Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Pitch - John Dougherty

Everyone loves a story that’s easy to pitch. Agents love it because in the briefest of phone calls they can persuade editors to read it. Editors love it because in a few words they can convince the sales team to get behind it. Sales people love it because in just ten seconds they can tell booksellers why they should stock it. And booksellers love it because, frankly, they don’t have time to read everything on the market and they have customers to serve.

So everyone loves it.

Everyone, that is, except for the author who’s written a story that’s not so easy to pitch.

The basic pitch comes in three flavours. There’s the X Meets Y Pitch:
“It’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer meets Wuthering Heights”
“It’s vampires meet pirates”
“It’s Star Trek meets dinosaurs”
“It’s the Famous Five meets Ancient Rome”

There’s the Unique Selling Point Pitch:
“It’s a whodunnit starring a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome”
“It’s about a detective who’s a skeleton”
“It’s set in a magical land where the animals talk”
“It’s like a Bond movie with a teenage hero”

And there’s the Nothing To Do With The Story At All Pitch:
“It’s by Madonna”

Now, please note that these entirely fictional pitches for very real books don’t tell you anything about the quality of the writing, or the characterisation, or the plotting, or… well, about anything, really, except how you can sell it to people without much effort. In fact - as in some of the cases above - they don’t even need to be terribly accurate.

But what about the stories that don’t lend themselves to pitching? Who would pay any attention to the following:
“It’s about an old man trying to poison a dog”
“It’s about a boy trying to feed his sister”
“It’s about an exceptionally clever child with stupid parents”
“It’s about a naughty boy”

In all of these cases - and they’re very real and successful books too - it’s the quality of the writing, the voice, and the characters, that lift them way, way above the ordinary. Describing them like this does them no favours, and in some cases makes them indistinguishable from a host of others.

I understand the reasons for the pitch. But I hope we never get to the point where it’s the only thing that matters.

And now, Awfully Big Readers, let’s play a game! Firstly, from the fictional pitches above, can you identify the books? And secondly, how would you pitch your own favourites?

Obviously, if we weren’t playing this game I’d have illustrated today’s post with pictures of the books I’ve used as examples. But we are, and I can’t, so here are some pictures of my own books instead. Shameless, aren't I?

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com

Monday, 30 May 2011

All about Casualty - for kids. Miriam Halahmy

What happens when you put a playwright and a consultant paediatrician together and send them to Casualty? They come up with an idea for a booklet of course!
"Are you in the emergency department waiting room and wondering what might be about to happen?"This booklet was written by the children of Grafton Primary School who have become experts on going into Casualty and its nothing like on the telly!

Award winning playwright ( Kindertransport), Diane Samuels, on the left, who is writer in residence at Grafton school, North London, was approached by Heidi Edmundson, consultant at the Whittington Hospital, for this amazing creative project - to put together a fun and engaging booklet, with the pupils, which would help children faced with a trip to A and E.

The staff were tickled pink!

The kids thought it was a lot of fun too! They interviewed all the staff, asking them things like, "What do doctors do if they are sick?" and of course, the important one, "How much do you earn?"
But as you can imagine, with a playwright leading the project, they did loads of thrilling role play. They acted out having  dramatic accidents such as falling out of trees and slipping on ice. Then they went to A&E at the Whittington, went through triage, had a consultation with Heidi, did everything in fact as though they had had a real accident - except experiencing an amputation. Everyone managed to survive  - even with a smile.

The kids came up with lots of interesting things to put in the booklet such as questionnaires, poems and instructions on how to calm a patient down if you are a doctor, such as :
Lesson number 3 - Don't pretend that you have no idea what you're doing.
Lesson number 6 - Don't threaten the patient as it only makes matters worse.
They drew pictures, advised on layout and font and came up with 'Things to do while you're waiting.'
The booklet was launched, with readings by the children, at a lovely afternoon event at the hospital.

 Now the booklet will be available to all the children who come into Casualty at the hospital. An excellent outcome for a writer in residence. Have any of our SAS writers been involved in this kind of project for children?


Sunday, 29 May 2011


This year, Keren David's WHEN I WAS JOE swept all before it. All the Year 9s who made up the judging panel loved it and the two next most popular books were BLACKOUT by Sam Mills and WHISPER MY NAME by Jane Eagland.

The judging process, as ever, brought out the best in the panel of pupils. They argued fiercely for their favourites and were intelligent and articulate and fun throughout. The whole thing ran like clockwork.

The work is done now and we now await the festivities on the 24/25th June when lots of the shortlisted writers come up to Preston for a dinner hosted by University of Central Lancashire (the prize's sponsors) followed the next day by the presentation of the award itself. That's always a lovely occasion. I'm really looking forward to meeting Keren, and the other writers who'll be attending.

Thanks very much to Jake Hope and Jean Wolstenholme and their cohort of excellent children's librarians, and also to UCLAN and the supporting publishers who send the books. Lancashire County Council lets us use their splendid meeting rooms so they deserve a hearty cheer as well.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

I am a writer - I write, but if I am not writing...? - Linda Strachan

 .......am I still a writer?
I have been travelling around a lot lately visiting schools which is fun and challenging.  I love it but it does take a lot of energy, which could otherwise be channelled into writing,   Although sometimes I think there are stories out there, happening all the time, and perhaps they are the food a writer's mind needs.  Chance encounters, and observations.

Sitting in a very comfortable B & B in the wilds of Aberdeenshire I have a large catherdral style window in front of me and wonderful views acress farmland, which is beautiful, even now as it starts to rain, washing the grass green and lush. There are cattle in the field below the window, three beautiful beasts, two black and one deep rich brown, 'show ' cattle I was informed.
They are playful despite their size, behaving much like little children.
Yesterday the chap who owns them was trying to build a fence.  He had just put in the first post when they came up behind him, obviously curious to see what he was doing.  They started sniffing at the post and rubbing against it when he had turned to the next one.  He heard them and turned around. Immediately all three looked away, as if they had had been caught out, and they looked as if they were trying to pretend they had not been interested in the post at all.

He went back to work, and working incredibly fast put in the tall fence posts in a row and then returned to them one by one to hit them deeper into the ground with a large mallet.
But as he worked from one end to the other in the small field these playfull creatures headed again towards the first of the posts that had not as yet been hammered into the ground.  When he was not looking (and you can almost sense that they checked to make sure,) they started to rub their noses against the post, then lean on it until it began to move  and eventually was sitting at an angle.
At this point the chap returned, having seen what they are up to and shooed them away.  Off they trotted like small errant children and as soon as he started repairing the damage, they began again on one of the posts at the other end of the field.
Eventually he saw what they were up to and came back to shoo them off again and one of them, the deep brown one, began to studiously examine a a bale of wire, as if trying to persuade the chap that it had not
been pushing at the post at all (' It wasn't me!  Honest!')

There are truly stories everywhere.

So when I am travelling and not having time or energy left to write, I am looking, imagining and enjoying observing the world away from my desk.  So perhaps when I am not writing - I am still writing in my head.


Bookwords Blog

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Boys Won't Read About Girls, Will They? - Ellen Renner

This post is prompted by an incident earlier this month at the North East Book Award. A boy of about ten or eleven came and stood silently to one side of my signing queue. He waited patiently, studying the showcards of my two books covers. (City of Thieves is the sequel to Castle of Shadows.) When things were drawing to a close, he finally spoke up. 'I don't think your publishers did a good job with the cover,' he said, pointing to the showcard for Castle. 'Oh, why is that?' I asked. 'Because ...' His face expressed serious offence having been taken. '...it looks like a girl's book. And it isn't!'

I asked him if he liked the cover for City of Thieves, and he said it was great. We chatted a bit, and I assured him I'd pass his comment onto Orchard's design team. Now, there was no mistaking the hurt that boy felt. Here was a book he'd really liked (once forced to read it for an award). And he felt cheated by the cover.

His reaction, I fear, is probably more more to do the social attitudes of boys than the book's cover. I agree there are more ivy tendrils than necessary, but the cover is blue and yellow, not pink. What I think that young man objected to, without realising it, was the image of a girl on the cover. So no girls allowed at all? Difficult to get round that one.

When I got back from the NEBA (which I'm pleased to report Castle of Shadows won, despite the main character Charlie's misfortune in being a girl), I decided to have a trawl through my collection of children's books, gathered from years of visiting second hand book shops. I remembered those books from the 70s and 80s as much less gendered, to be addressing boys and girls equally with the covers. Pink was not an issue. Was I right?

The obvious place to start seems E. Nesbit. The Railway Children and The Treasure Seekers, here in their Puffin covers, present the classic gang of kids having adventures story which is a never-dying perennial to this day, in the hands of someone like Ali Sparkes. Assorted boys and girls on the covers, with or without dogs and grown-ups in attendance.

Moving forward, we come to one of my favourite writers, and a fellow Devon resident: Gene Kemp. Kemp was a teacher as well as a writer, and knew all about boys and their reluctance to read about girls. I can't help feeling she had a great time pulling the wool over their eyes and giving them the shock of their lives with the excellent The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. But it's Juniper I love best. An almost lost classic with one of the best heroines in middle-grade fiction. Seek it out! That's Juniper in the lead on this cover. No apologies needed for her: she's a girl, she only has one hand, and she's totally brilliant.

Now here are two absolutely classic 70s covers: Diana Wynne Jones The Ogre Downstairs, and Madeleine L'Engle's A wrinkle in Time. Girls and boys floating in air. Magic and adventure. No gender-specific marketing in sight.

One way to get around the issue of gender on covers is to leave the kids off totally. Easier if you have magic/fantasy elements, as in these two classics from the late sixties/early seventies: The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon, and Susan Cooper's iconic The Dark is Rising series.

In these days when marketing likes gender division because it's seen as easy to sell, and anything with a girl protagonist runs a gauntlet of pink and glitter, some publishers manage to still try to address the fact that there's a need for books which are for boys and girls both. Two recent examples of gender-less adventure books are Frances Hardinge's Verdigris Deep, which is a lovely cover but avoids the issue by the abstraction of the figures.

A more interesting example is ABBA's own Nick Green's The Cat Kin. The first cover, in the Faber edition, is totally genderless. You can't tell that one of those running children is in fact named Tiffany. But the Strident cover, which I prefer, addressed the issue head on and in gung-ho fashion. Let's hope it's a sign of things to come.

I want to end with three covers of a Newberry Medal winning book from the seventies, which has undergone numerous incarnations: Bridge to Terabithia. I think the covers speak for themselves, but I find the latest one the most worrying. Here, the girl has been eradicated totally.

That's certainly one strategy for getting boys to read these books where girls are characters. And it's important they do so: what better way to learn to empathise with the other half of the human race? But I don't think that erasing girls from the picture is the answer.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Two years. Two months. Catherine Johnson

The great thing about writers’ blogs is that you understand, whatever way we do it, in caffs, in huts, in sheds or on the kitchen table, we are all pretty much the same. We all have ups and downs.
We all think everyone elses books are selling in twice the amounts of ones own (although this is true for me). That everyone else wins bucket loads of prizes, gets invited to every festival going, and lives on nothing but red wine and chocolate while churning out five thousand words a day wearing couture and nice shoes.
Meanwhile we sit at home in our writing pyjamas eating chocolate frogs and looking out of the window, wondering how the hell to get character A doing what we want with character B.
What we all want is to be so gripped by a story, a set of characters, a situation, that we might as well be wearing Alexander McQueen and eating chocolate frogs hand rolled by virgin chocolatiers (of either or both sex depending on your preference).
So, back to my title, and since I expect you’re wondering what the illustration is, back to that too.
I last blogged about a story I had laid to rest quietly at the beginning of March.
That same week I went on a day out in town with my grown up son. He’s been having a difficult time and we went for a walk and lunch and round a museum neither of us had ever been to.
Two months later I have finished a first draft of something new, and if not prize winning, then at least (I hope) publishable. The picture is a present from my daughter who read it as I went along and helped with plot holes. The characters are Ezra McAdam, surgeons’ apprentice and Loveday Finch, ex magicians’ assistant. She is using a stick on account of hurting her leg in a thrilling escape through Smithfield market being pursued by a gang of resurrection men.
I hope in a year or so someone else gets to read about them too, in the meantime happy writing. Catherine Johnson

In Which I Name Ryan Giggs - Charlie Butler

Occasionally people ask me which aspect of my writing I’m most proud of. Is it the flawless characterization? The wonderfully-observed descriptive passages? The dialogue that tangoes off the page? The plots, as artfully constructed as the Daedalian labyrinth? Or some alchemic combination of all the above?
Oddly enough, the stroke I remember with the greatest pride is one that passes most readers by. It occurs in my first published book, The Darkling. The Darkling was published in 1997 (in the same month as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as I like to remind people with a gloomy starward shaking of the fist), but was written some years earlier, and it was in 1992 that I had to face up to the tricky problem of what to call Jamie’s pet gecko.
Jamie was the younger brother of my heroine and narrator, Petra McCoy. His own part in the story is relatively minor, and that of his pet lizard smaller still, but it needed a name, and I knew that (given Jamie’s character) its name was likely to celebrate a Manchester United leftwinger. But which one? At the time, two young players were making headlines for United in that position, both alike in crossing and scoring power, both given to gecko-ish bursts of furious pace. One was Lee Sharpe, who had made the No. 11 shirt his own during the 1990-91 season, notably by scoring a hat-trick against Arsenal in the League Cup. At 21, Sharpe was a talented player who clearly had a long and illustrious career ahead of him. The other contender was even younger, but his coltish legs were bringing him up fast on the rails. This was the teenaged Ryan Giggs.
The choice mattered, because I wanted (as far as possible) to future-proof my book. Future-proofing is a perennial challenge for children’s writers, who generally try as hard as any Nivea ad to fight the signs of aging. Technology (Dial-up internet? Puhleeze!); clothes (Ray-Ban Aviators? Really?); bands and film stars (Kurt Cobain? River Phoenix? You’ve got to be kidding me!); and slang (Could I be any more 1990s?) – all are familiar adversaries. There are several ways around them, more or less effective. For many years children in books could be fitted out in blue jeans in the justified confidence that denim would always be in fashion – or at least not jarringly out. You could invent your own slang or song lyrics. Or you could take the route I did, and bet on longevity.
I almost called that gecko Sharpe instead of Giggs, I really did. Had I done so, perhaps Lee Sharpe’s career would have prospered. In the event, following this proof of my lack of faith it went into a fairly precipitous decline, hastened by illness and injury. Sharpe soon moved from Manchester United to Leeds, then on to Bradford, Grimsby and Exeter City before ending his playing career in 2003 at Grindavik in Iceland. Ryan Giggs, by contrast, has just won his twelfth Premier League title with United, and in 2011 is still a regular on the first team. At the end of January, he was voted the club's greatest ever player.
So, I’m very glad I named the gecko after Giggs, and think it reflects well on me both as a writer and as a pundit. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling more of a kinship with Lee Sharpe. Perhaps I should have named Jamie’s lizard Rowling, after all?

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Writing for non-readers - Anne Rooney

Yesterday, Keren David blogged about breakthrough books - the titles that grab a child's imagination so that they really want to read and their reading takes off. That's a wonderful moment - but it doesn't always happen. For some children, the magic of reading doesn't manifest itself at 5 or 6 or 7 - or at all. Maybe the child is never introduced to a book that really speaks to them; maybe they live in a home without books and have over-stressed teachers who don't find the right book for them. Maybe they have a physical problem that makes reading or holding a book difficult, or a learning difficulty that means there are huge barriers to reading and engaging imaginatively. Or maybe English is not the language they speak at home and so reading it is too much of a struggle for the wonder to break through.

Whatever the reason, there are children who are left out of the party, who can't read or don't see the point of reading, who struggle or avoid reading (even coming up with ornate strategies to avoid admitting they can't read). By the age of 9 or 10 they are labelled non-readers, or reluctant readers or struggling readers. And soon they are left behind, with the rest of their world whizzing off ahead at secondary schools where reading is taken for granted and essential - no GCSEs if you can't read, no matter how good at science or maths or history you may be. They're soon written off, and many slip into misbehaving and become totally disengaged unless someone can get them reading. And that's where we come in. No one else can do it. Teachers and librarians are essential, of course, but if there are not books for these children, no amount of encouragement and expertise will get them to make the leap into reading for pleasure.

A child of 9, 10, 11 or even 15 or 16 who can't read won't be inspired to read by books intended for five-year-olds. Imagine you had a child of 12 months who had an accident or physical disability that meant they didn't learn to walk at the 'right' time. When he or she was better at the age of three, you wouldn't put them in shoes that fit a one-year-old and expect them to walk in those. So why do the same with books? Children need books appropriate to the interests and experiences of their chronological (or emotional) age, no matter what their reading age. A child of 13 who struggles with reading won't be inspired by a story about a panda who doesn't like a new sibling, or a little bunny whose parent loves him THIS much. They'll feel patronised, insulted, disengaged, alienated - and their belief that reading is not for them will be reinforced.

They need exciting stories - and non-fiction books - about the topics and themes that excite other children their age. Books with simple vocabulary and sentence structure but about crimes, ghosts, football, romance, spies, vampires, space travel, monsters, challenging life situations, and all the other things that 'ordinary' books for young people are about. Sue Purkiss reported this week on the Society of Authors' conference on books for 7-9s, the poor relations of books for older children and picture books. If they're the poor relations, books for struggling readers are the beggars outside the gates.

There are publishers producing wonderful books for this readership. The best known is Barrington Stoke, but there are others, including the tiny but excellent Ransom and mainstream publishers who have lists for this group, such as Evans. It's a struggling market, though. More than any other area of children's publishing, it's vulnerable to cuts in schools and libraries funding. Often, the parents of the readers don't buy books. They may not read themselves, or may not be able to afford books. The books are short, of course, so they don't look like good value (a problem for picture books, too). In schools and libraries, although the value of the books is recognised, it can be hard to justify spending on books that only a small proportion of the pupils may read - even though the needs of those children are great and urgent.

For the writer, books for this readership are great fun to write. It's a real challenge, a very exciting one. You have to pack a lot of plot, character development and some sophisticated themes into few, simple words. Or put a lot facts in a very easy and accessible form. I'm currently writing a series of six vampire novels for teens. Don't yawn, I know vampires have been done to death. But not, as my publisher points out, for readers who could never tackle something as long as Twilight. Where are the teen vampire novels less than ten thousand words long? Why are these kids left out of the vampire party? They want to read what their friends are reading. And the same is true for those who would rather read exciting spy stories or science fiction or adventure or crime or horror. Just because a child can't read well doesn't mean they're stupid. Books for them are not, and must not be, dumbed down. The readers probably know a good deal more than you do about a lot of subjects, will enjoy challenging ideas to think about, and things that link in with their world in unexpected ways.

These books are fun to write, but they're not easy. It can also feel as though you're 'wasting' a plot and characters that could go in a full-length novel for mainstream readers - you have a brilliant idea and you are not letting it stretch and enjoy itself. There is no chance it will become a bestseller and make lots of money. The readership may be fairly small. Why would you do it? Because it's a really enjoyable challenge as well as incredibly worthwhile. Tight writing and fast plotting, making every word work because the child has to invest a lot in reading every word - these are not easy to do, but it's very satisfying when it works. I love writing for this readership and do it a lot. It doesn't pay well - in fact, it pays very, very badly - and you don't get great Nielsen figures or fame. But you get huge satisfaction and it really sharpens your writing skills. Better still, it might make a difference to some child, somewhere, who once thought reading was for other people. You can't put a price on that.

(You can follow the progress of #thosevampires on twitter, @annerooney. My books for this readership are all on my website, mixed in with the other books but labelled hi-lo - high interest, low reading level.)

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Break-through Book by Keren David

Learning to read is a strange process. So much work, so much to remember. As a parent it can be torture, watching your child stumble and strain, worrying that they hate the process so much that they'll never find out all the wonderful things that books can bring.
And then - ta-ra!- the breakthrough book. The book which comes easily, the book which motivates them to read for themselves. The book they read all the way through, all by themselves, and then turn to the beginning and start again. The book which sends them back to the library or the bookshop looking for more of the same.
Six or seven is about the right age for the breakthrough book. For me, it was Enid Blyton and the adventures of the Secret Seven. For my daughter it was Michaela Morgan's Sausage books, discovered in the exceptionally well-stocked library at her primary school. It was one of the great moments of motherhood for me, watching her laugh and laugh at these half-cartoon, half text stories.Seven years later I treasure the memory.
For my son, it was a cover that first sparked his interest -  the sparkly blue of Jenny Nimmo's second Charlie Bone book. He insisted that we bought it, in a bookshop in Sydney, even though it was way beyond his reading ability. About a year later he was ready to read it. The book more than lived up to its cover. He was instantly captivated and no wonder - I don't think I've ever read such exciting stories, there's a cliffhanger on virtually every page.
Earlier this year I wrote to my MP about the cut in funding for Bookstart. I received a reply this week, boasting about the government's plans to introduce a phonics check for six year olds. 'We are determined to ensure that every child can experience the joy of reading for pleasure,' wrote Schools Minister Sarah Teather, 'and reap the educational benefits that it brings.'  I suspect that ensuring that children have access to inviting libraries where they can be guided towards their very own breakthrough book might be a little more useful and pleasurable than an external decoding test at six.
Sue Perkiss wrote a fascinating post on this blog yesterday about books for this age group. I wish they were celebrated more - and I wonder how many children never get started with reading because they never find their very own special book. Do you remember your breakthrough book?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Fiction for 7-9s: The Poor Relation? Sue Purkiss

On Tuesday this week, I went to a Society of Authors summer meeting. It was the first time I'd ever been to 84 Drayton Gardens, the socety's headquarters. The meetings often sound interesting, but it's a long schlep from the wilds of Cheddar Gorge - which, incidentally, will be coming to a screen near you next summer for all of 70 seconds in a blockbuster film called Jack the Giant Killer, starring Ewen McGregor, Bill Nighy, Ian McShane and Nicholas Hoult. They were filming here last week - oh, how excited we've all been! Anyway, that's completely irrelevant - back to Drayton Gardens.

The discussion was entitled Fiction for 7-9s: The Poor Relation? It was elegantly chaired by our own John Dougherty in a lovely flowered shirt, and the panel included Kathy Webb from OUP, Annie Eaton from Random House and Charlie Sheppard from Andersen Press.

First, John asked each of the panel members to give an overview of the market for this age group.

Kathy Webb

  • One difficulty is the diversity of this age bracket, which makes matching the reader to the right book quite tricky.

  • At this age, there are lots of other activities which take up children's time. On the plus side, they are open minded, they have great imaginations, and they recommend books to each other. Peer pressure is not a problem - it's okay to be seen reading!

  • There are a lot of series. Kathy discussed this at some length, explaining that boys like the 'collectability' of series such as Astrosaurs, Beast Quest, Horrid Henry etc. She said that girls also like series, but they are much more author led. However - they like books by the same author to have a similar look and feel. Kathy stressed that they don't cut corners with series; each book gets the same amount of attention as a standalone. She would very much like to publish more standalones, but it's difficult to get kids to read them.

Charlie Sheppard

  • Charlie said that this, at the moment, is the Cinderella age group, and is overshadowed by books for older children. Looking at the reasons for this, she said that they need more illustration and more design and are therefore more expensive to produce - and yet the price is the same as it has been for the last fifteen years: so it's difficult to make any money from them.

  • Other problems: Smiths and Waterstones prefer series - books for this age group are usually thin. One by itself will get lost, whereas a series creates a presence on the shelf. Series like Yellow Bananas, which were standalones, used to have the same effect because they were strongly branded (ie they looked the same), but similarly packaged series are not being produced now.

  • Usually, it's the books for older readers that glean reviews and prizes.

  • Then there are the gatekeepers. Or not... librarians have had their budgets slashed, teachers tend not to keep up with recently published books (and so recommend classics, or the books they enjoyed as children or read as students): parents naturally buy what they see - namely, series.

  • Another factor is that you can't sell translation rights for this age group, for some reason, so there's no money to be made there either.

  • On the plus side, Charlie Has A Dream! She feels that change is in the air. That one day soon, out of the mists of Storyland, there will emaerge, clothed in white samite and gleaming in the sunshine - one book! One book to change them all, one book to guide them - a book so stunningly good that all shall raise their standards and declare, 'Lo! Now is the Age of the Standalone!' (Sorry, got a bit carried away there - my histrionics, not Charlie's. It's the proximity of blockbusters and men in black leather doublets that does it...)

Annie Eaton

  • Very few junior fiction standalones sell well - they used to sell far better. Annie spoke tenderly of a particular success from a few years back - Cat Patrol, by Paul May.

  • She laments the loss of the Smarties Prize, and would love to see another prize for this age group - prizes create a buzz.

(Annie would have had a lot more to say, but the others had already said it!)

What are they looking for?

  • They all agreed that they want a great character - then there's the potential for series if the first one does well.

  • They also agreed that humour is great for this age group.

  • Kathy said she's seeing more fantasy.

  • There was a shortage of 9-12s, but they're coming through now.

  • There was some uncertainty about length. Annie said initially between 4 - 10,000 words, but some publishers apparently want longer. There was some discussion about the problem of short books getting lost, but someone pointed out that one way roiund this is what the Mr Gum books do - they have few words to a page, so they end up chunkier.

So there we have it. Many thanks to CWIG (Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Group) for organising the event, and of course to the panel - it was informative, thought-provoking and entertaining.
Now, just off to find me a great character. Yoo hoo - anybody there...?
NB If I'd had the organising ability of a gnat, I would have taken a camera and there'd be a nice photo of the panel at the top of this post. I didn't, so thought I'd find a picture of an arm in white samite. (Or some watery tart, for fans of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail.) And then it all began to go sadly wrong, as I found a picture, but also found some evil bug that attacked my computer. So - sorry, but no pictures!)

Sue Purkiss

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Five beats of my creative heart - The Book Industry Conference 2011 by Lynda Waterhouse

For the past couple of days I have been travelling from South London to King Cross to attend my first Book Industry conference. On arrival the first thing I did was scan the delegate list to find a friend. There was an impressive array of publishers, booksellers, the BBC, Sainsbury’s and representatives from various book fairs and festivals but it seemed that I was the only delegate who was attending as an author. No pressure on me then to pay attention, take notes and speak up then!
There was so much information to absorb and consider but as the theme of the conference was ‘The Creative Heart’ here are five things that I heard that made my creative heart beat a little faster,
1. Working TogetherMore than ever publishers, booksellers, libraries, the media and authors have to communicate and work together. Tony Durcan, Director of Culture, Libraries and Lifelong Learning for Newcastle City Council’s message was that libraries were a network to die for. Oren Teicher of the American Booksellers Association outlined new business practices between publishers and booksellers that were being piloted to give books a shelf life longer than milk or yoghurt.
2. Embrace new technologyDotti Irving of Colman Getty consultancy emphasised the importance of Twitter but also cautioned care in how you use it. Daniel Greaves of Tandem Films showed ‘Simon’s Cat' ,the Youtube phenomenon made by colleague Simon Tofield which went on to secure a pubishing deal. He then showed some animated trailers he had made for Canongate Books. Here is one I made earlier
http://youtu.be/7eo8XpT4CmM3. Get LocalBooksellers need to build stronger ties with their local communities. One of the best ways of doing this is…..
4. Events, Events, EventsCameron Crow of Waterstone’s was one voice among many that emphasised the importance of author events. Events did not have to mean Big Names – personable local authors who were prepared to engage with customers can sell lots of copies too. Events do not have to always be held in bookshops. Patrick Neate holds his Book Slam events in bars and nightclubs.
5. Literacy MattersSir Richard Eyre spoke with eloquence and wit about how indispensable reading is to him. The more I hear about the work of Jane Davis and The Reader Organisation and how it transforms lives the warmer my heart becomes.
As well as being a moral imperative developing literacy makes good business sense.
Julia Kingsford, formerly of Foyles and now of World Book Night, asked all of us at the conference to develop the habit of taking a book as a gift instead of the usual chocolates or wine along to a dinner party. Perhaps we could also advocate the addition of a book into a children’s party bag or encourage the inclusion of a bedtime storybook for sleepovers? Or how about trying some reverse psychology and ‘forbidding’ young adults from attending Reading Groups?
I felt heartened by this conference, do you?

Monday, 16 May 2011

Thinking Space by Savita Kalhan

In the middle of May I received a call from the local allotment secretary. A space had come up and I was next on the waiting list. Did I still want one? My first reaction was to say: No thank you. I really don’t have time for it anymore.

This past year I’ve had very little spare time because I discovered the internet, bloggers and blogging, twitter and face book, and saw with open-mouthed shock exactly what I should have been doing even before my book had come out. I had absolutely no idea. I had purposefully never worked on a computer that was hooked up to the internet, and I suddenly realised what a mistake it had been.

I immediately hooked my laptop up to the internet, discovered the SAS in January 2010 and began digging my head out of the sand.

I hurled myself into the fray and bloggers started reviewing my book, not put off by the fact that it had been out for a long while, and I was interviewed so many times I think every morsel of my life, likes and dislikes, even down to my favourite sweets when I was a kid, is on the internet, which is just a little bit scary! But I carried on at break-neck speed, giving The Long Weekend my all.

I got fed up of dragging the laptop around everywhere and got myself an iPhone – it soon became my co-conspirator, making it easy for me never to miss anything...and never to switch off. Ever. Spare time didn’t exist anymore because I had to keep abreast of everything, comment on everything, make myself known as a children’s writer. It became a habit, one that I was finding hard to wean myself off. After the two blog tours, which did require lots of publicising etc, were over, I was still on the internet, afraid that I might miss something important.

Was it worth it? Yes. Definitely. But I lost a sense of balance.

So when the allotment secretary rang me, no is not what actually came out of my mouth. I’ve been on the waiting list for a few years now and if I didn’t take up the offer now, who knew when another space might come up? This one came up because a 93 year old had decided that it was getting a bit too much for him to manage! The allotments are next to the woods behind my house, less than a minute away...

So I said yes, I’d love it, thank you!

I’ve worked my bit of land for the past few weeks, preparing it for sowing all the wonderful veg and salad we eat the most. I inherited blackcurrant, redcurrant and raspberry bushes and only needed to add some strawberries to the fruit collection. As I’ve been working down there, I’ve realised that I cannot hear my phone ringing, I’ve never once checked my emails, and the only tweeting going on is that of the birds, although I think the parakeets and woodpeckers turn their noses up at tweeting. And whether it’s for half an hour, an hour or all afternoon, I get to switch off from the whole world, allow my brain to wander aimlessly where it will, and finally it’s thinking stories again, ideas and characters are reappearing, opening paragraphs for possible future work are being written. It’s bliss.
I hope I’m on the road to achieving some equilibrium between my chosen profession and the rest of my life.

How about you?

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU by Louisa Young. Harper Collins hbk £12.99.

The title of this book comes from the wording of an official postcard, sent by wounded soldiers during the First World War, to announce to their families the extent of their injuries. A facsimile of the card appears on the front endpaper. You’ll see spaces on it to be filled in by the soldier, announcing that he’s been admitted to a Casualty Clearing Station. There’s room for him to put in the date, and two options (of which he can delete one) ‘slight wound’ or ‘serious wound.’ The card then has the printed message: I am now comfortably in bed with the best of surgeons and sisters to do all that is necessary for me. This novel uncovers what ‘all that is necessary’ really means and I promise you, it’s quite an eye-opener.

Louisa Young is better known to ABBA readers, perhaps, as half of Zizou Corder who wrote the Lion Boy trilogy some years ago. She’s also the granddaughter of Lady Kathleen Scott, widow of Scott of the Antarctic and mother of Peter Scott. Lady Scott was a sculptor and the work that she did in the very early days of plastic surgery and facial reconstruction have clearly been part of the inspiration for this novel.

It’s a most unusual take on the First World War. We’re used to tales of courage and appalling conditions in the trenches; of deserters and conscientious objectors; of amazing gallantry; of friendships between the men and so on. Women are often very much in the background in such novels but here, they’re most important and each of the men we get to know is part of a love story as well as a war story. Riley Purefoy is the hero, and his journey through the narrative is particularly poignant and it’s to Louisa Young’s credit that we care about him so much and about whether he and his beloved Nadine will come through the trials that beset them by the end of the book. There’s a cast of doctors, artists, relations, friends which circulates around these two and the stories that spin off from the main narrative are heart-rending and terrifying and sad. But there’s also the fascinating account (sometimes hard to read, this) of the astonishing ways in which the faces of the dreadfully wounded were reconstructed by such pioneers as Harold Gillies. Sculptors like Young’s grandmother were called in to make casts of the men’s faces, and artists used to paint features on them which were as realistic as they could possibly be. This is something that I’ve not seen in other fiction about the First World War and if it makes you want to find out more, then there’s an afterword which tells us which books the novelist has relied on to make her fictional story as true to historical fact as it could be. It also tells us which of the characters in the novel are based on real people. One particular episode, perhaps the most moving thing in the book, turns out to be true but Young weaves it in seamlessly with the inventions and you can’t see the join. For anyone interested in this period, as well as for lovers of a cracking story very well told with no trace of sentimentality or soppiness, then this novel is just what you’re looking for.

THE HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford. Allison and Busby hbk. £12.99

If the First World War is much written about; if we feel we know it backwards, here’s a wartime episode about which I, for one, knew very little: the fact that in 1942, thousands of American citizens of Japanese origin were incarcerated in camps in the middle of the continent: rounded up from cities and communities where they’d lived for years and interned as ‘enemy aliens’ of a sort.

Rather in the way of two buses coming along when you’ve been waiting for a while, there seem to be some other books on this period and these events going about just now. There’s Lee Langley’s BUTTERFLY’S SHADOW for one, which was much praised by Lynne Reid Banks on a recent edition of The Book Show. And here we have a début novel with a very enticing title. It’s already a big hit in the USA and it’s easy to see why.

The story is simple and simply told. In 1986, Henry Lee, an elderly man of Chinese origin living in Seattle, sees that the Panama Hotel is being opened up after decades of being closed. Down in the basement of this hotel are stored all the belongings of the families who were rounded up in Seattle and sent away to the camps in 1942. Henry remembers, in chapters which go back to that time, his relationship with Keiko Okabe, a girl of Japanese origin and also how much he loved her. Their situation was complicated at the time by the fact that Henry’s father was violently anti-Japanese. So we have Romeo and Juliet and not only that but both Romeo and Juliet in this particular case are having to cope with being perceived as immigrants in the USA. Keiko, in fact, is more American than Henry. She was born in Seattle and can’t even speak Japanese, which makes her situation all the harder for her to understand. In the more modern story, Henry and his son have an edgy relationship and we learn about Henry’s wife who’s recently died of cancer. I shan’t spoil the story for readers by saying any more but it’s a good read which unfolds slowly and builds up to a very moving climax on several levels. There’s a great deal in it about jazz too, and the incidental colour and detail of life in wartime Seattle is fascinating. I thought it was a really interesting book about a period that's not very often written about, and I enjoyed it very much.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

What is children's literature anyway? 32 definitions and counting...

This list arose out of a workshop on Writing for Children and Young People, delivered yesterday to MA in Writing students at the University of Warwick, along with Karen Ball and Sara Grant. As I planned it, I found myself wondering: what is children’s literature anyway? How can one define and describe it in all its rich complexity? How can one explain a kind of writing that encompasses everything from Rosie's Walk to Twilight?
I came up with a list – and I would love to know what you would add to the list.
1) Children’s literature is not the only kind of literature that that children read. For example, my childhood reading included James Herriot, the Readers’ Digest and Summerhill by A.S. Neill.
2) Children’s literature is commercially successful. I have been told it’s the only sector of publishing that is growing.
3) Children’s literature is highly popular – the most borrowed and sold books in the UK are children’s books.
4) Children’s literature is as easy to write as adult literature. You start with the same things: voice, characters, conflicts, points of view…
5) Children’s literature is as difficult to write as adult literature. You start with the same things: voice, characters, conflicts, points of view…
7) Children’s literature is literature for minds that are growing as fast as humanly possible. Can you keep up with your readers?
8) Children’s literature is literature which forms you whether you/ it like/s it or not.
9) Children’s literature is literature which influences the next generation, therefore determines our future. Those who read Mr Gum today will rule the country tomorrow.
10) Children’s literature is literature which is remembered and loved for a lifetime.
11) Children’s literature is the soil that adult readers grow in.
12) Children’s literature is responsive to the reader.
13) Children’s literature is a tightrope walker: between childhoods (your own and other peoples) and adulthoods (your own and other peoples).
14) Children’s literature is not one single literature but many literatures.
15) Children’s literature is a way to deal with important issues in society.
16) Children’s literature is a way to explore humanity’s most essential psychology.
17) Children’s literature is undoubtedly affected by film and computer games.
18) Children’s literature is changing constantly.
19) Children’s literature is for children.
20) Children’s literature is literature which gives children something to aspire to
21) Children’s literature is literature which empowers and educates children.
22) Children’s literature is interested in the same things children are interested in
23) Children’s literature is true to the emotions and inner lives of children
24) Children’s literature is not judgemental or moralistic.
25) Children’s literature is about children’s lives and interests in the broadest sense.
26) Children’s literature is interested in adults only as far as they relate to children.
27) Children’s literature is fun for children to read!
28) Children’s literature is all about the story.
29) Children’s literature is written by all kinds of people.
30) Children’s literature is not just read by children.
31) Children’s literature is not bought by its intended readers.
32) Children’s literature is a commercial designation.
Add your ‘Children’s Literature is…’ in the comments!

The Zoo and the Poet - Joan Lennon

I have a fantasy. Well, I have many fantasies, but this is one of them.

I am Poet-in-Residence at the Edinburgh Zoo. By day, I wander among the crowds, the hosts of golden, er, people, and recite poetry at them/get them to write poems with me/babble enthusiastically about alliteration, haiku, rhythm and only if absolutely unavoidable, rhyme/do more of what I already do in zoos (to the embarrassment of many) i.e. accost complete strangers and say things like, "If you stand here you can see better" or "Look - there - no, there - oh, it just walked behind that rock ..." I would help the keepers muck out and practise spider monkey facial language assiduously and soon get that wonderful inner look of one who can honestly say "I'm not a tourist - I live here." Because I would. I'd have my own enclosure, where the public could watch me write, be creative, hatch out words, just like the blue beauty nesting in the picture above. They (the public) would be discouraged from banging on the glass or passing comments such as "Oh, look - isn't she funny?!" I would reserve the right to throw poo at them if they did so anyway. Or when the writing stalled. Or just for the fun of it. And then, at nightfall, I would stay when everyone else had gone, and find out just what a deserted zoo by moonlight looks and sounds and feels like.

That's it. You can keep your Poet Laureateships and your Nobel Prize-winning - give me the post of Zoo Poet any day.


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Friday, 13 May 2011

Life from Stone - by Dianne Hofmeyr

You know how it happens. You have an idea. You feel something coming on. Your dreams are percolating. Sparks are igniting. You’re fired up. You see the character. He’s dynamic. You plop him down in a setting. Scenes develop. You’ve got the opening line. Suddenly there’s an explosion of ideas. Possibilities. Choices. The story grabs you by the throat. This is it! You’re ready. You begin writing. You fire… but you forget to aim.

The plot strands weave in and out. Soon instead of a wonderful tapestry, there’s a bird’s nest of confusion and you start wondering where you’re going and what the story is truly about. The premise meanders. Gets lost in a morass. Beginnings seem so easy. In the first flush, the story world seems immediate, the tone seems to come without much thought, the character strides into action, the opposition seems vital and strong. But suddenly there’s the muddle…
The beginning, the muddle and the end is an inevitable part of my writing process (those who’ve read this far might say it’s an inevitable part of my blogging process too!) Let the first draft flow as fast as possible is often the advice, then settle down to edit. But somehow the middle remains the muddle. How will I compel the reader to move on? The textbooks say… compel the reader with conflict and opposition and by stretching the tension. But how much conflict can I throw at my lead character and when is opposition too strong or perhaps not even justified?
This week I’ve been visiting the winelands of the Western Cape in South Africa and have been savouring the sauvignon blancs, pinot noirs, merlots and cabernets, hoping to push my most recent ‘muddle’ to the back of my mind. In the flinty arid region of Robertson I came across the Springfield Estate where the names of two wines had resonance… a sauvignon blanc called Life from Stone and a blend which on its label states: ‘this long wait, justified only by our passion, does bear fruit. It’s called the Work of Time.
Both names – Life from Stone and the Work of Time – pretty much sum up for me the writing process as I grapple with the muddle. So I’m drawing inspiration not just from the wines but also from an inscription I happened to notice across the cellar wall: ‘Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.’ Albert Einstein.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Creating Pisstory Meg Harper

There used to be a beautiful garden on the corner of our road. Not the sort of cottagey, lush, chaotic garden I’d rather like myself but a traditional, rather formal combination of greensward and floribunda roses with a few tastefully placed specimen shrubs. There was also a gleaming penny farthing as a feature, incongruous but appealing, always delicately outlined with tiny fairy lights at Christmas.
The creator moved away last year and yesterday the new occupants committed an act of dire destruction. Diggers arrived and the entire garden had gone by 11am. Perhaps the owners are going to create something wonderful themselves. Judging by the number of huge white delivery sacks sagging in the wreckage, however, I suspect that they want something low maintenance – a parking lot, for example.
Far be it from me to decry progress or personal freedom of choice. The new owners clearly need something other than a formal garden and fair enough; it is their property. Nonetheless, I wept over the glorious rose bushes which I hope have at least reached the municipal composter and I find myself asking questions about our responsibility to the community in our public acts. That garden gave me great joy and I used to tell the creator so when he was out there tending it. He still lives locally so he will have the pain of seeing that his work has been destroyed. How much should we reign in our personal desires out of consideration for others? A big question. How much value should we put on that which already exists when it stands in the way of something new? It’s a question which town planners and developers constantly battle with and which Capability Brown and his sponsors didn’t seem to consider at all!
What has all this to do with children’s books?!
The other day I did one of my occasional reccies in Waterstones. What’s being promoted, what’s new, what haven’t I read that I should have etc etc. To be honest, I was appalled. There was nothing like the wide selection carried by my local independent. That’s normal but this time the range was even narrower than usual and the blocks of books by the usual suspects were vast. More shocking, in my opinion, was the increased shelf-space given over to the Snot and Bogey brigade. The desperation to publish books that boys will read is getting alarming. Humour revolves around poo and flatulence (we now have the adventures of a farting dog, for goodness sake!) and history is degenerating into pisstory. I’ve recently had a short fictionalised biography of Elizabeth 1st published. ('Elizabeth 1st - The Story of the Last Tudor Queen') Imagine my delight at my most recent school visit when I was approached by a child who wanted to ask a question about it. And the question? Was it true that Elizabeth 1st had used the first toilet ever? Elizabeth 1st must be one of the most formidable personalities our national history offers – and a child’s interest has somehow been reduced to where she went to the loo!
It seems to me that what happened to my neighbour’s garden is happening to children’s literature. In pursuing current agendas (getting boys to read at any cost, for example) we’re trashing a great tradition. I think of the heritage that lies behind the early readers that are being churned out now and I’m asking questions. I’m a left-wing, liberal, armchair revolutionary but I’m also a Christian (albeit a heretical one!) and I’m thinking about what it says in Philippians 4: 8 ...’whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’ It seems to me that instead we’re asking our children to think about poo. We are replacing what has traditionally been seen as worthy content of children’s books by something far inferior. The same goes for what seems to be happening in my neighbour’s garden.


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Leaky Warehouse of the Mind - Andrew Strong

I’ve just finished the redraft of what I hope will be my next book. It's an attempt at comedy, but I wanted to capture the idea that an era is coming to end, a golden age is over, and an uncertain future must be faced with courage. I’m not sure how well I have succeeded, but the book is written, and I have to hope that it comes across.
It was only when redrafting that I realised how incidents in my life were creeping into the story. It was written through a very harsh winter, so characters in my book do battle with the elements. More recently, I’ve been watching the birds return, the house martins and swallows. These have woven their way into the story.
But there are other things that are less obvious and a little unnerving. I wanted a name for a big, family house. I won’t use the actual name I chose, but instead will use an equally ludicrous one as an example, let’s say ‘Heron’s Thumb’. I googled this made up house name just to see what came up. I discovered that not only is there a house of this name, (and there is just one) but it’s in Bridport, Dorset, where generations of my father’s family lived. My great grandfather may well have known ‘Heron’s Thumb’.
Which reminds me of something that happened to me after I’d just bought my first flat, in Leighton Road, west Ealing, London. My mother, who then lived in south Wales, wrote to me, and included in the envelope a photocopy of a letter written to her mother, by her grandmother, around 1930. The address on my great grandmother’s letter was the same Leighton Road.
But when I went out on to the street to find the house, it no longer existed. I discovered later it had been bombed in the war. Had it still stood, it would have been directly opposite the flat I had just bought. Not only this, but my mother went on to tell me that her grandparents had owned many houses in the area, but more or less gave them away in the 1960s, when they were unable to sell them.
Therefore, my first flat was one my great grandparents may well have owned, and the name of the house I've chosen for my next book could have been one a great grandparent might have known.
I tend to dismiss anything that has a whiff of the supernatural, and would rather seek out some sort of rational explanation. I suggest this: the human brain is a vast warehouse of clutter, stuff we’ve collected over decades, and even inherited. When we write, some of that clutter comes tumbling out into words, unconsciously.
It made me wonder, have any other writers retrospectively researched the name of a character, or a fictional place or event, and discovered some buried family history, or disturbed a long buried personal event?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Kids and Kindles by Elen Caldecott

The Kindle version of my books appeared one day on Amazon. This came as a surprise to me, as I didn't know that my publishers had decided to turn a contract clause into a real live ebook.
I write for 8-12 year-olds, so I was sceptical about the value of ebooks (please read the whole post before throwning the rotten tomatoes of technophobia at me!). I awaited my first post-Kindle royalty statement with interest. Would I be the next Amanda Hocking? Well. No. In April, my statement told me that paper copies outsold ebook copies by a pretty substantial ratio (8000:1 in case you're interested).

Gratuitous picture of my ebook
Paper, it seems, still rules the school.

So, is there any point in bothering to make ebooks for younger readers available? There's a huge product surge taking place right now, not just in publisher produced ebooks, but self-published new works, or authors giving their out-of-print books a new lease of life through the technology. Katherine Roberts has a particularly useful series of posts on how she went about doing just that.
Is this a bandwagon I should be on? Or should I stay on the fence and wave as it goes past like a northern Jenny Agutter?

I took a look at Amazon's Top 100 Paid children's ebooks last Sunday.
It was - almost - wall to wall vampire novels. My suspicion is that even though these books might be classed as children's books, they are in fact being downloaded and read by young adults, or, you know, adult adults. However, that 'almost' is interesting. There were some books in the Top 100 that really were kids books, though probably downloaded by adults as a result of seeing a film or play-tie in (Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo). But once you'd got past those, there were one or two books that made me pause. Lady in the Tower by our own Marie-Louise Jensen was there. Lily Alone by Jacqueline Wilson. The H.I.V.E. series. Were these books being bought by adults? It seemed unlikely to me. So, are some children buying ebooks?

Last year, I had a conversation with my agent about the value of children's ebooks. Her feeling was that it's only a matter of time before the market takes off. There were a few barriers she saw to their success. First, the ereaders. Who would give an iPad to a nine year old? Well, the iPad2 is now out. Anyone who upgrades might as well give their redundant iPad1 to their children. I certainly saw it happen with smart phones.
Gift-giving was another barrier, she suggested. Lots of books for 8-12s are bought by adults as gifts. You can't wrap an ebook. Will Amazon gift vouchers really do as a birthday present?
Then there's actually making the purchase. Once, my 10-year-old brother bought a camper-van on ebay using my dad's credit card. That was a dark day in the Caldecott household. And a valuable lesson in why my dad should keep his credit card hidden in the back of his wardrobe (yes, Dad, we know where it is...) But a PayPal system for children would overcome that difficulty. Are the children who have overcome these barriers buying H.I.V.E? Probably.

Many school libraries are moving away from printed books to ebooks and ereaders. Children who are in kindergarten now might well start High School with a tablet computer in the bag with no need for a new pencil case on the first day of term.

Right now, I feel that my royalty statement is right. Kids ebooks haven't come of age. Not yet. But it's only a matter of time. I best buy my ticket for that bandwagon!

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Saturday, 7 May 2011

What is on your playlist? Celia Rees

I was listening to Radio 4 the other day when I heard the author, David Nicholls, talking about his novel, One Day. Now, I haven't read the book, although my daughter has and recommends it highly, but I'm always interested in writers talking about their writing, especially ones who are selling shed loads. For those, like me, who have not read the book, it follows the lives of two people from their student days in 1988 to near present day. As I understand it, the device that Nicholls uses is to have them meet every year on St Swithin's Day. In this way we can follow their lives and changes, kind of When Harry Met Sally, but more organised and British. Do Americans know about St Swithin's Day? Anyway, what interested me was the way he described going back to these past years. He used the music, what he and everyone else was listening to in 1988, say, 0r 1992. He found this one of the best ways of getting into the feel of the time. Songs are like scents, they bring back detail, the kind of detail a writer needs to make a time come alive.

I have always used songs and music in my writing, not just to evoke different times, but also moods and states of mind. My first novel took its title from a song: Every Step You Take. I was listening to it in the car one day and remember thinking how creepy it was, the perfect way to get into the head of an obsessive stalker. Another early novel, Midnight Hour, also owes its title to song lyrics, Wilson Pickett singing, I'm going to take you girl and hold you, do everything I told you, in the midnight hour. 'Do everything I told you...' that was the line that chilled me. And it doesn't even matter if it is not the right words, that's what I heard, so it is what my killer heard, too.

I first heard the Ballad of Sovay, sung by Pentangle, more years ago than I care to remember. I had no idea then that I would ever become a writer, much less that this song would provide me with the title and main character for a novel. But the haunting melody stayed with me, as did the story of the daring young woman who dressed as a highwayman to test the fidelity of her lover. Many years after that first hearing, I was having a conversation with fellow novelist, Susan Price, about folk ballads and Sovay came up. We both said how much we loved the song, and the girl. By the end of the conversation it was more or less decided that I would make Sovay the heroine of my next novel.

Songs do not just provide titles, characters, basic plots and starting points. When I'm writing historical fiction, they give me a powerful way into the world that I am trying to create. When I was writing Sovay I listened to John Gay's The Beggar's Opera over and over again, not just for the beauty of the lyrics and the music, but for the moods and emotions that they evoked and the deeply subversive, satirical view of a corrupt society where the heroes and heroines are thieves, murderers and prostitutes. John Gay gives us a view into an 18th Century underworld that he knew well. At the same time, he is letting us know that respectable society was also under scrutiny by those who would seek to change it.

You cannot beat contemporary sources for insight into any past time. Popular songs and street ballads are often the only way we have to see into the lives and minds of ordinary men and women, allow us to hear the words that they used, the cadences of everyday speech. For me, they help to 'raise the spirits of the age', to evoke a sense of love, loss, danger and excitement. When I was writing Pirates! , I listened to songs of the sea, of dark eyed sailors and female sailors bold. When I was writing The Fool's Girl, I listened to Elizabethan street songs, jigs and bawdy ballads, as well as Shakespeare's own songs and court music. Each of my books has its own soundtrack,. Sometimes the music gets mentioned in the text, sometimes it doesn't. That is not important. Neither is exact authenticity. What is important is how this music, these songs have sustained and fed my imagination and freed my creativity.

Anyone else care to share their playlist?