Thursday, 31 March 2011

In Praise of Mr Gum - Andrew Strong

For years I’ve wanted to write Finnegans Wake for children. A book that bordered on linguistic chaos, but which, deep down, played on some elemental need to savour the primitive music of words. Logic, plot, characters could all take a hike into the mountains. I wanted to write a surreal masterpiece.
I never did it, I never will do it. There’s no point now, anyway. Andy Stanton has beaten me to it.
Stanton’s books are almost without plot, and the characterisation is a little eccentric. But there is a texture of rich, playful, fizzing language. A few weeks ago I read the first Mr Gum book to a bunch of nine and ten year olds. They laughed so much I had to stop at the end of each sentence to let the noise die down. They pleaded with me to read the second book, but after that one I suggested they go out and buy the others themselves. Most of them did just that.
‘You’re a Bad Man Mr Gum’ has a plot device that makes me tremble with envy. Mr Gum is a very lazy and hence, messy man. His house is a tip, but his garden is immaculate. When a neighbour’s dog gets in Mr Gum’s garden, and wrecks it, Mr Gum seeks revenge. Of course, if it occurs to a child to question why Mr Gum’s garden is pristine, when his house is a tip, Stanton is one step ahead: Mr Gum must keep the garden tidy, or a fairy appears and smashes the old grouch in the face with a frying pan. Of course!
But when this plot device is no longer necessary, we hear nothing more of the fairy with the frying pan. And no one cares. Stanton is not in the business of tying up loose threads. He abandons his threads, leaves a heap of them in the corner for you to sweep up.
The Mr Gum books are anarchic, but buzzing with humour and word play. The language is gorgeous. For an example of this, consider the setting of the Mr Gum stories: the town of Lamonic Bibber. This would not be out of place in Finnegans Wake. It’s a phrase that suggest laziness, booze, the bubbling of a stream.
The theme of laziness pervades the Gum books. Descriptions tail off, and similes have a late period Blackaddery feel to them. Early on there are a smattering of conventional similes, for example, there's Mr Gum's ancient carpet which 'smelt like a toilet'. But later, when the effort of coming up with consistently accurate comparisons seems to bore him, Stanton describes a character ‘giggling like a tortoise’. The absurdity of it, and the sense that all this simile stuff is too much like hard work, makes it deliciously funny.
Stanton turns slouching into an art form. Like Miles Davis or Picasso, he works hard at making things look very easy. The Gum books remind me of Geoff Dyer’s wonderful non-biography of D H Lawrence, ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ – a book about not getting around to writing a biography of D H Lawrence.
A parent of one of the boys who was particularly taken by the Gum series told me his son had read all eight books, one after the other, and was now having withdrawal symptoms. Could I suggest something else? I grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down Finnegans Wake.
I didn't really.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Show and Tell - Elen Caldecott

Last week I made a small contribution to the £12,000 raised by Authors For Japan. I bought something very exciting-looking. And I also sold two items. The first, a signed book, was easy. Jiffy bag, job done. The second, a manuscript critique, will be much harder.

When the manuscript arrives, I will be honest, I will be thorough, I will do my very best to be helpful. But, it will be hard to forget that I will be commenting on someone's hard work, something that they will have crafted at for months or even years.
Of course, I know exactly how it feels to have people reading your work and pulling it apart. It happens to me all the time and I love it. Writers need readers like yin needs yang. Yang on it's own looks like a one week old foetus. Hmm, maybe that's an image a critiquer would have me re-work.

Over the years, I have been priviledged to have a number of different people read and comment on drafts of my work. The MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa provided me with a solid core of peers who would shout me down if I went all OMG with the exclamation marks (early drafts of my prose tend to look like a place punctuation goes to die). We still meet once a month, three years after the course ended.

Online communities have also helped. A few authors I've met love WriteWords. Personally, I like Litopia, it has none of the competitive element of some peer-review sites and the critiques are harsh in a way that only strangers can manage.

Then, a little later down the line, there's my agent and editor. People who can be relied upon to tell me when I'm going astray. Some of my stories have even required specialist readers - a Somali family were kind enough to check one a few months ago. The novel that will be published this summer needed a golfer's view of the final draft (a golfer's view?! OMG!! ).

I know exactly how it feels to hand over a piece of work and be told: try harder, think clearer, make it better. It hurts, it's hard. I hope that doesn't mean that I will pull any punches when it comes to the assessment I do, because it's what we need if we're ever going to get our stories out to the harshest readers of all - children.

Who reads your drafts for you?

 Read more about the need for a golfer's view at
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

We Will Not See Their Like... Celia Rees

I was shocked, as I expect many who read this blog will have been, by the death of Diana Wynne Jones. I'm not a devoted fan, I will confess that now, so anyone who was planning to write their own obit. can feel free, but nevertheless, I mourn her loss. She was one of those writers that one simply thought would always be there, somewhere, a necessary presence, there to remind us of what fantasy should be like, can be like if you know enough, think enough, write hard enough, a reminder to fantasy writers of what they should be trying to attain. She was a writer of endless inventiveness, originality and imagination, an inspiration, acknowledged or not, to later generations of writers. She knew fantasy inside out and the mythos on which it is largely based, because of that, she knew how hard it is to be original. For me, originality is the hallmark of really great fantasy and Diana Wynne Jones had it in spades.

Taking a leaf from the Bookwitch's blog and adopting a bit of serendipity, going off at a bit of a tangent, I'll admit to another shock this week, with the death of Elizabeth Taylor. Again, I've never been a great fan of hers, but like Diana, I just always thought that she would be there, somewhere, being impossibly beautiful and sultry, a last reminder of a lost world of Hollywood glamour when stars were stars. I read Camille Paglia's article in yesterday's Sunday Times, mourning the loss of 'Hollywood's last great goddess of erotic power' and found myself wondering with her at the contrast between Elizabeth Taylor, the 'pre-feminist woman', and the 'skeletal, pilates-honed, anorexic silhouettes' of modern female stars, like Gwyneth Paltrow, Keira Knightley and most others that you could name. As though, somehow, Hollywood has rejected the depiction of real women in favour of androids.

I don't suppose that Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Wynne Jones will appear together anywhere else, but isn't that what ABBA is for? Nostalgia is probably just another word for getting old, but for me the world will be much the poorer for the loss of these two very different women.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Inspiration by Lynne Garner

I recently started to teach a creative writing course. During one of the sessions a student asked where I got my inspiration. They asked because this was something they struggled with. Once they had a story line everything else fell into place, however that initial spark was a problem. My first instinct was to reply everywhere. However I was aware this was not a good enough answer. I listed off newspaper clippings, song titles, poems, people watching, an over heard comment, TV and film etc. etc. but then decided to analyse where my ideas had really come from.
I thought about the three picture books I’ve been lucky enough to have published. The first ‘A Book For Bramble’ evolved from my work with a not-for-profit organisation that rescues sick, injured and orphaned hedgehogs. I began to wonder what (if any) dreams hedgehogs have whilst they hibernate. Slowly the story of Bramble the hedgehog and his friend Teasel the mouse evolved.
My second book ‘The Best Jumper’ grew from a conversation with a friend. We were discussing putting on weight and no longer being able to wear that favourite garment. We agreed at least we had the chance to lose the weight and squeeze back into that garment. Unlike children who would never be able to squeeze back into their favourite piece of clothing because they’d grown out of.
My last book ‘Dog Did It’ came from owning a dog. Anyone who lives with a canine friend will know they can sometimes suffer from flatulence. This aromatic problem can sometimes result in a statement along the lines of “the dog did it!”
So my three books have come from:
  • An idle question
  • A conversation
  • A life experience
The latest story I’m working on is one about friendship and what it means to be a friend. I’ll be honest I have no idea where the idea came from. I can only assume my brain cell picked up an idea and ran with it. I was then gifted with an almost complete story, which I’m now trying to get onto paper.
So this got my wondering about where other authors get their ideas? So if you’ve read this and would like to share, I’d love to know who or what has inspired you.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Not All Gelato and Prosecco - Karen Ball

As I type, hundreds of book publishers, agents, literary scouts and rights people are doing their laundry and checking their capsule wardrobes. At the weekend they’ll be flying or driving to Bologna, Italy for the most important annual event in the children’s publishing cycle – Bologna Book Fair.

Me? I’ve never been. I’ve heard loads about it and yearned to eat a gelato, to laugh over a late dinner of incredible food, to buy a handbag of butter soft Italian leather. Yeah, I believe some work gets done, too. That’s what they tell me.

It’s a sales event. Sometimes authors are taken to Bologna Book Fair if publishers want to impress a) the author and b) their co-publishers. But this is not a common event – don’t hold your breath waiting to be invited onto the springtime streets of a beautiful European city. There’s a big party going on and we’re not invited.

Why not? Well, it’s not about us. It’s about the publishing director of company A meeting the rights person of company B and talking. Publishing is, if nothing else, a deeply human business. In theory, all of the deals could be done via email and phone, but for some reason publishers still insist on meeting up in Italy once a year, because they want to shake hands and smile at each other. I love that this still happens. I like to think of it as their version of the Charney writing retreat, except not as good (obviously).

But my joking aside, Bologna’s not all food and fun – people do work really hard. Most people have back-to-back meetings in approximately 30 minute slots. That’s a lot of meetings squeezed into a few days and not much time to eat or pop to the loo. Some of these professionals will have been attending fairs for ten, twenty years or even longer, which means they’ve made a lot of friends in the industry. I suspect that the minutes snatched between meetings are often what seal a deal. A shared joke, colleague in common, baby photographs... If that’s what gets your stand alone YA novel a German deal, I say stay at home. Let others talk about how old their children are and, oh, does that include translation rights?

Some authors visit the fair under their own expense and I’d be interested to hear about these experiences. Some editors visit the fair under their own expense and I’d be interested to hear about those experiences, too. I know for certain that when everyone comes back we’ll be waiting to hear what the word on the fair aisle is, what the ‘next big thing’ might be. Deals are rarely done at the fair itself these days, but rights people often come back to their offices with a sense of publishing mood, what people are looking to buy and where fashions are on the wane or rise.

I just wish I could have some of that ice-cream one day.

What does Bologna Book Fair mean to you?

Visit my website at

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Dreaded P-Words - Nicola Morgan

One of the problems with modern life is too much choice. Choice is offered as a good thing and, on the face of it, it is. Certainly, lack of choice is lack of power and the ultimate lack of power is slavery. But too much choice can be horribly paralysing and lead to great dissatisfaction. 

There's an area of choice in which I think writers are becoming panicky and paralysed. It's the P-Words: Publicity, Promotion, Profile, Platform. Oh, and pro-active.

Time was when a writer wrote a book, waited for Publication Day, was wheeled out for a few signings and tottered back to a hotel for a claret-laden dinner with editor. (Actually, I have no memory of such days, but allow me some imagination.) Now, we have to be pro-active, partly because often our publishers don't do enough or we have better ideas, or simply because there are so many opportunities and our publishers rightly encourage us to use them. We see other authors Doing Stuff and want to Do Stuff too. For a pro-active, interfering, control freak such as me, this is, in theory, great.

In theory.

In practice, it's a flipping nightmare, a feast of choices, incitement to wake in the night with Yet Another Stupid Wheeze Which I Usually Actually Carry Through. And then there's the panic when we hear what someone else is doing - why didn't we think of that? The blog tour, the sponsored marathon, the one-woman festival, the colour-coded Tweet-up, the mail-shotting of the fan database. What?? You don't have a fan database, in a spreadsheet, with the ability to identify each category of reader, by postcode? You mean you haven't set up a Twitter persona for each of the characters in your book? You don't have a special blog, posting every day for six months? You haven't organised a book giveaway throughout all continents of the world? Bad, lazy author.

NO! No more, I say, no more. I reject paralysing choice. I will not be panicked into doing stupid things that sound good but wreck me. Never again will I set a world record of school visits in one day, as I did for Deathwatch. Or organise a blog tour AND set up a new blog, as I did for Wasted. Nor will I ever lie awake wondering what mad things to do for the next book. I will reject panic. I will calm down, be sensible and moderate. We do too much, worry too much, glance in too much fear at other people, fret about what we're not doing instead of focusing on what we can do well.

So, here, for what it's worth, is my advice on approaching publication in a state of zen:
  1. Play to your strengths: do what suits you. If the idea curdles your stomach juices, spit it out.
  2. Focus not on the excitement of the Bright Idea but the feeling you will actually have when you have to put the idea into practice. Will you regret it? If so, stop it in its tracks.
  3. Choose a couple of things to do and forget the other possibilities. You have another book to write and a life to live.
  4. Ignore everyone else: no one is doing everything and most people are not selling as many books as you fear.
  5. If you wake in the night with a crazy idea, go back to sleep. 
  6. Be strategic and time-focused. Six months before publication, make a plan (in conjunction with your publisher); then do virtually nothing till two months before P-day.Then, look at your plan and follow it. This planning eliminates the need to wake in the night in a panic. Besides, you're not panicking, remember?
  7. Remember that what happens to your book will depend mostly on luck and the book, more than how many hours you spent promoting it.
  8. You do not have to have a launch party - it's fun (for some people) but it usually doesn't sell books so only do it if it will make you happy, not if it will stress you.
  9. Do as I say, not as I do. But I'm trying - I really am.


By the way, in case my publicist is reading this, the book is called Write to be Published. But it's not published till June, so I'm doing nothing yet.

Caaaaaaaaalm. Ommmmmmmmmm.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Weather in Your Head; Penny Dolan

For a few years, I’ve written a short animal story for a seasonal anthology. The first few were for Winter anthologies for the Christmas market but this year a Spring anthology is being published: The Little Bunny. The cover is perfectly suited for the likely audience, and it's definitely not gritty urban ranting or farting pants gags.

I must admit I do enjoy writing these stories, although the work doesn’t bring much money or great personal acclaim. It’s not even “my” title. My name is shown as part of Amazon's product details.

On the other hand, it’s fun reading through the authors listed on the back cover and discovering which other writer friends have been sharing the story-making task.

The tales are good for the spirit too, especially when one is battling with a longer book or other troubles. Also, despite the “sweetness” of the subject matter, the editors are briskly helpful and precise - in the kindest way of course - which is good for all of one’s writing.

The editors are always reasonable, too. I have been asked to change names so the collection doesn’t end up with more than one Mollie. I have been nudged gently so that a similar plot device doesn’t appear twice in such a short set of tales. That’s fine by me. Writer for Hire.

Once or twice I've received slightly concerned emails about “my animal facts” versus “your animal facts”. As long as I had my own evidence, there was never any problem. It's quite comforting to know the editors do consider the factual basis of the animal stories, no matter what touches of story fantasy were added.

But there is one thing about this work that is most odd.

The anthologies, like editions of Vogue, are written well before their season. So, last year, when the ground outside was thick with December’s ice and snow, my head was full of a story about sunshine and blue skies and blossom and daffodils.

Now, as the gardens green and fill with flowers, I have been deep in a tale about a poor little creature lost amid biting wind and freezing snow. It will probably come back to me for revision work in the sweltering heat of mid-July.

When my head is in these stories, that world is almost real to me. I “feel” the weather and the temperature, but the contrast between “in here” and “out there” can be giddy-making when I'm suddenly called back to real date matters.

Maybe that’s the reasons I’m never quite sure what the day today actually is, or which season we’re living in, Officer.

So what’s the weather in your head?

Penny Dolan

Out now: A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury)

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Chateau Downunder - Michelle Lovric

Hyping up a product with hints of wickedness and perversion? Sexing up its contents with eye-catching art? A subtitle that teases? Terrible puns? Synaesthesia? Satire? Yes, books and wine have a lot in common. Both are mind-altering stuff. And both advertise their contents with imagery and words, sometimes more creatively than truthfully.

I spent last Christmas in Australia and New Zealand, where wine label art is particularly reminiscent of book jacket design. Antipodean wineries regularly use humour, drama and creative typography to get their wines noticed. A visit to the ‘bottle-shop’, just like a visit to the bookshop, can see the customer staggering out with more than he or she intended to buy, seduced by dazzling label/cover art and text. So here are some of the wines that I ‘read’ or tasted by word-of-mouth on my travels.

The trophy-winning Australian Shiraz of last year is called Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch. The Gatsby-style illustration shows an elegant woman carrying a shotgun. The wine is said to be an ideal accompaniment to game. In contrast, a stark black-and-white drawing of a lone figure announces a Pinot Gris called Innocent Bystander. A sommelier whispered reverently of Dead Red Dog and Two Old Boots, and told me about an American winery called Pompous Ass, with offerings such as Highfalutin Red and Kiss My Ass Blush, illustrated with a girl puckering up to a donkey.

Animals feature strongly in Antipodean wine labelling. There are Chardonnays called Barking Owl and Platypus Play, a Shiraz called Shoo Fly, and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc called Cats Pee on a Gooseberry Bush. One Chardonnay Semillon goes by the name Hair of the Dingo.

A Barossa Grenache is simply called Bitch (in an ornate typeface on a pale pink label). The back of the bottle is printed with the word ‘bitch’ 77 times. According to one wine website, Bitch is now the ‘liquid anthem’ for divorces, birthdays and, mysteriously, baby showers.

There are Californian Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays and Merlots called Mad Housewife, with an Edna Everage lookalike on the label. An elegant white label announces a French Chardonnay that goes by the name of Fat Bastard (now joined by Utter Bastard Syrah). Boarding Pass Shiraz’s label is just what it says … on the label. There’s a Californian Chardonnay called White Trash White, from the same stable as Redneck Red. Vampire Vineyards in Romania produce various reds including Dracula. Let’s not forget Marilyn Merlot, made by Marilyn wines in the Napa Valley. There is also Norma Jeane Merlot and Sauvignon Blonde. (All royalties go to the Strasberg Theater Institute and the Anna Freud Foundation.)

South Africa has its famous parody wine labels, Goats do Roam and Bored Doe (say them out loud). And Sicily has satirized the much-advertised Piat d’Or with its own Fiat Door. Abruzzo has The Full Montepulciano. And France has even parodied itself with a Chat-en-Oeuf, illustrated with a cat sitting on an egg. (There’s also Longue-Dog.)

Alcohol labels are more regulated than book covers. But is not the requirement to list the alcohol content a bit like age-ranging? Labels may not lie, according to a ‘bevlog’ I read, but they may contain information that is not necessarily purely factual, just like a book jacket.

How much is its great title A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to do with what’s inside Dave Eggers’ book? Who cares? We all bought the book anyway for the pleasure of its name.

Perhaps wine labels are more honest than book covers? There’s a Spanish Tempranillo called Scraping the Barrel. And in Hungary, a Cserszegi Fuszeres varietal has been christened The Unpronounceable Grape. B Frank’s label asks the giver to complete this phrase: ‘I’m only drinking with you because ……’ There’s an American wine called Adequate Gift. Its label is a form for the giver to fill out: ‘Hope you and …… enjoy this rich red blend! Its fleshy mouthfeel of cherry, coffee and vanilla flavours reminds me of the …… times we’ve had, like the whole ……incident.’

Not a bad idea for the back of a book jacket, is it? Let the punter fill in the blanks! Especially useful in the gift book market.

Just to demonstrate the synergy, book covers can even become wine labels. Elizabeth Gilbert’s paean to me-ness, Eat Pray Love, is now not just a ‘major motion picture’, but also the label for a Pinot Grigio.

But wine and beer labels can also get the ‘publishers’ into trouble. The brewers of a series called Witch’s Wit – in a line of Catholic-themed beers, like Inferno Ale and Judgment Day – decided to use an illustration of a witch being burned at the stake for its new offering, The Lost Abbey. Predictably, the image caused a furore among wiccans, pagans, shamans and others. This generated a great deal of hot air, and the publicity no doubt increased sales.

I suspect similar intentions in the South Australian winery that named its Cabernet Sauvignon simply Evil, printed white-on-black upside down with a dramatic tagline of ‘It’s just wrong’.

During the long summer evenings to come, I’m planning to drink a lot of books and read a lot of wine. You’re all invited to submit tasting suggestions.


Michelle Lovric’s website

See the new video trailer for The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium on YouTube

The Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch series of wine has its own website, including a picture gallery showing their butchery course.

The lovely Chat-en-Oeuf illustration comes from the beautiful Arts Parts clip art site

An excellent site for wine labels, including many that I could not mention on a site for writers of children’s books, is this one

Monday, 21 March 2011

A perfect picture book - Josh Lacey

What makes a great picture book? It should have wonderful pictures, of course. And an immaculate fusion of images and text. A memorable narrative, an interesting theme and some good jokes all help too. But the real sign of a great picture book is that you can read it again and again (and again and again) without going nuts.

I don't know how many times I've read The Tiger Who Came to Tea - certainly hundreds, maybe even thousands, as a child, a sibling and a parent - but I still haven't tired of it. I'll usually try to steer my daughter in its direction when she's choosing a book. Are you sure you want that? I’ll say. Wouldn't you rather have this one?

What do I love about it? The simplicity of the story; its warmth; the sweet domestic details; and the mixture of gentility and terror in the character of the tiger. In what little he says - he speaks only twice in the book - he is terrifically polite. "Excuse me," he says at he pokes his head around the front door, "but I'm very hungry. Do you think I could have tea with you?" As he leaves, he waves and says, "Thank you for my nice tea. I think I'd better go now." What a perfect guest! And yet he's a wild destructive force who rages through the home, draining the taps of water, eating every scrap of food, leaving a scene of chaos.

Why doesn't he eat Sophie and her mother? When we're reading, aren't we waiting for him to turn on them and open his wide jaws? A lesser story might have expressed these fears, but Judith Kerr leaves them unsaid; Sophie and her mother calmly let the tiger fill himself up and leave.
...and he drank all the milk,
and all the orange juice,
and all Daddy's beer,
and all the water in the tap.
Is there a more perfect picture book?

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Child is Father (Mother) to the Man (Woman) - by Katherine Langrish

Many of the stories I wrote as a child still survive.  At the time I was writing them I thought they were pretty good: and in fact I think children ought to believe their own creative work is good.  They always move on.  Anyone who has much to do with children knows the disdain with which a nine-year-old regards last year’s – or last term’s – paintings or drawings, even the ones which you, their mother or father, actually cherish and keep pinned on the fridge.  “It’s really bad,” they’ll say critically, “I can do much better now.”

I like that confidence.  It’s a great thing to believe that you’re only going to get better.  Most children up to the age of ten possess it, because, frankly, that is what experience has taught them.  Once they couldn’t tie their shoelaces, now they can.  Once they couldn’t ride a bike, now they can.  Once – long ago in kindergarten – they cried, babyishly.  Now they look forward to going off to school and meeting their friends.

When I was about ten, therefore, I saw no reason at all why I shouldn’t be a fantastic writer or poet – perhaps even as good as Shakespeare!  And so I wrote lots of stories based on whatever I happened to enjoy reading at the time.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I imitated away to the best of my ability.  (This too is healthy – for children, anyway.) I wrote a whole bookful of ‘Tales of Narnia’, to augment the Seven Chronicles C.S. Lewis had already written.  I did it only because I wanted to read more Narnia stories, and Lewis couldn’t oblige, being dead.  I became vaguely aware that my own stories didn’t provide the same kind of pleasure as Lewis’s.  For one thing, I knew what was going to happen – I was making the characters do things, I was in charge. But if it was a different kind of magic, it was magic nonetheless.  I was hooked on making stories as well as reading them.

Next after ‘Tales of Narnia’ came another volume of short stories I called ‘Mixed Magic’.  The best of them – the one that’s still possible to read with some enjoyment and without wincing – was about Peter Piper who picked the peck of pickled pepper, and was light-hearted and humorous: I was writing within my limits.  Still I yearned for high adventure and poetry, so the worst of these stories is called ‘Asgard’s Revenge’: Asgard was a white-maned sea horse, with a tendency to go on like this:

“My father is dead!” cried Asgard, wildly.  “Your lord is dead – dead – dead!  And he was killed by the accursed Lightnings!  Now will we crush the Lightnings and all their race!  Do you hear, O my people?  We will take the light from their eyes, the joy from their hearts!  Revenge!”  He stopped, overcome.

And well he might.  I’m blushing even now.  But – a couple of pages on, Asgard is given a horn to blow which will call up such a storm ‘as will touch heaven’s shimmering, glittering, star-interlaced web, and wash down the Pole Star.’  Overwritten, overwrought, derivative, maybe, but – for thirteen years old, which I was at the time - I don’t think I need to feel too ashamed. 

After 'Mixed Magic', under the influence this time of Mary Renault, I went on to try my hand at historical fiction.  I was at Ross on Wye Grammar School by now, and our Religious Studies lessons were much more along the lines of ‘archeology of the Bible Lands’. I read a bit in the textbook about Egypt of the Pharoahs, and wrote a full length book about Joseph and his brothers, told in the first person by Judah.  I did my thirteen year old best to research the thing, with the result that for about a decade afterwards I could recite the names of the Pharoahs and their dynasties in order (I can’t anymore). It runs to 158 handwritten pages and has a beginning, a middle and an end.  From this point on, I knew I had the stamina to complete a book.

Then I was blown away by Alan Garner’s 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' and 'The Moon of Gomrath'.  Off I went to read the Mabinogion, to get in touch with my Welsh roots (I had a Welsh grandmother) and, inevitably, to write a fantasy with a Celtic theme, about a young man pursued through wet woods by minions of the triple moon goddess, and encountering golden-faced indifferent elves dancing on old straight tracks.    And that one was followed by the first book I ever wrote which was all me, original, not really influenced by anyone much (except perhaps a touch of Walter de la Mare): a fantasy about a girl who walks into a picture of a Rousseau jungle and teams up with a monkey and a yellow bird and sets off on a quest. 

I sent that one off to an agent, but it came back.  And the next one was set in a modern (well, then modern) school, and involved bullying, psychological and physical, and a haunting, and wasn’t at all bad in places except that I had no idea where I was heading with the plot.  And the next one –

Well, the next one was 'Troll Fell'. It took me a very long time to write, as I’ve told elsewhere, but in the end it was published, and is the first part of my trilogy ‘West of the Moon’, republished this month in one volume.  Set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, it’s a historical fantasy which incorporates all sorts of folklore and fairytales.  It weaves together the elements I’ve been trying all my life to write about.  It’s romantic, dramatic: in places funny and in places tragic.  I owe so much to all the wonderful writers who’ve influenced me: yet this is mine, not theirs. 

Through practice, through admiration and imitation, through writing and writing and writing, I finally found something of my own to say, and knew who I was: and it turns out that I am still pretty much the exact same person who wrote ‘Asgard’s Revenge’ all those years ago – but it doesn’t embarrass me any more. That story was really bad, I know.

But I do it better now.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Down With Spelling! - Emma Barnes

Here's a radical proposal - one to shock my fellow writers to the core. (This is my first ABBA post so I thought I'd kick off with some controversy.) I love writing. I want the children I meet to love writing too. But sometimes when I'm in schools, with my Visiting Author hat, I find the experience bitter-sweet. Why?

Because although the children I meet love hearing stories, acting out stories and inventing new stories, often the whole process of "writing down" the stories is still painful for them. I work mainly in primaries and even in Year 6 this is still the case for some children. Sometimes reading stories - the same stories that they love to hear - is a struggle too.

Children should read. It is the key that unlocks their educational future. It is also one of the greatest (and cheapest, most convenient and therefore most widely accesible) pleasures in life. Yet for many primary age children reading is not pleasure. It is dull - all about deciphering, not romping through a story.

We could get side-tracked into some educational debates here. But one thing that strikes me more and more: English is HARD. Learning to read and write is DIFFICULT.

No, you say. Surely it's as easy as One, Two, Three...A,B,C.

Well, just think about that. Most British children today learn using phonics, and a lot of them make rapid progress, sounding out the words. Until they reach the Tricky Words. One and Two are Tricky Words. Just look at them. They make no sense. You know how to pronounce them only because you have learnt them as individual words. The trouble is so many words are tricky. Such basic words as I and You and Me and There and Their and Go and Come and Who and....Sausage. All tricky. I could go on.

It doesn't have to be this way. In Italian all words are phonetic - their spelling is consistent with their sound. In fact, I'm told in Italian there is no word for Spelling! Think of that - and think of the time freed for more exciting things.

Maybe it is time to reform the English language - the spelling of it, anyway. Then there would be fewer seven, eight, nine year old children who although they have the ability to appreciate the compex dialogue and storyline of a film like Shrek are still struggling their way through The Gingerbread Man when it comes to the written page. Or who can't wait for the next instalment of The Twits when their teacher reads it to them (all children love Roald Dahl is the motto of every primary teacher) but can't manage to read the book themselves.

Of course it would be a bit of a downer for all of us old(er) folks who find One, Two, Three as obvious as falling off a wall. But wouldn't it be worth it to let more people in?

OK, time for the brick bats!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Through the Mists of Irish Myth - Lucy Coats

Today is a day of shamrocks and Guinness, leprechauns and rejoicing for Irish communities everywhere.  It is the day of St Patrick, Ireland's patron saint.  So let's take a little trip through the mists of Irish myth and legend.

Who was St Patrick?  There are a few 'facts' which are accepted as true by historians, since they come from two letters Patrick almost certainly wrote himself.  He was captured as a teenager and sent as a slave to Ireland, where he lived as a shepherd for six years before escaping and returning to his family. He was related to St Martin of Tours on his mother's side, and his parents were high-ranking Romans from either Gaul or Britain. Patrick returned to Ireland later in his life as an ordained bishop, and was given permission by the Ard-Righ (High King) to preach Christianity in the north and west of the island. Scholars think (but don't know absolutely) that he lived and worked sometime in the second half of the 5th century. 

So what has a Christian bishop to do with myth?  Of course, the most famous 'myth' about Patrick himself was that he banished the snakes from Ireland (possibly a reference to the serpent symbolism of his druid 'rivals', because there were no snakes in Ireland). I'm pretty sure he would have spoken the Celtic language of his captors (and later on, his flock).  He must also have heard all the great stories of the druidic Irish religion told around the fire when he was a young man in captivity--and probably in the Ard-Righ's great hall too.  Bards were honoured folk then, and those were the stories they told--Cuchulain, Finn MacCool, Maeve and the Tain Bo Cuailnge and so on. I would speculate that those mythical tales--and more importantly, the way in which they were told or sung, had an effect on Patrick the priest.

Look at his famous prayer 'St Patrick's Breastplate' forinstance. It has the lines:

'I bind to myself today
the power of Heaven,
the light of the sun,
the brightness of the moon,
the splendour of fire,
the flashing of lightning,
the swiftness of wind,
the depth of sea,
the stability of earth,
the compactness of rocks.'

For me that has a clearly traceable line of influence back to the ancient Celtic 'Song of Amergin', which also takes its poetic inspiration from nature:

I am a stag of seven tines
I am a flood across a plain
I am a wind on a deep lake
I am a tear the Sun lets fall
I am a hawk above the cliff
I am a thorn beneath the nail
I am a wonder among flowers

Those Celtic myths of Ireland which Patrick heard are all stories I know well myself, having sent my own bard, Coll, and his talking raven, Branwen, on a storytelling journey around the islands of Britain.  

Coll the Storyteller's Tales of Enchantment
What I found in the course of my research for that book was that many versions of the stories I was telling (most notably the stories of Brigid and the tale of the Swan Children of Lir) had elements of Christianity within them. Those elements were clearly inserted at a later date--perhaps in Patrick's time or after.  This is what I find so fascinating about myth.  It adapts itself to its circumstances, it is fluid, and yet it retains the true core essence of its story, whatever overlays or extras are added to it. 

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the influence of Christianity on those Irish stories.  After all, its pragmatic power managed to turn the pagan winter solstice into Christmas, Imbolc (or the Feast of New Ewe's Milk) into Candlemas, Eostre/Eos goddess of fertility/dawn into Easter, Lughasadh (celebrating the sun god's harvest in August) into Lammas, Samhain into All Souls/All Hallows....  But in a kind of reverse mythic swap there are stories which say that when St Patrick died, he went to the Isles of the Blest--where the glorious Celtic warrior-heroes finished up after death.  I like to think that he was enough of an honorary Irishman by the end that he wouldn't have minded a quick trip down from Heaven to mingle with the Fianna, drink from the magic cup of King Cormac and tell tales of the angels' misdemeanours.  Happy Lá Fhéile Pádraig!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Tired of Vampires? Miriam Halahmy

Two weeks ago I did my first event for my new novel HIDDEN at Portsmouth University for their Multicultural Staff and Student Forum. The organiser, Maricar Jagger, had contacted me over Twitter when I started to Tweet about setting my novels on Hayling Island next to Portsmouth. It was a lovely event to kick off with. Blackwells University Bookshop stocked my novels and Chris, pictured here, a member of the Forum, is the very first person to buy my book in a bookshop! HIDDEN is officially released on March 31st.

I was invited to speak at this Forum because HIDDEN is about asylum seekers and covers current immigration policies and human rights issues in the UK today. Although the audience was quite small, we covered a huge amount of ground from the inspirations and background to the writing of the novel, all the way to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the initiatives I am involved with to promote dialogue and peace.

But perhaps the most interesting response I had to my novel came from two women who both had 16 year old daughters. My book is marketed for the 11+ age range and the protagonists are 14. Generally we are told that young people prefer to read about characters older than themselves. So I hadn't thought it would be of interest to older teens. However both  women said that their daughters were fed up with a diet of vampires and romance and were looking for fiction which was more challenging. They felt that HIDDEN could offer them this kind of read.

It is always difficult to predict trends in any market but I have felt from talks and articles generated by the industry over the past four years when I have been writing and submitting HIDDEN, that this kind of book is probably not the most marketable to teens. Of course only time will tell but I certainly felt uplifted to hear that there were sixteen year olds out there looking for an alternative to some of the more recent popular themes.

I have recently  joined a group of authors who are writing gritty contemporary fiction for teens and we are hoping to participate as a group to promote our particular style of writing. We are setting up a blog - so watch this space. It certainly feels like my novel is coming out at a time when there might just be a bit more space for it in the current market trends.

Putting Pressure on Pupils? - John Dougherty

I love doing school visits.

I love writing, too, but it would drive me mad if I spent all my waking, or at least working, hours alone in my shed. I like - no, I need - to get out there and perform, too.

I’ve been doing a lot of it lately. I suspect it’s proximity to both World Book Day and the end of the financial year that leads to the annual rash of bookings throughout late February and much of March; but whatever the reason, it’s been great to get out of the confines of my admittedly lovely shed and meet both children and staff at a real variety of schools, from Gloucester to Bedford and from Leicester to Exeter.

There’s always the occasional niggle in school visit season. Inevitably, at some point, somebody at some school somewhere will do something to cause offence. When this happens, it’s important to keep things in perspective. What was said may not have been exactly what was meant; that omission was probably a genuine oversight; teachers are busy people who should be forgiven for not always being able to keep every single plate spinning. Yes, I’ve just driven for two hours to get here; but she may have spent the last forty-five minutes trying to control an uncontrollable Year 5. And, of course, while the best school visits - the ones where the children have been prepared for my visit and are excited about meeting a Real Live Author - are also usually those on which I get treated like a celebrity, it’s important not to let that go to my head and expect the red carpet treatment everywhere.

There was, however, one niggle from this round which has stayed with me, and I really don’t think this one is down to me being a diva (or whatever the masculine form of diva is. Div, probably).

You see, I always finish my school visits with a book signing. Yes, it’s good to earn a little extra income from selling books - most of us aren’t terribly well-off - but that’s not why I do it. Nor is it to soak up a little more adoration - very often it’s when they meet you one-to-one that they say something that brings you back down to earth. No, the book signing is much more important than that.

More than anything else, the reason I do school visits is to promote reading for pleasure. I’m passionate about it. I believe that a school - especially a primary school - that doesn’t at least try to get its pupils reading for pleasure is failing in one of its most important duties. And in my sessions, I do my utmost to link reading and fun.

For me, the signing session is an important way to do that. If a child has been inspired by the day, and is bursting with fresh enthusiasm about reading, it’s good to provide the option of a focus for that enthusiasm; and a book signed by The Author can be just the thing. It can become a treasured, even a totemic, item, invested with significance.

Obviously, not every child will need such a focus - many of them will have books at home that already have particular significance, and for many some all books will be equally special, signed or not. But the signing session means that children are at least offered the option of buying a book which, for some, will be their first Special Book - and, for some, might even be their first book of any sort.

So what’s my niggle? It’s that one of the schools I visited recently refused to allow a signing session. The visit was arranged for me by a librarian, who sent a very apologetic email saying that “the Head was absolutely adamant that she did not want kids from their deprived backgrounds being under any pressure to buy books.”

I’ve got two problems with this. Firstly - and maybe this is me being a bit of a div - I take offence at the suggestion that I might put children under pressure to buy books. While I love it when I sell a lot of books, it’s absolutely fine by me if no-one buys even one, as long as they’ve been given the chance. In fact, sometimes the most special book sales are the ones where nobody turns up, and just as I’m packing up to go home, a child appears, breathless, having run all the way home to get enough money to buy one.

Secondly, and more importantly: books are special. Even my books. Yes, some kids may not be able to afford one, but considering that most parents in the UK, however poor, will buy their children some kind of treat from time to time, surely it’s a positive message to suggest that, this once, that treat might be a book?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Authors For Japan - Elen Caldecott

We've all been shocked and horrified by the images coming out of Japan over these last few days. I cannot imagine how the survivors feel. My heart goes out to the people who have lost so much. Yesterday I heard that there was going to be an auction of donated literary-themed items to help raise money for the disaster relief. The result is 'Authors For Japan'. Please take a look at the items for sale, they include signed books, critiques of work, your name in the author's next book...all kinds of great options to bid on. The money raised will go to the British Red Cross in Japan, though you don't neeed to be based in Britain to take part. The auction closes on Sunday 20th March. It would be great if you could share the link in your social network too. Thank you.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Sailing Through and Ploughing On: N M Browne

There are several things I like about lecturing : I earn a little extra cash ( and I mean a little), I get away from my desk, my dog and my laundry basket and it makes me think.
Last week a student confessed to being a farmer not a sailor. I must have looked particularly blank as she immediately explained that she was a farmer because she ploughs the furrow of her own life, her own feelings, her own familiar milieu. I was startled at first. It’s not an analogy I’d heard before and it seemed counter intuitive that someone of so little experience should focus on it so exclusively. Then I remembered: at nineteen I think that’s all I did. Back then I only wrote truly abysmal poetry inspired by my ‘A’ level texts: TS Eliot, John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins - an inevitably unhappy menage a trois. As you can imagine it was all about me, but with obscure references, sixteenth century vocabulary and sprung rhythm.
Is this a stage? Is it a function of that unhelpful adage ‘write what you know’ or do we as young writers believe that the function of ‘the artist’ is to transmute leaden adolescent angst into literary gold? Are we more inclined to narcissism then or are some of us always more inward looking?
I don’t know. I can only speak for myself,(still a narcissist then, ed.) I ditched the poetry around the same time I cut my Kate Bush hair, discovered that southerners had funny accents and ( horrifyingly) that I wasn’t that interesting. Maybe inward looking people have better furnished interior lives - more Corbusier then DFS - or, to switch back to the original metaphor, fascinating farms. My farm is notably poorly managed and has never yielded anything more inspiring than the common spud and a spud is still a spud even if you dress it up as ‘Gratin Dauphinois’. It is just as well that when I took up writing again many years later, it was as a sailor.
These days, in my writing if not in my blogging, I travel as far from myself as I can get, journeying back in time, or sideways to alternate universes, switching gender, age and species. I don’t explore the depths, but the ocean is wide and unpredictable and you never know what you will find beyond the curve of the world and that has to be better than spuds.

Friday, 11 March 2011

What (Not) To Wear

I could do with a restyle. Not of my everyday writer uniform of pyjama bottoms and old shirts, and even older worn down birkenstocks, that works fine.
But as you all know, it's just been World Book Day and I've had quite a few school visits back to back. This has meant wearing proper clothes out and about, and not just my lucky school talk outfit. It could do with a complete overhaul.
I was thinking about this and wondering if any of you have lucky outfits. I always find schools horribly hot, and dread pouring with sweat so my lucky outfit is a t-shirt (nice, and not boring honest) not too tight, with flat shoes and a sensible - not too short but not too long to be too uninteresting - skirt.
But I could do with something a little more exciting, perhaps a headress or a giant fur muff like the one in the photo.
You might think my lucky clothes are a bit dull, but I have had several wardrobe malfunctions in public, a few examples of which include wearing a pencil skirt so tight I couldn't sit at a coffee bar stool without falling off the other side, and getting a long, floaty summer skirt caught in an escalator as I tried and talk to, and appear intelligent and sensible to, a certain well known publisher. I have also gone shopping with my skirt tucked into my knickers.
So although my lucky outfit is a little on the safe side, it is at least trustworthy.

The Land of the Long White Cloud - Linda Strachan

The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa which roughly translated means the Land of the long white cloud.

It is an incredibly beautiful country which has some similarity to Scotland (although frequently it has significantly better weather).

Christchurch 2009
New Zealand has been the focus of the news recently because of the terrible earthquake in Christchurch.  My heart goes out to all those affected by it. It must have been terrifying.

This trip did not include a visit to South Island but we visited Christchurch on a previous visit and it is a beautiful city, which hopefully it will be again.

 With the help of the New Zealand Book Council I was able to visit nine different primary and secondary schools in various locations in North Island.   It was fascinating to see where the similarities are with schools here in the UK,  and where things are quite different.
Elm Park School - Pakuranga  - Auckland NZ

Elm Park Primary school is situated in a suburb of Auckland and you can see a write up of my visit on their blog Elm Park's Room 16 Lightning Bolts blog.  The school had a wonderful new auditorium and the children had lots of great questions.  Hamish McHaggis seemed to go down well there, too.

I was surprised to find that books are very expensive in New Zealand. Especially in a place where other things are often cheaper than they are here, books cost much more. This must make it very difficult for families with young children to have many books of their own.

The first school I visited was AWATAPU COLLEGE  in Palmerston North

I love the way the Maori language is used alongside English although at times it made place names a little difficult to pronounce.

There are many country roads in New Zealand and teenagers driving too fast and getting into trouble on the roads is unfortunately as common a problem as it is in rural communities and small towns everywhere.
In fact teenage problems seem universal  so my teenage books, Spider and Dead Boy Talking with their themes of car and knife crime seemed to have equal relevance to the students there, as they do here in the UK.

Students at Rangikura School in Porirua

It was a delight and a privilege to be invited to visit these and other schools in New Zealand  where the welcome was always warm and generous.

I was also invited to speak to children's writers from SCWBI Australia in Sydney,  before returning home to Scotland (sunny but cold!)  just in time for World Book Day & Night events.

I will be posting more about the trip and my recent events on my blog BOOKWORDS    and on my website  over the next week or so, why not drop by and have a look!

Writing for Children (A & C Black) For all aspiring and newly published writers
 For younger children : The Hamish McHaggis series (GW Publishing)
                                          What Colour is Love?

 For teens / YA -  Spider (Strident Publishing)
                              Dead Boy Talking (Strident Publishing)
 Follow Linda's blog  - Bookwords -
Visit her website

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Literary Genres by Marie-Louise Jensen

I've just read an interesting piece on Stephen Hunt's website, about the invisibility of genre fiction on World Book Night and its general invisiblity in the media. The discussion was mainly about adult fiction, but so many of the points seemed to me to be relevant to the world of young people's fiction, that I feel impelled to look at a couple of them here.
Of course our starting point is that children's fiction is already the Cinderella of the fiction world. But let's leave that aside for now. Martin Amis' offensive remarks have already been responded to thoroughly here.
The general bone of contention is that so-called genre writers feel they are looked down on, ignored and passed over for writers of contemporary fiction. In children's fiction, I would personally refer to that as 'issue fiction' for reasons I will explain presently.
When I first started reading and studying fiction for young people and looking at reviews and esecially prize lists back in about 2004, it struck me immediately that the majority of the books that make those lists are issue fiction. This is particuarly true of the Carnegie prize, where it's rare to see genre fiction, unless it's suitably dark and adult.
Historical fiction is sometimes taken seriously, but woe betide any writers who have the poor judgement to include a love story, because that will relegate them to the trash pile at once. A group of us have recently found that to be true when we considered joining a newly-established history association that has allegedly banned all works of romance from their august and select group.
But is issue fiction intrinsically better or more worthwhile than science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, horror or chicklit?
The answer has to be: of course not. There will be 'good' and 'bad' books in all genres. So why is it so over-represented? It isn't what is read most or sells best. The prize for that would probably go to fantasy, spy books or chicklit publications for that. Any children's author probably knows that it's fantasy that sells best in the foreign rights market, for example.
Chicklit is contemporary fiction, and yet is just as ignored as any science fiction books. This is why I earlier drew the distinction between issue fiction and contemporary fiction. In fact the Queen of Teen award recently drew some most ill-considered remarks from a well-known writer for young people who ought to have known better. She suggested most strongly that it was all trash and criminalised the reading of it.
So why would that author - who is not alone in her position by any means - lift her voice against her sisters in fiction-writing and denounce their work?
I do believe that this snobbishness spreads into our world of children's fiction. That many people like to look down on genre fiction - and chick lit above all is considered fair game by almost everyone. (I noticed Stephen Hunt didn't defend or mention chicklit in his rant. Even he, the defender of genre fiction, probably secretly likes to look down on it; the exploration of women's feelings and relationships a fearful, unknown world to him!)
What I can't explain is why. I think all the genres have an equal amount to offer the population and are all of value, each in their own way. I certainly read the whole lot when I was growing up. From Enid Blyton, to pony stories, to Tolkein to a huge selection of the classics. And I'm quite sure I was all the better for it.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

From The Children's Writers' Songbook - Charlie Butler

[With apologies to Elton John and the Bee Gees]

What I have got to do to stay in fashion?
To keep up with the looks, the trends, the tracks?
One day leopard prints are Gok Wan’s passion,
The next they’re in the sale at T.K.Maxx.

How am I going to get some street smarts,
And write just like the kids speak in the ‘hood?
I’m more at home with hopscotch, hoops and go-carts:
What’s cool these days? I wish I understood.

It’s sad, so sad: it’s a sad, sad generation -
With jocks and dorks and geeks and chavs and nerds.
It’s sad, so sad – why can’t they talk plain English?
It always seems to me,
That YA seems to be the hardest word.

How'm I going to write that casual sex scene,
Or the one where they take drugs or sniff some glue,
When the Bible Belt thinks holding hands is obscene,
And you shouldn’t drink until you’re twenty-two?

What does it take to write a YA classic –
A novel that will last from year to year –
When every word’s immediately Jurassic,
And this week's trash was last week's hot idea?

It’s sad, so sad: it’s a sad, sad generation -
With jocks and dorks and geeks and chavs and nerds.
It’s sad, so sad – why can’t they just talk English?
It always seems to me,
That YA seems to be the hardest word.

When your book's too long
But you're still going strong
It's trilogy!
When your deadline's tight
With no end in sight
It's hard to bear:
Just split it in three parts and no one will care.

When you're almost through
With volume two
That's trilogy!
When there's one big scrap
Right across the map
It's hard to see
How you're going to end it - leave that till part three.

Going round the bend
Tying up loose ends
That's trilogy!
If in any doubt
You can just sign out
With three sure-fire things:
Someone dies or gets hitched or turns out to be king...

Trilogy! That's trilogy! ... [to fade]

You’ve been my agent now for six long years,
You’ve sold my rights from Norway down to Spain,
And the moment you’re back from Bologna
I wanna hear you on the phone again.

You say I’m a cert for the next big prize –
Then it all goes quiet
And I dry my eyes,
And it's me you need to show,
How deep is my book?

How deep is my book?
How deep is my book?
I really need to learn,
'Cause we’re living in a world of Faulks,
Putting us down
When they all should let us be.
There's nothing easy ‘bout the ABC.

I believe in you:
You’ve ten percent of my very soul.
When people ask if I’ll “Write a real book one day”
I just remember your first breathless call.

You may not think I care that much,
But you know deep inside
That I need a crutch.
And it’s me you need to show –
How deep is my book?

How deep is my book?
How deep is my book?
I really need to learn,
'Cause we’re living in a world of Faulks,
Putting us down
When they all should let us be.
There's nothing easy ‘bout the ABC.

La la la laa la la laa la la
La la la laa la la laa la la
Laa laa la la la la laa laa laa la
La la la la la la la laa la la

You tell me to expect some great reviews,
Then it all goes quiet
And I hit the booze.
And it's me you need to show
How deep is my book?

How deep is my book?
How deep is my book?
I really need to learn,
'Cause we’re living in a world of Faulks,
Putting us down
When they all should let us be.
There's nothing easy ‘bout the ABC.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Lancashire Book of theYear Award Shortlist by Adele Geras

On Friday morning, I was in Preston meeting the Year 9 pupils who will choose the Lancashire Book of the Year. This is the shortlist. I have only read Keren David's WHEN I WAS JOE but looking forward to reading the others.

Jim Carrington 'Inside my Head'
Keren David 'When I was Joe'
Joseph Delaney 'The Spook's Nightmare'
Jane Eagland 'Whisper my Name'
Hilary Freeman ' Lifted'
Chris Higgins 'Tapas and Tears'
Sam Mills 'Blackout'
Liz Rettig 'My Rocky Romance Diary'
C. J. Skuse 'Pretty Bad Things'
Keris Stainton 'Della Says OMG'

Friday, 4 March 2011

Yes, but is it TRUE? - Sue Purkiss

I was a little bit apprehensive about going to see 'The King's Speech'. It had been so highly praised that I feared it couldn't do anything but disappoint. In fact, I loved it. For anyone who hasn't yet seen it, it's beautifully written and incredibly well acted. It illuminates a very particular and specific area of British society - the royal family; but it also explores what it is like for any human being who has to struggle against a profound difficulty or disability - or even a relatively slight one: who among us who has on occasion to speak publically has not felt cripplingly nervous at the thought?
You're presented with the horror of it right at the beginning. Here is a stadium full of people waiting expectantly for a speech from the King's son: a man who suffers from an appalling stutter. He cannot refuse to do it: everyone is waiting. He knows that humiliation awaits: he has no choice but to endure it. Why, he must think, why did I have to live in an era when someone invented the microphone?
I won't go on - there can't be anyone who doesn't by now know the story. The reason I'm writing about it here is because of something my husband said after we'd seen the film. He's a history teacher, and he noted that in fact, Winston Churchill would not have been so prominently involved in the abdication as he was in the film. And it struck me that - in fact - Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth would have been older at the beginning of the war than they appeared to be in the film.
There may be lots of other factual inaccuracies or grey areas - I don't know. But it made me think - does it matter? I write historical fiction. I spend a ridiculous amount of time researching, but I'm not a historian so I generally start from a position of profound ignorance. I try to check facts which seem to me important - but then I make up conversations, I ascribe thoughts and motives, I imagine how that place looked, at that time, to that person; how this one felt, what that one dreamed. I imagine these things - I don't know them. I have written about real people: in Warrior King, I was writing about Alfred, a Dark Age king. I found out a lot, but there was a point at which I realised that some very basic stuff - how old he was when his mother died, how his brothers died, for example - was shrouded in mystery. I contacted an academic historian, who cheerfully reassured me that as it was all in the Dark Ages I could really make up what I wanted - and I did. And I think that's okay.
But is it okay when you're writing a book or a film about people who are still alive, or only recently dead? I felt uneasy after I'd seen the film about the founder of Facebook, The Social Contract. It had a very clear narrative, which was not complimentary to the young man at the centre of it. And he is still young - very young. How must it be for him to see writ large this version of his own life?
Is it enough for us to say - well, everyone knows it's fiction? Isn't it natural for all of us to assume that if we see something or read something, it's largely true? - even for picky individuals like me, who always want to know what the evidence is?
I don't know. I really don't. It's not going to stop me writing historical fiction, or reading it - to me, it's such a brilliant way to explore the worlds of the past. But - what do you think? Am I right to feel just a little bit uneasy about what I'm doing with the truth?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Happy World Book Day by Lynda Waterhouse

It's 5.22 am and I am up and on my way to an author event so please excuse my incoherence. Following a blip in the universe I have already posted but wanted to say 'Happy World Book Day!' Would love to hear what everyone is doing? How do you feel about it this year?

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Power Ballad by Lynda Waterhous

I have a unique singing voice. It defies description. There is a terrible mismatch between the notes I hear in my head and the sound that comes out of my mouth. An example of this and, one my husband never tires of reminding me about, was the time I started to sing White Riot by the Clash. I was happily singing away when it was pointed out to me that I was singing the lyrics of this contentious punk anthem to the tune of Moon River. I had no idea I was doing this. It just came out of my mouth that way. My brain is more battered juke box than sleek ipod.
And yet I love writing song lyrics. It’s another opportunity for me to create characters and give them a voice. A few friends and I formed an a capella heavy metal band and for this project the persona that I created to help me write the lyrics was a 15 year old lad and his pet tarantula. (I had been politely requested not to sing!).
I have long nursed a secret desire to pen the perfect power ballad. I have been trying to write the lyrics for years and like the search for a good picture book text I have found it incredibly hard to hit upon the right balance between the complexity/ cleverness of the idea, the sincerity of the emotion and the simplicity of language. Still its fun trying.
Songs and chants are a large feature of the sand dune world that I am creating for the Sand Dancers series published by Piccadilly Press. Going to see nu-folk bands inspired me when writing Soul Love. The title was inspired by the David Bowie song. My current story, ‘Magic Moments and the Dull Bits in Between,’ includes one character who writes murder ballads and another who penned the 1980’s hit ‘Canyon Love’ which means hours of caterwauling for me. The Magic Moments bit in the title comes from the wonderful Burt Bacharach song immortalised by Perry Como.
When I’m writing fiction and its going well the ideas and the words tap out a rhythm in my mind. There is an unconscious pulse beating between the words and the image or idea that I am trying to communicate. But is there also a bizarre mangling discord between what I think I’m saying and what appears on the page? Will my rants translate into Moon Rivers? I certainly hope so.

My Library and Me - Savita Kalhan

Libraries are under threat and there has been a huge outcry against cuts and closures that span the whole of the United Kingdom. And rightly so. Libraries are precious and should be placed under a protection order.
You will all have read or written many articles and blogs about the intrinsic importance of libraries and what they mean and what they provide for the individual, for children, for adults, for the disadvantaged, for society in general.
This is what they meant to me when I was a child.
I came to live in England with my parents when I was 11 months old. My father was an educated man – he spoke and wrote Hindi, Urdu and English, but was forced to leave school much earlier than he would have liked in order to help his parents. My mother never went to school. She was put to work when very young and although all her younger sisters went to school, she missed her chance and by twelve it was too late for her. She speaks only Punjabi, but can understand some Hindi, mainly learnt from films. She was brought up in a village, so as a child her experiences were limited, her knowledge of the world severely restricted.
My parents worked very hard. Our family grew, and we were raised in a very traditional environment. We had to work hard at school and at home. And we weren’t allowed to go out at all. Except to one place – the library.
Both my parents were in complete agreement about this. My father because he wanted us to do well, excel in school and in our studies, make something of ourselves. Even though he was in many respects a traditional Punjabi man, he never considered himself saddled with five daughters. He expected as much from us as if we were boys. And my mother because of her reverence for books. She couldn’t read them herself, but for her they were the source of wisdom, knowledge and understanding, and therefore the means to escape from poverty and derision. She held them in awe and respect. We were never allowed to put books on the floor, or anywhere they might get damaged.
We couldn’t afford to buy any books. So we joined our local library.

Wycombe Library - the grand opening in 1932!

Wycombe Library when I joined it

The brand new Wycombe Library in the Eden Centre and the fantastic Children's Library

As much as school, our library provided us with knowledge, but also a wealth of entertainment and pleasure – I think we always maxxed out our library cards with the number of books allowed to be taken out in one go. It was also to become our sanctuary and refuge through some very difficult and troubled times.
I do not think I would be the person I am today without them.
I would in all probability be trapped within the confines of a small-town Asian community in England, having succumbed to a traditional arranged marriage. It almost happened, but I fought it and escaped that fate by the skin of my teeth, but escape I did because although we were never allowed out while we were growing up, my horizons had been broadened exponentially by everything I had read and learnt and discovered – and it gave me a voice.
For many people, adults and children alike, the library still means as much, and so much more.

More library information:
Campaign for the Book

Alan Gibbons website

ABBA blog guest post ‘What my Library Means to Me’ by Shamila Akhtar, Friday February 22nd:
Fight for Libraries Campaign from The Bookseller
Voices for the Library
On Twitter – write your tweet and add this - #savelibraries. Or use it to search tweets about saving libraries.

Bucks Libraries haven’t escaped the dreaded cuts either. Some libraries may have to close unless run by volunteers, and they also face a 10% cut in opening hours. It’s a treacherously slippery slope. More information on the Friends of High Wycombe Libraries here

I will undoubtedly have missed some important links in my haste to get this post up on time! If any kind person wishes to add any I have missed, please do so in the comments.