 years and oh-so-timely. It's frank, comprehensive, well-researched, with lots of interviews with people who know - and it pulls no punches. Want to know about the rise of the literary agent or why your mid-list books aren't marketed properly or what the digital revolution means for the author in the street? Then buy this book. It's not cheap - I paid £15 - but it's brutally honest. Can your author ego take the straight-talking of 'the jackal' - America's notorious literary agent, Andrew Wylie? Here's his assessment of the writers he first encountered, putting their faith in old-school literary agents who fitted snugly in the pockets of publishers: 'the writers, were uneducated, uninformed, sentimental, self-interested fools, children.' Ouch. I think I may actually have winced at that point. But there's a lot of solid opinion and information alongside the occasional insult (!) and if you want a book that's going to tell you how it is right now and what you need to wake up to, buy this. I can't stop thinking about it.

The first edition
So, the book is dead and long live the app. Right? Well, maybe not. Some of my money recently has gone towards this gift, a first edition copy of a friend's favourite book. (I've blocked out the title to avoid spoiling surprises, in case he/she is reading this blog!) This book wasn't cheap, but it was a no-brainer as the perfect item. If we're all so fed up with books, then why are charity shops and online secondhand book traders flourishing with their sales? I think this item is a wonderful balance to my final purchase...

The app
I'm going to Paris next month, so I've downloaded the Lonely Planet Paris app. It won't be as heavy as carrying a guide book around in my tourist bag, and there'll be lots of extra features that I wouldn't enjoy via the printed page. All for £3.95 and perfect for my needs when I'm pounding the streets of a foreign city. What's to complain about?

What do these purchases tell us? I like to think that they're a fair reflection of how publishing is and will continue to be. Books flourishing alongside exciting new apps, expensive reference books still being purchased, first editions being cherished. There's room for everything. But as authors, we need to look at ourselves afresh in this brave new world. Things are changing. They've changed even since this time last year when I remember some people saying to me, 'What recession?' Now, they're saying, 'Ooh, publishers are being cautious, aren't they? And what's all this about electronic royalties?' We really need to be on our toes. Nicola Morgan has been one of the first British children's authors with a strong online presence to dare cry, 'But the emperor has no clothes!' Our authorial wardrobe has been depleted. Contracts suspended or terminated, perfectly good manuscripts rejected, names removed from party guest lists (I'm not bitter), advances reduced. All this has been stripped away and replaced with... That's the problem. Nobody knows what. Publishers are reticent and cautious and scared. They don't know what's going to happen next and they're waiting for someone else to make the first move into the future. Someone will make it - someone brave. As authors, we don't want to be left behind. My own policy is to stay connected, stay informed, keep watching, keep writing - have an opinion when it matters.

And in the meantime? Going naked can be a bit chilly, I'll admit. But it can also be exhilerating. Skinny dip, anyone? There's a big, inviting pool just waiting for someone to break the surface.

For a fascinating article on Andrew Wylie and the electronic rights debate, click here.

You can visit my website at www.karen-ball.com.

Monday, 16 August 2010

ART OR COMMERCE - Nicola Morgan

I have been having interesting conversations recently on the subject of writing more commercially. By which I mean writing with an intention to sell more books. There's been a revealing discussion in the comments of a blog post I wrote on my own blog, titled, SELLING OUT? In the post, I'd used the phrase, "Selling out? I call it selling."

Seems to me that we've got ourselves caught in a quite unnecessary, contradictory and damaging mindset. It goes like this: a writer's success is most often measured in volume of sales. (In the eyes of publishers and the public, if not by us.) Yet, at the same time, many people sneer at the idea of writing "more commercially" in order to attract more readers - ie more sales.We know that harder books will be read by fewer people, but we need to be read by more people in order to survive as writers. Yet we think that "harder" books are somehow "better".

Writers and other artists have always had to have an eye to what would sell. We don't produce art in a vacuum - or, at least, I would rather not. I write so people will read me. It would be pointless (for me) if no one did, and pretty pointless if only a very few did. Call me a mercenary - please - but what is wrong with us wanting more people to read our work? In my ideal world, lots of readers would choose to spend their time and money reading whatever I wrote; but it's not an ideal world so I have to think carefully about who my readers are, what they might enjoy enough to pay for, and how many readers I would like to have.

This week I spoke at an event in Glasgow for writers - Weegie Wednesday - and I talked about how all authors must decide what we want from our writing, whether we are in it for art or in it to making a living, and the possible and varied compromises we might need to make in either case. I gave a strident "take control of your writing lives" message. I said that neither writing for art's sake nor writing to try to make a living were positions to be ashamed of, but that we had to be clear about which we wanted and how we can achieve it - even if we end up doing a bit of both. (Which is my ideal.) From conversations afterwards it was really obvious that the published writers are being much more realistic, down-to-earth and commercial-minded than the unpublished. There's a lesson there...

What does this mean for me at the moment? Well, on my agent's advice, but also believing myself that it's the right thing to do if we want to offer it as a highly commercial, saleable venture, I am taking a machete to something I wrote about 18 months ago. I'm stripping out all the bits I thought I liked, all the bits that I thought made it special. Anything that doesn't take the story forward, fast and furiously, goes. Whole chapters are zapped. Lyrical pauses go. Back-story disappears. The philosophy and reasoning are subsumed. The gaps are injected with action and pace.

And you know what? Without all those "good" bits, it's better. I like it! I like it almost as much as I did before but - and this is more important for me than it is for the unpublished writers I spoke to this week - I think readers will like it better. And maybe that's the difference between arty and commercial: with arty, the artist likes it more; with commercial, the reader likes it more.

Well, I'm in this to write for readers and I am not ashamed if perhaps I can now write for a few more of them. If that's one measure of success, bring it on.

As an aside, I want to ask the writers amongst you something: have you noticed a recent tendency amongst publishers to want stories to be faster-moving, with greater "page-turnability"? Do you think they're right or are they over-reacting to the shorter attention spans which we keep being told people have? And have you felt the need or desire to alter your writing to accommodate it? If you thought that writing in a different way would gain you more sales, would you do it?

Readers, what do you think about this suggestion? Even if you still love to linger over a book, do you accept that many (more?) people want something more page-turning?

I'd love to know your thoughts!

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Today I will mostly be visiting the Library: Penny Dolan.

The Carnegie library is about five minutes walk from where I live. It’s hard to spot because it’s been hidden inside an office block for the last two years. An A-sign outside on the pavement advertises the relocation firm on the second floor. The only way you can see it’s a library is when you get right up to the door and see the council logo etched on the glass. How many of the families busily watching their way across the pelican crossing to the Odeon on the other corner even know it’s there? Blockbuster v hidden doorway – which is winning? Sometimes official planning does not go quite far enough.

I will take the stairs to the second floor. One or two librarians are waiting just inside, They can show you how to swipe your library card in the mouth of one fo the three registration devices which are in tasteful dark blue, lightly illuminated. The librarians show you to place your returned books one at a time within the wide “book slot. This amazing machine will “read” book details without any need to open covers. If requested, it will print out a list for you. The staff will show you the slot where you can pay any fines and the shelf where you can place your returned books.

When leaving with your book hoard, the same people will help you back through the system, though books can no longer be stamped. “You can always write the date in yourself,” the librarians suggest, without visible irony. The librarians have obviously been told to smile a lot, which to me seems a bit like smiling as you show your executioner how to use the axe. I am a “trained customer” so do not need to be greeted, but I wonder if being “retrained” each time might keep one of them in a job.

Who will be there, using the library? The middle aged, the old and the older. Young parents with children. Students studying. People using the computers by the hour. Immigrants using the library services to help learn English. A scattering of folk just sitting about, reading, and probably more of those if it was our cold northern winter. A fairly low-key low-finance mix, all in all.

Young, dynamic people with trendy carrier bags and money to spend? Crisply preserved mature management? No, not really. Does this mean that the people who use the library aren’t those who count, who don’t register as “driving the economy”?

Dear Ed Vaizey, I have a confession. I am, in government policy terms, a rebel. I do not go there for Information. I do not even think of a library as Learning Resources. Though I use my library for random research, I also go for the pleasure and enjoyment of fiction. Today I will be returning “Ordinary Thunderstorms” a novel by William Boyd, and "The Tarot Bible" used for light research.

As I browse my way around, I will come to the display stands that ask me to fill in a form if I want to be a “Friend of the Library” and/or another form that asks if I want to be a “Library Volunteer”. I am offered the chance to raise funds, to help with events and so on, but their wording troubles me. Will either help our library long term, though just now both seem attractive ideas?

During my last visit, I lingered in the children’s section, where a pair of sixth formers were enthusiastically signing up children for the Summer Reading Scheme. I was glad they enjoyed their time, and was pleased to think how it would look good on their university application CV. I chose to ignore the fact that when volunteers don’t turn up, they cannot be held responsible for the gap, or wonder whether all volunteers are required – as schools so often require authors - to pay for and be CRB checked.

Readers, I sighed. I’ve done author events in past summers and know that most children’s librarians welcomed the summer as their big opportunity to meet children and families. The Reading Scheme helped them get to know children and encourage them to become regular users and therefore regular readers. Where are these constant librarians now?

I suspect that they- the ones not already removed by cuts - must be using their experience to sort stock or stand by the blue machines or otherwise administrate. What fun that must be! Must make their job feel so much more rewarding. I spy another form, It gives me options for future opening hours. Vote now!

In about a month's time, my walk to the library will take ten minute as it will have been returned to its original Carnegie Library site. This gloomy edifice will have become an impressively improved premises, and probably have staff dressed to match the colour scheme.

Even now, above the scaffolding, I can see a huge lantern window set high in the roof. This is intended to let light right down through the whole building.

If only it would send light into the minds of some of the big Big Society enthusiasts who are probably the kind of people who have designer carrier bags and money to spend. Hey, they probably have staff to do their essential reading and writing for them, these people who see no need to support libraries.

So, how are things in your local library?

Penny’s latest novel, A Boy Called Mouse, will be published by Bloomsbury at the start of October.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Curious Incidence of Felines in Paintings of the Virgin Mary – Michelle Lovric

The Da Vinci Code tugs the veil off ‘the sacred feminine’. According to Dan Brown’s novel, this cult was ruthlessly suppressed by sinister elements in the Catholic Church. Brown’s Code suggests that generations of acolytes continued to worship ‘underground’, transmitting their faith in the language of symbols.

So – what if the same thing happened to cats?
Worshipped and misunderstood to the point of persecution, the cat has suffered a similar fate to the Magdalene’s. Cats, like witches, were once even burned at the stake. (Of course, cats’ fortunes, like women’s, are currently on the rise.)

It’s a little-known but fascinating fact that Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, Murillo, Lorenzo Lotto, Giulio Romano and many others inserted a portrait of a cat into their depictions of the Virgin Mary.
Intrigued by da Vinci’s sketch of a Madonna cradling a baby and a cat in her arms, I began to look into the matter a couple of years ago. You know how it is with cat lovers: one cat leads to another, and another. In the end, my quest put me on the road, on a journey through the backwaters of northern Italy, to abandoned churches in remote towns such as Bagolino, Isola Dovarese and Esine, and to Siena, Perugia and Florence.

The more cats-and-Madonnas I saw, the greater my craving. I became bold and implacable. Flabbergasted priests were dragged from their lunch tables to unlock their churches. Engaged couples arriving for their blessing were made to wait while I entreated their priest: ‘Lei sarebbe così gentile da mostrarmi la Vostra Madonna con gatta, per cortesia!’ (‘Kindly show me your Madonna and Cat, please!’)
In the library and on the internet, I tracked down yet more pictures. Cats are to be found with Madonnas in Russia, in France, in Greece, in America and in eastern Europe. Annunciations with cats. Holy Families with Cats. Births of the Virgin with cats. Tabby cats. White cats. Grey cats. Sleeping cats. Running cats. Cats who stare out of the painting, as if narrating the story. In the church of San Giorgio at Montemerano there’s a Madonna della Gattaiola, a painting of the Virgin with a perforation said to serve as a cat-flap.
Had I uncovered a secret cult? If I had, then it’s still secret, for no one has yet established the link between all these pictures.
However, all this exciting research came to a sad end. I thought the book was going to be published by a big American house that loved the idea. I’d worked with them before and was delighted with their enthusiasm. Then suddenly all the material was returned with a regretful note.

Wires had been crossed. I’d seen it as a $25 book, lavishly illustrated, something to appeal to the art market, the gift book market, the cat market and even the Christmas market. But the publisher had seen it as a very small gift book. And a $9.98 price tag would never support the reproduction fees for 80 paintings from museums and churches around the world.

Or so they said.

As I filed the research in a wicker basket, and regretfully set to work on something more commercial, I did idly wonder if Opus Dei (or Dan Brown’s sinister version of them) might have had a hand in the suppression of a 'Da Vinci code' for cats.

There are no cats in the Bible, an omission that has allowed some Christians to brand them as evil. (Llamas and kangaroos aren’t mentioned either, but they haven’t been anathematized.)

Cats certainly disregard the part of the Bible where God gives Man dominion over all the animals. Cats obey none of the Ten Commandments. Cats are the familiars of women. Cats are feminine. Many people – many, many people – worship their cats.

It’s all adding up, isn’t it?

Of course Dan Brown’s Christian fundamentalists would want to suppress the Sacred Feline just as much as the Sacred Feminine.

Maybe even more ruthlessly?

Michelle Lovric’s website

Michelle Lovric will be discussing ways to write about Venice with Katie Hickman at the Edinburgh Festival on August 21st.

Picture: Virgin with cat (part of an Annunciation fresco) by Pietro da Cemmo (c.1474-1504) at the Church of Santa Maria at Esine, Italy.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Sydney Opera House - Josh Lacey

I read a story once about John Buchan. I can't remember where or when. If I could, I'd look it up and reprint it here rather than telling it in my own words.

Maybe someone knows where to find it and can point me in the right direction. If so, I'd be very grateful.

Anyway, the story went something like this.

John Buchan was planning to write a novel about Canada. He had never been there and wouldn't have a chance to go before starting work. Luckily, his son-in-law was Canadian and so Buchan decided to ask him for some help.

When they next met, Buchan asked his son-in-law for ten facts about Canada. The son-in-law came up with one fact, then another and a third - at which point Buchan stopped him.

Thank you very much, he said. Now I know enough about Canada to set a novel there.

I thought about this story when I wrote my most recent book, Grk Down Under, which is published this month.

This is the seventh Grk book. Each of them is set in a different country. I've visited most of the countries, but not Australia, and I knew I wouldn't have time to go there.

I thought about imitating Buchan: collaring an Australian and asking them for ten facts about their country. But I don't have his insouciance.

Instead, I read books about Australia. I watched movies. I talked to people who had been there. I imagined the trip that I would have made. And once all that research was almost forgotten, the images fading into the black depths of my memory, I could start writing.

Now, if people ask whether I've ever been to Australia, I hesitate for a moment before replying. Because I almost have. I've imagined myself there. I've stood on the steps of the Syndey Opera House and watched the audience arrive for that night's performance. I've flown over the endless empty miles of the outback and sheltered under the shade of a eucalyptus tree. And, as far as my memory is concerned, that's pretty much the same as actually having been there.



Wednesday, 11 August 2010

writing in august by Leslie Wilson

It feels strange, writing in august. Back when my kids were little, or even young, I usually abandoned the attempt and just became Mum for the period of the holidays when we weren't on holiday, as well as when we were. I used to start writing again in September, when we returned, the weather was cooler, and they were back at school.

Now August is when everyone else is away, my email box fills up only slowly, and the traffic in town is non-existent. It is easy to get parked in Waitrose - I don't need to go on a writer's retreat, the world has ebbed away from me. Unfortunately this year there are a lot of things that need doing to the house, and a major window-replacement-operation looms towards the end of the month - but I am still enjoying the sense of freedom. A holiday! I can get on with Writing my Stories.

In addition, I have the garden. August is harvest, beans, mangetouts, courgettes, onions, spinach beet, kohlrabi, tomatoes, chillies and aubergines. The figs and autumn-fruiting raspberries are coming on and ripe windfall apples are bumping off the Tydeman's Early Worcester tree. Soon I shall just be able to wander out and pick myself an apple when I want a snack while writing! We harvested the garlic in July and I can go and admire the 50-odd bulbs which will take us through the year. And there are the pumpkins.

They are magic, though I'm not sure if I can fulfil my daughter's request to reserve one as transport to her wedding next May. It might have got a bit wrinkly by then. I grow two kinds, one large, one small. The large one is illustrated above, this is the Enormous Pumpkin, the biggest of all, which must weigh close on five kilograms. It's a Crown Prince, and ripens to steel-grey, at present it is like the sea on a dull day, silver-green - I love it. The little ones are the apricot-coloured ones, they fit in the palm of your hand, they are called Jack Be Little, and would actually be perfect to take a miniature Cinderella to the ball in. They mature to a rich orange, and come ripe all the time, a lovely alternative to courgettes. But they keep too, and when I find unsuspected ones they won't have rotted. My pumpkins are like free-range hens, they ramble around and decide for themselves where to lay their massive or small eggs. Up to me to find them - I recently discovered a whopper smugly lying against the fence, shielded by leaves. Though shortly the leaves will have to come off, to assist the ripening process.

What has this got to do with writing? Well, it's odd, but it feeds into it. Of course the pumpkins also feed me in the literal way, but there's something about having them - they are planted in a raised bed just outside my study window, though (see above) they have sprawled away from it to actually fruit - the excitement of seeing them get huge, seeing the colours change, gloating over their size and weight - that helps me to write. So, the current answer to the question so frequently asked of writers: 'What do you do when you get stuck?' is: 'I go outside and inspect my pumpkins.' Later I shall inspect them stored in the house. Some people grow decorative gourds and don't eat them. I grow lovely pumpkins and then they get eaten. You opens your seed catalogue and you takes your choice.


Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Weapons of Mass Satisfaction Anne Cassidy

There’s a lot of talk about libraries being slimmed down/starved of money/cut back/turned into fast food joints. There’s also talk of independent bookshops closing and books being sold at rock bottom prices in supermarkets. Then there’s Waterstone’s who are struggling to find new ways to do business in this battlefield. And don’t mention Amazon, that distant bomber in the sky, ready to download all sorts.

It’s like we’re on the losing side of a war. Who’d have thought it? Us plucky Brits.

But there’s something out there that I believe could halt this dismal retreat and that is the onward march of the Book Group (enough of the extended metaphor re war – Ed).

Three years ago, for personal reasons, I went into my library to find out about a Book Group. I was told it was full up. Three months later I asked again and was told that it was still full up. I enquired, politely whether it might be a good idea to have TWO book groups and the librarian smiled and said that they would if they had someone to run it.

Reader, I volunteered.

I ran the book group for two and a half years. We had to turn people away. This meant there were two full book groups in the library. There could have been three.

What did it mean for me? It meant 90 minutes once a month. I read one book a month that I didn’t necessarily choose to read. I met up with a dozen people who were passionate about books. It meant a lot of talking and ‘buzz’ about reading. I coordinated it so I had to analyse the book and decide which aspects I wanted to raise. I had to deconstruct a text and see how it was put together. Wasn’t this the kind of thing I was doing all the time, for my own writing?

It was very little work for a huge amount of pleasure.

Who were the members of this Book Group? They were ordinary people (female), retired, Mums, In-between jobbers. They were not from the Book World but they were lovers of books. In these meetings we talked about a whole range of books, not just the one we were reading. We talked about book events and courses and writing and books in other mediums.

I think it is people like these who are the foot soldiers (oops, sorry) of this book war. They will win it for us with their uncomplicated love of stories and reading. They don’t read The Bookseller but they read books. Their constant use of libraries and bookshops will keep us all in business.

There should be many more of them. In libraries, book shops, community centres, workplaces, schools, colleges, hospitals, theatre foyers, art galleries. In other words, any place where people come together.

However not all libraries have even one book group. I think there is a role here for writers or people who love books. Here is a plan: read it carefully: it will self destruct in 30 seconds.

Go into your library/ independent book shop and find out if they have a book group.
• If they do not, offer to run one.
• If they do have one, offer to run a second group (at your convenience).

If we could increase the number of book groups and thereby increase the amount of interest in books it can only do us good while getting us new pals, new readers, new connections in our own areas. The people I met were hungry for new books to read. Every time I mentioned one they scribbled it down on a piece of paper. They knew I was a writer but after two and a half years they knew that I was a READER first.

The message is clear: READ for VICTORY.

Monday, 9 August 2010

The Importance Of Reading - Lucy Coats

We all know about the importance of reading. Our children's education depends on them being able to do it. Sales of our books would be nil without readers. Reading is key in so many more senses than just those two examples.  But for the purposes of this post, forget all that.  What I'd like you to think about is the importance of reading to a writer--and by that I mean the personal sort of reading for pleasure, not the research kind. 

We are all, at some time in our writing careers, asked to give advice to would-be writers (in my case usually kids). I don't think I would be exaggerating if I said that 99.9% of us would tell them to read.  In fact, that's pretty much what it says on my own website under FAQs...'Read. Read read read and read some more. Read widely—diaries, letters, biographies, novels, travel, non-fiction. Read everything you can lay your hands on.'  But, given the pressures of a time-poor modern life, do we take our own advice? I wonder how many of US read as much as we used to--and when we do read, whether we keep up with what's being published in our own industry.  This was brought home to me last year in particular, when I took part in several rounds of the annual Kids' Lit Quiz.  I realised that although I was pretty ok on children's and YA books of the past, there were great gaping holes in my more recent knowledge.  Of course I'd read the 'biggies'--Garth Nix, Pullman, Rowling etc--mostly because they were what my own kids liked.  But there was a lot I'd missed.  So I set myself a task earlier this year, because I knew I was going to be flat on my back for a couple of months.  I would catch up on YA novels in particular and try to fill in some of those gaps.  So I'm now up to speed with Louis Sachar and Patrick Ness and Skulduggery Pleasant and many more.  I've also read a lot of new stuff published this year, including some fabulous reads by other members of the Scattered Authors' Society. In the process I've learned that there are a great many good books out there and a lot of talent.  I've also had a huge amount of fun (though I've spent far and away above what I should have on the book budget). But I'm sure I've missed masses too.  So if any of you out there have any suggestions for a 'non-obvious' and amazing recent  book you think I absolutely HAVE to read, then please tell me in the comments below or tweet me at @lucycoats.  I'm on a reading roll!

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Emily's Surprising Voyage, and where ideas come from: Sue Purkiss

My new book came out this week. As you can see, it's called Emily's Surprising Voyage, and it's published by Walker Books. As you can also see, it's set on a ship. The ship is a real one, and you can go aboard it in Bristol - it's the ss Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (How could he not become famous, with a name like that?)

The Great Britain is a very special ship. She was the first to be made of iron, the first to operate by steam as well as sail, the first to have a screw propellor, and at the time she was built, she was the biggest and fastest ship in the world. Forty years ago this summer, she was brought home to Bristol from her resting place in a shallow bay in the Falklands, and since then she's been lovingly and beautifully restored.

My story is about two children, Emily and Tom, who travel on her when she's taking migrants to Australia in the mid nineteenth century, and about some of the adventures they have. Emily is from a family of mill owners, whereas Tom is from a family of mill workers. The ship is an important part of the story - almost another character - and James de la Rue has drawn beautiful illustrations which show the ship as it is and was, and the children just as I imagined them.

Last week I did an interview with David Clensie from the Bristol Evening Post - and it was only as we were talking that I realised that the ship was not the only source of ideas for the story. Another was Joseph Arkwright's cotton mill at Cromford in Derbyshire, which dates from the Industrial Revolution. A few years ago I visited it, and was struck by the accounts of the children who worked there, and how dangerous the work was. And there was another mill too. This was one I went to years ago, near Glasgow, when I was doing some copywriting for Patons. I remember the noise, the constant clatter of the looms, the tiny fibres glinting as they floated in the air, and the rainbow coloured hanks of wool.

I didn't consciously think of these experiences when I was writing the story, but they are part of it. So are the accounts of workhouses I've seen and read; so is a friend's pet rat. So is my father's passion for steam; so are the diaries of the passengers who travelled on the ship.

It's only a little story, and some of these things are merely hinted at, while others are much more significant. But it may serve as an example of the way writers draw on memories of which they themselves are only dimly aware. Yeats has a phrase that almost describes it (he has a phrase for almost anything!): in The Circus Animal's Desertion, he considers, as an old man, where he has found inspiration in the past, and where he must look for it now. He concludes that the only place left to find it is in 'the foul rag and bone shop of the heart'. I'd take issue with 'foul'; maybe he was feeling jaded, or maybe he just needed to make the line scan! But the rest's about right.

Friday, 6 August 2010

First Person Blues by Lynda Waterhouse

I woke up this morning with the First Person Blues. (It was two weeks ago when it actually happened). I opened a historical novel and read the first line and stopped. It was written in the first person. I stopped reading. I felt cheated.
Then I went back to the story I’m working on. Its current title is called ‘Magic Moments and the dull bits in between.’ It is a story set in a fancy dress shop in a northern seaside town with a cast of characters that includes an incognito movie star, drag queens, a new age dandy and a flashback to 1976. It was written in the first person.
I always begin writing in the first person. It is often the music of a character’s voice that inspires me to write. Now as I am overcome by the First Person Blues I start to rewrite. Everything changes. The vision of the story broadens. I allow myself a few sentences to linger over descriptions. I agonise over the tone of the mysterious authorial voice. The rhythm of the language changes. I literally feel on top of the story. An all seeing eye and not a hand held camera.
Does anyone else ever get an attack of the First Person Blues?

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Like a Rolling Stone - Joan Lennon

I'd never read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It's one of those books where you think you know the plot and the characters and everything, but you've never actually sat down with any of them. I'm pretty sure I've never even watched a movie version, being of a delicate persuasion as far as horror goes. (The hard-core aficionados among you are now snorting scornfully. "Call THAT horror?!" you cry. Sorry.) BUT I needed a book to fill a particular length of time before going away - I needed something to read that wasn't any of the pristine, unstarted books I was leaving with but something I wouldn't have to leave behind still only partway through. And so I chose "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde".

And before I'd finished the first chapter I came across the following speech by Mr Richard Enfield, "the well-known man about town". (No, I hadn't heard of him either, but I move in fairly modest circles.) He is talking about asking questions. He doesn't hold with doing that. Too dangerous, he thinks ...

"You start a question, and it's like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden and the family have to change their name."

And as I read I thought, "That sounds so familiar. That sounds just like my job. That sounds just like writing stories." It really is like that, at least sometimes, isn't it? That sense of avalanching ideas, unexpected heroes, realities lurching into existence and then it being UNTHINKABLE that they should ever not have been. Gravity is as nothing to a story on a roll. You can no more argue with it than you can argue with, say, a sullen teenager.

It does make me a bit nervous about gardening, though.

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Wednesday, 4 August 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French. Hodder and Stoughton hbk. £12.99

This is Tana French’s third novel. Her first two, In the Woods and The Likeness were both cracking good thrillers which kept you turning pages at a fair old lick all the way through to the end. They both suffered a bit, though, from what our family calls an ‘as if’. That’s to say: an element which somehow doesn’t ring true, isn’t plausible, makes you say, in short: As if that could happen! ‘As ifs’ don’t really spoil a thriller too much because quite often you’re carried along in the general excitement and your disbelief has to be suspended for quite a while.

Faithful Place is different. As I was reading it, I was struck by how very well-written it was. I kept thinking: if it wasn’t Tana French’s name on the front cover and if she weren’t so well-known as a crime writer, this book could stand alongside those of other Irish writers whose work is quite rightly praised as being evocative of a community and a time. It’s a bit like a Roddy Doyle novel with a crime at the centre of the story, I said to myself, though French is her own woman and nothing like Doyle in other ways.

The first person narrator, Frank, and his childhood sweetheart Rosie arranged to run away together to England when they were young teenagers. He went to their secret rendezvous. She never turned up. Frank was devastated and has not got over that day. He’s a policeman, he’s been married, had a child and is now separated from his wife. And all these years later, the house in Faithful Place where Frank and Rosie were going to meet is being demolished. Rosie’s suitcase is discovered. How did it get there? And where is Rosie and did Frank have anything to do with her disappearance?

Those are the the basic thrillerish questions but in getting to the answers you are given the lives and relationships of a close-knit family: brothers, sisters, mother, father. You become involved with their friends and neighbours. You are in the life of the street with its friendships and petty squabbles which can spill over so easily into full-scale hostilities which then get passed on through the generations. You’re in the houses and the pubs and the thoughts of a group of people who become completely real to you and whose fates therefore matter. Above all, you’re being told a love story of immense tenderness and beauty along the way. And you’re given a view of a part of Dublin that the author tells us once existed, though it doesn’t quite in the same way any longer. The solving of the crime is the least of it. I really loved this book. To my mind, it’s streets ahead not only of a lot of thrillers but also of a good many regular novels.

PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION by Theresa Breslin Doubleday hbk. £12.99

Theresa Breslin is an enormously versatile novelist. Whispers in the Graveyard won the Carnegie Medal in 1994 and a particular favourite of mine, Divided City, is about the religious divisions in Glasgow seen through the story of two boys, one of whom supports Celtic and the other, Rangers. During the last few years, though, she’s produced historical novels of a very high quality, like Remembrance, The Medici Seal and The Nostradamus Prophecy.

In this book, she turns her attention to the 15th century and Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella are on the throne; Christopher Columbus is sbout to embark on the explorations which will lead him to a New World and the fearsome Spanish Inquisition has its spies everywhere, and wields a great deal of power in the land. Monty Python has a lot to answer for. We snigger at “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” but in truth they were terrifying, with the power of life and death over many. Because of them, the menace of possible incarceration and torture darkened people’s lives.

The novel begins with someone being burned at the stake. By the end of the book, we’ve learned who that person is. Between those two points, Breslin unfolds a story of romance and danger, of love and betrayal, of Jew and Gentile and also of kings and queens and courtiers and slave ship owners and nuns and noble ladies and soldiers. Even Torquemada himself makes an enormously dramatic appearance. The book is written in short chapters in which we are told two stories. One strand of the narrative is about the beautiful Zarita and the other about the brave and resourceful Saulo. He’s the son of a beggar. She is rich but not all that she seems to be. Their fates are intertwined from the beginning and as we move through the book, the viewpoints alternate. It’s a fast-moving tale, but one that’s full of feeling and emotion. You care for both the hero and the heroine. The villains are truly villainous but Breslin never overdoes the bloodthirsty elements. There is violence...how could there not be?..but it’s not there for effect. It’s part of the times the writer is describing.

To set against the excesses of the Inquisition, there’s a lot here about the birth of modern navigation, the advances in science and having Christopher Columbus as a character in the story means that we know that at least one plot strand will end happily. How Breslin leads Zarita and Saulo through to their respective fates makes for a really exciting, fast-moving and very enjoyable novel.