Sunday, 31 October 2010

Are writers swimmers? Or swimmers writers? Meg Harper

Some years ago, I read an article about the preponderance of writers who love swimming. I remember being intrigued at the time and so, since all else that I have on my mind about writing is yet more ranting about the way it is taught in schools (dear heaven, why, for example, are children still spending hour after hour hand-writing but if they want to learn to type they have to do it of their own volition in the lunch hour?), I’m going to submit a light-hearted and brief blog on that topic.
It intrigued me, of course' because I am a keen swimmer. I try to swim twice a week and do 30-40 lengths on each visit. No, I don’t plan my stories as I churn up and down though on a good day my mind does seem to do some creative mulling, once it’s discharged all the everyday worrying! On a bad day the pool is so busy that I have to devote all my attention to not getting mown down by the hefty men who seem to see a small, middle-aged woman who is swimming faster than them as a major male-ego challenge.
I love swimming so much that I worry about what would happen if I stopped being able to – I get too old and infirm, I can’t afford it, water is in such short supply that we can’t have public baths etc etc. I ask myself the question, if you had to give up swimming or writing, which would it be and (excuse me for blasphemy on this blog) it would have to be writing. Shock, horror! I’m convinced that swimming keeps me sane with its unique ability to relax and exercise me and to somehow wash my mind and body free of worry and anxiety and tensions.
Iris Murdoch was a keen swimmer. So, notoriously were Byron and Shelley. I don’t know of others but I’m intrigued to find out if there are more. I know that many writers walk each day and many take dogs with them – we get a fair bit of writerly doggie worship on Facebook - but are we closet swimmers too? Is that how we avoid writer’s bum? Let’s face it, if you go to a conference, on the whole you won’t meet a gang of obese writers – so what’s our secret? We’re a remarkably lean, fit-looking bunch on the whole. Maybe we should write a book and market it!
And those of us who are keen swimmers – does it help in the creative process? Do others find it liberates the brain for a bit of creative mulling? Or for planning whole chapters? Could I get an article for a writing magazine out of this?
Or shall I just tell school teachers to forget all that story planning stuff and take the children swimming?
So – how many of us are swimmers then? And does it help you to write if you are?'s Sunday morning. Normally I would swim but today I'm away from home. Darn, darn, darn. And that's the reason for no pictures either. Sorry!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Free or Fee? Lynne Garner

Literary festivals are becoming more popular with small festivals springing up all over the place. The problem arises when we the author are contacted and asked if we would like to attend. Organisers who contact an author often make no mention of payment or offer to cover expenses. The view appears that we will do it for the love of our craft. But should we give our time freely?
Lets take a look at both sides of the argument.
Ask for a fee:
As a writer I am running a business. My writing has to make me money so I can spend time writing. If the bills cannot be paid I can’t write and have to find an alternate way to make a living. Therefore if I am to take part in a festival then that time has to earn me money. You wouldn’t expect a plumber to come to your home and fix that leak just because he loves being a plumber. So why is it expected that as business people, writers should give their time freely?
Attend for free:
Many of us are ‘jobbing’ writers and are aware that we have to become a ‘brand.’ The only way we can do this is to gain exposure and festivals are an ideal way of doing this. Festivals also give us a chance to meet our readers and obtain feedback on our books. Both of these are commodities that can be worth more than a cash payment.
In my humble opinion:
It’s obviously up to the writer to make their own decision to attend for free or to ask for a fee. However I personally feel we should gain something from attending. Your time is worth something. It really doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of cold hard cash, the ability to sell books or gain exposure. However if you actually enjoy the experience then that is just as valid a reason to attend. So decide what you want from attending and don’t feel guilty when you ask for a fee or when you decide to go for free, just as long as it’s the right decision for you. And when you’re there enjoy the event knowing your decision to attend for free or ask for a fee is the right one for you.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Shock, Stories and Statistics: Gillian Philip

All the fretting I do about what is 'appropriate' in a teenage novel was put into some perspective on Saturday as I listened to Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. There was a report from Uganda by Anna Cavell about children's literature in Uganda:

The book How Kwezi Got Into Trouble has a picture on the cover of a girl sobbing into a tissue at a school desk.
So when I saw it, I thought Kwezi might have got into trouble for handing her homework in late, or perhaps she had been copying somebody else's exam paper.
Then I looked at the text on the back cover and got quite a shock. It read: "At her mother's funeral, Kwezi is raped by her late father's best friend.
"Kwezi has no-one to tell but her mother lying in the grave. Though she gets Aids, Kwezi is determined to let other pupils know how dangerous Aids is."
It is a surprising storyline for a book aimed at eight-to-10-year-olds.

Uganda once had the highest HIV infection rate in Africa, and that's saying something. There have been some strange and frightening responses to the epidemic, from the assertion that condoms are a western plot to spread AIDS, to Thabo Mbeki's bizarre herbal prescriptions, right up to the rumour that sex with a virgin will cure HIV.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni's response has been very different. 'When a lion enters your village,' he declared, 'you must raise the alarm loudly.'
Anna Cavell, surprised by the subject matter available in a children's bookshop, spoke to a mother of two, who was more than happy to use the stories to stimulate discussion with her 11-year-old daughter. She also spoke to older ladies who disapproved of such reading matter, and longed for the days when people 'behaved decently'.
The whole story, here, mentions some of the other books on offer - subject matter which would be challenging for adult books in the UK, never mind teenage lit. In Uganda, the books are for younger children.
A few years ago the HIV infection rate in Uganda was over 20%. Today it's down to 6.7%.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Capturing Chapters - Karen Ball

I've been thinking about chapters a lot recently. You know, those places where you can put the bookmark between the pages, switch off the bedside lamp and snuggle under the duvet? Except chapters are so much more than markers.

I was talking to my mum about chapter endings recently. 'They're a type of punctuation, really, aren't they?' she said. 'That's EXACTLY what they are!' I cried. I'd never thought about it like that before, but of course she's right. Paragraphs, full stops, chapter endings... They all help us engage with the flow of a story.

During my work on my latest manuscript (and there's been a lot of work!), there's one chapter that I've returned to time and time again. It's relatively low key, with only two characters, a lot of conversation, not much action - and many subtle signals that I need the reader to pick up on. If this early chapter fails, the whole book fails. Why this particular, quiet chapter? Who knows. I didn't set out for it to be this way and it turns out it's true what they say - it's the quiet ones you have to watch.

I try to keep my chapters to a relatively similair word length (this allows me to believe I'm in control of the story!), but I know many writers who do not. I'm not sure it matters either way. The Dan Brown phenomenon of a few years back began a whole debate on quite how short could a short chapter go. Were short chapters the answer to short attention spans? But what about when you want to absolutely lose yourself in a character or scene, when you don't mind missing your stop or have to be nagged into putting the book down? I'm happy to swim in a longer chapter.

A simple Google search throws up reams of blog posts on the perfect chapter length. Any sensible advice tells the reader not to worry about this too much - the story will find its own pace. But my mind keeps returning to that important chapter in my own book. ARE there chapters that are more crucial than others? Should there be? Perhaps these are signpost chapters, gently guiding the reader down the path you want them to follow, like someone guiding a sleepwalker back to their bed to lose themselves in the dream we want them to have.

Writers? Manipulative? Not a bit of it! Now, if I can just crack the perfect cliffhanger chapter ending...

Do you have a theory for composing chapters or a favourite chapter in your own writing?

Visit my website at

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Who Do We Write For? - Nicola Morgan

I've been thinking about this a lot recently because some people I respect have contradicted a belief of mine. See, I think - thought - that writers should think of their readers. Of course we need to have confidence and belief in our own writing and to love what we do, feel inspired and fulfilled by it; but, for me, each sentence is there for the enjoyment of readers. Therefore, I'm thinking of them while I'm writing.

I also believe that the main reason I failed to be published for so long was that I was writing purely for myself, with little or no thought for the reader's enjoyment. I was so up myself with the beauteousness of my prose that if I wanted two glorious sentences where one would do, hell, I'd put them both in. After all, they were Good Sentences so the reader could damn well read them and enjoy them as much as I did. I was thinking of myself and my enjoyment way too much. I was being self-indulgent, which is what doing something for yourself is.

So, quite often on my Help! I Need a Publisher! blog I have blogged to aspiring writers about the importance of thinking of readers when we write. I don't mean that we should just give them everything they want, just as parents shouldn't give children everything they want. I mean that for me the desired end of a book is the satisfaction or excitement or inspiration of the reader - or whatever other emotion I happen to wish for in them - and that my own pleasure is only in achieving that. I have quoted Stephen King's thing about his Ideal Reader, the person he has in mind when he writes, the person he imagines looking over his shoulder. He talks about writing the first draft with the "door closed", in other words without too much thinking of readers, but the second and subsequent drafts with the "door open", very much with imagined reactions flooding in and affecting what he writes. And that's in a book on how to write - On Writing - so he is offering it as guidance, even a rule.

But I'm aware that this is not the only way to look at things. I recently interviewed Ian Rankin and Joanne Harris and asked each of them where they stood on this question and they were quite clear that they don't particularly think of their readers. Now, considering that they are both phenomenally commercially successful, I find that interesting.

So, have I got it wrong? Or does it just depend how you interpret the question? Are Joanne Harris and Ian Rankin just lucky that they've hit a way to write which indulges both them and their readers, so they don't have to think consciously about the reader? Am I too mired in YA/children's writing, where we have to do a bit of mental gymnastics in order to satisfy a reader who is patently not the same sort of reader as we are ourselves? Or what? To the writers among you: how much do you think of your readers, either as an imaginary generalised bunch or a specific group?

Yes, we write because we want to and because we love doing it, and it's therefore somewhat selfish, but to what extent is your actual choice of ingredients in each book for the sake of your reader more than yourself? What is your relationship with your reader when you're writing?

And take your time: I'm not thinking of readers or writing at the moment because I've got a building disaster. Six days after my lovely plumbers started what should have been a simple bathroom refurb, this is what we've got. (Actually, now it's worse because even the wooden frame has gone and they've started to dig up the concrete floor to the depth of half a metre into the solid ground.) Flood, broken pipes, damp, leaky steps above it, original poor building of the extension, missing damp-course, a running-a-mile insurance company and a home survey when we bought the place six months ago that detected "no sign of damp"... Sorry to go off point but sod readers - I need to think of myself for a bit!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Independent's Day : Penny Dolan.

Writing demands a certain level of ego. I think, therefore I write down my thoughts, or at least something I’ve constructed out of my thoughts. I have hopes this stuff might be worth reading, by myself even if by nobody else. I feel, as so often I do, that there is a vanity about bothering to write at all.

Vanity’s bubble is easily burst, so I have what I think of as my imaginary “iron corset” on hand at all times. It is a very useful protection against the many small pinches of the writing life:

The silence that tells you a submitted manuscript has been rejected.

The email that says, after several re-writes, “we really liked the idea but have decided that now the words aren’t quite right.”

The day when a bookseller tells you that someone at the publishers has told them that your book has gone out of print. Nobody has bothered to tell you.

The moment when someone in a staff-room asks “Should I have heard of you?” Obviously you haven’t, not even with my name written on today’s school notice board.

Every such occasion is an amusing reminder – how else can one look at it? – of how fragile the writer’s role and ego really is. Ouch! That smarts!
So I gird my iron corset around me for extra reinforcement when these small pinches arrive. Now I can pretend the painful digs don’t get to reach me really. Ha, ha, ha!

However, these last two weeks I’ve really needed my clanking virtual corset. Every few days, walking into town, I have passed the only bookshop. It's part of a chain now. I’ve used it over many years and seen many staff come and go.

During this month, I'd had a book out: A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. Sorry, I know one shouldn’t say this but the book is so good that I cannot believe I wrote it. My name on the front suggests I must have been involved somehow. The thing is a lucky mix of fancy, imagination and words.

Furthermore, the hardback cover looks magnificent. It must be pure cover karma: by some weird chance, I am the author who ended up with all the good luck left over by unfortunate writers who ended up with covers they hate. Before you despise this evidence of even greater vanity, remember that if you don’t love your book, who else will? I feel anyone would be pleased to see the book on a shelf. "Now I have to search for many books in town."

Two weeks ago I was passing the shop, having done the bank and sent other stuff in to Mouse’s publication. Stupidly I was tempted. I thought “Why not?” and edged into the bookshop quietly. After all, I had just had a mention in the local paper, and know at least one person who asked after a copy last week. Was my book there? Nope. Nope. Nope.

Than only a couple of days ago, I needed to get a present for friend so had to call in to the shop. Nope again.

This time I approached the desk, spoke sweetly, humbly and casually to the girls behind the desk. It seems they have only just sorted out who runs the children’s department. The book is definitely on order. The computer says my volume hasn’t come in yet. So odd! Then I recalled grumbles about the company’s central book ordering system in the past, but I laughed too. Ha ha ha! If you’d like me to come in to do some book signing, do get in touch. I said. I felt myself simpering stupidly as I gave my contact details again, again.

Today I passed by the shop. In the window hung a long list of half-term activities. Roald Dahl, Halloween. Horrible Histories, and so on and so on. By now I feel totally in the wrong for even offering anything to the shop. The corset grows stronger round my heart. I am becoming Tin Woman! Clang, clang, clang! You cannot get me now, cruel fate. It is best not to care!

Don’t worry. I’ll be okay soon. If it wasn’t for the support I had from the Children’s Bookshop in Lindley, Huddersfield, and several reports from writing friends who have spotted my lovely tome in independent bookshops all across the land, I fear I might have dreamed the whole Mouse experience up. So long live the great Independent Booksellers of Britain.

I wonder who's your favourite and most helpful bookseller then?

Penny Dolan

A Boy Called Mouse, published by Bloomsbury October 2010.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Rear Window - Michelle Lovric

After a mere fifteen years restoration, the lights have finally gone on in the palazzo opposite ours across the canal. Two of the new inhabitants are cat-owners. I don’t get out much. So who’s going to blame me for investing in a pair of binoculars?

First there was Neil, a handsome black-and-white gentleman, on the first floor window sill. And then, just a few days later, the lovely Samantha appeared on the floor below. The two cats also saw each other. It’s a proper colpo di fulmine, blinding love at searing first sight. Neil gazes down at Samantha. Samantha gazes up at Neil. It’s a wrap.

But it’s also an impossible love – for an entire tall floor of a Venetian palazzo separates Samantha from Neil.

Now Samantha and Neil pass some hours each day in the kind of yearning contemplation that calls to mind John Donne’s poem The Ecstasy. Sometimes Neil cannot take it any more – he makes for the dangerous edge of his parapet. But at the last moment common or cat sense always brings him back to safety. Sometimes Samantha is gripped by the fever of love, and stands on her back legs in her window-sill, scrabbling at the cruel walls.

These are quintessentially Venetian cats and therefore know the value of presentation. Neil’s tapir markings are set off beautifully by his two green cushions, one in each window on the canal. Samantha is probably just a particularly alluring tabby, but the nobility of her palazzo setting lends her the air of an Abyssinian. With apologies to R. Chandler, she’s a cat who would make an ailurophile pope (as we have now) kick a hole in a stained glass window. What amazing kittens they would make together …

But alas, there is another reason why this love is never to be. A few weeks after this love affair ignited. I discovered that Neil is … married! I should have guessed that there’d be a wife somewhere – handsome, prosperous chap like him.

I nearly dropped my binoculars when matriarchal Bessie – big and grey and pear-shaped – appeared on Neil’s window sill. She delivered a sharp cuff about the ear when she caught her man in the act of mooning after Samantha. There followed a Mexican standoff between Samantha and Bessie. Samantha eventually slunk back into her house. And now she and Neil snatch their lyrical moments when they can – but Bessie always appears quite promptly to administer wifely discipline to her husband and give Samantha the death stare.

Samantha is plotting something. She’ll have Neil, if it’s the last thing she does. Bessie’s grown complacent. She thinks Neil’s well cowed. But she’s not seen the glint in his green love-rat eyes lately. If I were Bessie, I wouldn’t be straying too close to the edge of that parapet any time soon.

My deeply embarrassed husband at this point insists that I inform you that ‘Neil’ and ‘Samantha’ and ‘Bessie’ are not their real names. They’re probably something guttingly prosaic. Neil might even be a ‘Maria’; Samantha could well be a ‘Gianni.’ But I swear that Bessie could never be anything else but Bessie. Unless she was a ‘Bertha’.

You’d never guess that I earn my living as a writer, would you?

Michelle Lovric’s latest novel, The Mourning Emporium, the sequel to The Undrowned Child, is published on October 28th. Any similarities between the feline characters in this blog and those in the books are purely coincidental.

Michelle Lovric’s website - now featuring new pages and background on The Mourning EmporiumPicture of ‘Stewart’ from the award-winning Book Orchard Press

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Reichenbach Falls - Josh Lacey

I'm about to start writing the eighth book in the Grk series and my thoughts have turned to the Reichenbach Falls.

The Reichenbach Falls drop a hundred metres down a Swiss slope. On 4 May 1891, this is where Sherlock Holmes fought his arch enemy Professor Moriaty. Both of them fell to their deaths in the water. And that was the end of the world's most famous detective.

Except it wasn't. On his way down, Holmes managed to grab a tuft of grass and pulled himself back to safety. Or so Conan Doyle wrote a decade later when his public demanded that he bring Holmes back from the abyss.

Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes - or tried to kill him, anyway - because he was exhausted by his own fictional creation. He couldn't imagine how to continue writing about him. So he threw him over a Swiss waterfall.

I'm not going to do that to Tim and Grk, the heroes of my series that started five years ago with A Dog Called Grk. But, as I always do before I start a new book about them, I wonder how I can make this one different enough to be interesting.

Each of the Grk books is self-contained; you don't need to have read the first in order to read the fourth or the seventh.

Like Sherlock Holmes - or Just William or Jack Reacher or James Bond or hundreds of other fictional characters who appear in a series of novels - Tim and Grk hardly develop from one book to another.

And so the series could continue for ever.

In theory, I could write 192 of them. (Each of the books is set in a different country and there are currently 192 countries in the United Nations.) That is, if I could find enough ways to make them interesting to readers - and, more importantly, to myself.

I'd be intrigued to know how other people reinvigorate their long-running characters - and if they've ever been tempted to toss them over the Reichenbach Falls.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Soundtracks Again

‘What is your soundtrack?’ Miriam Halahmy wrote on Monday. My soundtrack is often the noise of bombs whining down, of artillery bombardment, of planes strafing civilians, things I’ve never heard, but that my mother – she told me once – relived when I was in utero, which maybe explains why all through my childhood I was terrified when I heard a siren. I mean the air-raid type sirens which were in use in the ‘50s. There was one that used to go off from Kendal quarry every day and I never got used to it. Maybe it was an air-raid siren working out its time. But the bells that ring out over the ruined city of Berlin in Saving Rafael – German churchbells, not the severe mathematical patterns we hear in this country, but a cluster of notes rung together in harmony – come from the Christmas record that was always played in my childhood home. I can hear them in my mind now.

Music affects me in two ways when I’m writing. Firstly, there’s the music that actually occurs in the novel – a lot of Django Reinhart and Louis Armstrong in Last Train from Kummersdorf and there’s a particular track on my Charlie Parker box set from the ‘40s – ‘Dizzy Boogie’ – which has really lit up the jazz I write about in the novel I’m working on at present. But I will say no more about work in progress.. When I was writing Saving Rafael, I had a cd called ‘Berlin by Night’ which contained popular music from Germany in the Nazi period. Not, I hasten to add, Nazi songs, but songs ranging from ‘Lili Marleen’ to disguised jazz, given a German title and lyric to make it more acceptable to the authorities. It has ‘Es geht Alles Vorüber’, the smash hit of the end of the war, the one that people kept listening to. Its message: ‘Everything passes, everything goes by, and every December is followed by May’ annoyed Propaganda Minister Goebbels – not martial enough – but that made no difference. My mother associated it, bitterly, with the letter she got telling her her first love had been killed in action – but she did have her Maytime after all, when she met my British father.

I listened to that cd over and over again, and composed the ‘theme lyric’ for the novel, in slight imitation of a terribly shlocky number that had me frankly laughing my head off. Jenny, in the novel, knew it was trash, but because it was playing the first time she realised Raf was interested in her, it got terribly important to her.

And yet – the scene where my young hero reaches across the table and starts playing with Jenny’s fingers comes, not from any of those contemporaneous songs, but from Tchaikowsky’s Violin Concerto (in D Major, I believe). I’d been wondering how to write that scene just before I was taken abruptly into hospital to have a tumour taken out of my spine. The second night after my surgery, I had a dreadful moment when I woke up and thought: ‘Somebody’s in pain,’ and then realised it was me – just as authors describe in many novels, and I always thought they’d made it up! But the thing that made me cry was that I thought I’d lost my novel.

I got some more opiates from the nurses, pulled myself together – they were dealing with an emergency in the room and the last thing they needed was an author agonising – and then the next morning I was listening to the Tchaikowsky on my personal stereo and suddenly I was in the Café Kranzler again. I’d found the novel! Such a relief, because honestly, it was an awful moment, and I realised how important a companion the novel I’m working on is to me.

Tchaikowsky wrote the concerto as a love-letter to a young violinist – who didn’t reciprocate his affection – but it is the most passionate, flirtatious, wonderful bit, and the part of the slow movement I was listening to was just like someone playing with their loved one’s fingers. I had something to write on, so I reached out – I had to lie flat in bed – and scrawled it down.

There’s a jazz cd by Abdullah Ibrahim called ‘Water from an Ancient Well’ that my brother gave me, that I often had playing on my computer while I was writing Kummersdorf. Music so often releases something in me, and it’s vitally important to me for that reason. I can’t imagine writing without music. If I didn’t have any of the machines that are our personal musicians nowadays, I’d have to sing for myself. Perhaps that would be better, who knows?

But I’m a twenty-first century writer, born in the twentieth century. My childish imagination was fired by ‘Music and Movement’ and by the stacks of wonderful glossy records, ‘78s, that lived in our Kendal house with us – my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I guess they'd found these in the cellar when we moved in.

Anyway, I have wonderful memories of my brother and me, on wet Lake District days, putting on 'The Night on Bald Mountain,' and dancing excitedly to it. And that music surfaced years later when I wrote my novel about a witch persecution in the 17th century, Malefice.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

I'm proud of it too - John Dougherty

Just for the benefit of anyone who hasn't seen this yet:

Well said, that man.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Hubris and The Art of Good Behaviour - Lucy Coats

I read Amanda Craig's piece about author behaviour at festivals with great interest and a certain gloom. It's a really excellent article, and well-worth looking at.  Her sense of 'omerta' meant that no names were named, but it set me thinking: does this bad behaviour achieve anything except negative insider gossip, possible column inches and a reinforcement of the idea of the writer-as-hellraiser?  And is that the point of it all--ie that bad publicity and bad reputation is better than no publicity and a boring reputation? Personally, I would rather have the no-publicity or gossip and a reputation for boring old reliability than behave in some of the ways which Amanda describes--but then maybe I'm old-fashioned in my belief that if you are invited to speak to a literary festival audience (or anywhere else), you should have the manners to do the job in a polite and professional way when you get there. Otherwise, you should simply say no to the gig.

Amanda also says "The trouble is that to write anything at all requires a degree of arrogance, and to think that what you've written is publishable requires even more."  Perhaps this is true, but I prefer to call it self-belief, and I am going to go even further out on a limb here, and say that in my experience, children's authors are not, as a general rule, an arrogant bunch.  This may be because--despite the Rowlings and Pullmans of our world who are the exceptions rather than the rule (and who are both, by the way, incredibly polite and professional)--writers for children don't generally get the slavish press praise and adulation which is heaped on many bestselling writers for adults. This is not a whinge, it is a fact.  Children's books are still seen as 'not proper writing' by some.  In my own recent (very recent) past, I was asked about how I was doing with my books by a medical professional who was treating me. When I told him that I'd had 12 books out this year, he merely said, "Oh.  And when are you going to write a real book, then?"  What he meant was an adult book.  Nowadays, I don't suffer that kind of thing gladly, so you may be pleased to hear that I let rip, and told him exactly what I thought of his comment.  He was very taken aback.  My point is, many of us are subjected to this kind of attitude on a regular basis, and it is the biggest eroder of self-belief (or indeed arrogance) there is to realise that writing a book for the children's market seems to be not nearly as big a deal as writing one for 'grown-ups'.  This despite the fact that some of the best writing there is today is done for young people. 

But back to the "bad author behaviour"....  When I did my Cheltenham Festival event last week, a whole school party crept in 20 minutes late (about which I had been warned, and was fine).  The festival organisers asked, rather tentatively, if I would mind talking to the children afterwards.  I said 'yes, of course,' and didn't think anything more of it--it wasn't their fault that they were late.  We then had a fantastic 20 minutes together in the back of the bookshop after my signing session.  The kids were all well-prepared, asked intelligent questions and were generally a delight to chat to.  It was only afterwards that it was borne in to me that there had been considerable trepidation about my reaction to asking me to do 'extra'. My question is this: why wouldn't I?  These kids are my audience.  They buy my books.  What did it cost me?  Nothing.  What did it gain me? A lot of goodwill, plus 25 kids who will remember their 'special author talk' for a long time (I hope), and want to explore more of my Greek myths.  Being a prima donna diva would have gained me nothing except bad feeling all round--and that's why I can't understand any author who would disrespect their audience by being publicly rude or contrary or ridiculously demanding out-of season roses and gold-dusted chocolates and water from the backside of the world.  To hell with it--I'd rather wither in an obscurity of good manners than invite the attentions of Nemesis by being so horribly out of touch with reality as that.

Ban the Book! Anne Cassidy

Sometimes I wonder if writers of children’s books would be better off if fiction books were banned from school (except for Mice and Men of course – no school could make it from day to day without this novel).

Stories for young adults, such as the kind I write, could be banned from the school building, much as mobile phones are.

I fantasize about this. Imagine the scene. Young people, on buses, going to school, pouring over pages in their books because once in school they have to keep them hidden. In school assembly one student nudges another and slowly draws out the cover of a paperback book from their bag. The other gasps with delight, looking round to make sure no one else sees.

In registration there may be a reminder of school rules banning books and students would roll their eyes and huff and sigh at the stupidity of it. While in IT they’ll be given a lesson on web safety – how to avoid stumbling on literary web sites, book blogs, on line book shops.

JUST SAY NO TO BOOKS! the teacher might say.

Meanwhile, in corners all round the school, people would be handing over paperback books in exchange for less prized items; cigarettes, highlighter pens, lipsticks, footballs, bags of chips and cans of fizzy drink.

Someone would get caught and made an example in front of the class. The book would be held aloft and the teacher would flick through its pages roughly with a sneer. This is FORBIDDEN she would say and CONFISCATED.

The child would blanch. There would be no story to block out the long journey home or the boring lessons or the rote learning of tables. There would be no story to balance the chaos of the day or the silence of an empty house or the homework that he or she just cannot do. There would be no story to explain about good and evil and love and friendship and heartache and heroism

But the Demon Head teacher would be happy because now she wouldn’t have to pay for a school library. Ban the book I say!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Magic of Orkney - John Dougherty

What is it about the distant past that can be so compelling? Why do so many fantasy novels reach into prehistory for their magic? To find out, I went on an expedition to Orkney.

Well, actually, that bit’s a big fat fib. I didn’t go to Orkney to explore its neolithic inheritance; I didn’t even know it had a neolithic inheritance to explore until we got there. I went because my wife won an all-expenses-paid Orkney weekend for two - including a whisky-tasting tour and a flight round the islands - courtesy of Highland Park.

But what an incredible amount of prehistory there is to discover on Orkney! Even the names have a kind of magic - the Ring of Brodgar, the Tomb of the Eagles, Maes Howe, Skara Brae: they speak of ancient enchantments and of mystery, of a time when humanity lived closer to the soil and the sky, of the places where the spiritual and sacred touch the physical world and leave their mark...

Well, they do to me, anyhow. And I suspect they do to many of you, particularly those who get annoyed about horned helmets on the covers of books about Vikings. But why? How is it that “times we don’t know much about” turns, in our imaginations, into “times when the world ran by entirely different rules”?

There are probably a number of answers, one of which is, “It’s all Tolkien’s fault” - assuming that ‘fault’ is the appropriate concept here, which it probably isn’t. But I can’t help feeling there’s a link here with my last post, the one about making up stories about real people. When we don’t know, we have a tendency to fill in the gaps, and the more and bigger the gaps, the more imaginative we are in those fictions.

This struck home particularly when we visited Maes Howe. It’s an ancient chambered tomb, older than the pyramids, and as well as some faint neolithic markings it also contains some of the finest examples we have of runes carved in stone, courtesy of a group of Norsemen who sheltered there from a storm, hundreds of years ago. Yet, what do those runes say? Do they tell of ancient mysteries? No, they say things like, “Ottarfila carved these runes”, and “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of women”. The more we discover about the ancients, the more they turn out to be just like us.

Not - I hasten to add - that I have anything against novels that suggest supernatural reasons for ancient monuments. My own Bansi O’Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy involves a ring of standing stones in all kinds of, ahem, nefaerieous goings on. And it’s quite simply great fun to imagine that the world was once a place in which magic happened.

There are, however, two lessons I’ve taken away from my weekend’s break. One is to remember that, well, people are people, with many of the same joys and challenges; and that’s probably always been the case.

The other is to remember, always, to enter prize draws at literature festivals. You never know your luck.

Monday, 18 October 2010

What is the soundtrack to your landscape?

My landscape is Hayling Island off the south coast of England, next to Portsmouth. Hayling is 25 miles square and completely flat. When the tide goes out it drains right round the Island revealing wonderful mud banks which are a haven for many different birds.Around two thirds of all birds in the British List are here, including Common Tern, Little Tern, Little Egret and the Brent Geese which winter on Hayling from the Arctic Circle.
So my soundtrack begins with the cry of the seagulls and the call of all the different birds which populate my landscape.

Behind the cry of the birds is the sound of the wind. Did you know that windsurfing was invented on Hayling Island? In 1958 a schoolboy called Peter Chilvers attached a tent flap and a curtain pole to a piece of wood and launched from the beach into the wind. The wind blows hard across the Island coming in from the Solent. Trees bend over in agony and the tall pines groan and creak. Thousands of yachts are moored around the Island and the wind plays a merry tune as it jingles their shrouds.
My soundtrack is underpinned by the wind.

My first book, HIDDEN, is set in February in a freezing cold winter and part of the story is set during a deep sea mist. Fog horns sound out on the Solent making my character, Alix, feel cold and lonely, like the illegal immigrant, Mohammed, she has rescued from the sea. Fog horns sound more than once through my landscape and are a metaphor for the huge and difficult task my two teenagers have set themselves, in rescuing and hiding Mohammed to save him from being deported.

My soundtrack contains many more sounds across the three novels; the crash of the waves on the beach in a storm, the dragging of the tide across the pebbles, the splash of my characters falling or jumping into the water, alongside the roar of motorbikes and the revving of motorboat engines. Bicycles whirr down the back lanes of the Island and car brakes squeal in a spin.

There is the clump of boots across the limestone edges of Derbyshire as my characters  in the third book take off for a rock climbing weekend.
Ropes creak and quickdraws snap and click. Someone yelps as the rope runs through his hand burning the skin on his palm and there is a sickening crunch as a helmet crunches into the rock during a terrifying fall.

I have developed my soundtrack over four years, writing the three novels, visiting the Island several times a year to take notes and photos and to write with the wind in my ears. I have also revisited my old climbing haunts and reminded myself of the sights and sounds of the climbing community. I've hung around friends with motorbikes and I've been out on a motorboat in Chichester Harbour, tracking the desperate journey of my characters in the second book. Just as it takes time to develop the landscape of our writing, so it takes time to enrich the soundtrack. I just wish I could record it and put it on a CD.

What is the soundtrack to your landscape?

HIDDEN, the first book in my Hayling cycle, March 2011, Meadowside Books.
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Whose Serenissima is it anyway? – Michelle Lovric

Last weekend I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing a stage with the wonderful Mary Hoffman at the Ilkley Festival. We were talking about the different ways in which we fictionalize Venice. And one of the questions that came up was this: ‘How do you both feel when you see yet another novel about Venice hitting the bookshop shelves?’

Neither of us owns Venice. We both earn our right to write about Italy novel by novel. But we did admit to a flicker of annoyance at books that cynically employ the undeniable commercial lustre of Venice to gild their lily – or to put a velvet bow on their dog.

Now I have returned from Ilkley to Italy … only to discover that Mary and I have both been thoroughly trumped in our attempts to write a properly Venetian Venice … perhaps. For a Venetian gondolier has just been and gone and published a novel.

Sad to tell, Angelo Tumino’s novel contains nothing of moonlight, romance or lapping waves. Invasione Negata takes the form of a diary of a widowed retired engineer who finds himself living in a condominium in the suburbs of Rome, surrounded by immigrants who speak other tongues, cook foreign foods – and persecute, rob and attack the native Italians.

Tumino, 36, claims that he is a gondolier only by economic necessity: his true calling is as a writer. He’s hoping that Invasione negata will lift him away from a life at the oar and into a properly literary existence in front of a computer.

Instead, the slim volume has so far propelled Tumino into controversy. The author claims that the book’s intention is to document the most profound fear that strikes the rich nations of the west – fear of the foreigner. He claims that the politicians are incapable of solving the problems and it is the ordinary citizens who pay the costs of clandestine immigration.

‘I would say it is a tale of metropolitan conflict,’ says Tumino.

What he not saying – according to La Nuova newspaper – is if he’s a member of the right-wing anti-immigration Lega Nord. But that’s not stopping others from labelling him that, and worse. The Indymedia Lombardia website has written a profile of Tumino entitled ‘The Nazi Gondolier’. And describes his work as ‘di chiaro stampo hitleriano’ – ‘of a clearly Hitlerian stamp’. But the site has been much criticized for the intemperance of its coverage, and in other places the novel and its writer have been highly praised.

Tumino protests that the character depicted in the novel is not a self portrait. He adds ‘Reading Stephen King, one might think that this is an author with psychological problems. But in fact he is a totally normal person.’

Invasione negata had its official launch at the fish market in Venice on October 12th, as its author (still) serves on the traghetto between Santa Sofia and Rialto.

In Tumino's top drawer are two other books – a collection of comic short stories – The Gondolier without a Gondola and American Gondolier, a science fiction story set in a Venice that has been bought up by the Americans and is inhabited by android gondoliers.

So is it still safe for Mary and me to go in the water, with our historical novels about Venice and Italy?


Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series starts in Venice, with City of Masks. The latest book in the series, City of Ships, is just published by Bloomsbury

Michelle Lovric's latest novels about Venice are The Book of Human Skin (Bloomsbury) for adults, and her children’s book, The Mourning Emporium, the sequel to The Undrowned Child, out on October 28th

Angelo Tumino’s website
gondola photo by Debbie Patterson

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Can you teach creative writing? - Linda Strachan

There are more and more creative writing courses springing up so there are obviously plenty of people interested in being taught how to write, but it occurs to me that the question really being asked is - can you teach someone how to write a book/play or short story that will get published? 

Are these students honestly so keen to write that nothing else will do or have they been tempted to embark on their writing career by the media's portrayal of fame and fortune, as they imagine their first book as an instant best seller? 

I have to declare an interest, having written a book on how to write for children.

Like many children's writers I visit schools and I often run writing workshops for children, of all ages. I also run writing creative writing workshops for adults.

So does that mean I believe that creative writing can be taught?

Imagine a young man sitting at his computer. He's got an idea for a novel and although he has never done any writing since he left school, he loves reading books and dreams of writing a best selling thriller.  He writes in his spare time, for days and weeks until he gets to the end of the story. Congratulations are in order at this point because actually getting to the end of 90,000+ words is a lot of hard work and an achievement in itself.

The problem is that he thinks the book is now finished and in reality it is just the beginning.  His novel is slow to start, there are too many characters and no real sense of who the main characters are so there is little focus for the reader.  His dialogue is generally well written but his point of view shifts constantly making it confusing to follow.  He has heavy passages of what he thinks is fascinating research, which lie like indigestible lumps at the beginning of several chapters.    This young man can write well but he needs to learn a bit about writing because although he has talent, he needs to be able to recognise what is wrong with it.  Otherwise he might spend a lot of time re-writing (or sending it out to publishers and agents just to have it returned).

In the case of this (fictitious) young man some kind of creative writing course or tutor might help him make the best of his talent.

Although it is said that everyone has a book in them - it is also true that a lot of the time that is where the book should stay!  Not everyone can write something that deserves to be published, but until you have the chance to try and perhaps some help to find out how to hone your writing skills, how can you know if you can do it or not?
I firmly believe that everyone can be creative, in some form or other, but often creativity is dampened down by everyday life, or by insecurity or a feeling that it will never be good enough.

I love to go into a classroom and see the children getting so excited about the characters they create that they are full of ideas about how these characters will behave in their story.
 I don't see it as teaching creative writing, it is more about opening the door to their imagination and pointing out that there are lots of paths they can take.

Can you teach creative writing?   I remember hearing debate about whether you should teach art or were you stifling the artist's creativity by imposing the teacher's ideas on the student.  The same could perhaps be said about writing.

What do you think?

Linda's latest novel is Dead Boy Talking (Strident Publishing)
Writing for Children (A & C Black) for all aspiring and newly published writers
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Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Write Fight: N M Browne

I am feeling rather impotent. I can’t save my kids from massive uni debt, or help libraries buy or stock books, I can’t do anything to prevent PLR slipping away without a body to administer it. I know there are far worse evils in the world but education, literacy and an acknowledgment of the importance of culture are three bastions of civilisation and they are all under threat.
This is not a call to arms. There are things that make me angrier and I’m confident that I will have plenty of opportunity to get angrier as cuts get more radical. This is more a call to write. I mean there’s not much point in going on strike is there? Who would notice?
No. I am fighting back in a singularly ineffectual but morally satisfying way. So you think by destroying libraries, reducing discretionary income and bringing in a double dip recession thereby destroying the retail book trade you can break me, hey?
I am made of stronger stuff. I will finish this book, dammit, and it will be great and even if no one reads it but my kids ( because I’ve bribed them) and the librarian's daughter (who liked my last one,) I shall not be beaten. We practitioners who deliver culture at the frontline ( sadly a quote from the culture minister) are not so easily discouraged, we will continue to ply our trade with little hope of earning a living wage, we shall defend the value of the written word ( however it is delivered by book, download, or psychic transfer) and we will prevail!
So there. See. Not so impotent after all, huh!

Black History Month Catherine Johnson

I like Black History Month. Of course it does sound a bit American, and to be absolutely honest I think it should be called British History Month because that's what it is, it's all of our history whatever colour we are. But it does help to know that there is a history of not white people that goes back an awful long way in these islands, and I do passionately believe we should all know about it. At least once a year.
I started writing historical novels because I loved those Sunday afternoon serials we had on the BBC in the 70s. I always loved the clothes and would have diued for an empire line frock, or at a pinch, a long Scottish Widows style velvet cloak I could throw on when I had a delivery to make on my horse.
Basically, I wanted to write stories that had people like me in fancy threads.The only historical outfits I ever saw black people in were slave rags or loin cloths.
Then I found this photo. It's my grandmother, also a Catherine, there on the left, with her mother in the centre, and her sisters. Look at their hats! Aren't they fabulous? This is black people in full late Victorian garb, these people are reasonably well to do and they are sitting there in all their finery for the photographer, just like people do everywhere.
And that's the point of it I suppose, not just Black History Month or history or stories; its that we're all pretty much the same.
Catherine Johnson
PS apologies for the mis post yesterday, I am in Lancashire thanks to the wonderful librarians of the county. If any of you get a chance to go to Shout About Books go! Many thanks to Alison, Allyson, Suzanne and Susan and Sandra. And more apologies to Linda, I tried to reply to your email but postmaster wouldn't let me.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Researching my Home City by Marie-Louise Jensen

Researching Bath in the eighteenth century has proved to be a real adventure. You think you know your own city. I certainly thought I knew mine. After all, I've been round all the museums many times. I've done the walks and the bus tours. I've shown visitors around. But when I started to research a specific time period, I realised that my knowledge was at best superficial and at worst completely wrong.
The surprises began to mount up. For example, I didn't know that the gracious Georgian city I'm lucky enough to live in, and that so many tourists visit, was built mainly after the really fashionable period of its history was over.
The Bath the the rich aristocracy flocked to 'the better to enjoy each other's company and win one another's money as they had done in London in the winter', was a tiny, dirty, cramped medieval city, still entirely enclosed by its city walls. The Bath that Beau Nash reigned over as uncrowned king didn't even get a dedicated ballroom for some twelve years. Refuse was piled high in the streets, dogs ran everywhere, the lighting was haphazard and the sedan chairmen robbed, cheated and persecuted their wealthy passengers.
Now doesn't that sound like a much more promising basis for a story than a sedate promenade on clean, new streets and sober and respectable balls? There is certainly far more scope for danger and adventure.
I've finally bothered to read the little notice on a scrappy piece of stonework in Saw Close, and found out that it's a fragment of the old city walls; one of only two remaining. And looking on maps of the old city really brings home just how tiny it was before fame and fortune brought about the explosive late-Georgian expansion.
The image of all those reputedly badly-behaved, obsessive gambling, gossiping and pleasure seeking nobles all crammed into such a small space is a vivid one. And I'm not sure I'll ever view Bath in the same way again.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Future of Children's Reading - Ellen Renner

The first week of November the University of Exeter is holding a children's literature festival, EXEtreme Imagination. Well known authors, including Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen, Beverly Naidoo, Mal Peet, Julie Hearne, Tim Bowler and Helen Dunmore will be giving talks and going into schools and libraries to meet Devon children. As a local writer, I'll also be taking part: going into schools and launching my second book, City of Thieves, at the end of the festival.

More and more frequently, I'm hearing other children's writers questioning whether or not festivals and school visits are a productive use of their time. Especially as they often don't get paid for festivals and because, in the current economic climate, fewer schools are able to afford the SOA rates for author visits. For many authors, income from school visits has traditionally formed a large part of their income so it's a serious concern. Although I can readily understand the frustration underlying these sorts of comments, I'd like to offer another point to consider.

The one thing that children's writers need is readers. And so it seems logical to me that promoting children's love of reading should be one of our primary concerns. If not for altruistic reasons, then purely out of self interest. Because no one should take it for granted that readers will always be out there.

Nine months into my own career as a published children's author, I feel at least nine years older and wiser. Because the times, they are a-changing. Established children's writers, whose careers began twenty, ten or even five years ago, entered a totally different world. The abandonment of the net book agreement and the predictable changes to the industry that have followed -- combined with difficult economic times and rapid technological change that may fundamentally alter the way books are made and sold -- mean that the situation for writers is almost certainly going to get worse, at least in the short term.

It would take a disposition cast in stainless steel not to be affected by the prognostications of doom and gloom flooding the world of children's books: the death of the book; the declining literacy of children; the closing of libraries; and possibly scariest of all, the increasing evidence that the very way we use the internet is changing the structure of our brains and the way we read. Novels may soon be a thing of the past as both children and adults become incapable of sustaining the concentration required to read one.

So, faced with the increasing difficulty in earning a living through writing alone, and the fact that our profession may soon no longer be either required nor desired by society, what is a children's writer to do? Some campaign for libraries, some blog, all of us try to write the best books we can, most of us do a certain amount of moaning and a whole lot of worrying.

The only thing I, personally, can think to do, is to go into local schools. I don't view school visits primarily as a way to supplement my income or even as a self-promotional tool -- book sales are largely insignificant. I view them as a form of outreach. I have had children buy a book who have never owned one before. They might even read it. Children need to meet writers. They need contact with adults whose job is playing pretend on paper, and who can get across to them how much fun reading and writing can be.

Story is fundamental. Along with music, dance and making images, humans need story-telling. These days they get it through lots of different media: TV, film, gaming, the internet. Books are a relatively new invention in the world of story and, after a few centuries, they may already be dying out. I hope not: I love books. But story will continue, in some form.

But whatever the fate of the book, and whether children read a paper book or read on a screen, it's vital that they read. They need stories: good ones. The ability to read well is one of the greatest gifts a child can be given. Stories have the ability to unlock whole worlds inside a child's mind, opening them to new ideas and experiences. That is quite enough reason in itself, but reading is also the key to social mobility, to aspiration, to achievement.

Children who read do well at school. Those who struggle to read often struggle through life. Getting children reading, and keeping them reading, is incredibly important to them as individuals and to society. For lucky children, it starts in the home, with parents reading to their babies and toddlers. It carries on in schools, where enlightened primary teachers read daily to their students. As writers, our job is to write stories that are good enough. Stories that make readers turn the pages.

The Exeter festival opens with a paneled debate: After Hogwarts: What is the Future for Children's Reading and Writing? The debate will take place on the evening of Wednesday the 27th of October. Members of the panel include Sara Davies, Executive Producer at BBC Bristol, Julia Eccleshare, Children's Editor at the Guardian, and Professor Debbie Myhill, Acting Dean of the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at Exeter, and Samantha Shipman from Liverpool's Reader Organisation.

If you would like to attend, or if you have a question you'd like to send in advance to the panel, please contact Pete Hodges at

I'm already composing my questions.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Acknowledgements - Charlie Butler

I know from the experience of having written about Acknowledgements elsewhere that most people who read this post are going to disagree with me. So I’ll say it up front: this is just my personal preference, I’m not judging anyone, and I’m happy to contemplate the possibility that I may even be, yes, wrong. Nevertheless, I can’t help clinging to the feeling that I may also be a bit right.
I don’t much care for Acknowledgements pages in novels.
There, I’ve said it.
If I seem a little nervous, it’s because when I mentioned this in another forum some time ago, I was surprised by the visceral ferocity of the reaction. More than one person accused me of wanting to ban the things (which I certainly don’t). Another devoutly hoped that I was joking. Yet another declared my preference “bizarre”. Altogether there was something defensive about the comments I received, as if I were somehow sneering at people who like Acknowledgements.
It’s easy to forget that Acknowledgements pages haven’t always been around, so quickly have they become entrenched. In the old days – by which I mean 15 years ago – novels generally appeared with an author’s name, maybe a dedication, and possibly (if it was a historical, say), a technical note explaining what liberties had been taken with history or geography. By contrast, the full-blown Acknowledgements page will detail all the editors, friends, family and chance acquaintances who may have had a hand in providing inspiration, coffee, good advice, and so on. Often the page will be fleshed out into something like a mini-essay on “The Making of This Book”, in the manner of a DVD extra, replete with reminiscences about the people and incidents that contributed to its writing.
So, why don’t I care for Acknowledgements pages? What could be my problem with such a generous-spirited recognition of the undisputed fact that, with any book, the material doesn't originate entirely within the writer's own head? Why shouldn’t the beta readers and editors and long-suffering spouses have their moment in the sun? There are two main reasons for my preference, one perhaps more respectable than the other. (And let me repeat that this is just an account of how I react, not a model for others to follow.)
The less respectable reason – to get it out of the way – is that, in some hands, Acknowledgements can feel a bit breathless and Oscar-speech-ish. Or they can become a rather cloying round of log-rolling and mutual admiration between members of tight literary coteries. But this doesn’t apply to all, or even most, of them. Most are heartfelt and gracious.
The (arguably) more respectable reason is that Acknowledgements tend to throw me out of the fictional world by reminding me that it’s all made up. Of course I do know this anyway, but I don’t like to be reminded of it the minute I’ve read FINIS. I’m aware that this is not an entirely consistent reaction. I don’t mind at all when actors come on at the end of a play to take a bow, for example – but the “Making of this Book” approach feels more like a magician explaining how the trick he’s just performed was done. As a matter of fact I’d be very interested to know how it was done – just as I’m very interested to know how books are written – but I don’t feel the book itself is the place to do it.

In that case, why don’t I just skip the Acknowledgements altogether? Of course, I’m far too nosy to do so (and I’d certainly stay to hear the magician’s explanation). Also, I feel that if something’s designed by the author to sit in the book, it’s because the author feels that reading it will enhance rather than detract from the experience of that book. I don’t like the idea that some parts of a book are optional extras. As a parallel, imagine that it became standard practice for artists to put up a page of Acknowledgements next to their paintings, explaining how they came by the idea for the picture, where they buy their brushes, how their partner encouraged and criticized them, what other painters they admire, etc. All very interesting: all entirely distracting. And imagine that this page was considered part of the painting, to the extent that wherever the painting was to be displayed the Acknowledgements would be displayed too. Would it really be so bizarre to say that, personally, I’d rather that kind of information, fascinating as it is, was kept to the catalogue or a magazine interview? Or that being told to “just ignore it” didn’t quite answer the case?
Finally, I wonder why Acknowledgements pages have become so widespread in fiction? Are they now in fact de rigeur, so that anyone who doesn’t include them will be seen as an egotistical ingrate? And does this mark some kind of epistemic shift, whereby authors are no longer seen as individual artists (in the way that painters and composers still are) but simply as one player in a collaborative art form, more on the lines of a movie scriptwriter? If so, how did that happen?

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Biting the hand that feeds - Anne Rooney

Health warning: this is going to be a controversial post, so please lower your blood pressure before reading.

Children's writers have always been great supporters of the wonderful UK library service. Libraries and writers enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Libraries nurture embryonic readers, they buy books, and they provide us with a sliver of our income in the form of PLR (public lending rights - the small payment made to writers when their books are borrowed). In return, we write books and those books are given free of charge to anyone who wants to read them. Many of us have been vociferous in our support of libraries in the face of threatened cuts.

As children's writers, we know our readers rarely have a book-buying budget. They may not be able to persuade a parent to buy a book, but should be able to persuade a parent to allow a library visit. Few parents can afford to buy the huge numbers of picture books a child reader can get through, but a library will provide. The library is a golden gate to a life of reading, a gate we need to keep open.

In the current economic climate, though, some libraries are ducking out of the symbiosis and turning to bite the hand that feeds. An advertisement for a library early last year read 'Buy none, get six free'. It's clever, but its implicit suggestion that people shouldn't buy books is underhand, and damaging to writers and the publishing industry. A meeting at Cambridge Central Library last month invited suggestions from the public on how to make cuts in the library service over the next three years. One measure the library is proposing to adopt is to cut the book-buying budget for the current year from £350,000 to zero. I suggested it would be less damaging for authors and publishers if they cut it by £120,000 a year in each of the three years. No, they said, this was a cut that could be implemented immediately. It was, they agreed, regrettable that it would be damaging to the publishing industry and to writers at a time when they were also struggling.

Regrettable. Some of those writers and publishers will go to the wall if this strategy is widely adopted, but might survive if the saving had been spread out. Of course, 'it's not the libraries' fault, everyone has to make cutbacks'. That's true. But books are the core of a library. Why not cut back on whizzy, hi-tech borrowing systems that scare elderly readers, on new carpets, new furniture, and far too much lighting left on all the time? The symbiot is becoming selfish and ignoring the needs of its partner.

One man suggested that many people have books in their homes that they don't intend to read again, so libraries could just ask people to donate books and then the library wouldn't need to buy any books at all. The library spokespeople seized on this suggestion enthusiastically. There are around 4,500 libraries in the UK. That represents a lot of lost income for writers and publishers if they stop buying new books. The symbiot is turning parasite.

It looks likely that PLR may be axed as part of the government's cut-backs so loans, even of donated books, will generate no income for writers. The current PLR rate is around 6p per loan. If a book sale would bring an author a royalty of 60p (a fairly average figure), it takes ten loans to make up for one sale lost because the reader borrowed rather than bought the book. That's fair - by no means everyone would have bought the book if there were no library.

Compare and contrast:
  • A pirate copies my book and posts it for free on the Internet; my publisher is outraged - people are reading the book for free, this is damaging sales, neither of us has an income from it. The publisher says they can't afford to commission more books if this continues.
  • A library accepts a donated copy of my book and lends it for free to anyone who walks through the door. People are reading the book for free, this is damaging sales, neither of us has an income from it. Can the publisher afford to commission more books if this continues?
Will libraries still be nurturing new readers? Less successfully, perhaps, if readers are raised on a diet of scraps: secondhand books that, rather than being carefully chosen by knowledgeable librarians, have been chucked out by people who don't want them. It's not going to be the best books that make it to the shelves - literary pigswill, rather. Perhaps that will mean people who want to read the best, newest books will be more likely to buy them. Perhaps. The rich people, anyway. But I don't want to write only for rich people.

Will someone tell me what the library service is still offering writers, please? Because I would like to continue to support it, but if it doesn't value its principal commodity - books - and the people who provide that commodity, it's going to get very difficult to remain enthusiastic.

As there is no point in complaining without making a suggestion, here's my suggestion:

If PLR is to go could we, perhaps, have a ban on new books appearing in libraries until six months or a year after publication? After all, films don't come out on DVD until they have had a chance to make money at the box office. Then there is a chance for publishers and writers to earn a little more from the book before it becomes freely available. It would be easy enough to do, at least approximately - no book can appear in a library catalogue during the year of publication shown on the imprint page, for instance. If people want to read a book as soon as it comes out, they can pay for it - otherwise they can wait. And it would be really, really helpful if the libraries could have lots of advance publicity for these books so that impatient people will go and buy a copy. Maybe a library could even have an integral bookshop concession stocking the books the library can't lend yet? Come on, libraries, use a bit of imagination and keep us on your side. If writers and publishers go bust, your future book-buying budget won't be much use anyway.

Anne Rooney
website & blog

Friday, 8 October 2010

It's a crime by Keren David

Anne Cassidy's fingerprints are all over this plan
Crime pays – if you’re writing for adults, that is. Take a glance at any list of bestsellers and you’ll find it’s dominated by murders, kidnaps, blackmail and assaults. Crime is international, time-travelling and ever popular.

But somehow crime writing for children doesn’t get the same attention. Look around any children’s bookshop and you might find sections dedicated to dark romance and action adventure...but you’d need a very large magnifying glass to identify a shelf of teen crime novels.  It seems that the publishing industry doesn't quite realise the value of crime writing for younger readers -  male and female - the satisfaction in unravelling a whodunnit, the fascination with extreme situations and emotions, the variety of ways in which stories about crime can be told.

So, the Godmother of the British teen crime mafia has come up with a cunning plan. Anne Cassidy - mastermind of this blog and author of many great crime novels for teen readers, including Looking for JJ and,most recently, Guilt Trip  - has pulled together the usual suspects (Scottish bruisers Gillian Philip, Linda Strachan and me, the new wet-behind-the-ears recruit) to create a blog, somewhere to shine a light on crime books new and old, and discuss news, clues and criminal connections. We’ve already recruited some hardened criminal writers as contributors, and now we’re looking to widen our network.

The blog is set up and will be going live some time in the next month. You can find it here. Contact us if you’re a writer who wants to have their say - and please sign up as a follower if you enjoy reading crime novels. The plot - we hope - is about to thicken.

(Apologies - this post is shorter and later than planned. This is because the police knocked at my door while I was writing it.)

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Words and pictures: Sue Purkiss

I have a friend, Sara Parsons, who is is an artist and a potter. She lives on a farm, and a few years ago, she, her husband and sons converted an old barn into a studio, where she does her own work and has art classes.

Not long after the studio was finished, I was looking for somewhere to have a launch for my first longer length book, The Willow Man. Sara offered the studio, and it was brilliant - the perfect setting for people to come and buy the book and have a chat. In the afternoon, Sara looked speculatively at an expanse of bare stone wall. "Hm," she said. "I'll do a picture for that." By the time evening came, it was there: a powerful sketch of the Willow Man, and underneath, a quote from the book. That's it in the picture. Sara uses calligraphy in a lot of her work: it pops up in all sorts of unexpected places. Words loop gracefully under glazes, around figures, are etched on the beach by retreating seas.

So this September, when I decided to start up a creative writing class in Cheddar, the studio seemed the perfect place to have it. I haven't taught creative writing to adults before, and I really had no idea how much fun it was going to be. We've only had three sessions, but already, so many good things are happening. There is a good mix of people, with an age range of about forty years. Already, we are learning to expect the unexpected: we listen eagerly to each new piece of writing. We have been moved, astonished, intrigued; we've laughed (a lot); we've been thrown off-balance; we've been entranced by something in a particular combination of words. In just three sessions, writing has revealed things in us that we hadn't realised were there.

The studio provides an extra element. All around us hang pictures and rough sketches, which change from week to week. One wall is mirrored, and we don't like this, because we're shy writers - so Sara covers it with an opulent red velvet counterpane, glittering with embroidery and sequins: a rich background for our imaginings. Last week, I went over to the flip-chart easel, and there on the ground were six glistening red drops, the first just underneath where the bag of one of the students hung from her chair. Just paint, or...? Da da DA!! The story begins...

Half way through the session, the students were working on a poem. At the beginning of each line were the words, 'You are...' I went over to put the kettle on, glanced up idly, and noticed a sketch of Sara's pinned to the wall. (There it is in the second picture.) There were words on it. The only ones I could read were... 'You are...' Reader, a shiver ran down my spine.

It's lovely having books published. But there is a down side. Once you've crossed that threshold, and once the first euporia is over, you find that there are things to worry about. You still enjoy it, often revel in it - but there's always another step to climb. You've got a book published. How can you make it sell? It sells reasonably. Why didn't it sell better? You're on a long-list. How can you make it onto a short-list? You're on a short-list. Why didn't you win? The dark side edges in...

What's lovely about this class is that the focus is purely on the craft - the pleasure of writing something as well as you can; finding the best words and putting them in the best possible order, and then sharing them. I'm loving it.

And I can't wait to see what the studio is going to offer up for us next. (This is a great website!)

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Keep Silent by Lynda Waterhouse

I keep his picture by my desk. His dark eyes stare at me. His hair is long and he needs a shave. His lips are set in a determined downward curve. He is trying a bit too hard to look like he doesn’t care about me and yet he is carrying a placard which he is defying me to read and consider. Upon it are written the words,
Keep silent, unless your speech is better than silenceThe man in the picture is Salvator Rosa (1615 -1673), artist, actor, philosopher, and possible bandit. I first encountered him at The Wallace Collection which owns his painting of Apollo and the Cumaean Sybil. The self portrait is usually in the National Gallery but can now be seen in a wonderful exhibition of his paintings at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Keep silent, unless your speech is better than silence
His advice seems to run counter to all the pressure on me to twitter, buzz, hum and fritter my words and myself in order to get myself ‘out there’. Should I deck myself out in the literary equivalent of a meat dress and get noticed?
Keep silent, unless your speech is better than silence
John Le Carre recently said in a recent interview that he likes to be the quiet guest at the dinner table. If we are expected to ‘make a noise’ all the time are we sacrificing a bit of our creative self? After his death Salvator Rosa became the darling of the Romantics because he refused to paint to order. He painted scathing pictures showing Fortuna scattered her riches on those that least deserve them. I would love Fortuna to scatter some random riches and recognition in my direction.
Keep silent, unless your speech is better than silenceHis words challenge me as I write. Silent images flicker on the screen of my imagination over and over again and I dance with them until they are reformed into words. Then I can only hope that these words can successfully transmit those images and emotions into another’s imagination so that a story or a poem comes into existence. A story that is better than silence.