Sunday, 27 February 2011

Unrealistic of Fife (aka Joan Lennon)

I am an utterly lucky bunny. I've been awarded the Jessie Kesson Fellowship, which means I get to spend March in the cottage on the left, working in the schools one day a week, doing some adult workshops and writing my tiny socks off. Please don't worry that I am now going to continue with a But ... There ARE not Buts for a situation like that. The situation is perfect. I, however ...

(See, a However is different from a But)

... have a tendency to be unrealistic. I've blogged about this before - the Bottom Syndrome - and what I'm suffering from at the moment is a version of that dread disease.

"With that much time," I find myself saying to myself, "that much beautiful, inspiring scenery, that much peace, I should be able to write AT LEAST Paradise Lost and Lord of the Rings and 2 radio plays and a short story and a Science Fiction masterpiece. And hike 20 miles a day, like a demented hikey thing. And take award-winning photographs. And learn how to draw. Oh, and I wouldn't mind being a few inches taller."

I lie for a living. But if I don't get a handle on THIS form of fiction, there is a good chance my head may explode, all over the beautiful scenery. Which must constitute some form of littering, and so I am against it.

Realistic aims, then:

I will write ... a moderate number of tons.
I will walk ... weather permitting, and slowly, so that I can take photos.
I will stand up straight ... which is the only way I'm likely to grow.

And if you hear a dull boom in the distance, here's hoping it wasn't me.

Visit my website.
Visit my blog.
Visit Slightly Jones' Notebook.

P.S. Apologies - this post is meant to be on 28th Feb. but I can't get the delayed posting thing to work (sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't) and I need to pack up my computer now to take north with me ... Lucky bunny - I know!

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Dirt Music and Solitude - Dianne Hofmeyr

Here at the sea I’m searching for a new story that I can’t quite yet grasp, with Tim Winton’s Dirt Music ringing in my head.

In the epigraph to his book he quotes Emily Dickinson’s lines…
There is solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that
profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –
Finite infinity.

In Dirt Music, across mind-numbing landscapes, Winton manages to capture the essence of solitude. Stark, terse dialogue lopes into wide vistas of creeping anxiety… where ‘the only trees are rare huddles of coastal morts whose bark hangs like torn bandages.’ This man can write… his words are music that picks up, falls, weaves, lurks, strides, crescendos. It’s a ‘Heart of Darkness’ story like so many of his others - In the Winter Dark. Breath. Cloudstreet. (I’m such a numbskull I didn’t realize when I sat mesmerized by the production of Cloudstreet in the Riverside Studios in London a few years ago, that he was the author.)

I’m searching for the nuances of my own story. I know the title. The characters speak and gesture as I pace along the beach trying to capture the story’s essence. But it’s all drowned out by space and the incessant ebb and flow of the tides and the hulk of the wild peninsula with its tangle of virgin trees and deep caves.
If I stare long enough, the beach produces its own events. A group of surfers in dark wetsuits out on their boards like a clutch of floating kelp... or circling sharks? A jellyfish of astounding beauty. And two weeks ago on a day of heavy mist, a small plane that went down into the sea with nine people on board just a mile off the peninsula.

My story is set in the 16th century on this same beach but will I ever turn the space and solitude into words that will begin to capture such inchoate thoughts? Soon I need to put pen to paper… finger to keyboard… don’t writers have to write?
I need words that rise, fall, weave, stride, crescendo but most of all I need a plot!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Something children love and need

Today’s blog post is not by a writer. It is by someone much more important: a reader.
The reader is a lady named Shamila Akhtar, who has started a petition to keep her local library - Pleck Library in Walsall - open. I quote from the Pleck residents’ group website: ‘Pleck is recognised as the most deprived area in the borough of Walsall.’ Walsall itself is in the West Midlands, my home region and one of the areas hardest hit by spending cuts. If a library is needed anywhere, surely it is needed here.
I am proud to introduce Shamila as a guest blogger:
- Leila Rasheed

by Shamila Akhtar
Everyone's talking about why their library should stay open. It's such a turmoil of emotion, every single library is special to the people who use it. In Walsall, 6 of 16 libraries will close. It's awful - I feel like the small libraries are competing against each other to survive. Like we’re in a slaughter house and all jostling to stay at the back and not get picked. What a sad situation!! Every single library should be left alone.
What is it about that these buildings and the resources within that's turning people like me into campaigners? I'm a person who is not the politician, the local councillor or even the vicar who posed for our Press Event photo. I am a little shy, timid in approaching the writing elite to ask for their support. How will I come across? What will I say?
Perhaps I can share some of the magic moments the library creates, delivers, facilitates.
I have seen a father sitting there on a tiny chair reading to his boy, speaking not so well English but he was there and he was trying. His son gets his undivided attention, they get special time together.
I have turned the final page of a book we borrowed from there, to have a crocodile pop up. The boys want me to make him snap at their fingers, we protect the book so baby does not damage the pop up.
Summer holiday activities: the library is totally packed and the children's entertainer has brought a play parachute. The children are thrilled and their hair goes crazy with the static. The animal man places a cockroach on a little boy’s nose and the snake does the usual mishap. The Librarian brings out biscuits and juice. Now that is a magic moment for the kids.
It is the librarian’s birthday; my 3 year old makes her a card. As she turns the card over there is some of his dinner glued to it, and we all have a giggle. He tries to trick her, saying it's a glittery glue and she gives him some cake and a hug.
An elderly man walks into the library, he shakes hands with a friend, picks up a news paper and settles down on the next armchair to read. He could have read a paper at home but he came here, he and his friend read their own papers together. Will the council look close enough to see what I see?
In my childhood my father would often take me to this same library. Though he could not read well himself he knew this was a place from which his children could learn. We all have those things that throw us back to a moment in the past: a smell, a food. We all should have a book that does that too. For me that book is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. The moment I see the cover I can feel exactly how I felt as a child, enchanted.
It will be criminal to end the opportunity for moments like this to take place.
It really is a wonderful place. This is one perspective, how many more are there? We want to save this library for our children, our elderly, the PC students, Chess Club, the Baby Group, the Homework Club and so many more users.
I am campaigning for my little boys and all the children; for all the times they sat in their carer’s lap, forall the times they felt close because a book needed them to be close, for all the times a book made them laugh, for all the times a reader could not wait to find out what happens next, for all the times a lonely person spoke their first words of the day to a librarian, for all the friends made there and for so much more - for the library and everything it gives.
By Shamila: A mum trying to save something her children love and NEED

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Finding my voice and USP

Although I've been writing children's stories for several years on and off now, I only serioulsy started writing for children in 2007 after I came second in a Writing for Children short story competition, with a story about magical shoes who taught a bully the error of her ways. This story made me feel that I could write for children and I enrolled and completed a writing for children correspondence course, which my first book Rosie and the Sick School came from.

It's only now after two years of writing my second book for children that I know I've found my voice and USP - magic and mystery. Some of the stories I'd written over the years have these elements and Rosie has too. My second book (which is currently with two agents) has this too but more so, and after writing the final draft I feel more confident about it and what I've written because I feel it's what I'm good at writing.

Of course, I've had help along the way. I sent my second book to Cornerstones for a report and found out where I was going wrong (a lot), then I rewrote it accordingly. But then came the SCBWI-BI conference in November 2010 followed by a meeting with an agent that I'd won at a raffle. At the conference I showed the first three chapters of my third book to an editor who suggested that the items in the book have magical properties, and this I thought was a good idea, so good that I decided to use it in my second book too. I also went to a talk by Linda Chapman on what magical element stories are and listening to her talk made me realise that this is what I write and want to write. Then a week after the conference I met the agent who gave me lots of comments on my second book including making one of the teachers more of an enemy, and making the title more appealing, both of which I've done, feel enhances the story and am lots happier about it.

Now I know what I love writing about and feel happy and confident doing - writing stories that have a magical and mystical element to them, with an enemy whom the main character has to defeat to make life better again. Now I know who and what I am my tagline reflects this: Author of Adult and Children's stories with magical elements, as I feel that's what I do best at, and it's my USP now.

A Little Rant about Picture Books Meg Harper

I’m preparing for a library workshop on Friday – the theme is Cops and Robbers because my latest book, an early reader, is called ‘Stop, Thief!’ So we’re going to bring it to life with props and hopefully no actual theft and read other Cops and Robbers stories and make board games and the like. Hence, I have been re-reading wonderful old ‘Cops and Robbers’ and ‘Burglar Bill’ by Janet and Allan Ahlberg – and once again I am thinking, ‘What’s happened to picture books with subtle, delicate pictures and rich, satisfying texts of more than a few words?’ Ones that feature people rather than cutesie blob-like animals in garish colours? What’s happened to books like the ‘Church Mice’ series by Graham Oakley or classics like ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes or wonderful, satisfying cartoon picture books like those of Philippe Dupasquier and Posie Simmonds? To the gentle pastel palettes of Helen Oxenbury or John Burningham? I support my wonderful local independent bookshop Warwick Books which though marvellous is tiny so maybe I should be visiting a bigger store – but the impression I get is that the vast majority of picture books now feature brash illustrations and minimal text. Some of that text is excellent, of course, and we’re seeing some wonderfully quirky exceptions such as the work Emily Gravett, but my over-riding impression is that the richness and diversity of picture books is diminishing. Picture books are a wonderful source of ideas for drama with young people but I’m struggling to find new ones these days. I leapt with glee on ‘Library Lion’ by Michelle Knudsen illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, the other day. Here we have delicate, evocative touching pictures and a ‘proper story’ which held me gripped and I know children will love – and it even has a wonderful, thought-provoking message embedded.
I don’t think I’m being an old fuddie duddie who can’t move with the times here. I know children are bombarded with technicolour TV and so perhaps publishers think that they need to compete with all that brightness and bittiness. I’m not suggesting we dump delightful Nick Sharratt or eschew Elmer. I’m just asking for more substantial stories in picture books and more variety in characters and styles. I’m quite happy with anthropomorphosis at its best – who can forget Jill Murphy’s hilarious Large family of elephants or Mick Inkpen’s Penguin Small who meets the Neverwasanocerous? But I’m fed up with endless blobby creatures with unmemorable characters and only a passing resemblance to the animals they’re supposed to be, especially when nothing much happens to them anyway!
Perhaps publishers could take a look at some of the work coming out of the Cambridge MA in illustration from which SAS member Sue Ferraby is just graduating.
Those are her pictures, heading this blog. I’ve been a fan for years.
Do take a look at the web-site above. Haunting pictures and the hint of enthralling stories to go with them. I wish!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Maths of Writing - Andrew Strong

Monday, February 21st 2011, 5.35pm:
time to write/time to read
I’m trying to work out if there is a correlation between the time it takes to write a decent sentence and the time it takes to read it. You’d think it would be directly inverse, as the easier something is to read, the harder it is to write.
David Edgar’s piece in last Saturday’s Guardian demonstrates this perfectly. He shows that the gorgeous passage from the King James Bible beginning ‘swords into ploughshares’ took almost a century to perfect.
time to write/time represented
Furthermore, as it’s possible that a sentence could represent any span of time from a fragment of a second (think of Nicholson Baker’s mini-epics) to millions of years, could there be a correlation between the time a sentence represents and the length of time it takes to write? No, probably not: ‘A moment later…’ is as drab as ‘A millennium later…
How to make time pass is one of those thorny potatoes that most of us have, at one time or another, attempted to mash. It is difficult to break a narrative, leaping forward an hour or two, a day, or a week, without clichés.
Later that same evening:
140/time spent on a particular tweet
Why I took to tweeting: First, the discipline of constructing a sentence of fewer than 140 characters that says something meaningful is a better distraction from having to get on with my next book, flicking peas into a bowl or creating new playlists on iTunes. Second, the tweet should be as crisp and maybe as informative as the chirp of the hungry chick. It's a good discipline. Third, I like the fact that a tweet is dated, the exact minute is given, until it eventually drifts off the tweet horizon, and becomes ancient histweet.
After a double espresso:
time spent writing/typing speed
Trying to save time by typing quickly. Never a good tictac.
Thirty Years into the Future:
lifetime/good sentences
Well, that was a nice life. I managed to write one or two good sentences. I avoided clichés like the dragonfly of eternity avoids capture in the clip clop clapping of history’s coconut shells.
Just now:
plank/light speed
The smallest unit of time a plank. It’s the length of time light takes to travel along a plank. The largest unit of time is the supereon. This is about four billion years, and about the length of time I’m taking to write my next book. If I had more time I’d make it even shorter.
But I’ll shut up now. With this shoddy and laboured blog.
About time.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

For the Love of Words - Elen Caldecott

We've had some very serious - and important - blog posts lately. But it's half-term in UK schools and I feel a little bit as though school's out too. I went to the aquarium today and then rammed people on dodgems. So I'm feeling high-spirited and hopeful. I've been thinking about how brilliant words are, how evocative and exciting.

One of my favourite things is to discover the origin of words and phrases. The more arcane the better. It's almost as though we speak in ancient spells whose intentions have been lost though the incantations survive.

There are those that come from observing the world around us. Raining cats and dogs, for example, apparently comes from the days when the Brits lived in thatched cottages. The roof would have been the favourite spot for mouse-catching cats. But, when it rained hard, the water would seep into the rafters and drench the cats, who would drop onto the floor, frightening the dogs. So, rain meant animal-based bedlam. Lovely.

So history affects our language, but geography does too. It's rare that I consider anything to be beyong the pale. But it's nice, when I do, to remember that the original pale was the boundary marker around the city of Dublin. Anyone exiled for crimes against the city would be sent beyond the pale. Incidentally, if anyone knows why we ignore people who are sent to Coventry, I'd love to know.

My favourite word-origin is a cultural borrowing. In 18th century France, the cottage-industry weavers were weaving merrily away. Then, suddenly, factories started making cheap fabrics. the French temprament being what it is, the weavers took off their wooden shoes - their sabots - and threw them into the machinery. Thus becoming saboteurs.

I'm also a fan of a Welsh phrase, that hasn't made it into English. But I can always try to sell it to you here. In Wales, if you're behaviour is a bit over the top, melodramatic, unnecessary, people will say that you are going 'over the crockery', because the highest thing in the room is your best plate atop your dresser.

I'd love to learn more. Share your favourites and let's all celebrate the school holidays!
Elen's Facebook Page

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Ordinary Author : Penny Dolan

Imagine, somewhere, a play on a stage. It may not have been the success hoped for. The people – the actors, the director, the playwright, the producer, the backstage crew and more - can all blame each other, as well as the media. Same for films, other than more names to blame.

Now think about the book and its author. It may not have been entirely the success everyone hoped for. True, there are things like fonts and layouts and covers to grumble about - and how - but it’s the author’s own words that appear naked on the page.

Once a book is done, an author can’t say, “Well, that character really messed up that scene, didn’t they?” Or “Who the hell put that set together?” Or “It’ll probably settle down by the end of the week.”

So when an Ordinary Author starts to feel their beloved book-baby has turned into the most unlisted, un-nominated, un-awarded, un-read title around, they’ll also feel it’s partly their fault. They held up their words for all the world to see, didn’t they? They raised their own particular voice. The author stands out there alone on the wide white page. “It’s all me, me, me!” has a different feel when one’s own words appear on the line.

No wonder Ordinary Authors act needy or easily hurt at times. No wonder some have mightily tetchy days, weeks or months. No wonder that they only recall the unfavourable phrase in a review, or the space where the third-fourth-fifth star should have been.

Nor should it be a great surprise that – just sometimes – Ordinary Authors feel scraped raw sidling past rows of bookshop shelves where their work is not available. Even the slightest jealousy makes for hot iron shoes, not soft comfy slippers. All that’s there – or not – is the Ordinary Author and the book what they wrote.

So, with World Book Day Week coming up, if you have an Ordinary Author booked into your school and all the usual admin is in hand, here are a few thoughts on how to welcome your visiting author, and get a better visit because of it. You probably know all this already, but just in case . . .

Ordinary Author’s Work. Do get hold of a copy or more of the author’s books before the very day. Try and read at least some of the book aloud to the classes. Don’t just hold up the cover in assembly. Authors get used to talking in schools where the children know nothing about their books, but it makes the task that much tougher.

Ordinary Author’s Book Sale – Yes! Please do organise a sale of the author’s books, preferably through your local children’s bookshop, supplier or publisher. Promote the fact their books will be on sale. Collect in orders beforehand so the author can sign the books while they are there. Why is this important? Book sales don’t bring authors great riches. They don’t end up with bags of gold, honest. Each sale brings around 5% of the cover price or less, which probably goes to paying off an advance, but sales tell publishers that their author’s books are worth printing and reading. Surely you wouldn’t have asked the author in if it wasn’t so? In the current climate, those sales might make a publishers take a future title instead of cutting your author abruptly adrift.

Other Author Book Sales – No! Please don’t have your Ordinary Authors book sale in the same fortnight as those huge “Book Fair” crates, even if you use the money to support the visit. What do you think it feels like having the books you’ve just been talking about run fifth place to the reams of semi-remaindered authors, television tie-ins, glittery pen sets and pink pop-star diaries? Fair or unfair?

Ordinary Author Displays. Not essential but nice. Put up a display somewhere about your visiting author. It’s far easier if you know their work and have looked at their website. Believe me, working a session while surrounded by pin-boards full of Famously Treasured Authors (especially Authors With Movies) isn’t comfortable. It feels as if the school is saying “Look! Here are the authors we really wanted. Instead – huh! - we got you.” Find some space to acknowledge your own author, okay?

Ordinary Author as Add-On Extra. Finally – and this may be my own view – please don’t ask your author along on Dress-Up Days, Book Character Days, Red Nose Days or any other day that’s already got its own attraction, events and apparel. I know it can be done, but it’s hard talking entertainingly to people dressed in assorted rustling clothes with added unsafe footwear, awkward hats & helmets, masks, face-paint, weapons, baskets, stuffed toys, dolls and/or tails, especially when they want to Win a Competition or are About To Be Photographed or Admired. Should I add that talking to Dressed-Up Children is even more difficult?

So, come on. Be kind to your Ordinary Author’s needs. Give them a bit of respect. They’ll be even more worth it. In fact, just for you, they may reveal themselves to be an Extra-Ordinary Author. Enjoy it.

And if, by more than chance you already do all this for your visiting authors, thank you!

Out now: A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury) for 9-12 year old readers.
Coming soon THAT NOISE! and THE WRONG HOUSE! (Franklin Watts)

Friday, 18 February 2011

Going Global by Lynne Garner

I recently decided to run writing courses locally and via the website WOW ( The first course I’m offering is how to write a picture book. A friend passed on my details and I received a call from a local aspiring author. He opened by telling me he’d written loads of stories and wanted to get them published. Then asked if my course would be suitable. I went through the syllabus with him and asked if he felt it was what he needed. “I’m not sure,” he responded.
Silent groan!
So I asked if he knew how the publishing industry worked. “Well, um… no,” was the reply. “Then if nothing else you’ll gain a better understanding of what books make it to market. You can then edit your stories to suit the market, giving you a better chance.”
“Oh I know my books will sell because my wife and kids love them.”
Silent groan!
I told him that doesn’t mean they would be suitable for today’s market. To make my point I preceded to tell him about my mistake when submitting my first story. The story included three celebrations, these being: Easter, Guys Fawkes Night and Halloween. I continued I’d been extremely lucky that the editor who read my story actually liked it. She took the time to write the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever received. She pointed out that in order to sell globally I would have to think global. Not everyone follows a Christian faith, so would not celebrate Easter. Only England celebrates the fact that a plot to blow up their government had been averted and many would never have heard of Guy Fawkes Night. She pointed out not everyone celebrates Halloween and some even find it offensive. She finished by saying that if I could make a few changes she’d be pleased to read my story again. I made the changes, re-submitted and that story was finally published (after a few more tweaks).
“Oh, but I’d only submit to an English publisher,” was the reply.
Silent groan!
I continued that gone are the days publishers just publish in their own country. In order to make a book viable the rights would be sold worldwide. My books have travelled as far as America, Australia, Indonesia, Korea and my publisher has recently sold the Hebrew rights of one of my books.
“Oh, so you’re saying I may have to change my stories slightly.”
Silent groan!
I finished by stating that we have to realise we are creating a product. So when writing, we as writers have to bear this in mind. To get our product onto the market (published) we have to think about what the client (the publisher needs) and this product is an item that must have global appeal.
I could sense a silent groan at the other end of the phone.

Mad, Bad and I Wish I'd Known This Earlier: Gillian Philip

This is my old school. Posh, eh? (Oh all right, it was a comprehensive by the time I went, but it looks very smart.)

And out front, that's its most famous alumnus, Lord Byron. I passed him every morning and afternoon for six years (except during holidays and illness) and sadly, never appreciated him. All I knew of the man was that extraordinary sheet that makes him look not unlike Sally Bercow, and the fact that he was responsible for one of the songs on my mother's Alexander Brothers LPs. (Dark Lochnagar. If you know anything of the Alexander Brothers, you'll know that's no way to get to know a poem.) Oh, and the fact that I didn't get to be in Byron House (bunch of jessies).

Why didn't they tell us? Why didn't they tell us he was a rake, a rogue, a soldier of fortune, probably bisexual and incestuous, and that he actually looked like THIS?

Nom. Anyway, if I'd known he was as interesting as THAT, I wouldn't have walked past him every day with a roll of my eyes and my nose in a Marvel comic.

Maybe nowadays the students get, to paraphrase Horrible Histories, literature with the babe-a-licious bits left in. I hope so. Anyway, I remembered the old stone bloke the other day when reading Leslie Wilson's terrific post about language and sex in young adult books. If he'd been around today, I'm sure the young scoundrel would have been a proud presence on many a banned books list.

Anyway, I wish I'd discovered Byron a lot earlier. I think I would have, if they'd left in the language and sex.

What's not to like?

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Kindle Guilt - Karen Ball

For my birthday, I asked for and received a Kindle. One day into ownership and I love it. I'm researching a new project and my first task was to wirelessly download a biography from Amazon and a free sample of a second biography. When I go to my writers' retreat next month, I can take a pile of research books with me should I so desire, all in the format of a slim, light device. I've also downloaded the latest novel I'm reading for my reading group and a manuscript I'm editing. I can't 'edit' on the Kindle, but I can annotate.

I was inspired to ask for this gift after seeing how the Kindle transformed my boyfriend's reading. He's gone from someone who read two books a year, to someone who now reads daily. All because he doesn't have to carry a book around with him - just a device that slips inside the inner pocket of his suit jacket. He loves technology, and that passion has made him rediscover the pleasure of reading.

I visited New York recently and saw the Barnes and Noble store on Fifth Avenue. This was the ground floor:

Nary a book in sight.

Nooks are the Barnes and Noble version of Kindle. The adult fiction had all been moved to the first floor and, I have to say, was difficult to negotiate. (For your interest, the YA department was on the lower ground floor and was MASSIVE.)

These devices are here to stay, no doubt about it. So why did I feel a sliver of guilt at joining the Kindle Club? Part of me felt as though I was being disloyal. To my fellow authors? I don't know - I don't have a clear idea of how ebook royalties work or how this development will impact on careers. To my shelves of books? I recently took bag loads to the local secondhand bookshop. To my library? I clock up so many fines that I only really loan reference books now. To the industry I've worked in for half a lifetime? I've just asked for a device that may make or break publishing as we know it.

I can't work out where my ambivalence stems from. Is it the knowledge that I'm taking a big step into a new era? I heard recently that authors are starting to carry a second pen - for signing Kindles, rather than books.

My instinct is that exciting new opportunities will come with this technological revolution. I also believe that books of paper and ink will continue to flourish alongside devices. I look to the future optimistically. But there's that definite twinge of guilt. I wish I could pin it down.

Any thoughts?

Please visit my blog at

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The New Art of Conversation - Nicola Morgan

In the last week, two blog posts that I've commented on have found themselves in The Guardian. One was Lucy Coats' trenchant post on ABBA about A Certain Person and his unpleasant brain injury comment. The other was independent bookseller Vanessa Robertson's equally trenchant piece about World Book Night. I’m interested in what happened to them and the appended comments and in what this means for all of us.

After Vanessa's WBN post, I'd left a comment, among many comments from other people, and mine was picked up by a journalist and quoted (well, half of it) in her subsequent Guardian piece. No other comment was quoted by name. In the Guardian, my quote was prefaced by the statement, "Author Nicola Morgan was among those happy to air objections..." This implied that I'd been asked by the journalist. Actually, she had tried to contact me but my phone was off while I was doing school talks and by the time I got her message it was too late: her deadline had passed. One might think that because I’d commented, I was de facto “happy”. Well, yes: I was happy to comment amongst all the other commenters but the small but important difference now was that my comment had appeared on another forum, in print, with another headline, and taken out of its original discussion. It had been, in effect, re-contextualised by someone else. I am not annoyed, because I utterly stand by what I said, and the journalist's piece was good. But it got me thinking.

In Lucy's post, one commenter's remark was also taken and used in the Guardian piece on that subject, and later, on ABBA, that commenter expressed a similar surprise to mine. I’m not criticising journalists, by the way. There may be an issue of asking permission but I’m not interested in that just now. Ditto any copyright issues to do with quoting from blogs.

So what am I saying? I am saying that the internet has changed something about conversation. Blogs, unless actually private and hidden, are public, and when we comment, although it might feel like a discussion where we're all in the room, we are putting our views out there in a very public way. We cannot then control where our comments will appear. And it's permanent. The internet doesn’t forget. The internet has blurred the once clear divide between the spoken word and the printed word. It's more permanent than either and possibly more powerful.

In a good old offline conversation, you know who is there, who is listening - unless you are being bugged - and you know it is unlikely your words will find themselves discussed in public elsewhere. You can make mistakes, change your mind, clarify what you mean if someone doesn't understand. No one can take your words out of context because all those in the discussion know the context. The discussion is also moderated by those in it. It is controlled and yet can be wild and free ranging. There is little at stake other than the opinions of those present.

In an online conversation, the new conversation, all that is different. There is much more at stake, much more that can go wrong, much less control. You don't know who's listening and you don't know what will happen to your words, except for one thing: they will remain.

We also need to realise that Facebook and Twitter conversations are now watched by journalists. You make comments on Facebook and those comments can be quoted or passed on to people outside your FB circle. I have heard of people having to "defriend" others because they are worried that those people, not being actual friends, may use their comments against them. And I worry about the unguarded comments that some people make on Facebook, because FB sometimes feels like a party, with actual friends, whereas in fact we should always assume that in theory anyone could come across our comments there. If you comment on a thread, the friends of the person who started that thread - whom you may not know - also see your comment. And with Twitter, absolutely anyone can, in theory, see what you say. The nature of a Twitter conversation also means that what we say can be twisted, because of the "edit Retweet" facility, in a kind of crazy chinese whispers game, to the extent that a comment of someone else's can look like ours.

The internet has allowed us to have conversations and debates with people we'd never have been able to "meet"; it's opened up boundless possibilities for new forums, new discussions, new knowledge. And while it’s wonderful that the things we say can be read by so many, that publicity for our views is so easy, that all of us can be opinion-formers, that real freedom of speech is so heady, it’s also the case that these things can hurt us.

So, I urge you, writers and bloggers, Twitterers and Facebook aficionados: spread your words more carefully and thoughtfully than ever. Even if you are merely adding a comment to someone else’s conversation. Anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence - and you may not even get the chance to sign the statement.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

It's That Man Again... Celia Rees

Lucy Coats has already blogged (Wednesday, 9th Feb) about the remarks that Martin Amis made when he was interviewed by Sebastian Faulks for the BBC 2 programme, Faulks on Fiction. Her blog has attracted 60 comments and the outrage felt has resonated as far as the national press and the Huffington Post. Martin Amis, as the Guardian on Saturday pointed out, is no stranger to controversy.

I, too, saw the programme and after the first dropping of the jaw, I thought that he actually had a point. Just in case anybody doesn't know, or does not want to scroll down the page and see his words in purple 18 point type, he said:

'People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say: "If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book."'

So far, so insulting. He then went on to say:

'The idea of being conscious of who you are directing the story to is anathema to me because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable. I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.'

Once I heard that, I could see where he was coming from. I did not think he was saying 'all children's writers have half a brain', that would be false logic. He was just explaining his own writing stance and he is entitled to do that. He writes literary fiction for adults, as such he sees it as his task to write to the top of his register and would not, could not accept any restraints on that.

The disregard for the reader that Amis expresses is just not possible when one is writing for children. Children's writers, and I include writers of Young Adult fiction, are ALWAYS aware of what their readers will and will not tolerate, or will or will not understand. Anyone who denies this is being disingenuous. Quite apart from the target readers themselves, there are other agencies involved. We have to worry about things that would not trouble writers of adult fiction in the least - see Leslie Wilson's blog below. How many writers for adults would feel the need to explain and justify their use of swear words or the incidence of sex in a novel? How much we take these factors into consideration, how much we allow them to limit our fiction, is up to us, but those limitations are there. We do not use our full palate, as Patrick Ness would say. How can we? We have to write at a lower register because we are adults and our readers are children.

There are other pressures on us, too. Pressures that have nothing to do with our writing but everything to do with the market place. In a squeezed market, there is more and more demand from publishers for novels that will sell. Books that fit into an obvious, popular genre - action, dark romance, whatever. A book that is perceived as 'too literary' is seen as problematic. The equivalent of the literary novel is a rare beast, and becoming more endangered by the minute. If one or two do sneak through, they usually turn out to have been written for adults in the first place and tweaked a bit in a bid to capture that holy grail, the crossover market.

In an interview in the Observer Review (13th February, 2011)) Nicole Krauss attests that the comment she heard most frequently on a U.S. book tour for her novel, The History of Love, was: 'this book is difficult'. Krauss worries that 'we are moving towards the end of effort'. Readers don't want to have to think too hard, it appears, whatever their age. That is the spectre that frightens me. In the hope of keeping that at bay, I actually want Martin Amis to write to the limit.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Death of a Bookshop – Michelle Lovric

In view of the date, you’re probably expecting something romantic. If so, hie thee to or FuzzybearluvsMaggotyknickers.blogspot. I object to institutionalized romance, and disapprove of commercialized love, so instead I’m going to tell you a sad story: it’s my blog-day, and I’ll cry if I want to.

Venice has suffered a bereavement. (And, as ever, Venice functions as a microcosm of the bigger world.) Venice’s bereavement is literary. She has lost her one large bookshop. After seven years trading, la Libreria Mondadori has closed its doors just steps from the Piazza San Marco.

The Mondadori bookshop has not failed. It was not downsizing. It has simply been evicted by its landlords, Benetton, in favour of a Louis Vuitton shop.

(In scandalized tones, Lady Bracknell: ‘A HANDBAG shop?’)

For Venice, the loss of Mondadori shows just a little more dumbing down, a little more bully-business trouncing the arts, a little more globalization, a little more bling, another dark inkling of la Serenissima’s bleak destiny as a picturesque high-end shopping ghetto rather than a cultural destination. Venice becomes a shop window – people look at the merchandise, not at the city. So Venice’s identity is eroded. So the world goes.

For me, the loss is also personal. I have lost my local bookshop. My fellow-writers will know how nasty that feels.

As far as bookshops are concerned, I am a little promiscuous. Or, as it's more charmingly put in Italian, sono un po’ farfallina – I’m a bit butterfly. There isn’t a bookshop in Venice that I walk past without entering for at least a browse. But that Mondadori bookshop was the one to closest to home, the one that I visited most often. The staff were ever kind to my novels – which were frequently placed in the window, and were always in stock. My third novel for adults, The Remedy, had its launch in Mondadori’s third-floor event space, which hosted 1200 such ‘appuntamenti culturali’ in its too-short life. The children’s book section was particularly magnificent, so when I heard that the wonderful Italian publisher Salani had bought the rights to The Undrowned Child, the first thing I did was rush to the Libreria Mondadori to see how Salani style their covers and what kind of production they do.

When the news came out about the planned closure, there were eloquent editiorials. Two thousand signatures were collected in a petition. To no avail. On January 5th the shop held a final stock sale with discounts of 20 per cent and offered a farewell drink to customers. Then it closed its doors.

So. Designer bags instead of books. It makes you wonder what plans our politicians have for the shells of Britain’s closing libraries, doesn’t it? Somehow I doubt there’ll be a rush of Louis Vuittons to rent the British libraries that will soon be stripped of their books and readers. The lights will go out. They’ll shut the door. And file the key under ‘Irreparable and Senseless Loss’. But has anyone, i.e. the cost-cutters, given thought to the built environment of the post-library world? The best way to keep a building safe and sound – is to fill it up with people. Turn your back on it, and a building weeps angry leaks. It crumbles. Lonely, it invites in a rat or two. A rough sleeper. A woodworm or million. Some kids break in, start a fire. The pipes burst. A sodden beam comes down. A year or two later, the building is condemned. Then there’s a scar on the environment where a beloved library used to be.

A curmudgeonly Happy Valentine’s Day from me, then.

(I did give you a heart at least, even though it’s dark and made of stone.)

Michelle Lovric’s website

See the new video trailer for her children’s novels, The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium.

Angel heart tombstone from

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Scrivener 2 - Josh Lacey

A month ago, I wrote here about jettisoning my trusty old word processor - Microsoft Word, if you must know - which I’ve been using since I first bought a computer, many years ago, and trying out a new piece of software instead, Scrivener, which is specifically aimed at writers. Novelists, screenwriters, journalists, academics - all of them, the publicity promises, will benefit.

I downloaded Scrivener and took advantage of the free trial, which allowed me to use the software for a month without paying a penny. If I wanted to keep using it, I’d have to pay 45 dollars. (Although Scrivener is based in Truro, it’s priced in dollars. I’d actually have to pay just over 30 quid.)

After about a week, I was enjoying using Scrivener - it looked nice and felt like a more pleasant working environment than Word - but but I couldn’t quite see the point. Then I came across this article written by Antony Johnston on his own use of Scrivener in which he says:
I enthuse about Scrivener to all of my friends. Some of them even listen to me, and download it. This is often swiftly followed by an email complaining that it's all very confusing and they'll stick to Microsoft Word, thanks.
Yes. I could understand that. Why did I need all these fiddly menus? Do I really have to read the manual? Isn’t Word easier and more straightforward?

Johnston provides a lengthy, detailed and mostly bewildering tutorial on using Scrivener, which I read several times. It’s a fascinating description of the way that a particular writer uses and adapts the tools of his trade. It made me see how Scrivener can be used; not as a revolutionary new advance which will change the way that you write, but as a neat, clever and well-designed tool that will allow you to work in the way that you already work, but rather more efficiently.

Some writers simply sit down at a piece of paper, write the first sentence of their novel and continue until they reach the end. They won’t have much use for Scrivener. But if your working habits are more chaotic, filled with scribbled notes, discarded ideas, half-forgotten thoughts, unused bits of research and all kinds of bits and pieces which you’ll consider, ponder, reject and forget while writing your actual book, Scrivener offers a very useful place to hold and order them all.

My favourite feature is one that probably exists in all kinds of other word processors too (although, if it’s in Word, I’ve never managed to find it). Press a couple of keys and everything disappears apart from the page that you’re writing.

I’ve spent a month playing with Scrivener, trying out different settings, slowly progressing with some notes and jottings towards a draft of the book that I was writing, and finally decided to buy it. I’m still not convinced that I’ll end up using it all the time, but I was sufficiently impressed to want to carry on exploring and experimenting.

Josh Lacey

Friday, 11 February 2011

Contains Language and sex

I have had a complaint about my writing, from someone who wanted to know why I had to include 'contrived' sex and swearing into my novel Saving Rafael. I was a bit puzzled by the 'contrived', I must say. Did she think it was artificial in some way?
I don't actually automatically insert sex into my plots, only when it feels right. In this case, with two teenagers (one sixteen, one eighteen) in a highly dangerous situation in wartime, deeply in love, it seemed to me rather unlikely that they'd refrain. I thought they'd want to make love while they had the chance. The incidence of extra-marital sex during wartime is usually supposed to go up.
As for swearing; yes, there are a few incidence of 'shit' and 'damn' in the book. These occur usually at moments of great strain; and really, if you've just heard that a dear childhood friend has been killed in battle, maybe you might feel like saying 'damn it', especially if you're a Jew in Berlin in 1942 and your life has been pretty stressful over the last few years. Similarly - if you are sheltering in the cellar of a hotel that bursts into flames over your head during an air-raid, you've been fighting the blaze with a stirrup-pump and some buckets, and the water supply fails - I think it is likely that you might say something a bit stronger than 'oh, bother.'
But this isn't just about me and my books, rather about what is appropriate for the young to read. It rather links to the edition of To Kill a Mockingbird which I gather has been put out in the States with the n-word taken out of it. So - one cannot write an anti-racist book - one that has inspired generations of kids and adults - if one includes the perjorative term common at the time. Even if the point is to demonstrate that racism is wrong. Celia Rees has written on this blog about censorship of sex in kids-lit - unless it Ends Badly and they get their Just Desserts, and I've heard teachers in a staffroom deplore Jacqueline Wilson because the situations she describes are 'too realistic.' My complainant is not a one-off. These people are real and they're out there, tut-tutting as we write.
Do they believe that if we were to portray a world in which kids do not swear, shoplift, bully each other, experiment with drugs, or get drunk or make love to each other, the young will be inspired to abjure these behaviours? Or is it just that some adults are afraid to have their fantasies of stainless childhood disturbed? The books available to me in my teens were a lot more prissy - but we were all reading Fanny Hill in brown paper covers under the desk during Religious Education.
My belief, and my writing credo, if you like, is that I write, whether for adults or for teens, not only to entertain and enjoy the act of storytelling and description, but to engage with the world. My own reading of fiction does subtly change the way I see things, not to mention breaking down the barriers between my experience, sorrows, joys and annoyances, and other people's. I don't want to be taken into a sanitised world. where real feelings are suppressed in order not to be upsetting - now that is really what I call contrived!

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Transient Readers Anne Cassidy

No, don’t panic. This isn’t a new kind of E Reader.

It’s a term I’m using to discuss the teenagers who I write for. I’ve been writing teenage fiction for over twenty years. The teenagers who read my first book BIG GIRLS’ SHOES (were there any?) are now in their early thirties. The teenagers who will read my new book HEART BURN, will, in three or four years time, leave Young Adult Fiction behind and drift towards adult books.

In other words, every four or five years I loose my readers to adult fiction. I’m constantly having to win new readers over to my books.

My most well known book LOOKING FOR JJ was read by many teenagers. Now though, when I visit schools and talk to year seven or eight (or even nine) I cannot assume that they are aware of this book or any other of my books. My reputation as a writer of teen fiction has faded as every one of my readers move into year ten/eleven/sixth form.

“Anne Cassidy? Who’s she?” So says some sweet little year seven.

I have to START AGAIN and persuade them that my books are worth a try.

This doesn’t happen in the world of adult fiction. I love many writers and will read everything they write over a lifetime. The fact that Anne Tyler is twenty years older than when I first read her doesn’t matter to me. Once a writer had made his or her way onto my ‘favourites’ list they will always be there.

I won’t grow out of them.

Unlike my readers, who will shrug off my books like a pair of sparkly jeans that belong to their younger selves.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Martin Amis: A Response from a Children's Author - Lucy Coats

On Saturday night Martin Amis was talking about his antihero, John Self,  on the BBC's new book programme, Faulks on Fiction.  During his piece to camera, apropos of nothing the interviewer had said or indicated, he laid into children's books:

"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book.  I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book,' but [here he shakes his head] the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."

Now, Amis is entitled to his opinion, (we live in a democracy after all) and he was, of course, speaking only for himself.  However, I too am entitled to an opinion, and my thoughts when I heard Amis spouting this arrogant twaddle from the rarefied upper reaches of  his ivory tower are unprintable here. No doubt he would consider that to be an intolerable restraint.  However, for the moment, I'm going to ignore the implicit insult to those of us who do write children's books (and, as far as I know, none of us have serious brain injuries, though I have often been told I am off my rocker) and concentrate on the last part of his sentence, because it made me ask myself some questions about how I write. 

Am I conscious of who I am directing my story to?  No.  At least not in the sense of 'writing down' to an audience that is obviously, by its very nature, younger than I am.  Children are astute observers of tone--they loathe adults who patronise them with a passion, adults who somehow assume they are not sentient beings because they are children.  When I write fiction, I research and plan just as (I assume) Amis does.  Then I sit down and let what comes, come. The story generally tells itself without any inner voice saying 'oh, but you're writing for children--you mustn't say this, or--oh goodness, certainly not that!'  Amis says of  the process of writing Self that, "I was writing about his subconscious thought--nothing he could have written down for himself...he's an ignorant brute."  Well, goodness.  Writing subconscious thought?  Does that never happen in children's fiction? We are all the amanuensis for our characters--and yes, often we do use language they never consciously would.  It's not a feat of the writer's art exclusive to highbrow literary fiction. When I write, I think about language, the richness and complexity and wonder of it, and I use it to hook the reader into my story, to ensnare them in my net of words, to take them so far that they forget that what they are seeing is only print on a page of dead tree.  I say the reader--and that means whoever is reading my book regardless of age.  Fiction is indeed freedom--and I have never felt constrained or restrained when writing it--though generally my work doesn't have as much swearing in it as Amis's does.  I don't find that a particularly intolerable restraint. 

Amis went on to say:
"I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write." Leaving aside the slightly questionable structure of this sentence--I have a nasty feeling that this is another dig at us brain-dead children's authors.  Not living up in the thin, sere air of an ivory tower, I am not quite sure what to make of this idea of a lower register. A lower register of what?  Intensity? Talent? Literary merit? For me, characters come, sometimes whether I want them to or not.  Would I choose not to write them if I somehow saw them as inferior to my 'great and shining talents' as an author?  No one forces any author to write anything or anyone--and if Amis thinks that children's books are somehow unworthy of the application of his own great and shining talents, without any of the kind of literary merit he recognises as such, beneath contempt, lower than the dust,  then he is welcome to do so.  But he would be quite wrong. 

Sebastian Faulks said at the end of his programme that "John Self looks like the end of the line for the hero...for literary novels, it's over. The hero is dead.  End of story." He also said something else.  He surmised that the hero hadn't vanished completely, but had just moved further afield into children's fiction.  In fact, "the modern novelistic hero is...well...Harry Potter."  Oh dear, Mr Amis.  Perhaps you'll have to write a children's book after all.  I dare you to try.

*Addendum* There's now been a lot of media comment on this article/subject.  I've added links to the various newspaper articles below. LC 12.2.2011

The Guardian
The Huffington Post
The Daily Telegraph
The Independent

• Lucy's new 12-book series Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books
• Lucy's website is at
• Lucy's blog is at
 (Shortlisted for the Author Blog Awards 2010)
• Lucy's Facebook Fanpage is at
• Lucy's Twitter page is at

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Attack of the Flying Authors - John Dougherty

I must have been mad. Gloriously, bonkersly, wonderfully mad. Whatever possessed me to suggest I mark Save Our Libraries Day by becoming a Flying Author?

Not literally flying, I hasten to add, despite the misleadingly Bigglesish publicity picture. No, the idea was that I dash around the county, doing quick 20-minute sessions at each of the libraries that are endangered by the, let's be frank, utterly irresponsible and ridiculously short-termist cuts proposed by Gloucestershire County Council.

Unfortunately, it's a big county. And there are a lot of endangered libraries. Under the present plans, 29 of the county's 38 libraries are likely to suffer huge reductions in service, with up to 17 of those likely to close altogether. Not to mention the mobile libraries, which soon no one will be able to mention except in the past tense. Yes, they're getting rid of the entire mobile library service.

Anyway, it soon became apparent that I wasn't going to be able to do more than 9 in a day. And that was without stopping for lunch.

Thank goodness, then, for Cindy Jefferies, who quickly donned her own metaphorical goggles and flight jacket to become Flying Author number two. The marvellous, hardworking and very lovely people at Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries began to get very excited - and it didn't end there. As the days rolled by, more authors, poets, illustrators and storytellers joined the squadron. Not all of them were technically Flying Authors - some stayed at a single library for a day; some could only give an hour or two of their time - but all of them helped to make it a huge success. They were, in no particular order:
  • Marcus Moore
  • the heroic Katie Fforde, who did several events despite having spent the previous night sleeping rough for charity in a public park!!!
  • Hannah Shaw
  • Sue Limb
  • Jamila Gavin
  • Alice Jolly
  • Shoo Rayner
  • Chloe of the Midnight Storytellers
  • Jane Bailey
  • Chris Manby
  • Philippa Roberts
  • Graham Mitchell
  • Vicky Bennett
  • Peter Wyton
  • Roger Drury
  • John Bassett of Spaniel In The Works Theatre Company
[and if I've missed anyone off this list, please email and tell me and I'll add you! Sorry if that's the case, but there were just SO MANY OF US!]
By the time Saturday 5th Feb came, we had something planned in EVERY SINGLE LIBRARY IN THE BOROUGH!

Well - except for the two that are closed on Saturdays. And the one in the prison.

But those aside, we had a right rollicking day of events to look forward to. You can see a fuller, but possibly still not quite complete, list of events (plus weblinks) here.

And what a day it was! Right from the first event - which began with a crowd outside the library, waiting for the doors to open at 9.30 - it was all systems go. Some libraries were buzzing, full of eager library users keen to make their voices heard; at others, I spoke to small but enthusiastic groups of children and parents. Librarians offered me tea and biscuits and even custard doughnuts, one twelve-year-old read me a laugh-out-loud-funny limerick she'd written herself (thanks, Jasmine!) while an eight-year-old told me how much she'd loved one of my books (thank you, Tamsin!). People listened, people laughed, people clapped and sang along, people gasped in horror when I told them that Gloucestershire County Council had banned the media from filming, photographing and recording the day's events in the libraries...

No, I could hardly believe that bit myself. Thankfully, the lovely reporter from NPR was happy to interview me in the car between libraries. But it does feel an awful lot like censorship. I emailed the council leader yesterday to ask the reason for the media ban. He replied that it was "to protect staff in particular" (that'll be the staff who've been threatened with cuts to their redundancy pay if they speak out over the closures, then) and "to avoid any unnecessary disruption to the library services" (which, obviously, won't be disrupted in the slightest by being dismembered in the way the council is proposing).

I got home in the early evening, exhilarated but exhausted, immensely grateful to my trusty flight crew and to everyone who'd made the day run so smoothly. But part of me couldn't help wondering - had it been worth it? Had my lightning tour of Gloucestershire really attracted any attention for the campaign to keep our libraries open?

And then I opened up my computer to find an email of encouragement from someone who'd read about it on the BBC website. She's a school librarian. In Rolling Meadows, Illinois.

Yes, it was worth it. I was just one little player in what Alan Gibbons called "a carnival of resistance"; but it was a carnival that made a heck of a noise.

It's not the end, though - not by a long way. Let's see what happens next.

John's website is at

Monday, 7 February 2011

Reading Allowed; Sue Purkiss

It's not absolutely definite yet, but it looks as though my local library, Cheddar, has been given a reprieve and will not now close. Eleven others in Somerset probably will, though; and so on Saturday our Love Our Library day was part celebration and part protest. There was coffee, there was cake, there were stickers and balloons, there was a colouring competition - but mostly there were lots of people, adults and children, there to raise a few cheers, to talk and to take out books: to make the point that libraries MATTER.

I was there with another local author, Michael Malaghan, writer of Greek Ransome, an action packed adventure story involving Greek legends, archaeology and nail-biting chases. We quite quickly saw that our audience was on the young side for most of our books, though I did read a bit of Emily's Surprising Voyage. Then we asked them to choose books for us to read. I was lucky enough to be handed Where The Wild Things Are.

It's a lovely book to read out loud. Every word counts, has the right weight in the right place. The buzz of chatter quickly faded as I began to read, and soon all the children were sitting perfectly still, eyes wide, lost in the world of Max, the monsters and the magical island.

I had a similar experience a couple of weeks ago, reading bits of Warrior King out to secondary school pupils. I'd been asked in to talk about Alfred the Great and the Anglo-Saxons, because they were studying them in history. Again, there was that hush, as we all entered a different world, a different time. That's one of the things reading does for you; it gives you a free pass to an infinite number of other minds and other worlds.

Long before there were printed books or Kindles, there were libraries. The great library at Alexandria, one of the marvels of the ancient world, was created 300 years BC, and was filled with papyrus scrolls. Hundreds of years later, it took a conquering army to destroy it. Now, it seems that all you need is a few politicians and the occasional meaningless soundbite.

In modern Alexandria, and in other cities in Egypt, the voice of the people is making itself heard. In a much, much smaller way, so it is here. It feels as if it just might be something of a turning point.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Mirages: N M Browne

It happened again. Not a moment too soon. After a year of on off rather unsatisfactory writing, I had five days of joyous, out of my control/forget-to-eat writing possession.

The last book, which I’ve just delivered, finally found its shape and rhythm only at the very last minute, on a deadline and after much spitting and cursing. I had a good few of those desert days where you can’t see the oasis or when you think you’ve found it only to have it dissolve - another bloody mirage. I briefly became a menopausal ancient mariner stoppething anyone who’d listen about the futility of it all. I drank a lot of coffee, ate a lot of chocolate and was unfailingly, unfeasibly grumpy for far too long.
My restoration began innocently enough when my son and his girlfriend reminded me of a story idea I’d had a year or so ago. I’d regaled them with it over the course of lunch: they were students, I was paying - they were obviously a captive audience. At first I thought they were mistaken. I had no idea what they were talking about. It must have been some other novelist, or some other book, but as they continued I felt the first flicker of something, recognition, enthusiasm and the blam it hit me! Passion swiftly followed by possession. I couldn’t type fast enough: sentences tumbled over sentences, characters walked into my head talking to each other, kissing each other, killing each other, enacting, no, living a plot. How could I have forgotten such a brilliant premise? Why hadn’t I written it? Within the hour the whole thing had unfolded in my head like some exotic, wondrous plant. I was consumed.

Today I am knackered and bereft. Where did it go? Obviously it was just another writing mirage - the idea of a perfect novel. Still, it was wonderful while it lasted. It reminded me that sometimes writing is just great fun. I am determined to push through the plodding phase of uncertainty and self doubt because if your son remembers the plot of a story for more that a year - there’s something there - right? And the passion, that possession might return? Please. Pretty please.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

What's That You're Wearing? Catherine Johnson

Sparked by a vicarious frock fest on facebook, and possible ideas for a writer's work uniform (anything from slankets to tassled jumpsuits since you're asking)I thought I'd talk about clothes.
I love thinking about what my characters are wearing, whether it's stays from the 18th century or regency Jane Austenesque muslins, 1940s siren suits, or 1970s Faye-Dunaway- as-Bonnie-from-Bonnie-and-Clyde 30s rip offs. Obviously I get the chance to dress up as a boy too, Russian leather boots, really good hats and floppy lace collars. Actually what I like, as a bloke, is a really good white stock collar and well fitting breeches, and this has nothing to do with Colin Firth.

Historical fiction does give you the ultimate dressing up box. In past stories I've had characters dress as Russian countesses, in Victorian mourning, as posture club molls, and in 1970's fabulous.

Imagine how you'd cope with doing anything wearing stays, or layers of heavy wool. I suppose this is easier for me as I can remember life before lycra. And now I now longer spend the hours I used to thinking about how I look, I can at least dress my pretend people.
I've always loved the idea that clothes could transform - even though it never worked in real life - that you could go from scruffy to sublime with some well judged under garments and good grooming.

I usually wear writing clothes around the house - a variation on pyjamas and t shirts. I think these days pretend clothes are more improtant that real ones.
Having said tha,t there are some real clothes I look back on very fondly, I remember when a second hand clothes shop opened up in my London suburb in 1979. Punk, which involved a lot of dresses made out of pillow cases, (for me anyway) was over, by then and I had some of my best finds there; a cream lace flapper dress that I wore until it disintegrated, a pair of black satin 1940s utility shoes that were always too high for me, a couple of horrockses cotton summer frocks with boned bodices one white with navy polka dots, one pink and flowery. I still have the polka dot one in my wardrobe, one day it will look as ridiculous as the stays.
What are your most memorable outfits, yours or your characters?
Happy writing.

Speaking to you from tomorrow - A Master of time. Linda Strachan

I am writing this tomorrow.

I have always wanted to be a time traveller and if you are where home is for me, in the UK, then I am writing this in your future. I am currently in New Zealand where it is presently Thursday afternoon but at home it is still Wednesday night.

Trying to communicate with people at home requires a certain amount of thought about time - what time it is here, and will anyone be awake there?  There are also strange things that happen when you discover that you either lose of gain a day while flying across date lines.  What day is it and what happened in that day that you lost?

When I am writing there is also a sense of being the master of time.  Time, for your characters, can move slowly or incredibly fast. Those elongated moments during an accident when time seems to stand still, or while waiting for something momentous to happen when time crawls. There is the rush of time when so much is happening that time flies.

You are also a master of time when you decide to skip an hour, a day or a year, skipping to the next moment when something that is pertinent to the plot is about to happen or has just happened.  You can skip forward or backwards in time telling the story in a non linear way.

Time is fascinating - and that is without even beginning to consider science fiction time travel where paradoxes can abound.

Strangely, while I write this on the tv is a programme about time travel, a coincidence?

Dead Boy Talking  by Linda Strachan
Spider  by Linda Strachan -Winner of the Catalyst Teenage Book Award 2010
my website

My blog - Bookwords

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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Book Launch Day by Marie-Louise Jensen

My fourth book, Sigrun's Secret, was published at the beginning of January. But it's today, with a launch party at Bath Waterstone's for friends, family and any members of the reading public who decide to come along, that it feels like the book is real at last.
The current climate is not optimistic for books or for reading; we have a coalition government who seem determined to wreck our public and school libraries with destructive cuts, and it's difficult not to fear for diversity of books and widespread access to reading acoss the population in the years ahead. When libraries are closing wholesale and librarian friends who've worked hard to promote reading in state schools are unjustly being made redundant, it's hard to look to the immediate future with anything like hope. I have depended heavily on school and public libraries in my own life, and have been taking my children to libraries since they could hold a book. For my youngest son, it was a lifeline to books. He read late and we kept his interest in stories alive through borrowing countless audiobooks until he became a confident reader. I could never have afforded the variety and number of audiobooks he needed during those years.
So I'll be supporting my local library this Saturday like so many other authors. And trying not to lose hope.
But today, I'm going to be positive. A new book is always a fresh start. It's another story out there which I hope lots of young readers will enjoy and I intend to celebrate. It's a celebration of a year of hard work researching, writing and editing by me, and of careful editing, copyediting and wonderful cover design from Oxford University Press. May there be many more such celebrations. Party time!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Keeping Politics out of the Library: Aristotle Would Not Be Amused - Ellen Renner

Yesterday, as I was filing my income tax, someone emailed to tell me about Sheffield City Council's decision this week to ban Ian McMillan. For those who don't know about this, Mr McMillan, a poet, broadcaster and comedian, was scheduled to run a children's creative writing workshop at Upperthorpe Library in Sheffield. The event was intended to highlight the value of libraries to their local community, in a time when, as we all know, both school and public libraries face massive cuts.

Apparently, the city council banned Mr McMillan because they feared that the event might be hijacked for the purpose of making 'political' comments. Hijacked by whom, or how, the article didn't make clear, but according to Sintoblog ( the background to this is the fact that Sheffield council, although not currently proposing any library closures at present, is planning major cuts to the library budget which will have an inevitable knock-on to service provision.

There are two main points about this story that immediately caught my attention. First, the issue of censorship. What we seem to have here is a clear-cut case of a political body banning free speech because it might reflect negatively on their policies.

I don't know whether or not Mr McMillan was planning to be overtly political as he taught creative writing to the children (having done quite a few creative writing workshops with 8-12 year-olds, the mind boggles trying to figure out how exactly one might manage to slip a political agenda in there along with the zombies, vampires and alien invasions), but the issue here is surely whether or not a city council is entitled to ban the expression of opinions which might prove politically awkward.

Beyond the free speech implication, I was struck by the philosophical stance of Sheffield City Council not wanting libraries, of all things, to be used as a forum or focus for political comment. I find it surreal that politicians should not be aware of -- or should choose to ignore -- the fact that libraries are political in essence. Libraries, like hospitals and schools, are physical representations of the implied bargain between the citizen and the politician.

As many people (other than the members of Sheffield City Council) know, the word 'politics' is derived from the Greek word 'politika', famously used by Aristotle as the title of his work about ethics and political philosophy. Politics means 'affairs of the city'. It means the relationship between the citizen and the 'polis', or city, and their responsibilities to each other.

And this is the heart of the matter. I have a responsibility, like all citizens or residents, to pay my tax so that politicians can decide how to spend my money to keep the city, county or country running. That's what I did last night (a bit late, but 2011 is turning out to be my year for scary deadlines).

In return, politicians have a responsibility to the citizenry, which is to provide services, and to make politically accountable decisions about that provision. We elect politicians to make hard decisions. And if we disagree with the decisions they are making, we also have a responsibility to inform them of that fact. The debate about the provision of services in a time of financial constraint must be kept open and free-flowing, and Sheffield City Council needs to embrace its proper political role and reject the temptation of censorship.