Thursday, 30 September 2010

I know it's only September but

Winter is coming, and the author is getting fat. Yes, indeed, I have seen the signs – ‘Book your Christmas meal now!’ in pubs across the land. This is the time to stick on Radio 4 and some warm socks, draw the curtains, and make the house smell of delicious cooking.

These are my warm socks (I wear them as I type this). They are Authorial Socks. They were knitted for me by my best mate, and the stripes are the barcodes for my first two novels. If they were not made of wool, you could scan them and they would beep. No doubt Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and others have just such socks, which they wear as they write their masterpieces. If they do not, I pity them.

And this is what I suggest for the cooking: a mouth-watering pamphlet of recipes created by author Rosy Thornton, a 'virtual friend' of mine from the Writewords site. All the recipes are taken from her new book The Tapestry of Love, which is set in the Cevennes region of France. She’s giving this pamphlet away as a kind of amuse-bouche for the novel, so do feel free to download it here:

If you get a taste for the book, it can be got from Amazon or the usual places, but there might be a couple of weeks delay because the paperback is just about to be released.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Fiction or Faction - which do we value most? - Meg Harper

I’m writing a short biography of Elizabeth 1st for KS2 in story form – and I’m loving it. I’m panicking about the deadline looming but apart from that, I’m having a ball! I applied for the job, so to speak, because I’m vaguely interested in the Tudors. From time to time I don my Tudor togs and go off to Kentwell Hall in Suffolk to enjoy that merry jape called re-enactment. I generally arrive and have to ask my fellow lunatics, ‘What year is this? Who’s on the throne? What’s just happened?’ and then bluff my way through however many days it is of pretending I’m totally au fait with a period about which I know very little but which certainly intrigues me. These days I try to hang out in the Tudor kitchen where at least I know a little about Tudor cookery and it has the advantage of usually being warm. Gone are the days when I pretended I was the widow of a basket maker who had sadly met his demise under a cart, his brains all spilled in the mire, God rest him. (Basket makers were neither female nor as cack-handed as I and I had to have some excuse for my want of skill. On the bright side, I do now have two lop-sided quivers, one holding loo rolls and the other kitchen utensils, but any self-respecting Tudor basket maker would fall about laughing at the sight of them.)

Anyway, I digress. The other reason I applied was that I have a dear friend who is an Emeritus Professor of Tudor History and is the leading expert on Anne Boleyn – so he has a vast library and could direct me to the right books. He also has an incredibly low opinion of Philippa Gregory’s fiction and I am beginning to dread the day when he reads my feeble efforts! Although he says he doesn’t mind historical fiction he can’t stand it when writers suggest things that ‘couldn’t possibly have happened or been said.’ So no suggesting young Liz had a baby by Robert Dudley and had it adopted/suffocated/thrown on the fire or, God forbid, that she was actually a man! Well, I haven’t done any of that – but I’m still very nervous...
However, my point today is how much I’m enjoying the process. I’ll hardly make any money, I’m risking a huge telling off from my friend, I nearly had heart failure when I saw the book advertised on Amazon when I hadn’t actually started it and I’m certainly not going to win any prizes. But I am learning so much - far more than I’ve ever learnt from writing fiction (though I did have a jolly fun day out at Crufts doing research about Irish Wolfhounds once!). And I am really enjoying the process of fictionalizing facts and of deciding what to include and what to throw out. The same was all true when I was writing ‘Wha’ever – the teenager’s guide to spinal cord injury’.

Why, then, do I still have the drive to write complete fiction? I have discovered that I love writing both fiction and faction – I even quite enjoyed writing an activity book for teachers – but I have this inexplicable feeling that fiction is the big thing and everything else is somehow lesser (except perhaps poetry). I have no idea if this is born out in sales – obviously Harry Potter has swept the board – but lower down the league tables I’m wondering. Does David Starkey outsell Philippa Gregory or vice versa? How do popular non-fiction writers do? Richard Dawkins, for example or Richard Nelson Bolles (‘What colour is your parachute?’)

We see so few awards for non-fiction and faction. Is there really a hierarchy here in the public mind (as well as buried in mine) or am I imagining it? And if there is, why? I am having to be creative and imaginative as I write my little history book – the difference is that instead of providing story I have to provide knowledge. Is the one seen to be more valuable than the other?

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Horsehappy Values - Andrew Strong

My gap year was very conservative. I sat in a kitchen of my flat above a glaziers in Acton, west London, and read Ulysses. It was a rite of passage. While friends were driving across Nevada, paragliding over the Sahara, or tunnelling out of Broadmoor, I was turning the pages of Joyce’s voluminous book. Each morning, after my flatmates had eaten their breakfasts of last night’s cold kebab or yesterday’s brown rice, I pushed the pizza cartons and the foil containers of chop suey on to the floor, spread out the readers’ guides and set to work. It took me the best part of the twelve months.

A year later, when Pete appeared at door, lean, deep tanned, a far away look in his eyes, I was yelling “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Pete had been all the way around the world and returned to find me where he’d left me. The only part of me that had done any travelling was my eyes.

When I mention to friends that I want to write the Ulysses of children’s novels they look at me as if I’ve just asked them to fire a nail gun into my knee. “What would you want to do that for?”

I used to feel slightly ashamed and embarrassed that I love James Joyce. Finnegans Wake may be the most difficult novel of all time, but its mad ambition thrills me. So now it's time to come clean.

My day job is a headteacher. I spend my weekdays surrounded by young people. I have two teenage children and they regularly fill the house with their tall, grinning friends. They are all super smart, witty, much, much brighter than I was at that age. They simultaneously play computer games, watch TV, write music, design crazy stunts to film and put up on YouTube. They are texting and listening to iPods, having six different conversations. Watch them, shoved together in the same room. They are not just capable of multitasking, but of multi-dimensional multi-tasking. They seem to live permanently on several levels. Their language is a melt of references, of quips and quotes, facts and nonsense from The Simpsons, South Park, QI, and stuff they randomly bite off the internet and from each others’ Facebook pages. Their chatter skims across media, and across decades. They dabble in accents, and throw chunks of Welsh, French or Spanish into their chatter. Yes, it sounds like the incomprehensible noise of Finnegans Wake. It’s clever, funny, and somehow has its own inner logic.

They are, therefore, in a much better position to understand a book as something other than a vehicle for the third person, past tense narrative.

Indeed, the traditional form is something that must seem not just quaint to them, but archaic. In a recent Guardian article a certain Mr Philip Pullman makes a silly fuss about the present tense, suggesting writers should further exploit the richness of the past tense, and so on. A few pages before Mr Pullman’s piece, Tom McCarthy is interviewed about his novel C. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it is written in the present tense. Compared to Pullman's dusty lecture, McCarthy sounds thrilled and excited by the possibilities of fiction.

McCarthy clearly wants to reaffirm the case for modernist literature, for something more than the traditional ‘sentimental humanism’ as he puts it. If the vast majority of the adult population doesn't have a taste for experimental fiction, perhaps it is this generation of young people that are the first to be ready for novels that play with notions of voices, persons, perspectives and tenses, of stories that are a tangle of parody, pastiche and genre shifting.

And when e-readers really take off, there will be an infinity of dimensions to explore.

The book is dead. Long live the book.

Monday, 27 September 2010

In Praise of A Good Book - Elen Caldecott

It is early on Sunday evening. I know I have to write this post, but this afternoon I bought a copy of Charlie Higson's The Dead and I just can't stop reading. I am over halfway through and I know I will finish it tonight. I am sure you all know exactly what it is like; I've been telling myself 'just one more chapter' for at least an hour. The book has sucked me in and everything else - eating, walking the dog, blog posts - is an annoying duty.

This is because I love to read. But more especially, I love to read children's books. I had thought that this was normal. However, recently I met a successful children's author who told me that she practically never reads children's books. I was pretty astonished, but the conversation was cut short and I wasn't able to thrust books into her hands while imploring 'read this, and this, and you have to read this.'

Aspiring children's writers are often told that they must read widely in the genre. The purpose of this is to give them an understanding of the marketplace. It's great advice, but it isn't why I read children's books. I read them for three main reasons: entertainment, support and inspiration.

Children's books are entertaining because their authors can go on elaborate flights of fancy (yesterday I read Mortal Engines) but they have to do so within a tight word count. This means that each word has to be chosen with the kind of precision that would make a haiku writer look sloppy. It is this breadth of vision coupled with the constraints of form that makes children's literature so vibrant, in my opinion.

I also read children's books because they are written by my colleagues: people I meet online, at events, at conferences and festivals. Like any other professional who takes their work seriously, I want to know who's doing what in my field. Not because they are competition, but because I love my work.

Finally, other children's writers are an inspiration to me. When I read their work and see what's possible, I feel a real burst of enthusiasm. Of course, there are also the moments of doubt where I think 'I can never write anything as good as this', but it gives me the impetus to at least try. To me, reading a Carnegie Medal winner is like a painter going to the BP Portrait Awards, or a musician listening to Mercury Prizewinners. It sets the benchmark and encourages them to aim higher with their own work.

This is, of course, a roundabout way for me to say that I can't write a blog post, I've got a brilliant book to get back to.
Elen's Facebook Page

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Dangerous Books for Boys? Celia Rees

'Gove's new curriculum: Dangerous Book for Boys', so read a headline on the front of The Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago. Nice sound bite, but the underlying sexism of the Secretary of Education's remark made me shudder. I leaf on through the paper to find a fresh faced young man in shorts - Gareth Malone - who has a new TV series designed to get boys to read. No mention of getting girls to read, but a quick perusal of the article shows that won't be necessary because girls like nothing more than to be sitting down reading a book, while boys are 'restless and won't want to sit down as much as girls,' according to Professor Stephen Scott of King's College, London. Now, I'm all for schemes for getting children to read, and read more, but was struck by the irony that Michael Rosen, when he was Children's Laureate, also had a series on BBC 4, called Just Read, where he transformed the reading culture of a school in Cardiff and sparked the Just Read Campaign, but it would never have occurred to Michael to work with just the boys. For him, it was, and is, supremely important for ALL children to read, regardless of gender.

I find this renewed emphasis on gender alarming. It seems to be a reaction to a perceived gap in attainment. Boys are falling behind and this is a reason for a full blown moral panic. No-one thinks to congratulate girls for their levels of attainment, for actually gaining parity and pulling ahead for the first time in history. The thinking seems to be, girls are OK because they like sitting down and learning stuff, but boys have to be taught differently because they are restless creatures who can't sit down, etc. etc. - was this true of Michel Gove himself, one wonders? Or of David Cameron and George Osborne and the rest of their cohort at Eton? Or the Miliband brothers at Haverstock Comprehensive School? Hmm, probably not. I bet they were all busy learning their lessons and sitting still as still.

The thing is, I don't like genderisation. Never have. I don't like it in education and I don't like it in books. I don't like the classification of books into girls' books and boys' books. It seems to me to be every bit as pernicious as age ranging. It also means I get classified as a writer, which I don't like, either. Over the last few years, I've noted a marked increase in questions like: 'Why do you always write books for girls?' The answer is: I don't. Even if the main character is a girl, it doesn't mean that the book is specifically for girls. I write for everyone, anyone. I don't discriminate along the lines of age or gender. I'm like Philip Pullman's storyteller in the market place. There for whoever wants to stop and listen. The riposte is often: 'Why do you have girls on the cover, then?' Again, why not? 'Because boys won't read it, stupid!' Really? There's a girl on the cover of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and sales figures would suggest that men are reading that book.
I've got news - from the same newspaper. Men and women are not wired differently. Their brains are the same. All these supposed 'differences' are created by social conditioning and environment. There is no Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus divide. So no more girls are from Planet Pink, Boys from Planet Zarg. Genderisation in literature coarsens the appetite while restricting the fare on offer. Maybe it's time for Children's Books to ditch genderisation and grow up.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

It Smells of Books: Lynne Garner

Recently I watched an episode of New Tricks ( entitled ‘It Smells of Books.’ As the story unfolds one of the main characters Brain (played by Alun Armstrong) finds his ‘spiritual home’ in the London Library. As I watch there is a mutter from the other end of the sofa. ‘That’s you that is.” I smiled because that mutter from the other end of the sofa was right. Yes, I admit it I like the smell of old books, I like the feel of an old book, I like the way the pages turn. One of my small pleasures in life is going into a second hand book or antique shop and getting my ‘fix’ of old books. I make no secret of it and luckily those around me indulge this obsession.
Having shared my not-so-secret secret with the world I also admit I understand the written word has to evolve in order to find a new audience. Recently myself and the mutterer from the other end of the sofa set up our own publishing company (Mad Moment Media Ltd - Our first six narrated picture story books (a further six should be up by the end of the month) are available as apps (applications) which can be read on the iPhone, iPad and iPod. We also plan to release these titles as Kindle editions, so they can be read on the Kindle, Mac, PC and Android phones. I’ll admit creating electronic books (apparently known as mooks, makes you shudder doesn’t it) did go against the grain a little. However as the episode of New Tricks highlighted our universities are ridding themselves of ‘old fashioned, out of touch, space wasting, uneconomical’ libraries. (Not my point of view I hasten to add and not a subject I’m brave enough to debate here).
Well why did we decide to produce electronic books? Several reasons:
  • Our research showed that unless you are one of the big publishing houses getting into book and super market shops is stacked very much against a small independent.
  • The initial cost of printing, shipping etc in large quantities to make it a viable business was outside our limited budget.
  • We don’t have the space to store thousands of books or the infrastructure to distribute nationally let along internationally.
  • We wanted to reach a worldwide audience which can only be achieved by attending trade shows, working with sub-publishers etc. etc. Again something we were unable to do.
  • Our profit margin once we’d given the huge discounts expected today by shops would have been almost non-existent.
The benefits of going digital for us:
  • Many of the big publishing houses have yet to discover and take advantage of this new media, so competition at the moment is limited, although this is changing.
  • Although we had the initial costs for the development of our apps this was tiny compared to the cost of printing, shipping etc. of a traditional book.
  • Via iTunes we can reach a truly worldwide audience without even leaving the office.
  • Space is not an issue as all of our books are stored digitally.
  • Although we have to pay a commission to iTunes for selling our apps and Amazon when we start to sell Kindle editions we receive all of the profit.
  • We have been working on a procedure for the creation of these books and hope to offer the creation of apps to other authors and illustrators in the near future. This becoming a second income stream for us.
The benefits to our customers:
  • If a child loves a book then they soon become very ‘dog eared.’ The beauty of an electronic version is that as long as the files are up-dated regularly they will last, in perfect condition for a lifetime.
  • They are extremely portable and many, many books can be stored and taken with you in one small device.
  • Our stories are narrated, so a child can read along and hopefully start to recognise words and improve their reading skills.
  • The cost of these forms of books is less than their paper version cousins.
  • Children understand today's technology and find it exciting. So hopefully that excitement will become linked with the joy of reading if presented to them on one of these gadgets.
Now I fully appreciate some will be horrified by the words above and believe this will spell the end of the book. However I don’t believe this is the case. An electronic book doesn’t smell the same (although I have read they are trying to mimic the smell so reading devices can give off a little whiff should you feel the need). An electronic book doesn’t have the same feel an an old book and the feel of turning the pages has been lost. Also I see the delight on my nephews face when he pulls a book from the shelf, shuffles backwards into you so you can lift him onto your lap and then read the book with him. He is beginning to understand when you press keys on a computer exciting things happen and I’m sure as he gets older reading a book on a screen will become second nature. However humans have five senses and we are programmed to use them. So although digital books have their place and become part of the evolution of the book, they are unlikely to be able to satisfy our need to feel and smell a good book.

The Chicken of Time: Gillian Philip

It all started with Charlie Brooker. As someone who was frittering away much of his time on Facebook and Twitter (there are many of us - mea maxima culpa) he needed something to focus his attention on the paying job in hand. If you haven't read it already, his article on the Pomodoro Technique (the solution he discovered) is almost painfully sharp and funny. As he put it, "I was trying to write a script in a small room with nothing but a laptop for company. Perfect conditions for quiet contemplation - but thanks to the accompanying net connection, I may as well have been sharing the space with a 200-piece marching band."
Ouch. The article, Google Instant is Trying to Kill Me, was all over the writery part of Facebook in the time it takes to get up for another cup of coffee and idly check Twitter.
I already know people who are trying it out, and swearing by it. Kathryn Evans, fellow children's writer, has not vanished from the online world - not at all - in fact, she's posting just as often. But she's only visiting the gossipy virtual water cooler every twenty-five minutes, when her chicken timer tells her she may. For five minutes. And then it clucks again.
She's getting a lot of work done.
I don't think Twitter and Facebook are a waste of time. They're sanity-saving, they're mines of research and news and ideas, they're wonderful places to meet and talk about work, and they're places where I've met some of my very best friends.
None of which stops them being vampires of work-time. I'm going out today. I may be some time, but I'll have more of it when I get back. I'm going to hunt for my very own chicken.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Beach Hut Inspiration

Writing in Mablethorpe

Yes, that's a photo of me, taken this morning. Writing my latest manuscript on a netbook by our hired beach hut in Mablethorpe. My family and I have come back for a few days to revisit the seaside resort where we spent several happy summers in the 70s. It's lovely and sunny, the resort is well cared for, and I am able to stop by the shop where my sister bought her cricket bat over 20-odd years ago and it is still there, looking exactly the same. (The shop, not the cricket bat.) I know the shop still looks the same because I remember it vividly. How lucky are we, forced by profession to endlessly cast our minds back to our own childhoods? Now I'm getting to see it all again in bricks and mortar (and sand and sweets and fish and chips!).

I know I've said it before, but I love the flexibility of being a writer. I love the fact that I was able to write on the train over here, that I can enjoy the ludicrous pleasure of writing in a beach hut (take that garden sheds!) and that I am able to sit on a bench - the only place I can pick up my wifi connection - to compose this post, schedule it for publication tomorrow (Wednesday) and hope to goodness that technology doesn't let me down.

I have worked very hard in the sunshine today. It probably doesn't meet a single health and safety regulation and I don't particularly care. It's getting a bit chilly now, so I'm going to leave this bench and duck back into the hut to crack open that bottle of wine. I wouldn't be allowed to do that in an office.

Did I mention I love writing?

What do you like best about this mad profession of ours? I highly recommend beach huts for inspiration!

Please visit my website at

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

How Has Reading Changed? by Nicola Morgan

Everything we do changes our brains. So, if there's something we are doing differently now, compared with how we did it previously, our brains will be changing or have changed to reflect that. If readers' brains are changing and if reading behaviours are changing, surely this will matter for writers?

Reading behaviours have changed over the last twenty or thirty years, at least in parts of the world where the digital age has arrived. Almost all of us read a great deal on-screen, and we spend a certain amount of our day reading material on websites. New research at the University of California, San Diego suggests that the average person today consumes nearly three times as much info as in 1960. According to The New York Times recently, "the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour."

We quickly become better at scanning headlines to decide what we want, and we skip and flit about, gathering snippets of info and processing it very quickly. Our brains change to reflect new skills. Gary Small's fascinating book, iBrain, is based partly on research on a group of people who had never used the internet before, alongside a control group. The study suggested - and this is backed up by other research into time taken to rewire neural connections - that after only five hours' practice, the brain of an internet beginner has changed, measurably, to reflect new skills and experience. And more practice or use produces more change, apparently.

(For more on the science of this, I recommend iBrain, and The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr.) But for now I want to talk anecdote, not science. I want to ask you if your experience matches mine.

Maybe five years ago, I was about to start writing The Highwayman's Footsteps. I wanted it  to be "rip-roaring adventure", thrilling historical drama, just like one of my favourite books as a teenager, The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. I remembered that The Black Tulip had lots of gore and high tension and a very fast-paced story.

So, I took it from my shelf to re-read it, for the first time since I'd been a teenager. Well, I wasn't wrong about the gore. (Who says modern YA fiction is shocking? Blimey!) High tension? Well, maybe, but you had to read a LOT of words first and unpick reams of long paragraphs and complex sentences. It's turgid prose, with masses of subordinate clauses. The opening paragraph consists of a single sentence of 148 words.

Reader, I couldn't read it. Seriously.

So, what has happened in the intervening years? How did I turn from a teenager who could lap that up to an adult who couldn't keep her eyes on the page? But forget me - what about you? I'm guessing I'm not the only reader whose reading habits have changed. And it can't be to do with age, because surely a teenager would have if anything a greater need for pace than a middle-aged person? Are we just too busy nowadays to read slowly? Have we been subconsciously demanding faster books / simpler sentences over the last thirty years, so that now page-turnability is compulsory, whereas before (?) it wasn't? Has our definition of page-turnability changed?

If our reading habits, needs and tastes have changed, science tells us our brains have, too. There's nothing much we can do about this, although each of us in theory controls the mouse on our own computers. Besides, I'm not even saying that in terms of reading habits this is a bad change. (In terms of the arguments that people like Gary Small and many others are introducing regarding empathy and wisdom, that's a different matter.)

I'm just interested:
  • Do you find it harder to concentrate on longer, denser texts than you used to?
  • Have you had any Black Tulip examples, where you've tried reading something you once loved and then wondered what on earth has happened to your brain in the meantime?
  • What might it mean for us as writers? Publishers say people want shorter, snappier reading material - are they right? 
  • Do you think it matters?  Are you worried about any of this?
Answers in a comment. Oh, and keep it snappy - no one will read it otherwise.

Right, I'm off. Things to do, people to meet, tweets to tweet, info to process, websites to scan...

Monday, 20 September 2010

Pictures on a Page: Penny Dolan

Encircled by light, a boy flies above the stage, mesmerising the audience. Who is he and how did he get there? The boy, I know very soon, is called Mouse. That aspect of my young hero appeared in my head some time after seeing flyers swooping on wires at the theatre. The image was bright and clear at the centre, but fuzzier around the edges.

So I nursed the picture, gently asking questions. “What exactly is happening here? Why? Where? Who are you, Mouse? How do you feel, way up there? Who do you know? And who knows you?” Gradually the picture grew. Mouse was a boy who was not much afraid of heights.

Other images hidden in my mind woke, stretched themselves and grew into other scenes in the story sequence.

Bulloughby’s crumbling school, far beyond sight of any other building. Nick Tick’s clockmakers shop. The canvas walls of Charlie Punchman’s puppet booth. The glorious golden auditorium of Hugo Adnam’s Albion Theatre, and more, all snipped from somewhere in my memory then reshaped and stitched into Mouse’s tale.

These were like the big beads on my story thread. Between them I needed the small but essential beads, and often I had to re-arrange the order or polishing dulled ideas until the pattern was as good as it could get.

I would love to plan, but my writing process is always visual. I have to wait for the picture. Does this habit come from bored hours staring at the narrative art hanging on classroom walls? Certainly, that Naughty Wet Lady Ophelia stuck in my mind more vividly than the meek, haloed virgins.

The best narrative paintings, story-wise, were seeped with possibility, with “what might be”. I once heard Quentin Blake, whose drawings are so beautifully alive, say that he tries to illustrate the moment just before the action happens. As a writer and story-maker, I’m greedy to make that moment, and to fill in the gaps between too. I want my words to make pictures in other people’s minds.

So where do your stories begin?

A BOY CALLED MOUSE is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 4th October.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Comfort from Strangers - Michelle Lovric

For someone who’s not paid to be there, I’ve spent a lot of time at St Thomas’ Hospital A & E this year. There’s a seat in the corridor outside Majors that – in my daydreams – will one day bear a small, discreet plaque:

The Mourning Emporium

From that seat, you watch the meat wagons arriving full of bloodied drunks, pensioners disoriented after falls, people on bad drug trips. If you’ve read me, you’ll know I’m not squeamish. But at times even I’ve needed to turn away from what was being wheeled down that corridor outside Majors. I’ve also winced at the shrieked claims of inebriated girls about what they took or what they definitely didn’t do with whom. Some of them, sad to say, are young enough to read my children’s books. I’ve shrunk away from the huddles of defensive friends, hustling the fumes of their night’s drinking through the disinfected air. Almost worse is the occasional querulous posh person who turns up with a finger-tip lopped off in a gin-and-gardening incident. They bray their needs imperiously, oblivious to the exhaustion of the staff or the less socially entitled who might be ahead of them in the queue.

On each occasion (apart from the time my eye was swelled closed), my only shield against all this misery has been a manuscript. I’ve been able to tuck myself inside my story, close the trap-door, turn out the cruel hospital lights and light a private candle. I’ve been able to unhear the yelling and the moaning, unsee the blood, to fade far away and quite forget the ugliness and pain.

Instead, I’ve embarked on a floating orphanage in Venice and sailed her through ice floes to London, where I’ve encountered poor children who sleep in the coffins of a funeral parlour, lovingly tended by a Fagin-like English bulldog. I’ve staged verbal battles between wan London mermaids and their feisty Venetian counterparts. I’ve launched a murderous campaign by a pretender to the British throne. I’ve buried Queen Victoria. And nearly buried King Edward VII, somewhat prematurely.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that The Mourning Emporium, part-written in St Thomas’ A & E, also has a distinctly medicinal flavour. I’ve cured London of the dreadful Half-dead Disease (having first inflicted it on her). I’ve let my London mermaids become addicted to patent feminine nostrums such as ‘Charles Forde’s Bile Beans for Biliousness’ or ‘Dr Blaud’s Capsules’, which, according to the manufacturer, produced ‘pure, rich blood without any disagreeable effects and are recommended by the medical faculty as the best remedy for bloodlessness’.

It’s not just mermaids. I’ve given one major character haemophilia. One of the children has ‘phossy jaw’, from working in a match factory. Another has a wasting cough – that could surely profit from 'Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic', as illustrated. The rodents of London’s sewers are terrified of a patent verminicide called ‘Rough on Rats’. In fact, I can’t think of a single character who gets through The Mourning Emporium without feeling a little unwell at some point.

Might I have all written those medical pages anyway, seated in the full bloom of health at my desk at home? Perhaps. But I would taken longer, been easily distracted, and succumbed to the blandishments of the cat or the email.

At St Thomas’, however, I was driven into the manuscript, and it welcomed me with all the exclusive, excluding cosiness of a private club. A manuscript is a not just a sanctuary; it’s a portable padded cell with all mod cons.

I, for one, would never get in an ambulance without one.


The Mourning Emporium, the sequel to The Undrowned Child, is published on October 28th.
Michelle Lovric’s website

Friday, 17 September 2010

Also Known As - Josh Lacey

Do you recognise these names?

Carlo Lorenzini
Theodore Geisel
Charles Dodgson
Georges Remi
Daniel Handler
Darren O'Shaughnessy

If not, I'm sure you recognise these ones:

Carlo Collodi
Dr Seuss
Lewis Carroll
Lemony Snicket
Darren Shan

They're the same people, of course. They wrote children's books under one name and went about their lives under another.

Writers have always used pseudonyms. Jack Higgins, John le Carre, Lee Child - many of the names that crop up constantly in the bestseller list aren't the names by which these writers are known to their families.

When I started writing for children, I decided to use a pseudonym too. It seemed sensible at the time, as most decisions do. I was working as a journalist and I'd just written a book for adults, so I thought it would be a good idea to keep my identities separate.

I've now changed my mind. I still write one series, the Grk books, under my assumed name, Joshua Doder, but I write everything else, for whatever audience, under my real name, Josh Lacey. But I can still see the advantages of using a pseudonym. With a name that isn't your own, you're free to be someone else.

One of my great whitely heroes is Daniel Defoe, who used various names for his books. His novels weren't actually published as novels at all; they were supposedly the autobiographies of Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack and other rakish adventurers. I envy the way that he could conceal his own identity so completely behind the voice of his narrator, hiding himself as entirely as the modern ghost-writers who give voice to pop stars and footballers, letting readers imagine that they're reading an honest autobiography.

If Defoe was writing today, would he be blogging and twittering and delivering regular self-revelatory snippets on his website?


More likely, he'd set up an online journal, the diary of a man wrecked on a desert island. Daily updates would describe how he hunts for food and builds himself a shelter. One afternoon, he's walking along the beach when he finds a footprint in the sand...

If you read, you'd think that you were privy to the private thoughts of a lonely sailor trapped on a tiny island. You'd never know that every word was actually written by a man sitting at his desk in his comfortable house in Stoke Newington, hiding behind the screen of a pseudonym, which allows him to be whoever he wants.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Facts and Fiction; by Leslie Wilson

The picture is of my grandfather in German police uniform in Cologne after the war. If you enlarge the image you'll see the little puncture marks where the Nazi-era medals have been removed.
I was commenting on extreme departures from historical fact in a kids’ book about the Holocaust, and somebody said to me: ‘Leslie. It’s fiction.’ I didn’t answer that, just thought about it. Because I have written two books about Nazi Germany myself, and getting it as right as possible really matters to me.

Before I go further, I have to say that I do view what I write as fiction, absolutely not works of history. Entertainment, even. I invent characters, and even if I wrote about people who actually existed, I’d still want to use my imagination to write scenes for which there is no documentary evidence. But – and this is very important to me – I like to know that the documentary evidence makes what I write probable and therefore feasible. So, when I wrote about a young girl who has a romantic relationship with a Jewish boy she’s hiding, I feel happier because I have read accounts by survivors who were hidden by their girlfriends. And I have on my shelves approximately 3m of books about Nazi Germany, ranging from the wonderful 4-volume Noakes and Pridham: Nazism, A Documentary Reader, to survivor stories in English and German; my mother’s memoir of her childhood in Nazi Germany; family letters, dvds of the bombing of Berlin, historical maps and timetables; and analytical books like Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand how people can commit atrocities.

Does this mean that I am hampered in my writing by so much research? No, I don’t think so. I use the books, sometimes to read myself into a sense of the period, sometimes because I need to check the facts. If I’m going to say that certain restrictions – like not being able to buy meat or new clothes – were inflicted on Berlin’s Jewish population at a particular date, I check it out in Noakes and Pridham. The fact-checking certainly makes me a slower writer. But I don’t, I hope, ever bludgeon my readers with chunks of information just to show that I’ve done my homework. The story is paramount, but it must be founded on something real.

In addition, one often finds things out that are better than anything one could make up, or which solve narrative problems. Like the escape hatches between cellars that were part of German air-raid precautions. I saw the construction of one on a German dvd of the bombing. That became part of a scene in Saving Rafael which I based on a story my mother told me, about being trapped beneath a blazing hotel in Berlin. Her story was far too good not to use, but her experience had been so traumatic that her memory had blanked some parts of the story out. I had to do quite a lot of reading – from a book I have called Berlin Im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Berlin in World War 2) and watching the dvd, to work out how she and the others could have escaped. Also, on the topic of bombing, I read a diarist of the period saying: ‘I’d never seen so many people weeping on the streets,’ which gave me the image of people walking through the blazing streets, dragging stuff they’d managed to save from their homes, crying. Why make that up, when the facts are so powerful?

But do I regard myself as better than people who aren’t so thorough in their research? No, that would be very arrogant of me. I said in my July blog, that I love to time-travel. It’s my adult equivalent of going through the wardrobe door into Narnia. But I have always been fascinated by history, and wanted to know how things really were. I used to be so frustrated, as a kid, if I read a historical novel (and I read a lot of them) and then discovered that it had distorted or misrepresented the facts which I had taken on trust. I felt cheated.

When it comes to Nazi Germany, though, this desire to know is far more than mere interest. I am half German, and, since I grew up in the aftermath of the war, I heard many harsh and often hateful things said about Germans. Later, I discovered about the Holocaust, and some people told me that there was a fundamental, genetic flaw in the German identity, they were all monsters. ‘But you’re OK, you’re British.’ Only I wasn’t entirely. Like many other British people I have a heritage – and one I that is important to me – that doesn’t originate from these islands. And I loved my mother and grandmother dearly and I knew they weren’t monsters. I used to say, fiercely: ‘People are people!’ by which I meant that anyone – including black ‘immigrants’, who were being rather heavily demonised at that time - were human beings – you couldn’t define them by their nationality or race.

My parents wanted to discourage me from dwelling on what my father described as ‘Germany’s shame.’ It wasn’t loyal to my mother, I was told. But my mother wasn’t an easy person, and as I grew up, our relationship got more and more fraught. Then there was my grandmother who lived with us until she died. She was mentally ill and wandered round dressed like a peasant, fasting, praying, fanatically cleaning the house, and apparently doing penance for some terrible sin. ‘Poor little children,’ she used to say to my brother and me, ‘being born into this world.’ I knew my grandfather had been persecuted at the beginning of the Nazi period, and yet he had become a major in the police force, and, incidentally, a harsh, scary man who I found it hard to love. All of these things had a lot to do with the war and Nazi Germany, and I became less and less inclined to be content with the version of facts that my mother doled out to me – though of course much of it was fascinating and, when she wrote her own memoir, illuminating.

I wrote Last Train from Kummersdorf, which seeks to understand the mindset of a kid who’s been fed Nazi propaganda, after my mother’s death, initially because I went to see Schindler’s List and realised I needed to write about Nazi Germany, but then in order to comprehend the society my mother grew up in and perhaps understand a bit more about her. In the middle of writing that novel, I found out about my grandfather, who was indeed persecuted. I went to Berlin and read his file. The more I learned and understood about Nazi Germany, the more I myself walked and lived in it through the medium of my characters, the more I came to understand. I do know that my grandmother’s mental distress was brought on by a law passed by Hermann Goering in 1945 – no wonder she said Hitler was Antichrist. She said that in the mental hospital in 1939, and my mother was terrified she’d be murdered. Plenty of mentally ill people were.

So – I myself need to know. But now I shall get on my tub and thump. I think there is a danger in propagating, even through the medium of fiction, easy and inaccurate assumptions about the Holocaust. It’s a period that has been more mythologised, maybe, than any other. It stands in the middle of human history, even after sixty-five years in which dreadful crimes against humanity have been committed, as the epitome of human savagery. But if we are to say ‘Never Again’ – an assertion which can bring on a fit of despair when one thinks of Pol Pot, of Rwanda, of our own country’s willingness to connive with torture – if one is to say this in any realistic way, I do believe we have to understand how these crimes get committed. Fiction, and the imagination, are part of that process, which cannot be carried by works of history alone. And if we fail to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of that, if we play off mythologised fantasies against an unreliable background – well then, it’s too easy to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths, and we won’t help the process of understanding.

I’ll come off the tub now.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Two Days Writing Anne Cassidy


I am writing my first untitled detective novel for teenagers (BIG GIRLS SHOES). I am in the English department room at Somerset Boys’ School in Haringey. The school is closing and in its last year so there is plenty of free time. In between lessons I sit at an electric type writer and write the story. I use every free minute I have to type. When I finish a few pages I read it. Then I sometimes go back and type the whole thing over again because I don’t like some of the lines. I don’t bother with carbon copies I photocopy what I do. Somebody mentions something about a word processor but I won’t have anything to do with it because I’m suspicious of new things. When people come in I usually cover up what I’m doing because I’m embarrassed to admit I’m writing a story. I read over my words and like some of what I’ve written. At the end of the day I square up my pages and unplug the typewriter. Then I put the cover over it and leave. I find I have written half a chapter and feel pleased.

I get up and turn the computer on. It’s the first thing I do every day. I work in my study next to my bedroom. After I’ve had a cup of tea I sit in my nightclothes and look at my emails and then Twitter. Then I go through all the blogs I like. Finally I make myself settle down to work on a chapter of the first book of my four book series THE MURDER NOTEBOOKS. Using a timer clock I write for fifteen minutes. It’s important for me to get something down on paper early. Then I go and have breakfast and get dressed and tidy up then I write for a while. After a break I go on to FACEBOOK and have a look around. I check my ratings on Amazon and feel grumpy for a while. Then I write some more. I print out sections of what I’ve written because I don’t really trust the computer to look after it. I deal with some emails from readers and then go on Amazon and look up my ratings and feel ridiculously pleased because they are higher than last time. Then I put the title of my latest book into Google and search for reviews. Then I write. I read through some of what I’ve written over the last weeks and try to see where I’m going. I go on Twitter and try to think of something pithy to say. This goes on all day. At the end of the day I turn my computer off and square up my pages and feel pretty pleased.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

A Subject Close to my Heart - Lucy Coats

It's a new school year and all over the country teenagers are discovering the joys of moving up to 6th form studies--my own Lovely Daughter included.  The A-level choices have been made, and it's about now that the English Lit students discover what books they have been set.  In Lovely Daughter's case this means (so far) Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the poetry of Dannie Abse and Philip Larkin--and Cormac McCarthy's The Road. 

It has given me surprising delight that a child of mine has chosen to study a subject so very close to my heart.  Writers' children are obviously exposed to the idea of books from a very early age--but that doesn't necessarily mean that they want to study English Literature.  In the case of Lovely Son, who is an avid reader of all things Napoleonic, History was his choice.  So now what?  Do I let her get on with it?  Of course. Discovering for herself what she thinks about these books is the whole point. But she's done me the honour (and I definitely feel it is an honour) of asking me to re-read the stuff I already know, and to read the stuff I don't, so that we can discuss it (and, if I know Lovely Daughter, argue about it).  I haven't read Heart of Darkness since I studied it at school myself. Larkin I know and love, and Abse I am looking forward to discovering more of.  As for The Road, we'll both be opening that for the first time. 

To be asked to share anything with a teenager is a small, victorious vindication of parenthood--a sort of signal that normal conversation may not be the total impossibility it seemed 2 or 4 or 6 months ago.  For me, this potential daughter/mother communication about books makes me realise that the hours and hours of patient going over and over spellings (and the wiping away of endless tears over the trauma that is learning to read when you are dyslexic) has brought us both an incalculable reward.    Whether we disagree profoundly or agree amicably doesn't matter--the fact that we now share a love of books is prize enough for me.  I'm the second generation of book-loving writers in my family.  Will Lovely Daughter be the third?  Who can tell?--it's up to her anyway.  Meanwhile, I'm polishing the rust off my brain and preparing for the debate.  I can't wait.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Making up stories about real people - John Dougherty

This summer, we had visitors. Two girls from Belarus came to stay with us, courtesy of the Chernobyl Children’s Project.

It’s a strange experience, being unable to communicate verbally with children who are, for a fortnight, almost entirely dependent on you, but neither of our visitors spoke any English and my Russian is non-existent, so we had to make do; and by and large we did very well. Our guests learned to ask “Mehgeddown” before leaving the table, and to say “pleeeeease” in the proper way beloved of generations of British children (stretching the vowels out to improbable lengths, with a beseeching rise and fall in pitch in the middle). We learned the Russian for “orange”, “video” and “prawns”. And we got very good at miming and drawing explanatory stick-people pictures.

What was strangest about the language barrier, though - and I say this as someone to whom smalltalk doesn’t come naturally - was the consequent inability to find out anything significant about these children who were, for two weeks, part of our family. We learned - we think - that one lives at home with mother, two grandmothers, and another adult female whom we assume to be an aunt; the other lives with mother, father, and one grandmother. And that was it.

Perhaps it was because I felt I ought to have learned more that, when I took them to the airport and bid them a genuinely tearful goodbye, I found myself making up the next bit. One of the girls, I reckoned, was going home to a family who had missed her desperately and who would, as far as they were able, spoil her over the next couple of days. They would listen to everything she had to tell them about her holiday, pore over the photos we had given her, and create in their own imaginations details about us and our life in Gloucestershire.

The other, I thought, would probably be welcomed warmly enough, but without the same level of fuss and attention. By the time she got home, talk would have turned to other things, and she would be expected to be quiet - would perhaps even be almost forgotten, except as a series of tasks to be attended to. She was, I imagined, returning to a life comprising a certain level of neglect. Having watched her open up over her stay, turning from a child who stood quietly on the edge of things to one who threw herself loudly towards the centre, I felt, at the airport, that in a matter of minutes I saw precisely the reverse happen. I worried about her; and, if I'm honest, I'm still worrying.

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this is true. Effectively, I’ve made it up, and for all I know, I’ve got it completely wrong. But it does occur to me that, to a greater or lesser extent, we all fictionalise other people. We make assumptions about them and about their lives based on very little evidence. Sometimes we’re aware that we’re doing it; sometimes we’re not.

It’s a useful attribute for a writer, of course. When a new character suddenly appears on the page before us, we have to make their acquaintance immediately; we have to know who they are so that we can tell what they’re going to do next. Is this character good, bad, morally ambiguous? Brave or cowardly? We need to make assumptions about their background, take shortcuts in getting to know them. The difference, of course, is that whatever we decide about our own characters, we know we’re right. When we make up stories about real people, we're only guessing.

John's website is at

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Research Rocks! Miriam Halahmy

The first club I joined at college many moons ago was the Rock Climbing club. I'd always been the adventurous type, climbing trees, riding bikes, rock scrambling.But now in my fifties I have to take things a bit too easy for my liking, ( arthritis and a couple of hip replacements haven't helped) and so I take every opportunity to relive my days of risk taking through my writing. In my Hayling Cycle of three novels I have my teenagers riding motorbikes, entering dangerous seas and racing around on motorboats. I am currently writing the third novel in the series, STUFFED and I decided to send my teenagers rock climbing.

There's plenty of climbing all over London, providing you don't mind climbing indoors on synthetic rock. Personally I always preferred outdoor climbing on the grit stone edges of Derbyshire or in North Wales. But I had to start my research somewhere, so I interviewed Mark 'Zippy' Pretty, one of the top UK climbing coaches today. Here he is route-setting on the climbing wall at the Swiss Cottage Sports Centre.

Mark  helped me to develop my scenario involving my teenagers climbing on The Roaches in Derbyshire, in November. An accident happens and they have to do a rescue - just as it begins to snow! "White out," grinned Zippy. Well that fits the plotting technique of things getting worse and then even worse.

 I was quite overwhelmed by the amount of equipment used today. When we climbed in the 70s we just tied a rope round out waists and went up. Today they wouldn't even dream of leaving the ground without a professional harness, a rack full of nuts, quickdraws, etc., and a helmet. Quite right too. We were completely nuts.

Mark explained about the importance of setting an anchor for the rope, which in climberspeak is 'Bombproof.' I don't think we always understood that in my students days particularly as I was dropped once almost fifteen feet onto my back because the anchorman hadn't heard of Bombproof.

But I wanted to revisit my old rock climbing grounds in Derbyshire, so I took myself off to the Roaches and came across this school party on a day out. Mark had told me that a lot of kids climb today, on the indoor walls especially. Its become part of the curriculum in many schools and so he thought there would be a lot of interest in my book. That was very cheering as I wasn't sure how wide an appeal my enthusiasm would have.

I hooked up with Richard Hogan and his trainee instructor Stephanie and got a really good idea of all the equipment, as well as a good reminder of what is involved in climbing. Climbing is a problem solving sport, thinking about your next move, weighing up the possibilities and the difficulties. But there is also the risk taking. You just have to go for it, not think too much about it or you'd never make the next move. Look at your feet, keep three points of contact at all times, build your muscles and develop your flexibility. Going up vertically on rock walls with the tiniest of holds for feet and hands is one of the most exciting and demanding sports - other than base jumping I suppose. ( No, not on my list.)

The climbers all recommended I read Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. I'd already seen the film. Its an amazing climbing story and an incredible act of survival. Simpson says, "You've got to keep making decisions, even if they're the wrong decisions, or you're stuffed."
My epigraph I think. I'll have to write and ask his permission.

I have a notebook filled with thoughts, descriptions, ideas and an album full of photos, I've watched Cliffhanger and Touching the Void again and I've been back to the famous Roaches of Derbyshire. My climbing friends have said they'll read and comment on my chapters. A good summer's work I reckon.
How do you do your research?

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Friday, 10 September 2010

Write ups and write downs: N M Browne

I wouldn’t say being a writer is an emotional roller coaster because 1) it’s a cliche and 2) neither flying pigs, wild horses nor any other improbable kind of animal incentive would get me to ride on one. I don’t like what roller coasters do to my guts and my inner ear, but I do like being a writer in spite of its impact on my emotional health. ( A polite way of saying it makes me bonkers.)

If it weren’t for the reasons given above there would be some mileage in the metaphor. Writing is full of dips and troughs, sudden highs when you believe you are a genius and gravity defying plummets when you realise that not only are you not a genius but you can’t even write an interesting sentence. You hurtle along what may or may not be a safe, pre planned path with terrifying switch backs, hairpin bends and expectation defying changes in speed and then comes the sudden terrifying recognition that you don’t actually know whether this wild journey will end in a happy resolution or in some dire tragedy. Being a writer you can even imagine the headlines, the article and the death toll.

Personally I am OK with the doubt and the uncertainty. I love the moments of delight and elation when you feel just out of control enough to enjoy the journey, but I expect them to be followed by vertigo and vomiting. I am able to cope with the sense that it has all gone horribly wrong and the feeble structure in which you have invested such high expectations cannot support your ambition, is badly engineered, has wet rot, metal fatigue and is about to teeter and fall. I can cope with all that. It is the hope that gets me. Every time...

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Happy New Year! Catherine Johnson

No I'm not Jewish, although I do feel sort of vestigally Jewish on account of my secondary school being heavily Jewish, still being able to sing the whole of Hava Nagila and nursing a fondness for latke. It's just this time of year, back to school, back to work - even if like me you spent the summer months too close to your desk for comfort.

Both my children are adults and I have no ties to the turning of the school year but I still feel chained to the cycle of three terms a year. I've done my first session in a school - it was with teachers so doesn't quite count - and today after a four week break I looked at my current work in progress.

I have been doing other stuff, writing a lovely treatment for an early seventies set film, tweaking a modern, inner city funny book for girls (set for publishing with Frances Lincoln next year yippee!) and avoiding vengeful Mama Mia fans who simply won't accept that I an not that Catherine Johnson.

I have one other nugget of exciting news. I've been lucky enough to be on a committee to commission the new medals for the London Olympics. So during the summer I had the opportunity to go backstage at the British Museum handling renaissance medals struck by Italian masters for their Florentine Dukes.

There's nothing like touching something that was made in 1444 to make you imagine you could shut your eyes, open them again and actually be there. It didn't work, but you never know....if there's no post from me in a months time you'll know where I'll be.


International Literacy Day - Read all about it ... if you can - Linda Strachan

This year the focus for International Literacy Day is women.
 Unesco describes it as ' an occasion to celebrate women’s empowerment through literacy and pay tribute to the women and men who work behind the scenes who help others acquire literacy skills and enter a world of opportunities'

Being able to read and write is a skill most of us take for granted but in the modern world with all its great technological advances it is incredible that there are something like 759 million people who are illiterate and two out of every three of these people are women.

Imagine not being able to read your child a bedtime story, or the instructions on medicines or labels on food packaging or even the delights of being able to curl up with your favourite book.

These are basic skills without which many doors are closed - opportunities lost...or not even imagined.

I have been invited to speak and present prizes at the Encyclopaedia Britannica prize-giving event  which has been planned for today to celebrate International Literacy Day.

Over 3000 library members from all over Scotland took part in a quiz online which was being held in Scotland through Scottish libraries.  There were questions about Scottish history, politics and literature.  There are three great prizes, one for each category Adult, Student and Junior so that everyone could have a chance to take part by visiting their local library where they could access the Encyclopaedia Britannica free on line or using their library card they could log on at home.

As a writer there are times when I need to do a considerable amount of research for a book and this is where the library service is invaluable and the added choice of having resources available at home, as well as in my local library, is a great help. But in the library, the librarians are so helpful and knowledgeable that I love to go there.  They are so good at finding or suggesting books that might help in my research, or  books I might enjoy to read,  that I am dismayed when I read about plans to close libraries or even put them in supermarkets!

Literature is often a word with stuffy and self-important connotations but the written word in all its forms is vital to us.  Non fiction opens our eyes to the world around us and fiction can give us the opportunity to experience events or emotions, to think about possibilities or consequences that might never have occurred to us otherwise.  We learn through the experiences of the characters, or through reading about history we can perhaps avoid the mistakes of the past.
But in our everyday life we read signs, labels, directions and warnings all the time, often without thinking about it.We connect with people through the internet with emails, websites and blogs.

So today on International Literacy Day spare a moment to think about what you are reading, and about those who cannot read or write, and those who are working to help them acquire those skills.

Linda's latest book is Dead Boy Talking (Strident Publishing)
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Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Taking a Break by Marie-Louise Jensen

I've just come back from seven weeks abroad. I'm very privilleged to be able to go away like this most summers - my work is flexible and my children (until yesterday) out of school. And I have family to go and stay with in Denmark.
It's always interesting to discover how much a change of scene facilitates my writing. I've been taking a break, not from my work (why would I want to do that?) but from my everyday life. From taxiing my boys to endless things and running the house and trying to tame the jungle that should be a garden. Tax returns and other unappetising paperwork. When the busy routine of all this falls away and I can concentrate, the writing flows.
I'm sure the outdoor workspace helped too. And the peace and quiet of the place. The fact that my sons played golf every day. And the lack of internet too, of course. That's certainly a factor.
I wrote fourteen chapters in six weeks - unthinkable at home. And although I'm sure I'll need to do plenty of rewriting, it's still a great feeling to have made so much progress. Now I just need to find the time to keep the momentum going, even if it's slower.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Following My Characters: A Debut's Journey by Ellen Renner

2010 has been my debut year. My first book, Castle of Shadows came out in January and in August the sequel, City of Thieves, was published. Although I have a year of school visits and promotion ahead for these books, publication day marked the end of my personal journey from unpublished to published writer. August 5th , City’s official birthday, was also a day of letting go.
As Keren David remarked in her lovely post of a few days ago, publishing a book does rather feel like letting your child venture unprotected into a large and scary world. Keren and I have been shadowing each other this entire year, with our first and second books coming out within weeks of each other. I would love to get together with her soon and compare notes.
In what I’m sure is a familiar story, my work/life balance went crazy as I struggled to manage the conflicting demands of family, work, finding writing time, building an on-line presence and doing school visits. I also learnt that it’s possible to stand in the children’s department of Waterstones wearing a jolly ‘I’m a writer’ badge on my jacket and a fixed smile on my face and talk to complete strangers about my books. My family has probably suffered most (apart from those innocent shoppers in Waterstones!). I’m not a natural multi-tasker, and even my best friends would never use ‘Ellen Renner’ and ‘well-organised’ in the same sentence.
I’ve been pleased to find that some of the things I was most worried about aren’t problems at all: I love school and library visits. Talking with the children about my books is fun as well as a privilege; but what I find most rewarding is working with them on their own writing. I’ve also learnt that, not only can I write to deadlines, but that I enjoy doing so. Another tremendously positive thing has been meeting other children’s writers in person and online, and discovering how supportive and generous they are.
I’ve discovered quite a lot of things about myself as a writer, as I begin to explore my own strengths and weaknesses in a more focused way. One of those things is that I’m almost totally at the mercy of my characters. Character-driven takes on new meaning here. I never intended to write a series: Castle of Shadows was meant to be a stand alone. But then I fell in love with one of my characters, Tobias Petch. The more I found out about him, the more I knew I had to write his story.
Because characters nag you. They get in your head and won’t leave until you do them justice. As a writer, my characters drive the rest – plot, theme, the story itself. I don’t plot in detail before writing a first draft. I couldn’t (disorganised, remember?). Also, I’m intuitive. I trust my story-telling instinct to pretty much keep the narrative on track; and anyway, that’s what rewrites are for.
I think there are two basic kinds of writers: the intellectually-driven and the emotionally-driven. It’s all about getting the balance right because you need both. I don’t think it matters which comes first as you write; they are different ways of undertaking the same journey. Some writers plot intensively before digging into a first draft, using their intellect to sort the framework, then colouring in that framework and building characters.
I work the other way round, although the intellectual side of plotting, pacing, point-of-view, and theme is just as important to me. But I need the characters first: that emotional intuitive connection. It almost certainly means I have to do more rewrites than someone who plots it all out first; but on the positive side, my characters might lead me on a journey of discovery to places I hadn’t envisioned going. Sort of like the journey I’ve had this first, amazing, debut year.
The question I’d like to end this rather rambling post with is: how do you other writers work? Does character come first for you, or plot? And do you think it matters?

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Tom Butler's Schooldays - Charlie Butler

I’m not sure if Tom Brown’s Schooldays is much read now. It’s still in print, and I see it in bookshops, but suspect it’s borne along more by the momentum of its own classic status than by any great appetite on the part of readers – at least of child readers. Either way, most people are at least aware of it as the cornerstone of a genre that certainly does remain popular – the school story. (For anyone who thinks the school story’s day died with Angela Brazil, Antonia Forest, Frank Richards and Elinor Brent-Dyer, I invite you to acquaint yourself with the work of J. K. Rowling.) Many of us probably remember too that there is an autobiographical element to the book, Thomas Hughes having attended Dr Arnold’s Rugby just as Tom Brown himself did. Indeed, the first edition was published as being by “an old boy”.
I’ve found my interest in Tom Brown’s Schooldays piqued in recent weeks, as I’ve been reading a rather similar, but in this case wholly autobiographical, text. My great-grandfather, Thomas Butler, first went to the school of Christ’s Hospital as a seven-year-old boy in 1853. (The picture of him above, in the school's Bluecoat uniform, was probably taken a couple of years later.) He stayed until he was fifteen, first at the school for younger boys in Hertford, and afterwards in London. Almost seven decades on, as a retired clergyman, he was asked to record his memories of the place, and this he duly did, in a hefty manuscript. The manuscript was donated to the school in the 1950s, but in return they made a typed copy, running to some 94 pages, and that is the version now on the desk before me, on loan from a kind aunt.
Thomas was not a great stylist, but he had an excellent memory and a strong desire to tell the truth, which are more valuable qualities to anyone wanting to know what life at Christ’s Hospital was really like a 150 years ago. As far as discipline was concerned, it seems to have conformed to every lurid Victorian stereotype. Here, for example, is seven-year-old Thomas on his first day at school, arriving with some other boys at Hertford station:
The journey seemed long. We were met by Mr Ludlow, the Steward of the Hertford School, who spoke as roughly to us as if he had known us for years. From Hertford Station we were marched into the Hall of the Foundation. Several of the lads, to whom discipline was new, were at once caned by Mr Hannum, the head Writing Master, who now entered, to superintend. I was in a terrible funk for I had never seen caning before, and I feared that this ogre would fly upon me. It greatly surprised me that he should wear the same kind of clothes as those worn by my father and family friends, silk hat and frock coat, and it occurred to me that possibly these garments might have a civilizing influence over him and at last conquer his savage nature.
Thomas was soon to learn better:
Dinner was followed by after-meal duty [prayers], and then we were dismissed or occasionally detained to witness a brushing in public. That is a flogging with a birch-rod on the bare back of some sinful boy. The culprit was hung on the back of a beadle, and another beadle furrowed the flesh with the rod. ... During a brushing if the one who was chastised groaned from excessive pain, the boys who witnessed involuntarily cried "shame". The beadle in pity gave less vigorous strokes. Then Mr Ludlow called to him, "Do your duty, Sir," and if the beadle became loath, took the rod out of the beadle's hand and administered the strokes himself.
Mr Hawkins, by way of punishment, gave a great many titches, that is, canings on the seat of the trousers pulled tight over the form [bench]. Occasionally he gave a brushing (birching). Selecting one of the lads, he would cross-examine him upon some trifle in such a manner that the scholar would, through nervousness, unwittingly contradict himself and apparently tell a lie. Then the guilty one was strapped to a form, and brushed for several minutes, Mr Hawkins, throughout the performance, loudly bewailing his hard lot in having so painful a duty to perform.
That’s just a taster. Talking of which, there was also the food...
As to the quality of the bread, unhappily its flavour was not like that of the "luxent" (enjoyable) bread sold in the shops outside. Some of the breads contained cockroaches, and the search for them was not always successful. When not so, one's two middle upper teeth felt something slippery resisting their pressure. This was the thin but strong coat of a cockroach, and the teeth were set on edge. Once, only once, in my experience, a boy found a mouse in his bread. He took it to Mr Ludlow, thinking this the proper thing to do. Mr Ludlow, however, was waxy, and expressing no sorrow on account of the shocking death of late Mr Mouse, nor any pity for the poor hungry child before him, said testily, "I didn't make the bread, what do you come to me for?"
Mr Ludlow, during dinner, walked about the Hall, and if any Nurse or boy wished to speak to him, now was the opportunity. A lad, for example, complained to him that the meat was high. Mr Ludlow tasted it, spat it out of his mouth, and said it was very good.
The poor lads were always hungry. Some would beg for orange peel and even pick it up from the sandy Ward floor, make it clean, and devour it. ... Cold and hunger, caused by want of nourishing food, gave us various complaints. All the tips of my fingers festered, and were full of yellow pus, and a thumbnail came off; my eyelids stuck together in my sleep and when I opened my eyes several lashes came out.
But along with all this there were pleasures, such as the joy of being ill:
The boys were very happy in the Sick Ward, and would have liked to live there always. There was delicious wholesome food, kind nurses, a warm comfortable room, a long table at which I read Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" and some good evangelical tracts. I liked the tracts, and thought that "Pickwick Papers" was a charmingly amusing book. The title page was missing, and I wondered who wrote it.
And much that was frankly bizarre:
Dr Stone once gave me a sudden sharp pain, but I had no doubt that he did so for my own good, and I was interested in his treatment. According to the instruction of my nurse, I lay on my back on the counterpane of my bed with my body bare and near the foot of the bed. I compared myself to a little balloon. Dr Stone, as he passed, gave the front of my body a sudden vigorous smack, and without any pause, continued to walk on to the door of the Ward, and went out.
Mr Keymer occasionally preached a funeral sermon. That was when a boy died. It was called "a jolly sermon" for it pleased the children to hear him speak kind words of the departed. I never heard the word "jolly" used at Christ's Hospital except on this occasion.
Sometimes you must go questing to the Hesperides for the apple of inspiration: sometimes it falls into your lap. It may even, on occasion, be lent by an aunt. What’s to be done with Tom Butler’s Schooldays? I’ve been transcribing some of the highlights from the memoir, which can be read here; and further extracts will follow in the days to come. But I’d love to do something more with the world young Thomas has revealed, the children who inhabited it, and particularly the strange array of teachers, as odd and irascible a bunch as ever stalked the corridors of Greyfriars or Hogwarts.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Buy none, get one free - Anne Rooney

Do giveaways and competitions work as a way of promoting a book? Following Mary Hoffman's suggestion, I'm about to try it for the first time. My book Grim, Gross and Grisly was published by Barrington Stoke at the end of August and the editor agreed to give me extra copies to give away (I wouldn't have thought to ask, so thank you, Mary).

I've seen lots of other people promoting their books on twitter and blogs by offering copies as prizes but never done it myself before. This isn't just laziness and a dislike of promotional activities. Many of my readers - particularly of the reluctant-reader books - probably won't be on twitter or my blog because, well, they're reluctant to read! So this is a bit of an experiment. I guess it will be a competition for parents rather than readers, and that's fine, but I'd like to reach those reluctant readers who don't have someone looking out for them, perhaps because they come from a household where other people don't read or don't value reading. So I'll be very happy if librarians and teachers enter the contest - you only have to send in a yukky fact of your own, about humans or animals. Full details are on my blog. (Of course, the book is also readable by enthusiastic and accomplished readers, and anyone can enter.)

I guess it's hard to tell whether competition/give-away success relates to increased book sales, so I doubt I'll ever know if it 'works' in a promotion sense. But I don't really care. I'm not after book sales, just getting the book into the hands of some children who might not otherwise see it and might like it. Obviously the publisher wants book sales, though. Has anyone who's done this before seen increased sales for books they have given away? And does it matter whether it's a book the competition-enteree wants for themselves or whether they are going to give it away? I can see it helps promote our own blogs and twitter presences as writers, but does it help the publisher at all (especially if, like me, you publish with lots of different publishers)? Please do share your give-away experiences in the comments - it's something I haven't really thought about before and I'd love to know how it works for different kinds of books and writers.
Stroppy author's guide to publishing