Monday, 31 January 2011

If You Go Down to the Woods - Charlie Butler

I’m not especially generous to charity, but I have a few conscience-lubricating direct debits that go off every month to selected causes. Sometimes, mind, I look at my little list and wonder about my priorities. Next to the cancer charity, and the fund to bring clean water to African villages, the longest-standing of these payments – my monthly contribution to the Woodland Trust – may seem rather trivial. After all, keeping a few broadleaf trees alive isn't quite as morally urgent as stopping a child from contracting cholera, is it?
Indeed not – but neither is morality as a zero-sum game, despite the tendentious arguments of policitians (“Wouldn't you rather we closed your local library than stopped homecare for the elderly? Do you hate old people that much?”). That is a false choice, because understanding and valuing what connects us to nature and to our own history is part of what makes us capable of caring about the other things too. Britain is, historically, an island of forests, and although frighteningly little remains of its ancient woodland, a visceral memory and sense of its importance persists amongst even the most urban of town dwellers. The wild wood, as Alan Garner once put it, is "always at the back of our consciousness. It’s in our dreams and nightmares and fairy tales and folk tales."
It's sometimes said that you can judge a country by the way it treats its prisoners. In children's books, woods and trees can act as a similar touchstone. In C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, for example, we know things have got really bad when the trees are felled on the order of the False Aslan; while Saruman's willingness to cut down trees to feed his furnaces in The Lord of the Rings is a sure sign of his depravity. By contrast, a love of trees betokens health and moral soundness, whether they grow in Milne's Hundred-Acre Wood, a locus amoenus subject to seasons and weather but never to calendars, clocks or the other impedimenta of downtrodden adulthood; or in the hardier worlds created by Arthur Ransome and BB, whose children find both shelter and challenge under the shade of the greenwood, as Robin Hood did before them. Underlying all these, nestling in the leaf litter, lie our memories of the fairy-tale woods with their witches, wolves and wandering children. Their long roots wind in and out of our dreams, as ineluctably as those of Yggdrassil.
When my father died, I paid the Woodland Trust to protect an acre of woodland in perpetuity. Dad’s patch of earth is in a small wood near Winchester, not far (to bring in a gratuitous children’s literature reference) from the grave of Charlotte Yonge. One autumn day, a few months after his death, our family dedicated his acre by scattering his ashes there, in the furze of a small clearing. The ashes blew about a little (‘Don’t sneeze your grandfather!’ I warned my daughter), but I think the wood accepted our dusty libation. I plan to end up there myself, one day – unless of course it’s been turned into a car park by then. To prevent that happening, either to that acre or to many thousands of others, I urge you to consider signing one or both of these petitions, protesting against the current plans to sell off publicly-owned forest:

Saturday, 29 January 2011

'I'm writing a children's book...' - Anne Rooney

No, not me - well, I am, but no more or less than usual.

I was on the train to Colchester on Thursday, where I'm Royal Literary Fund Fellow. I made the train with two seconds to spare, sat down opposite an oldish man and remarked on nearly missing it. I'm happy to talk to people on trains, but I also needed to get some work done, so it wasn't good when he took this as a signal that he could talk to me for the next half hour. It got worse.

OM: What are you doing? Marking or proof-reading?
Me: Editing. [Not telling him what - young adult novel manuscript.]
...[ He tells me tales of his exploits as a proof-reader. I kid you not.]
OM: I write children's books now.
[I look interested at last.]
OM: I'm not published yet.
[Warning sign; I try to look uninterested after all]
Me: What kind?
OM: Cross-over.
[He proceeds to explain to me that cross-over books are read by adults and children; I pretend I don't know this.]
Me: Tell me about one of them.
[He tells me the start of something in verse about a princess.]
Me: That's not a cross-over novel. [Should have shut up, but momentarily forgot.]
[He tells me how it gets rude, so it must be - it's more suitable for adults later on. I say nothing - there really is nothing to say. He tells me about another one, in which a mother inadvertently names her child after a poisonous fungus.]
OM: I'm looking for someone with a contact at a publisher now.
[He looks hopeful; I cross out a whole paragraph that was probably OK, but it makes me look busy and decisive.]
OM: I know an illustrator: I gave her her first commission.
[He implies she is indebted to him as he tells me about some hapless art student who drew him a logo for something, and it was never used.]
OM: Now she illustrates a series of school books. She earns more than her sister, who is a hospital doctor. I'll ask her to talk to her publisher.
[Oh dear, poor girl.]
Me: Illustrators don't usually earn that much.

And so on... I wondered whether to direct him to SCBWI, but decided SCBWI had done nothing to deserve it. At last, he got off the train. Phew. I went off to talk to my students about their short stories and film scripts and experimental fiction.

We all know what will happen. Next year's big hits will be a rude cross-over novel in verse about a princess and a story about someone who inadvertently names their child after a poisonous fungus. And I will carry on earning much less than a hospital doctor, for all my long list of publishers, and my creative-writing students will earn nothing at all...

Friday, 28 January 2011

War Stories by Keren David

How do children learn about war? Some learn from experience, of course, from being caught up in terrible events - as victims, refugees, child soldiers. My parents were both wartime children. My mother was evacuated from her London home and attended nine primary schools. My dad grew up in South Wales, taught by his Home Guard father how to make basic explosives. If the Germans invaded he was to kill his mother and brothers, then take to the woods and try and kill as many of the enemy as possible.
My generation, and those born after me were luckier by far. We got to learn about war from books. History books told us the dry facts (although in the 1970s, history meant Tudors and Stuarts, not the recent past) but novels taught us how it might have felt to be part of those events. Books like Carrie's War by Nina Bawden and Ian Serraillier's A Silver Sword shaped our understanding of the world we had been born into.
These are just two of the books featured in a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London which opens on February 11. Once Upon a Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children  uses life-size sets, scale models and interactive displays to engage children with books set in wartime. The other books featured  are Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley and The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall.   Little Soldier is about an African child refugee, starting a new life in London, desperate to avenge his slaughtered family; a far cry from the trench warfare of the First World War captured so evocatively in Morpurgo's book. Putting these books together will encourage children to make links and spot differences, to examine the way that war stories are told and the many things we can learn from them.
The exhibition will show children how the author built a work of fiction, displaying notebooks, manuscripts and photographs, and also put the text in a historical context, with  artefacts including evacuee letters and labels, and the fin of a German incendiary bomb. Michael Morpurgo is writing a short story to mark the opening of the exhibition. Other wartime books will also be featured, and in August a children's war literature festival will be held at the museum with lectures, workshops and discussions led by authors.
Judah, my 11-year-old son loved War Horse, and has read the book and seen the play. His dad took him to the Imperial War Museum to find out more about trench warfare, and we've also visited First World War cemeteries. Judah didn't just learn about the war from these experiences -  although he did learn a great deal. He thought a lot about the differences between a book and a play, and the difficulties involved in staging a play about a horse. Who knows what extra insights this exhibition will give him? Bravo to the Imperial War Museum for celebrating children's literature in this way, and I hope that many schools will be able to afford to take their pupils to see it.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Never Again! Miriam Halahmy and Leslie Wilson

For the past year Leslie Wilson and I have been having ‘a big conversation.’ Leslie is half English/ half German. I am Anglo/Jewish. We both believe that dialogue is the way to build bridges across divided communities and to promote healing and reconciliation.  We regard our deepening friendship as a contribution towards the defeat of Hitler and Nazism. We therefore decided to do a joint blog for Holocaust Memorial Day 2011.   


Memorial to 7000 Jews of the town of Kerch, Crimea, shot in an anti-tank ditch.

 As a Jewish child growing up in England after the Holocaust I saw the faces of my grandparents on the victims in the newsreels. However for my friends the victims looked like foreigners, a people far away about whom they knew almost nothing.
 The Nazis organised the rounding up and murder of one and a half million Jewish children and I often thought, That could have been me. My family come from Poland, right in the heart of the killing fields.
Memorial in  Poland

But the Nazis threatened all children. Every single German child whether their background was Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Black, gay, gipsy or political was at risk. Kitty Hart who survived Auschwitz and a death march says, “We believe it can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.” She has given her testimony since 1946 and has even taken neo-Nazis back to Auschwitz.
Like most Jews of my generation I have absorbed a lot of material about the Holocaust and a huge spectrum of emotions. Ultimately I believe that the cry of the Jewish people at the end of the war, Never Again! is underpinned by promoting dialogue across divided communities. Human rights prevail in an atmosphere where all people are regarded in the same equal non-judgemental way. Every young person should be encouraged to contribute to this goal and fiction can help to provide the route map forward. A fourteen year old girl said this week at an HMD workshop, “I now think of all the people who died as individuals.”

In my debut YA novel, HIDDEN, Meadowside, March 2011, I have focused on immigration law and human rights through the eyes of an ordinary English teenage girl. Alix befriends Samir in her school when he is bullied for being foreign and together they hide a tortured, desperate asylum seeker to save him from being deported.

 If we are to build bridges across communities then we need to understand that there is no hierarchy of suffering. Everyone must contribute to the dialogue if Holocaust Memorial Day is to make a difference. We are all citizens of the world!

We need to remember and mourn the victims, that’s a way of defying Hitler, who wanted them to be obliterated without trace. And yet - if ‘Never Again’, the words that I saw written on the monument to the dead at Dachau, is to mean anything, I am certain that we need also to think about the perpetrators.

Photo courtesy of Scrapbookpages

Growing up in post-war Britain, I so often heard people say: ‘The Germans should have done something to resist Hitler.’ The image of the German, man, woman and child, was always of the goose-stepping, Heil-Hitlering, rabidly anti-Semitic fanatic. A nation of ‘things’ as the text of the Belsen newsreel put it, disguised as humans, but not really so. Even for the next generation of Germans – to whom I partly belong, it could be an easy way out. There was something wrong with them, I wouldn’t act the way they did. End of story.

I remember hearing an American tour guide taking a group of teenagers round Dachau. ‘Imagine’, she kept saying, ‘what it was like for them.’ I thought yes, imagination was what was discouraged in the 3rd Reich. You didn’t ask questions, you didn’t think about what it was like for those other people. But that’s precisely what fiction invites us to do. Even more than history. Fiction can make us feel what it was like to be there, making frightening decisions; to imagine what it’s like to have the Gestapo in your house, to be standing, facing the wall, while armed men turn everything upside down hunting the Jew you have hidden there. Or what it’s like to not help. To be scared, because you know what happens to the people who’re caught helping. And – remember this – those people are described as scum by the authorities. The lowest of the low. And your country’s at war, and you’ve been told the Jews are on the side of the people you’re fighting. You’ve even been told that the war was forced on you.

I’m not saying this to excuse; I’m saying it because I think if we can understand what made ordinary human beings turn their backs on their fellow-citizens, or even denounce them to the authorities – and even join the death squads who forced them to dig their own graves and then shoot them as they stood naked and shivering – then we can perhaps act differently in future – whether the groups under threat are Jews, Muslims, asylum-seekers, Roma people, gay people  - who knows? And the key is to understand that the Germans, and anti-semites and Roma-haters too – of other nations who went along with the Germans to help the murders - were ordinary people. It was an ordinary Dutch person who informed on the Frank family. So - what would we do?

I don’t write propaganda, I am a storyteller – but I know stories are part of our society and contribute to its thoughts. I was so glad when one teenager wrote about my novel ‘Last Train from Kummersdorf’: ‘It makes you think: what if?’

View HMD website and trailer here.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Just Imagine – some good news at last by Lynda Waterhouse

Just Imagine if, in these difficult times, there were to open a specialist children’s bookshop complete with events space for reading groups, writing courses, author events and much more. Imagine if this place was created by a passionate champion of children’s literature and run by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff.
Thanks to the vision of Nikki Gamble on Saturday 15th January it happened in Chelmsford! And I was lucky to be invited to the Grand Opening. Husband and I arrived late in the afternoon just in time to witness a re enactment of the opening ceremony by Dr Who author Steve Cole and the brilliant Sarah McIntyre. Marcus Sedgwick was there looking suitably brooding and gothic.

I was delighted to grab a copy of ‘When Titus Took the Train’ written by fellow author Anne Cottringer and illustrated by Sarah. I had heard it before read out in one of our sessions and it was wonderful to see it in book form and to admire Sarah’s illustrations.

Whilst husband was busy talking post apocalyptic novels I chatted with Mike Dodsworth about the power of dance and story and shallow creature that I am I tried really hard not to scan the shelves for copies of my books…..
Check out the Just Imagine Facebook page for details of regular events , contact or visit the centre at 64-68 New London Rd, Chelmsford, UK

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Donning Hats and Juggling Acts Savita Kalhan

Why write if it's not to be read?
I’ve been writing for a number of years, almost solely for teens, and so far I’ve had one book published. I’ve written several books, and I have ideas for several more. In my last blog I talked about my need to start on a new book each Autumn. It’s now January and yes, I am deep into my new story and loving the main character, although I’m not sure the main character loves me for what I’m putting her through! Regardless, I’m writing and I know I’ll continue writing until the book is finished when I’ll read it through and edit it, and agonise over it before sending it off to my agent, who will cast her critical eye on it and deliver her judgment, and if it’s a positive one it will get sent off to the publisher who will do the same etc, etc...
But this is just one aspect of being a writer – of intrinsic importance, of course, and you can’t call yourself a writer unless you are prepared to go through all of the above – there are other aspects that might be perilous to ignore.

To be a successful writer these days, several other hats should be donned once the writing has been done. The same is true even to be a moderately successful writer. There was a time when writers did not have to don any other hats – there were people who did that for them. These hats include upping your profile, trying to get (hopefully rave, but no guarantees!) reviews – online and in the press, making sure everyone, including the right people know about them, doing signings, visiting schools, blogging about your new book, blogging about yourself, being active on twitter and facebook, getting interviewed, networking, courting bloggers and librarians, speaking at conferences, and finding as many platforms for yourself and your book as possible. (Even Margaret Atwood maintains an active Twitter profile)
Creating a bit of a buzz for your book is important. The books that find their way onto all the shortlists and often win prizes haven’t got there all by themselves, unless their authors have been extremely lucky. The writers have been doing all the above and more to ensure their book’s success.

Not as many people read my first novel, The Long Weekend, as I would have liked. There are so many factors that contributed to that. I’m putting my hand up and saying that one of those factors was my naivety as a newly published author. No one knew about my book and as I wasn’t shouting it from the rooftops or even holding it up for people to see, things stayed that way. I didn’t know about all the other hats I needed to wear if I wanted my book to reach its readers, I just assumed that others were donning them for me. Consequently my book was only in a few book shops and found by very few readers.

Now I know what I have to do and I have been trying to do that, if somewhat belatedly. I still can’t wear all the hats I’d like to wear, but that’s okay. Some hats are easier to wear than others and are less time-consuming, so I try to wear those. I know I need time to write and to have a life outside of writing! So one of the things I decided to do was to promote my book on the internet, and that’s where I found those wonderful book bloggers from around the world. Luckily for me, book bloggers don’t mind at all that a book has been out for a while because what they love doing is reading good books, and they’re more than happy to review them, and if they like the book they rave about it. They are avid book readers and they’ve built up reputations and followers who want book recommendations.

They love my book, and this has led to a blog tour across the States and Canada in February.

Followed by another blog tour in March, details to be announced here in February:

More people will get to hear about my book and hopefully more people will read it. Finally, my book is reaching its readers.
I haven’t got a new book coming out – yet. But when I do, I won’t be making the same mistakes as I did when my first book came out.

I don’t think I’ve got my head buried in the sand anymore, although I’ve still got a few stubborn grains of sand in my ears. I’ve learnt an important lesson this past year - I know what I should be doing, I know how much I am comfortable doing, and I’m learning how much I want to do and how much I can fit in. I’m finding a balance that works for me.

And, yes, I guess in the end I do write because I want to be read.

Monday, 24 January 2011

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

TO TOUCH THE STARS by Jessica Ruston Headline Review pbk.

This book is Jessica Ruston’s second novel and ABBA readers may remember that I also reviewed her first, LUXURY, when it appeared. That’s because I’m a Jessica Ruston fan. The shoutlines on the proof copy that I read say A glittering empire, a golden family, a guilty secret. Those are the kinds of temptations I can’t resist and Jessica Ruston comes up trumps again. This is the story of Violet Cavalley who is to millinery what Chanel is to fashion. She has risen from humble beginnings to become the head of a dazzling and lucrative empire. Her family is the wonderfully mixed bag of neuroses, desires, passions, rivalries and deceptions you’d expect in such a book and the secrets that have been part of Violet’s life from a time before she was even called Violet are as juicy as secrets should be and the revelations when they come distribute some kind of justice.

This sort of novel isn’t to everyone’s taste and it’s easy to say: froth, frivolity, fun and not pick it up for reasons of high-mindedness which somehow don’t afflict us when we’re reading children’s books. When it’s for children, we reckon it’s okay to be page-turny and pacey and over the top. We approve of books which get children to read just because of the pleasure they get from following a cracking story. The same should be true of books like this: they’re fun to read. They don’t require too much knitting of the brows, and they may not change the way you think, but not all books have to be serious and life-changing. Ruston manages a huge cast of characters and a very intricate set of relationships with great economy and aplomb and if you’re like me and love details of dress, hats, jewels and so forth, then you’ll revel in it. Line it up for your holiday reading.

ICE MAIDEN by Sally Prue OUP pbk

Sally Prue is one of a kind. It’s impossible to do an ‘if you like this person, you’ll like Sally Prue’ because she’s unclassifiable. Other people have written about fairies, or elves or creatures from the other side of the veil between this world and other worlds, but I can’t think of anyone who does it in quite the same way. Edrin is one of The Tribe. They’re the beings who live on the Common, in a perfectly ordinary small town in England. Most of the time,they’re invisible and they haunt the woods and fields and hedgerows and manage to find sustenance without encroaching too much on the world of the humans, who are mostly unaware of their presence. In this novel, though, we have Franz. The time is just before the Second World War and Franz’s family is German. He’s not quite clear what they’re doing in England and he’s lonely and distanced from his mother and father because they consort with Nazis and are part of something which the boy, even at his tender age, can tell is deeply wrong. Edrin is hungry. There are those in the Tribe who are against her and she’s drawn to the human boy, who, in his turn, first senses and then sees her. What happens after that is written like an adventure story but is in fact a very unusual love story. It’s hard to imagine walking through a landscape after reading this book and not watching out for the members of the Tribe behind every tree. Edrin is a wonderful creation and this book deserves to be read slowly. Prue is good at describing the natural world and she’s also funny. The end of the story has a good twist which adults may see coming but children won’t and what happens between Franz and Edrin is genuinely moving. Do read this book, especially if you loved COLD TOM, this writer’s prizewinning story about another member of the Tribe.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

High Confidence and the Leaks - Joan Lennon

I've been thinking about confidence, and have come to the conclusion that that may be a mistake. My moments of high confidence - during a talk that's going really well, for example, or those times when the words flow like blue silk - don't seem to have any connection to cogitation, anticipation or memory. When I'm in them, I'm in them, full stop. Usually, that's fine, because I'm far too busy doing what I doing to be thinking about doing it. So to speak.

The times when confidence leaks away, however, seem to have plenty of room in them for thinking, fussing about the future and dredging up the past. A recent story rejection is a case in point. The moment the email arrived I became like a confidence colander. Belief in myself leaked out the bottom as memories of past rejections, fear - nay, certainty - of future rejections, and thoughts of the horribly parlous state of my chosen line of work flooded in at the top. All time - past and future, real and imagined, eminently possible and really very unlikely - swamping the rapidly shrivelling vegetables of the soul. Not a pretty sight.

I ought to come to some sort of conclusion at this point but I can't, beyond applauding the kitten above and staying away from kitchen duties. But if you have any insights on the question of confidence or the lack thereof, please share them.

Cheers, Joan.

P.S. Don't you think "High Confidence and the Leaks" would be a great name for a rock band?

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Friday, 21 January 2011

There are fairies at the bottom of our garden using an iPad – Dianne Hofmeyr

In the chaos of a summer’s day (I’m in the southern hemisphere right now) with hoards of people washing up from the beach, raiding my fridge for icy watermelon and cold beers and whatever else summer crowds need to refuel, we suddenly noticed we were minus a few little girls.

A few moments of mild panic. Weren’t they dressing up somewhere? Eating lunch out in the garden? Or had they wandered back along the boardwalk to the beach?

But no! They were found! All dressed up and sitting at the bottom of our garden – four fairies in an African boma… that stick-like pallisade which keeps wild animals away, except in our garden its mostly for atmosphere and communing with nature and spotting the odd mongoose, puffadder or bright green boomslang (both highly poisonous snakes) lurking between the fynbos. Not too many leopards and elephants here next to the coast.

Anyway here they were… all found… four little fairies of five and under, sitting very quietly in a row. Quite modern little fairies in fact, despite the garb of school shoes and socks on one of them. They had set up an iPad on a stump of wood. And guess what they were watching?
Charlie and Lola. And what particular Charlie and Lola story? The one with Lola and her friend Lotta crawling around her bedroom on all fours playing tigers and elephants in a jungle.

For a moment I felt slightly crushed. Here they were from around the world, from Bermuda and Seoul and London, in Africa with ‘real’ nature around them, glued to an iPad. Why weren’t they crawling around playing their own jungle adventures? What was wrong with these children? Did they have no imagination?

I had to pull myself up sharply. To decry that moment of intense interaction with an iPad I would equally be decrying any moment of intense interaction with a book. To prove the point I later found my granddaughter reading to her doll.

The fairies at the bottom of our garden watching an iPad were just modern little girls feeding their imagination for another time and another day, whether from paper or digitally, what did it matter.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Dispatch from Italy: here's a suggestion, why not try hard work? by Leila Rasheed

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air. Sitting down at my usual bar, drinking my usual cappuccino, scribbling in my usual notebook, half-listening to the usual 102.2 radio playing over the speakers (slogan: “Very normal people”), in between the usual Italian rock ballads and 80s nostalgia, I catch this plaintive question: Do you ever feel like a plastic bag? I sit up, I take notice. No, but I am prepared to go with it. Drifting through the air, wanting to start again. Okay, this is one of those metaphors that seems really good when you first think of it but doesn’t quite work on paper. You don’t have to feel like a waste of space. You’re original, cannot be replaced. This ought to encourage me, after all I’m a writer, we all sit around chewing our nails thinking “Are my books a waste of space? Am I original? Will I be replaced by a younger and more marketable author?” and our spirits rise and fall with our royalties – just like a plastic bag, actually, drifting through the air. But it doesn’t encourage me. It really doesn’t. It sounds about as sincere as Berlusconi’s hair weave. Or that other slogan of all-purpose blandly grinning reassurance: Because you’re worth it.

I understand the desire to have a song you can punch the air to, the need all us very normal people - slogging through our commuter runs or thirty-seventh drafts, feeling as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel, fearing that our lives are meaningless - have to be reassured that we truly are special. But this self-help song is hollow, because there is no struggle and no victory. It just assumes entitlement. Entitlement to self-respect, entitlement to publication, entitlement to glossy hair. It assumes you need make no sacrifices to achieve your goal. That having a dream means you are entitled to have it come true. That if you want to sing, a fairy godfather in the form of a massively rich record executive, ought to bungee jump down and whisk you away to the top of the charts in a flurry of flash-bulbs.

Not true. If you start with I have a dream, you should anticipate pushing through the dark years, still another mile. To those who feel like a waste of space, here’s a suggestion: set yourself a goal and work your socks off to achieve it. For example: work on that metaphor until it’s powerful rather than ludicrous. And then you can punch the air to a song which contains a real emotional victory: I will survive. There’s a reason that one has stayed popular: it’s the story of a self-respect and success that was earned.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Writing as Life Saving Meg Harper

First, the good news. Last time I was writing here, I was mid-struggle with a self-publishing project for the creative writing group that I teach. Well, the book has been published. ‘Oxfordshire Originals’ is a very respectable little collection of short stories and poems and we hope to launch it properly later in the Spring. My short biography of Elizabeth 1st for KS2 is all done bar a final edit and has received a terse ‘very good’ from my friend who is a professor of Tudor History. I’m up to my ears in work, all of a creative nature – so my work life is very happy.
On the domestic front, however, things are so bad that the scriptwriters of the Archers could find inspiration. I’m told Nigel has fallen off the roof and died! Well, no one’s died here but events in the last few weeks have proved equally unexpected and unlikely – so I am once again reminded that fact often proves stranger than fiction.
In the midst of this, there are things that have saved my sanity – my friends, my daughter introducing me to Michael Macintyre (who may be a Tory but at least he is a funny one), walking, swimming – and a wonderful book.
And that’s what I want to write about. For years, I have agonised over the value of my writing. Not in the ‘Am I great? Could I be the next George Eliot?’ fruitless sort of way but in the ‘Am I making a worthwhile contribution to the community?’ sort of way. Brought up by a disabled mother, I learnt to see doctors as god-like. To be a doctor seemed the most valuable thing anyone could be or do. But I was useless at sciences so there was no hope of a career there – and anyway, I wanted to be a children’s writer, a goal I have achieved. But there has always been a niggle. For me, as I despairingly explained to a friend once, ‘Just fun, won’t do’ - and writing is so much fun! I am learning to get over that – but I still struggle with the fact that there are just so many other books out there – what am I thinking of, trying to write yet another?
Talking about this to a friend recently, she told me how books for her had been a life-saver as a small and very troubled child in a broken home. Books had been her haven. They had saved her life. More should be written. Hmm, I thought, sceptically. And then I started reading ‘The Road Home’ by Rose Tremain.
It’s an understated story about Lev, an economic migrant, but it had me gripped. Something about Lev’s struggle to make his way, to pick himself up again and again from the blows that battered him, gave me hope. I kept returning to his story as haven and inspiration. I still think of Lev now and remind myself that if he could do it, so can I – even though he is a fictional character. It is not a story where all ends happily – but it is a story where grit and perseverance and love prevail.
I still don’t know about my own writing – how worthwhile it is compared with other things that I do. But I do know that Rose Tremain’s book has helped me – and I am sure there are innumerable people out there for whom a particular book has been a special help through a particularly traumatic time in their lives. Please do share any that have done that for you. Thank you.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Real Me - Andrew Strong

Peter Carey, when asked how he writes, says he just writes and rewrites, discovering new threads as he goes along; when something new appears, it can change everything else in the book, so he begins again, writes and rewrites, and then, perhaps, discovers a new thread. And so on.

He doesn't so much write stories, as carve them out. And it’s words he likes, words and sentences, not the storytelling of 'and then and then and then...'. He works on a microscopic level. He lets the story take care of itself. I approve of that.

I've read a few of his books, I liked 'Oscar and Lucinda', and loved 'The True History of the Kelly Gang'. They had an organic, uncontrived feel, and were forever growing. His characters feel the same.

A few years ago I picked up James Wood's book 'The Broken Estate' in a tiny second hand book shop. I didn't know anything about Wood at the time. It looked a serious book, with essays on Virginia Woolf, Austen and Martin Amis. A serious, cheap book. I couldn't resist it.

I like Wood when he goes on about 'rounded characters'. I'll skip what he says and just ask you to think of someone you know well. What is it about them that you know? When you think of them are they any more or less real than a character in a good novel? I think we caricature even the people we know intimately: I'm certain we remember faces by a very few details - a big chin, a small nose, a slightly raised eyebrow. Couldn't our 'deeper knowledge' of people be the same, and more superficial than we might suppose?

And what about ourselves? What do I know about the 'real me'? I wonder sometimes when I hear people saying things like 'I want to discover my true self'; because I don't think there is a true self. I'm not even sure there's a self, at least nothing static, unchanging, like a portrait. So, when it comes to creating characters, instead of piling on detail after detail, a few brushstrokes should do it.

Which reminds me why I have trouble reading Henry James. He does tend to describe faces in so much detail his characters seem grotesque. When someone has an 'elongated top lip' or 'an aquiline nose like a ridge waving down' I begin to see something resembling a tortoise. And then before I can do anything about it the tortoise is chewing a piece of soggy old lettuce - even though James doesn't mention the lettuce - and I can't read any more. If Peter Carey was writing such a book, I’m sure he’d have started again, and written the adventures of that tortoise. As he hasn’t, I will.

I’ll create a tortoise character with a few brushstrokes, and when this character is up and running (well, you know what I mean) - let him open a door, or eat his lettuce, or take forever to go from one room to another; and watch him - he does it his own way. And in the middle of this, he'll look up and he'll say something; he might tell you he's looking for his spectacles, or his purpose in life, or that he’s growing a moustache, and I'll have the beginning of a whole new thread, a new story, a new series.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Being Served - Elen Caldecott

Last year when I began my latest book I realised it would require research. It has historical elements that, in Bristol at least, are controversial. Actually, 'controversial' doesn't in any way cover it. The novel has, at its heart, a painting of a boy who was brought to England from the West Indies. He may, or may not be a slave. And I don't mean that in a 'the-author-knows-but-wants-to-leave-the-readers-guessing' way. I mean literally, there was a period in the late 18th, early 19th century when the status of slaves brought into England was a legal unknown. Judges made half-hearted rulings that got ignored anyway, each of them hoping some other case would set the precedent. As you can imagine, with such heart-wrenching material, I want to get as near to accurate as is possible with this story.

So, I went to the library.

At the time, I lived in Knowle. For those who don't know Bristol, Knowle is, well, rough as a badger's brillos. The library is in a shopping centre that is mostly pound shops, cheque-cashing shops and empty shops. The empty shops are particularly brilliant, they are boarded up with hoardings showing pictures of thin, vaguely Italian-looking women shopping with their NorthSouth bags. The nearest we get to that is thin, vaguely Italian-looking pizzas two-for-a-pound in Iceland bags.
I wasn't holding out much hope as I went to research the finer points of the international slave trade. I was an idiot. The library played a blinder.

As soon as I explained what I wanted the librarian went to their small non-fiction section and gave me the auto-biography of an 18th century slave who visited England,: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. She also produced a biography of a slave who lived much of his life in Bristol, Pero, The Life of a Slave in 18th century Bristol. There was also a general history of British ports and their role in the slave trade. These books were exactly what I needed.

At that time, I thought, wow, isn't it amazing that my tiny, local library should have three books on their shelves that are perfect for starting my research. Of course, the references and bibliographies of these books suggested more books for wider reading. I was able to order most of them from the Libraries West database for delivery within a week. To my local library.

Then, it occured to me that no, it wasn't that amazing; it's what libraries are for, to serve the interests of their local community. Bristol's relationship with the triangular trade is a huge and difficult part of the city's psyche. It is only to be expected that Bristol's inhabitants will want to learn about it. The library service buys accordingly and makes sure the people of Bristol have good access.

So, when half the libraries in the country are gone, and the ones that are left have a freeze on book-buying, and the librarians have all been replaced by work experience kids, how exactly will they serve their communities then? Just wondering.
Elen's Facebook Page

Saturday, 15 January 2011

A Sort of Life - Celia Rees

At the end of his autobiographical memoir, Graham Greene says:

'For a writer, I argued, success is always temporary, success is only a delayed failure. A writer's ambition is not satisfied like the business man's by a comfortable income, although he sometimes boasts of it like a nouveau riche.
The writer has the braggart's excuse. Knowing the unreality of his success he shouts to keep his courage up. There are faults in his work which he alone detects...'

The real satisfaction lies in putting those things right, in other words in the writing itself.

Graham Greene was a great writer, one who understood not only how prose works, but the inner workings of those who produce it.

As I read this, I was struck by the truth of it. I'm sure there will be many who will deny it, but they know in their hearts that this is true. We ARE never satisfied. Once we are over the first great hurdle, that of getting our work published at all, then there are other goals to achieve: prizes, sales, money, fame, recognition. We need other people to recognise the worth of our work, and through that, ourselves. Even if we gain everything, prizes, fame, money, the whole works, then we still know that our star will inevitably fade. Success is fleeting, at best.

We now have more ways to shout, to keep our courage up. We can blog, tweet and twitter, post videos on YouTube. We can be out there, like barkers at some virtual literary fair, shouting out out wares, bidding readers to come see, come buy, know about us. I wonder what GG would think about all that?

Yesterday, I came across the wise words of another great writer: Margaret Atwood.

I was directed by Adele Geras to where I found this quote from an interview in the Literary Review:

'...people are trying to pile stuff onto authors, like you have to blog, you have to have this, you have to have that. Various party tricks. You actually don't ... an author's job is to concentrate on the writing, and once the writing is finished what you essentially do is throw it into a bottle and heave it into the sea... There is still a voyage between the text and the unknown reader; the book will still arrive at the door of some readers who don't understand it - who don't like it. It will still find some readers who hopefully do...'

I guess people will say, she would say that, wouldn't she? Just as it is easy to dismiss Graham Greene's words - how much more successful can a writer be? But I don't think these observations come from self satisfaction and complacency. They come from the very things that make these two such successful writers: their powers of observation, depth of insight, honesty and courage to express thoughts that might be unpalatable, but are nonetheless true. The only real satisfation has to come from the words we put down on the page and the connection we make with readers, no matter how many, or how few.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Bookshop and author working together: Lynne Garner

After a year of unsuccessfully trying to organise my own school visits I’d given up. However that all changed the end of last year when a friend took over the task of generating extra book sales in a small local bookstore. She contacted me asking if I’d be interested in working together to organise author events for local schools. Well as you can imagine I said a big fat yes to the idea.

Her plan was to contact the publishers she dealt with when buying books to see if they would help ‘supply’ authors for school visits. She also planned to contact as many local authors with the same aim, hence why she contacted me. Her plan of sourcing authors who could offer free visits and paid for visits culminated in my first author event.

I was the first of three authors to visit the school over a period of two weeks. We write completely different types of books and can provide the children with a different experience. I must admit I was not only excited but also extremely nervous on the day. However during the first break the feedback was extremely positive, which gave me the boost I needed just at the right time. At lunch time I was informed that some of the children had been found playing ‘authors.’ This involved folding pieces of paper to create a book and writing a story in said book. As I left at the end of the day the head mistress came up to my friend and I and told us she was delighted with the way the day had gone and how we had managed to inspire the children. I must admit as I climbed into my car I was defiantly in smug mode.

By working together we have found we can open more school doors. She has taken the ‘pain’ out of organising such an event for the school. Because of this she has within just a few short weeks managed to organise two events. She has not only boosted her sales but also managed to achieve something I was unable to do on my own. Since the positive feedback we received from our first venture we have decided to expand the schools approached to other local towns. We are positive that by working together we can not only build our business (her as a book seller and me as a writer) but also bring books to life for children.

Although the first visit took quite a bit of organising on both our parts all those that follow will be much easier. So if there are any authors or small independent bookshops looking to achieve the same thing then I would strongly urge you to give working together a go. It appears to be working for us.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

I do bite my thumb, sir: Gillian Philip

I don't watch EastEnders. It's on at a bad time for me, and I don't want to get caught up and addicted to the plot. I'd barely heard of Ronnie and Kat before last week, and leaping to their defence isn't something I'd ever planned to do.

On the other hand, I love the internet. I do. Some of my best friends are internet friends, whether on Facebook, Twitter or email.

The net has its drawbacks, though: like its potential for the manipulative and the mob. I daresay 6,000 members of Mumsnet were truly, authentically upset by the famously 'offensive' EastEnders storyline in which a mother devastated by a cot death swaps her dead baby for someone else's live one.

Harrowing, yes. Off limits? Oh, yes, for the Mumsnetters who cannot distinguish between issue-led fiction and... well... issues. Or indeed fiction.

Sorry, but I don't have shades of grey on this one. If I want to write about an individual - an individual - who has been turned completely barking by a terrible tragedy, then I hope I'll always be able to do so. I was going to add 'without being accused of offensiveness and insensitivity by those affected by the same kind of tragedy', but that's always going to happen, isn't it? What I hope is that I won't get the media tarring-and-feathering for it, and I hope I won't ever be bludgeoned into a humiliating climbdown for the crime of writing fiction (as the BBC was this week).

I'm not saying issues shouldn't be approached with understanding and sensitivity. But there has to be room to treat fictional individuals as just that - individuals, with the same quirks, traits and madnesses they'd have in real life.

So maybe it stings a little when miscarriage is portrayed in a TV soap - and happening to a horrible character who had it coming. I remember watching Secrets and Lies, and the ghastly recognition that the infertile wife was a bitch of the first order, and mostly because of her infertility. It touches awful chords when a fictional couple is faced with a possible abnormality showing up on an antenatal scan. Tonight I've just finished watching Silent Witness where, as so often, the killer was a disturbed gay guy. But as Sophie Hannah put it so well in this Sunday's Herald, Psycho is deeply offensive to hotel owners who don't go around stabbing their guests in the shower.

But I have no right not to be offended. You have no right not to be offended. You start ring-fencing fiction with the fear of offence, and it's dead. So is a lot else.

Of course we should write with sensitivity and awareness of the effect of what we write on whoever may read it. But to self-censor for the fear of upsetting anyone? I hope I never do. And kick me if you see me doing it. My editor already has, once or twice.

Forgive me if I start with a still from a frothy soap, and finish with a shot of a man who has been garlanded and showered with rose petals for shooting another man. The victim wasn't actively offensive, but he had defended the rights of people who might be accused of being offensive.

Maybe the comparison is a little offensive, but maybe it's the time of the month for me.

And if my husband said that, I'd be furiously offended...

I'd Be Elizabeth Taylor - Karen Ball

Following on from Nicola’s post yesterday, it’s clear that a yawning chasm lies between the reality of an author’s life and the pictures people paint of us. As I sit at my marble topped desk, writing with my solid gold ink pen, my butler butters my crumpets and we both excitedly await the latest Harrods delivery. I thought I’d kill time delving into the various portrayals of the writing and publishing world, as seen on the big and small screen. Always good for a laugh!

The launch party
My favourite of these is in 'Bridget Jones's Diary'. Salman Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer both make cameo appearances. The editor-in-chief (a US term, surely?) is bouffant, the senior editor is prim and snobbish, the publishing director is lecherous. Everyone gets drunk and there’s a cock up during the speeches. Some may say staggeringly accurate. (I couldn't possibly comment.) There is one glaring error. The London publishing offices are high tech, clean and swanky. Erm. Did these film makers even go near a typical London publishing office in the name of research?

The literary agent
This has got to be Lauren Bacall in ‘Misery’. Who wouldn’t kill to have a screen legend as their agent? Especially when she spells out home truths like these: ‘Misery Chastain put braces on your daughter's teeth and is putting her through college, bought you two houses and floor seats to the Knick games and what thanks does she get? You go and kill her.’ Oh, Paul. If only you’d listened to your agent…

The author
Take your pick. You can be Nicole Kidman with a prosthetic nose, grimly smoking hand-rolled cigarettes to show your rebellious creativity as Virginia Woolf in 'The Hours'. Or you could choose the rosy cheeks and extra padding of Renee Zellweger playing Beatrix Potter. Perhaps you prefer the absinthe madness of Ewan McGregor typing in a garret in 'Moulin Rouge!', just before a miniature Kylie Minogue pops by for a visit. The rules are all the same: you'll look mad as a hatter. I recently enjoyed the cruel irony in the last TV episode of 'Any Human Heart' when the main character only makes it into Waterstones 3-for-2 after his death. Typical!

Are there any realistic representations of what we do either on the small or big screen? Should there be? Are people ready for the truth? Personally, I can't wait to see Tim Burton cast Helena Bonham Carter as JK Rowling. And Jude Law as Philip Pullman? Come on! It's a no brainer...

Do you have any favourite cinematic publishing moments. And who would play you in the film of your career?

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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Dear Ms Keith - Nicola Morgan

I have been patiently waiting till today. Well, not very patiently, actually. It's just that I really wanted to shout a little bit about that silly letter in the Observer. (Scroll down to the one from Ann Keith.) Many people have already objected to what was in it and my message feels a tad out-dated, but 11th January is my allotted date to speak out on ABBA, so I kept a lid on it. Now, I'd like to reply to Ms Keith and set her straight.

Dear Ms Keith,
You say, "The self-righteous and arrogant puffery of the assorted literati to whom you gave publicity in your headlines and articles on Bookstart really cannot go unchallenged." Well, nor can ignorance. Let me put you right on two aspects, since to tackle you on every point would take too long and I've got books to write, a veritable fortune to be made.

First, you refer to the "amount of money" made by authors and publishers and ask us to declare our financial interest. I would like to tell you how little I earned from the sale of books last year but a) I have lost my magnifying glass and b) I'd be ashamed. Last time the Society of Authors did a survey of members, the figures were shocking. More than two thirds earn less than half the national average, for example; half earn less than the statutory minimum wage. Since then, we've had a recession and enormous price-cutting, slashing author incomes for almost everyone. So, Ms Keith, "financial interest"? Don't Make Me Larf. You have no idea. You. Just. Have. No. Idea.

Second, who are these children "patronisingly thought to be in need" of books? All children are in need of books. True, some parents are less able to buy them - which is a fact, not patronising - and if there was a way to get books to those families, I'd vote for it. But the Bookstart scheme, by giving books to all children, is therefore so far from being patronising that I wonder what dictionary you used when you chose the word.

Maybe, Ms Keith, you should read more books. Would you like a free one? I can't really afford to do this too often but I'd happily make an exception for you. If that's not too self-righteous, arrogant, or patronising.

Yours sincerely,

Very Crabbit of Edinburgh

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Write Method : Penny Dolan

Last week, I came across a new expression, and now I’m pondering just what it's like to be around a writer and their writing?

Alan Bleasdale, interviewed on Front Row, said something like “If you’re a Method Writer like me, you need to take care. While I was writing “Boys From The Black Stuff”, I was Yosser Hughes. People had to hide away from me.”

Of course, I’ve heard about Stanislavski and Method Acting, where the actor becomes his or her character both on and off set. The image that comes to mind is Marlon Brando, pouting moodily and gloriously in his tight white t-shirt.

But I’d never got around to the idea of Method Writing, which I feel means the writer living through their characters. What effect do the various characters – as experienced during the writing - have on the writer? Especially when it takes much much longer to write a book than to read a book? Much more facing the page.

I suspect each of my characters - the good, the bad and those in between - draws on something inside me: I write people I might possibly, in other circumstances and with other choices, have become or been. Their emotions sit in me as I write.

For example, I currently have two characters in a quandary. They are snappy because they are uncertain what’s going to happen, and that’s how I have become. Sometimes, I can even feel my face working as I write. At times I've caught my lips pursing with Aunt-like disapproval or curling into a villainous sneer.

And when I write a larger-than-life character, my shoulders seem to broaden as if I am able to carry heavy weights. Aha! I should bound rather than plod about the house. Worse, whenever any dear hero is in a sad and difficult place, I carry their dejected, painful mood until that part of their drama is over. I can be in a quiet gloom for days.

So do horror writers, when writing, live with a continual fear of something about to happen? Are they alive to tremblings of thunder & lightning? Or are they drawn to unexplicably solitary walks down dark streets?

Do writers of pink, fluffy books for girls spend hours selecting which novelty-topped pen to use? Do they anguish over shoes or spots on the face or OMG boys, while they face that sparkle-covered manuscript?

And even - read on if you dare - do writers of those jokey books “with big boy appeal” sit there, crisp-munching and slurping from tins. with noses running, as they guffaw and fart loudly? Please, please, while working from a shed or attic.

Clearly, there are things about children’s writers it may be better not to know.

How much a Method Writer are you?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Hard Times for Romanian Witches – Michelle Lovric

Is anyone else enchanted by the Romanian witches behaving badly after being told that they have to pay 16 percent income tax? Are there any other writers out there now cursing themselves because they never managed to work such a relevant, emotive and morally satisfying storyline into one of their own children’s books?

For anyone who’s been sweltering under a cold stone the last 31 nights and missed the news – Romania’s economic crisis has inspired the government to cast a wider net for taxes. The witches have been caught up in it, as have the astrologists and fortune-tellers. According to the new decree, Romanian witches will now be obliged to do paperwork as they eek out (forgive me) their living: to itemize and produce receipts for their services, which include telling the future with corn grains, curing bad habits, casting love spells and preparing amulets against curses. A Romanian witch – known as vrăjitoare – usually charges around 10 dollars a consultation, though the fees can escalate dramatically once a client is hooked.

Romania, home of the Dracula legends, is steeped in superstition. Every village allegedly has its own witch. Only recently were witch adverts banned from Romanian television. Witches still advertise extensively in the newspapers. The New York Times reports that President Traian Basescu and his aides wear purple – believed to ward off evil – on certain days. The dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife apparently employed their own personal witch. Perhaps fear of witchly reprisals is the true reason why the original tax proposal was voted down last year.
But Romania’s recession has deepened. Needs must, and on January 1st the new tax law became official. Witches must own up and pay up, and even make pension contributions to the state now.

And like any fairytale witch worth her worts and warts, the Romanian covens are reacting with spleen, acrimony and the dark arts. It’s time for the tax man to be afraid, very afraid.

As the old joke goes, ‘What do you say to an angry witch?’
The answer: ‘Ribbit, ribbit.’

Some of the Romanian witches have threatened to throw poisonous mandrake into the River Danube. Others plan to cast spells on the government and the president, using ingredients including cat excrement and dead dog.

How will it all end? Will the tax-collectors be afflicted with boils? Will the Minister for Finance turn into a newt? Will the witches knit a tax loophole for themselves out of cat-fur and snake-gut lubricated with frogspawn? Will the witches file their tax returns written in invisible bat blood? Will the Romanian jails fill up with tax-dodging witches? Will Romanian accountants cook their books in gigantic cauldrons?

One intriguing aspect of Romanian witchery is the use of the ‘nine-times-married-knife’ that has been secretly hidden in the pockets of new husbands by their brides. Such knives are used to prepare concoctions of basil and frankincense. Will the nine-times-married-knives end up embedded in the flesh of those who passed the offending decree? I’ll bet those gentlemen are not enjoying reading their horror-scopes at the moment, and wondering whatever possessed them when they decided to tax the witches. ‘Why oh why,’ they are thinking, ‘didn’t we go for the quangos and the libraries like that nice Mr Cameron in Britain?’

We’ll probably have to wait until Midsummer to find out what happens. That’s the most potent date in the Romanian vrăjitoare calendar.

In the meantime – even if I can’t own this story, I’m a writer, am I not? So I can PRETEND that I do. And it’s a truth universally acknowledged that someone else’s book is always far easier to write than one’s own. I’m currently haunted by a scary deadline, so my current displacement activity involves fashioning notional plot refinements for the Romanian Witch Tax Hex File, confecting new Romanian witch tax jokes (‘A vrăjitoare walks into Inland Revenue and says ...’), deciding who’ll cackle the audio book, designing the website and the app, and scripting the You-Tube trailer.

As a priority, I’m looking for a title.

All suggestions are welcome.

Michelle Lovric’s website

Friday, 7 January 2011

Scrivener - Josh Lacey

At the beginning of this new year, newly resolute, I'm working on a new book, and I've decided to use a new piece of software too. I heard of Scrivener several years ago, and thought about trying it, but never did. I suppose I'm very conservative: when something works - and my current word processor, with its quirks and annoyances, does work reasonably well - then I don't see much point changing it. Learning new software wastes a lot of time; and, although I'm a master of procrastination, if I’m going to waste an hour or two, I'd rather do the washing-up or go for a walk then stare at my computer’s screen.

But this year, for some reason, I feel the need for Scrivener. Perhaps my procrastination has just reached a deeper level. Or perhaps it really will make writing easier. Because Scrivener is, in the words of its website, "a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents."

I've downloaded the trial version. Thirty days for free. Which should be enough time to decide whether to keep using it (and pay the thirty quid fee).

First impressions. (After an hour.) I read the website and discovered that Scrivener is based in Cornwall, which immediately made me like it more. I downloaded it, started it up and began working my way through the tutorial. I hate tutorials, but this one isn’t too annoying. So far, Scrivener seems neat, cute and quite confusing.

Second impressions. (After a day.) I’ve started writing in Scrivener and still feel confused. I’m tempted to give up. Over the years, I’ve evolved ways of working with my computer, and feel uncomfortable jettisoning them to fit a new format. But I’m going to persevere for a little longer.

Third impressions. (After two days.) I’m beginning to appreciate how this might work. I wouldn’t say I’m a convert. Yet. But I’m enjoying writing with a piece of software which is specifically designed for writers. There are lots of nice touches. Ways of organising chapters, drafts, notes and bits of research. I do have reservations and I still can’t decide whether all these nice little innovations are rather useful or entirely pointless, but I’m going to carry on.

In a month's time, I'm going to write another blog here, and I'll let you know if I've decided to pay the fee for Scrivener or gone back to my old, familiar word processor. Or jettisoned them both and started using a pencil and a piece of paper.

Does anyone else use Scrivener? Any tips?

Josh Lacey

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Does it matter if the Emperor is really naked?

Over Christmas I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s ‘Royal Highness’ (first published 1909)– which is published in the UK by Vintage. It’s rather different from the rest of Mann’s work – though he actually wrote it about the role of the artist in society – an early-twentieth-century conception of the artist which saw him/her as a being essentially set apart from everyday life – it’s a Ruritanian romance – impoverished grand-ducal prince falls in love with American millionaire’s daughter and finally marries her. Though themes of madness, disease, a crazy dog, an insane countess, and a rose that smells of decay run through the novel, its subject-matter is an up-market treatment of one of the penny-novelette themes of the time.
Re-reading it for the first time since university – and for the first time since I became a published author – I found it hard work. Granted, I find ‘The Magic Mountain’ hard work, but that is for different reasons. There are many touches of humour and wonderful writing that show that the novel is really written by the Thomas Mann who wrote the wonderful ‘Buddenbrooks’ but my judgement, after reading it was that a novel of 381 pages (this comment, as Amazon likes to say about customer reviews, refers to the German version, the length of the English one may be different) has about as much proper, publishable material as a novella. It should have been cut, cut, cut.
Now Thomas Mann’s work is not where you would expect to find brief, punchy writing, but whereas his other works are meaty, and all those pages are stuffed full of intelligent and and thought-provoking subject-matter, I found this one sadly repetitious and full of empty narrative spaces. He spends far too much time describing domestic interiors, for example – I kept thinking I was reading World of Interiors magazine and wondering where the photographs would come. (They’d be taken by Fritz von der Schulenburg of course.)
Mann famously (well, famously in Germany) refused to cut ‘Buddenbrooks’, and I think there he was right. I wouldn’t miss a word of that wonderful novel. But he should have cut ‘Royal Highness’. Mind, the early twentieth-century critics had different reasons for greeting it with less than enthusiasm: the ‘Happy End’ and the operetta-atmosphere of the whole thing. ‘A descent into the flat land of optimism,’ one critic called it, while another remarked that ‘German novels should end tragically, in downfall, in the twilight of the Gods.’ (The history of the next thirty-six years provided plenty of material for such literature, but I won’t go there now.)
Of course novels were much longer in the past, and that it’s wrong to apply modern-day criteria to them – but I do honestly think that ‘Royal Highness’ has survived hostile crits, is in the canon, still published even – and translated into I dunnamany languages – just because it’s been buoyed up by the author’s other work. And of course because it provides material for students of German literature to chomp.
My question is: does it matter? Does it matter if some ordinary person picks up this slightly flabby novel and thinks this has to be good writing, because everyone respects it, because the rest of Mann’s work is brilliant? Clearly it doesn’t matter to the publishers. They can sell it. If they couldn’t, it’d be for the scrap-heap licketty-split. We all know THAT.
But that’s my question for the New Year: is a work of fiction good if the public has been persuaded it is, or is there such a thing as intrinsic literary merit?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Previously On... Anne Cassidy

As an avid watcher of TV I am used to hearing the words ‘Previously On…’

Watching series like ER or LA Law or The West Wing there is always a few moments at the beginning of each programme showing glimpses of past story lines which are important for the present episode. It’s quick and efficient. Little nudges to the viewer which will enrich the episode they are about to watch.

If only it were as easy as that for the novelist. When writing a series of novels it’s important to fill the reader in on what happened in previous books. One cannot simply assume that the reader has read the previous book and has all the info filed in their mind waiting for your next volume.

So you have to give the back story.

I am currently writing book two of a four book series THE MURDER NOTEBOOKS. I have to allow for the casual reader who will pick this book up WITHOUT having the read the first in the series.

It’s tricky. I don’t want to weigh the story of book two down with reminders of book one. The information has to be woven into the text in a non obvious way. How nice it would be to have a conversation between two characters at the beginning where one tells the other what happened in the last book.

“So, the murderer dressed up to look like a woman? And he escaped, saying, I’ll get you next time! How awful for you. Aren’t you afraid he will find you again?”
“And don’t forget that he took the map and my mobile phone!”
“Never mind. At least you’ve escaped from your dreadful parents.”

AND it’s not that different for a stand alone book.

My new book HEART BURN starts in the days before Christmas. An old boyfriend of Ashley’s is beaten up and left for dead. He calls for her and asks her to do him a favour. She owes him this because of things that happened a year before.

So in HEART BURN I have to weave in the back story of what happened between Tyler and Ashley one year before. It means flashbacks, memories and people dropping hints in conversations about that time. It has to be lightly done but fill in the background of a story that wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

Sigh! It would be easier to have ‘Previously On……’ No, I am only kidding.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

SHOCK REVELATION: I Am Not Mrs Dale - Lucy Coats

Like John Dougherty yesterday, I was going to write about something different.  Not a Kindle (I don't have one...yet), but the furore around Bookstart.  However, John has done such an excellent job of it that he's left me with nothing to say--except that I agree with him about many things, not least of which is that 2011 is going to be a year of standing up (or sitting in) and shouting. 

So.  What to write about at the beginning of this new year? I think a confession is probably in order.  You lot always seem to like my confessions, and indeed I have a multitude of sins to confess. Here goes....

I am a failure.  I've been a failure for nearly half a century, or at least ever since I was old enough to write a comprehensible sentence.  And before you start in with the soothing rebuttals of this rather startling statement, I don't actually mean as a writer. I think I'm reasonably good at that.  What I mean is that I am a failure as a diarist.  In other words, Mrs Dale I am not.

I've tried more times than I can count to keep one. When I was a child, without fail some aunt or godparent would give me a diary for Christmas--once even a magnificent red leather-bound 5-year one.  I started off every time on 1st January with hope that this time, this time I would do it.  I would write something about my life every single day of the year till I reached the milestone of 31st December.  I failed every time.  In fact, the longest I ever lasted was till March 15th, a measly two-and-a-half months.

In later life--after I became a full-time writer--I tried in other ways.  I tried to write a journal.  I tried to write a dream book.  I even tried to write a poem diary.  The poems were quite good, but there are only ten of them.  There just seems to be a little part of my brain which is a rebel, which says: "this is really boring.  Your mundane daily life is boring. Who's going to want to read about all that stuff like how the maths teacher shouted at you again for being stupid over trigonometry (a frequent childhood event), or how your university tutor made you smoke pot as part of your 'education', or what it was like for a young editor in 80's New York, or how it felt to fly out of Ladakh eight days before they closed the borders to the West, or...or...."  Yes. I know.  Those things might all be of interest to future generations of my family or the wider world.  But it's the bits in between I have trouble with. The days when nothing happens except a trip to the supermarket or doing the housework or the school run.  That's when I lose the will to write a diary.

However this year, 2011, is the year of my half century.  Surely 50 years on the planet deserves recording in some way.  So I'm going to try again.  I have it all planned out.  I shall have a 'secret diary blog' which I shall write once a week, recording the events and thoughts of the last seven days.  Actually, I've already started it.  Will I succeed?  Yes.  I bloody well will. And you can quote me on that come December 31st.  If you remember.

Monday, 3 January 2011

You say you want a resolution - John Dougherty

First Awfully Big Post of 2011! I was going to write about my new Kindle; but I think that'll have to wait, because the more I think on't, the more it seems to me that 2011 is going to be one of those years in which we have to stand up and shout a lot. And by 'we', I mean anyone who cares about books and believes that the ability and opportunity to read are crucial to social mobility and a cultured and civilised society. Oh, and who believes that social mobility and a cultured and civilised society are things we should be concerned about.

Now, I'm not one of those who thinks that the recent decision to completely cut government funding to Bookstart proves that Michael Gove is really a two-headed alien lizard from the planet Aaarg hellbent on domination of the human race*. No, I just think it means that we have a government that (a) is desperate to make cuts because of the genuine financial crisis in which we find ourselves, and (b) doesn't understand stuff. Important stuff, like the fact that there are children who start school not knowing what a book is and lacking the concept that text carries meaning, and that this is a Bad Thing.

Similarly, I don't think the local councillors who are proposing to cut library budgets by as much as 43% are evil geniuses plotting the overthrow of civilisation from their secret lairs under volcanoes. I just think they're a bit stupid, or at least genuinely ignorant of the good that libraries do and the purposes they serve.

Unfortunately, this sort of ignorance isn't confined to politicians. There's a letter in yesterday's Observer about Bookstart (fifth one down, just beneath the one from Shirley Hughes) whose pomposity is matched only by its cluelessness. I do hope the writer looks at the comments on the website. Similarly, there do seem to be a lot of people who honestly don't see the problem with tearing apart the library service on the grounds that we now have computers and X-Boxes and Tesco sells books anyway.

It's been great to see authors, librarians and teachers standing against the barbarian tide that threatens to overwhelm us, but we can't just leave it to those big enough to get their names in the paper. I know I'm in large part preaching to the converted here, but I hope that in 2011 we'll all resolve to get involved. If you haven't done so already, please sign up to Alan Gibbons's Campaign For The Book (contact form at the bottom of the page), and check out the Library Campaign website to find details of things you can do nationally and locally.

Happy new year!

I hope.

*I know that announcements have since been made that Bookstart will not disappear, but as far as I know no specifics have been announced, and no-one's said that government funding will be restored.

John's website is at