Thursday, 30 June 2011

Who's the Girl on the Cover? by Marie-Louise Jensen

This is possibly the question I get asked most often about my books. Many people assume that the girls on the cover are my daughters (in fact I have sons) or friends of mine. Or that at very least I've met them and chosen them.

The truth is very different. Many people are genuinely surprised to hear that authors aren't involved in cover design. It's the publishers choice, and as an author you hope and assume they are more expert in selecting a face than the author would be. If your publisher is nice, you are consulted along the way. Occasionally they'll even listen if you don't think it's right. But ultimately I know almost nothing about design or sales and marketing and they have trained experts.

What about the title then? Do authors choose titles? Well, that is far more likely than choosing the cover. I've only chosen one out of five of my titles, but that's because I'm not very good at thinking catchy titles up. Many authors do come up with their own titles and I'm sure publishers are pleased to be saved the work.

And the cover copy or blurb? Do we write that? Generally, no we don't. It's harder than you might think to make your own story sound enticing. I've sometimes collaborated on the cover copy or made suggestions, but I've also sometimes only changed one word. It's something I'm more than happy NOT to do if there's no need.

I'd far rather get on with the next story. That's the part I do best.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Raising a Cheer : Penny Dolan

Last Saturday I had a great time. I was able to sit through three sessions by illustrator Lynne Chapman. I've always really enjoyed the energy and colour in her work, and have a special fondness for the books she's done with SAS writer friends such as Julia Jarman and Damian Harvey.

So it was an almost total pleasure seeing Lynne working with children small and big and hear her talk to adults about her work.

Almost total. Because I'd also been involved with setting up the day.

It was a useful reminder of the work behind such events. The visitor - Lynne - and the date were easy choices once I'd made sure to avoid Wimbledon finals weekend. There was all the publicity - local press, radio, and flyers and display materials for the library. There was arranging the times on the day, the travel and the pick-up.

There'd also been several long meetings and emails about the venue with the other organisations involved and the people who'd be there - or not be there - to help and when, and small emergencies. All important stuff.

I mustn't forget the collecting of materials for the workshop, the lunch for Lynne, the evalustion forms & photo permissions, the books for the booksales (not forgetting the float), the refreshments and so on. There has been more and there is still more to do to finish the event off completely.

The day was joyous, and I didn't mind a bit (though may have muttered darkly at times) but it did consume so much of my time.

No sympathy needed here for me, though.

I just want to raise a huge huge cheer of thanks for all the people, especially librarians, teachers, festival arrangers and bookshop owners who so often do all this work for US!

By the way, if you are interested in illustration, look up Lynne's website and the images on her amazing blog, An Illustrator's Life For Me!

A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E out in paperback this August

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

From Corpse to Zombie With a Single Shamble - Charlie Butler

There’s been much talk about e-books lately. Wherever you look, authors are publishing their out-of-print backlists and unplaced books on Kindle and other platforms. Agents and publishers, rowsed from their e-slumber, are trying to catch up, wondering what is a fair percentage for e-book rights - or what they can get away with (which is the same thing, so my free-market friends tell me). According to a powerful post written last month by Kristin Kathryn Rusch, we are witnessing a paradigmatic shift in the way that people think about publishing, and about books themselves. Who needs publishers when the internet lies trembling at our fingertips? In the age of the DIY download, need books ever go out of print again? On the other hand, with no quality control mechanism, some fear that e-literature is destined to be no more than a new recipe for spam.
These aren’t questions I feel qualified to answer, but they were in my mind when I visited Hay-on-Wye with my son the other day. As most UK readers of this blog will know, Hay is a small town on the border of Wales and England, just at the northern tip of the Black Mountains. It is also the home of more than twenty second-hand bookshops, the largest concentration in the UK by far. We were only making a day trip, nothing like long enough to plumb its treasures, but we still made some great discoveries, and it would be a poor soul who could visit Hay without doing so. To be tired of Hay is to be tired of life – or at least of reading.
All the same, when I find a wonderful book that’s been forgotten by all but the cognoscenti (who hug their enthusiasms to their chests like so many racing tips), and especially if that book is going cheap, I feel melancholy as well as triumphant. For Hay is, as well as a great shopping experience, a vast Necropolis. It is a graveyard for out-of-print books – and those of us who stalk its chambers, ripping the jewels from bony necks and fingers, cannot help but feel like tomb raiders – and not in a sexy, Lara Croft kind of way. If we are writers, a trip to Hay is also a plangent reminder of our own mortality, and – perhaps worse! – that of our books. Occasionally I meet one of my own offspring, staring back at me from the dusty shelves like a memento mori. “Buy me!” it seems to beg, in mute appeal. I generally oblige.
We all have our unjustly-forgotten writers, and Hay is a good place to find them. Whatever happened to Nina Beachcroft, for example? Her first three books, Well Met by Witchlight (1972), Cold Christmas and Under the Enchanter (both 1974) are a wonderful debut set, showing mastery of a variety of fantasy genres, from comic supernatural to traditional ghost story to occult tale of possession. But her footprint on the literary foreshore was soon obliterated, and although she produced half a dozen more books (many very good), it’s almost twenty years since a publisher put out an edition of any of them. I can see why they wouldn't do so now: to the omnipotent marketing departments Beachcroft's world of middle-class, largely rural childhood would seem dated. And, although I rate her highly, she's not quite good enough to face down such objections. All the same, I regret her absence from the shelves, and not just for sentimental reasons.
E-publishing may allow such neglect to be put right – and if it does, I’m all for it. I doubt whether Nina Beachcroft’s works will ever storm the bestseller lists, but they deserve a second life. It may be only a zombified half-life, subsisting on electronic downloads rather than good honest paper – but then, perhaps it's better to be a zombie than a corpse?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Self-respect by Keren David

Anne Hathaway as Emma Morley in One Day. Not quite as I imagined her
David Nicholls' best-selling romance One Day is an enjoyable read -  the story of  Dexter and Emma who meet at university, revisited on the same day every year as their lives unfold. Nicholls is great at the period details that make us 40-somethings wince - the books that Emma reads in the 1980s, the clothes that Dexter wears in the 1990s , the recall is (almost) pitch perfect. I'm looking forward to the movie, despite the weird casting of Anne Hathaway as down-to-earth Northern Emma.
But there was one section of the book that brought a tear to my eye -  and it's not the bit you might imagine.. Emma Morley, my favourite character (much too good for feckless Dexter), becomes a successful writer for teenage girls. Yay! She makes an unlikely amount of money really, really quickly from these books. Good for Emma (suspend disbelief)!
But is she proud of her work? Emma is not. 'It's just a silly kid's book,' she tells Dexter (not too sure that her punctuation is spot on there, but I'm quoting verbatim from the Kindle edition). It's entirely in character for Emma to play down her achievements when she's talking to Dexter, but she even does it in her own thoughts. 'The city of Sartre and De Beauvoir, Beckett and Proust  and here she was too, writing teenage fiction albeit with considerable commercial success.'  Hear that internal sneer.
Later on she tells Dexter: 'I love it. But I'd like to write a grown-up book one day. That's what I always wanted to write, this great, angry, state-of-the-nation novel, something wild and timeless that reveals the human soul, not a lot of silly stuff about snogging French boys at discos.'
Hmm. I almost threw my Kindle at the wall.  It's all very well for well-meaning strangers to ask whether you'll write a proper book one day (although actually they're a lot more likely to chortle on about how you'll probably be the next J K Rowling). But it's something else completely when one of our own starts doing it. Emma lost all my sympathy right there and then. As I was 78 per cent through the book (one of the joys of a Kindle is knowing exactly what percent of the book has been read before it starts annoying or boring the reader), I finished it, but the magic had gone. When Emma - no, I won't spoil it if you haven't read it - but I didn't care much. She'd let the side down.
Now in real life I haven't come across any Emmas. The YA writers I know  love their work, wouldn't want to do anything else, they respect their readers and their peers and they strive to create the best book possible, whether it's gritty crime, sparkling romance or wild fantasy. They don't diss their own work, because they know it would be rude to readers and fellow writers alike, not to mention the publishers who risk money on their books.
And then I read this article. Two YA writers, Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix who are writing YA books and think it's just fine to sneer at the genre. They obviously don't read it -  they seem to think that Twilight includes explicit sex scenes (as if!). They describe themselves as literary predators, they produce shoddy work, they assume their readers won't notice or care as: 'Readers in Y.A. don't care about rumination. They don't want you to pore over your sentences trying to find the perfect turn of phrase that evokes the exact color of the shag carpeting in your living room when your dad walked out on your mom one autumn afternoon in 1973. They want you to tell a story. In YA you write two or three drafts of a chapter, not eight. When kids like one book, they want the next one. Now. You need to deliver.'
They're comparing their churn- it-out world of YA  with literary fiction...'And literary fiction readers are tough,' they say. Teens, one infers, are not tough critics, but will happily lap up any old rubbish.
Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix, I hope the comments under your article will make you pause for thought. If you think so little of YA fiction, go and do something else. Read the last 20 per cent of One Day, see what happens to Emma Morley and reflect. And then get on your bike...

Friday, 24 June 2011

Not the Glastonbury Festival: Sue Purkiss

Yes, it's that week in Somerset. The sky is full of helicopters, the roads are full of buses, trucks and cars, the supermarkets are full of people wearing multi-coloured wellies, the hotels are full of BBC staff. It's the Glastonbury Festival.
But more significantly for us, this is the week when authors and school librarians converged on Bruton (which is somewhere past Shepton Mallet, vaguely in the direction of Yeovil – I’m still not entirely sure where) for a networking event, organised by the fabulous Julie Hoskins, librarian at Bruton School for Girls. For some of us, converging was less easy than for others. A group from one school were swallowed up by the Glastonbury traffic and never made it at all.
And then there was me. According to Google maps, I only live 47 minutes away from Bruton. I spent six years in a job which entailed driving all over Somerset. How hard could it be to find the place? Well, very hard, actually. I think it’s something to do with the ley lines. Launch yourself onto the leafy lanes of Somerset, and you have no idea where you’ll end up. I had maps, I had directions, but none of this helped. WHY have I never got round to buying a satnav…?
So I drove round in a succession of circles. (Oh, here’s Wells again. Lovely!) Eventually, just as panic was beginning to flutter its tiny wings, I found myself on a lane which was getting steadily narrower, but which ancient signposts assured me was heading for Bruton. The car and I breathed in: we made it! Unfortunately, we hadn’t arrived by any of the routes described in the directions. Never mind, I thought, it’s only a small place.
A small place which is heaving with schools. I spotted a likely looking cluster of buildings, screeched to a halt and hailed a passing pupil. Oh no, he said, this is Kings School. He drew me a map. I can only think he was trying to sabotage all efforts to reach the girls’ school, because he sent me in completely the wrong direction. More circles. Eventually I sussed his cunning plan and decided the only thing to do was to find a main route into Bruton and start all over again. I broke out of the one-way system and headed out – and there was a school! Was this the right one? No, this was Sexey’s. Stop giggling at the back, Hugh Sexey was a sixteenth century philanthropist. I drove on, searching for a place to turn round – and suddenly, there it was – Bruton School for Girls!
I stagger in, feeling like Lawrence of Arabia when he spotted an oasis. There are signs, there is a large sunlit room, there is Julie Hoskins beaming a welcome, and I’ve allowed so much extra time (I know those ley lines) that I’m not even late. Things are looking up. I drink water, breathe deeply and find a desk to set up between Cindy Jefferies and Dave Gatward. I glance at Dave’s display – and jump: a trilogy entitled The Dead, The Dark and The Damned – the stuff of nightmares leap out from the covers. But the stuff of dreams is propped up against his desk – a skateboard advertising the books!
Never mind, I have fliers, and postcards which I'm particularly proud of, advertising a new type of session, on essay skills for sixth formers. I spread them out and give them a consoling pat.
On my other side, Cindy has the first book of her new series, Heart Magazine, on display. It strikes me that just the three of us show the variety of rooms in the house of children's fiction; sweet dreams, multi-coloured nightmares, and in the middle, me, with historical fiction, a willow man, and the occasional ghost. And of course there are many more. The room soon fills up, but when I get the chance, I wander round. From Bath, there's Julia Green, with her beautifully written coming of age stories, and Steve Voake with - well, masses of everything. There's Lynne Benton, whose dual language picture books attract a lot of interest, there's Julie Sykes and Linda Chapman (both of whom travelled a good deal further than I did and did not get lost) with their hugely popular series.

There's Gill Lewis, whose debut book, Skyhawk, has an arresting image of an osprey emerging from a blue sky, and sounds intriguingly off-trend. She has lovely posters...
Seeing a little cluster round my table, I head back. My postcards are attracting interest; people seem to like the idea of essay skills, and others are interested in writing workshops. I also have fliers from the blogosphere, about the fabulous online literary festival, and the forthcoming History Girls blog. I'm delighted to find that there's a lot of enthusiasm for historical fiction; it's really interesting to have the chance to talk to the gatekeepers, the people who really know which books are actually being read and which are staying on the shelves.
Finally, it's time for tea, delicious cake and a group photo. (Why didn't I think to take one? You may well ask.) It's been a great afternoon, and we are all very grateful to Julie Hoskins for organising it.
Now - all I have to do is find my way home. I do the by now familiar circle through Bruton, and spot a sign to Frome. It's not exactly in the right direction, but it'll do. At least it's nowhere near Glastonbury...

Sue Purkiss

Thursday, 23 June 2011

My Kind Of Town by Lynda Waterhouse

When I heard the news about Jack White and Karen Elson’s sixth anniversary/divorce party I felt a pang. Karen is a fellow Oldhamer and therefore I feel an attachment to her. It is not just anyone who can inspire their spouse to write an album entitled ‘Icky thump.’
I hope you’re all right lass and drowning your sorrows or celebrating with a Holland’s meat and potato pie, mushy peas and gravy and a Yates’s Aussie White wine!
These days I am a terrible braggart where Oldham is concerned and say smugly ‘they’re from Oldham’ whenever one of my fellow ‘roughyheads’ makes good. Or I drone on about how ‘we invented fish and chips’ or ‘Oldham is the home of the Tubigrip Bandage.’ My husband tries his best to compete with famous people from his home town and so far has come up with someone from Showaddywaddy and the fact that one of the Goodies was born in the same county. Ecky Thump to that one!
When I was 18 I left town. I couldn’t wait to leave without even so much as a thank you to Oldham Council for paying for my university fees or to Oldham Library for providing all the wonderful books and the space to sit and do my homework. This callow youth wrote pretentious poetry and read ‘The Waves’ by Virginia Woolf in public and Dorothy Whipple in private.
These days I’m spending more time back in my hometown retracing my footsteps and treading a newer path as one of my mother’s carers. Losing and finding myself in equal measure.
It is a comfort to recall that for such a small town Oldham has produced inventors, radical politicians, musicians, sports people, scientists and actors.
Here are few of my hometown heroes - Dora Bryan, Eric Sykes, Bernard Cribbins, Sir William Walton, Mark Owen, Dame Eva Turner, Dr Patrick Steptoe, Agyness Deyn, Professor Brian Cox and a special favourite of mine - the suffragette Annie Kenney.
Thank you for being a part of my creative heritage.
Who are your hometown heroes?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

A Risky Business Savita Kalhan

You’ve written a book that you think is good. Everyone you give it to thinks it’s good too. Your agent loves it. The publishers love it. So why is there a problem?

Unless you are an established children’s writer there are places that you cannot go because the risk is deemed to be too great. I write dark, edgy fiction for teens. With my first book, The Long Weekend, I went to the edge, but not over it because I write for teenagers, yet I recall some publishers asking for it to be turned into a simple story about two boys being kidnapped for a ransom. They wanted what made the book edgy and unnerving, and dark, removed from it. But it would have left the book soulless, so I kept it the way I wanted to keep it and waited for an editor who was willing to take a risk on it. I was lucky and found one.

So I went on to writing the next book, and yes, it is darker and edgier, and, in the words of one publisher ‘Powerfully written’. But far too risky. The perpetrator of the crime is from an Asian background, so is the main character, the victim. Maybe if neither of them were the book may have stood a better chance...

So I wrote the next book, and when it was finished and submitted, and the powers that be quote how good the first published novel was, and how dark and powerful the second, rejected, manuscript was, I wonder whether they will say that this one is a very good book, well written, great story, but isn’t dark enough or edgy enough. What do you do? (apart from tear your hair out!)

You move onto writing the book after that.

There comes a time when you sit back and wonder: What exactly is it that publishers want? Will that change? Does it change all the time?

There are lots of teens out there who scour the bookshops for books without magic, sorcery, vampires, demons and zombies. Honestly, there really are. They want edgier, more real fiction and there is space for choice if whole sections of bookshops weren’t devoted to black and red covers. It’s a shame their voices aren’t being heard because the books they want have already been written for them...

Dark and edgy is all the rage, vampires have had their say, so you would think dark edgy contemporary realism would have more of a chance. And it does. But just not if it’s too dark and too edgy...

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

HUNGRY THE STARS AND EVERYTHING by Emma Jane Unsworth Hidden Gem Press pbk. £7.99

Sherry Ashworth teaches Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University is the author of books such as REVOLUTION and JUST GOOD FRIENDS which many ABBA readers will have read and enjoyed. She has, however, branched out and is now also a small publisher. The firm that she and her husband Brian have set up in Manchester is called HIDDEN GEM.
Its first offering is a début novel by a young woman with a background in journalism who contributes to the Big Issue and has published short fiction in magazines and collections.

The title isn’t one that trips off the tongue and it isn’t the sort of thing that’s easy to say when you’re asking for the novel in a bookshop or library. Most of the time (and I’m speaking as someone who has hung on to a poetic cluster of words at least once when I ought to have listened to wiser council) the plainer and more direct the title, the easier it is for the bookbuying public to want it. But to be fair, the book is about hunger and the stars figure in it too, so this is not so much a complaint as a little niggle.

HUNGER, etc is a somewhat unusual love story. Helen has a relationship with the Devil. She met him one Christmas Eve and since then, he’s turned up in her life at certain times and she knows when these occur by a variation on ‘a pricking of my thumbs.’ She has a birthmark over her palm which becomes burning hot whenever Satan’s around. The story is structured most ingeniously. In the present, Helen, who’s a restaurant critic, is having a meal at a very strange restaurant indeed called Bethel. Each dish she eats leads her into a memory and thus a patchwork of her life emerges. We are shown her love affair with Luke (this is where the stars come in) and how that developed. We learn of her relationship with Pete, who’s a chef. Details of her friendship with Kate, and her dealings with her family also emerge and I won’t give any more away except to say that I had the book pegged as one kind of thing and it turned out to be another. The ‘devilish’ or ‘spooky’ elements, and there are quite a lot of them, turned my thoughts in a certain direction and so I was quite surprised by the way things turned out, but in a good way.

Emma Jane Unsworth writes well and the book is never dull. There’s a description of the high, canyon-like walls you pass on the approach to Liverpool Lime Street Station, which I’ve often wondered at and noticed, that is absolutely brilliant and I liked the way the book sends up in the nicest possible way the work of the restaurant critic and the chi-chiness of some eateries. It’s a promising beginning for Hidden Gems Press and for Unsworth herself. May they flourish and prosper.

CADDY'S WORLD by Hilary McKay. Hodder hbk £10.99

I know Hilary McKay is a prize-winner and a writer of long-standing excellence, but I feel that she’s not talked or written about enough, so I’d like to draw the attention of readers of this blog to her latest Casson Family book.
Those who know the Casson Family will need no introduction, but for anyone who doesn’t, they’re a most unusual normal family. Mother, always called Eve, is an artist. Dad lives away from home much of the time and I won’t spoil your fun by telling you why. The children are named for colours: Indigo, Saffron, Cadmium (Blue) and (Permanent) Rose. There have been five previous books about these children but CADDY’S WORLD takes us back to a time before Rose was born.
It has an exemplary beginning which I’m going to quote in full because it tells you most of what you need to know about the book in five lines:
‘These were the four girls who were best friends:
Alison….hates everyone.
Ruby is clever.
Beth. Perfect.
Caddy, the bravest of the brave.
(“Mostly because of the spiders,” said Caddy.)

You now have the skeleton of what the book’s about. The details, the way the story develops, the ups and downs and disasters and triumphs, the heart-stopping anguish and the laughter and the tears and every single relationship will now unfold before you as seamlessly and easily as though they weren’t written down but grew organically. It’s a masterclass in how to put together a novel of this kind and you only see how outstanding it is when you’ve read to the end and can look at the story in its entirety. Then you appreciate the careful structure, the way the small things at the start lead to the big things at the end, and especially, since it’s Caddy’s story, the way the bravery about spiders becomes much more than that.

The cover image of a pretty girl blowing bubbles will attract girls, which is fair enough but it doesn’t give any indication of the wit, sense, heart and toughness of what lies between the covers. This is the sort of domestic comedy (and sometimes tragedy) that seems to be less popular these days than flashy, fast, fantastical, whizzy books aimed mostly at boys. For anyone wanting a present for a ten or eleven- year- old girl (which she might lend to a brother who will find himself more interested than he thought he would be) this is just the thing. It’s more than time to shout about the glories of domestic fiction, which has just as much drama and incident as any adventure. The Casson Family books are a terrific achievement and this one is superb.

Monday, 20 June 2011

F is for a Fabulous, Fantastic Invitation To Our First Ever...!

F is for First
E is for Ever
is for Stupendous
T is for Tremendous
I is for Innovative
V is for Virtual
A is for Amazing
L is for Literary......

We are proud to invite all our lovely readers and their friends to

which will be taking place right here on 9-10 JULY 2011!
An Awfully Big Blog Adventure is celebrating its 3rd Birthday with the FIRST EVER ONLINE LITERARY FESTIVAL run entirely by children’s authors, and we want YOU to get involved!

On 9th and 10th July 2011 40 (yes FORTY) children’s authors from the Scattered Authors’ Society, including Adele Geras, Mary Hoffman, Liz Kessler and Celia Rees will be bringing you something new and special every half hour from 9.30am to 7.30pm on our brand spanking newly-designed blog pages.

There will be:
Amazing Blogs
Stunning Videos
Exciting Giveaways
Fascinating Interviews
Mind-boggling Competitions

We’d love you to come along and support us! Meanwhile, there are lots of things you can do!

• Join the guests at our dedicated ABBA Online Litfest Facebook Event Page and invite all your friends!
• Join in the conversation! Follow @AwfullyBigBlog on Twitter and tweet your thoughts using our special hashtag #ABBAlitfest
• Help us spread the word by putting one of our special link Buttons on your blog or website

 (just email the address below if you’d like one!)

Naturally, there will be virtual champagne and cake on the day, so save the date and come and join our fantastically fabulous literary party for a weekend of festival fun and frolic!


To bag one of our I Love ABBAlitfest blog buttons please contact our Publicity Campaign Director, Lucy Coats at lucyATlucycoatsDOTcom

Saturday, 18 June 2011


There are some incredible athletes amongst our ABBA bloggers but if scaling Everest only happens in your dreams, read on – Just a few weeks ago on 14th May, a friend of mine, Rob Hart, made the summit and raised $15 000 in sponsorship for the Room to Read Project in South Africa and for building a school in Nepal. The trip took seven weeks, starting in Kathmandu on March 30th, and ending there on May 17th.

Passionate about Room to Read Rob and his wife, Anna, first got involved with the project when they moved to Singapore in 2008. Room to Read daily transforms the lives of millions of children in developing countries by focusing on books, literacy and gender equality in education. Apart from building libraries and encouraging children to read, they support girls, who in most circumstances would’ve had to drop out of school, with special scholarships which give them the chance to complete secondary school and reach their full potential.

But back to Everest!

Rob has climbed the Seven Summits at the rate of one a year since 2003. He says: 'I’ve dreamt of climbing Everest since I can first remember, and that dream morphed to include the highest mountain on each continent. The attraction of frozen digits, howling winds and inedible food eludes many, but to me the draw is that such adventure and challenge is still available in modern times.'

This year’s success was his second attempt at Everest. In 2005 the mountain defeated him with icy winds. Even this year’s assent was not without its drama. Coming face to face with other climbers on their way down who hadn’t made the summit, he writes: ‘We meet mostly disappointed climbers coming down in the other direction, because the wind was quite strong the day before, May 12. One girl sobbing through her oxygen mask stands out, her dream in tatters for the time being. I know how that feels from last time. Some of the others did not make the top, but are just happy to be getting down alive.’
The ‘getting down alive’ part is brought grimly home when they came across a Japanese climber who’d died two days before. ‘Apparently he had got hypothemia, become disorientated and when his sherpa tried to help him, he became aggressive and pulled off his goggles, and so they had to leave him. He was still attached to the rope, looking like a wax model, and just a few meters off that path, so we cut him loose and retied the rope so that climbers could continue to use the fixed line.’ ‘A quick 9 hour slog up the mountain and I am on top of the world. As you can see I was tired enough to want to sit down. With only 2 of us up there it was impossible to hold the flag out properly - Mike took 3 photo's of me with my flag with his hands out of the gloves in -20C, and this is the best one. You can see the South African flag with the Room to Read logo beneath it.'
For the record, the same Mike Horst who took the picture, went on to climb the Lhotse peak too and summited at 5am the next morning, becoming the first person ever to climb two 8,000m peaks within a 24 hour period! No wonder they’re drinking a beer! And below huge hugs for Daddy! Very few of us will make the Everest summit, but right now the Room to Read logo is lying at 8,848m at the top of the world! Quite an endorsement of reading!

So if anyone wishes to support Room to Read as they transform the lives of millions of children in the developing world – one book, one child, one community at a time, click here .

Friday, 17 June 2011

Summer plans

I’ve decided to take a break for a while, not least because there’s a waiting list to join in this excellent blog. Thanks to everyone and au revoir! But I thought I'd make my last post a brief one about the future - the summer.

One of the hardest things about having writing as a main occupation, and moving between two different countries on a regular basis, is time management. I have to think about being one month in England, two months in Italy, two weeks in Belgium – and only one of those countries in my own home, and none of them where I have a separate and dedicated work room. It’s difficult to take a routine with me from country to country and house to house, so I think of my life as chunks of time and tasks to achieve within that time, tasks relevant to the country I’m in. So in Italy I have time to do lots of writing, but in England I have the opportunity to read new children’s books in the library, network with other writers, and do school visits and events, so I write less. I try to bring some order to my life by prioritising.

This summer I will be in Italy, so my priorities are:
Write, write, write! My work in progress is set in a snow-bound Brussels – but I’ll be trying to imagine it in 25 degree heat in Italy. At some point I’ll also have to write the second draft of a Working Partners’ novel.
Mark, mark, mark…
Creative Writing MA portfolios can be done from home.
Another bitty job that can be done online.
Learn Italian
I do know Italian pretty well… but I’d be so much better at it if I just learned a verb a day.
Teach English
To get a bit of income. I have a couple of friends who come for occasional lessons.
Get healthy
It shouldn’t be that hard, should it? Surrounded by fresh vegetables, hills to stride up and down, and sea to swim in. Fingers crossed I won’t just spend the entire summer stuck to the computer, drinking coffee and eating pizza.
And thanks to my Kindle, I can also…
Catch up on my reading!
I just wish there were more children’s books available for the Kindle.

What are your summer priorities? I'd love to know.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Maybe I'll turn into a geek? Meg Harper

Once upon a time I thought I would grow up and become an author. I would be rather like Joey Bettany in ‘The Chalet School’ books, churning out endless best-selling books for girls and managing a family on the side. Joey managed to write the best-sellers whilst producing 13 children, including triplets and two sets of twins. I didn’t intend to replicate that but I did think I might follow her lead and alternately spend hours quietly working on my books, doing the earth-mother bit or walking my dog (a St Bernard, of course). Occasionally I might have to suffer bouts of life-threatening illness but they might be quite a nice rest from the pregnancies. Seems to me, however, that barring producing one set of twins and a couple of other children, my life as a writer couldn’t be more different from Joey’s!
I certainly never imagined days such as the one I’ve just spent with some of the game designers at a local computer games company, providing training on creating better stories. What a revelation that has been! In the last few weeks I’ve been introduced to the world of Mass Effect, Bio Shock and more. I’ve learnt new terminology – I know what RPG and Open World and Shooter mean (very proud of myself, I am) and I now know that games players seem to divide into those who want re-play potential and those who don’t. I could turn into a geek at this rate. I haven’t gone over to the dark side – I’ll still be a reader rather than a games player (though remarkably, given the hours many games absorb, the people I worked with today seemed to do both) but I was intrigued by the similarities (huge) and the differences (few) between our crafts. I now feel a bit of an idle slob because, essentially, I don’t want to work for my next chapter – I want to turn over the page and find it waiting for me. I can’t be bothered to shoot a load of enemies first. I don’t want to be proactive and become the silent protagonist, armed perhaps only with a drill and endlessly having to find supplies – and sometimes having to go back a few steps in the story because I foolishly got myself wounded. It seems like a lot of effort in order to get the next bit of the story, especially when it isn’t always very good.
But then that is why I’ve been employed. Get the stories even better (and some of them are very good already) and even book-obsessed people like me might get tempted into computer games. I feel very, very naive today. You know all that stuff about boys not reading and what are we going to do about it? Well, it’s certainly not for lack of a desire for story! It’s because so many computer games are story based and there’s many a proactive young lad out there who, unlike me, wants to splice his story experience with a bit of action, whether it’s a shoot out, some exploration of the game world or cracking a puzzle. It’s not surprising that ‘just a story’ can seem a bit tame to a child brought up on X boxes and Playstations. Girls are far less keen on computer games, of course, so writers for girls have an easier job hanging onto their audience. The success of ‘Twilight’ shows us once again that girls like romance mixed with their action – and that’s a lot harder to provide in a computer game – as is a tear-jerking weepie. Computer game structure and getting through competitive levels doesn’t really blend well with the romantic or humorous genre – so it’s no surprise that boys are still buying funny books and girls are still buying romance. Or that’s how it suddenly seems to me! Bring on the arguments!

PS. In the photo are the members of a summer writing group I lead last summer, launching their book at Waterstones. One of them is a computer games designer!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

High Ambition - Andrew Strong

Telling a class of children a story can be magical. But wash your hands first, because if a story works, you'll have them eating out of your palms. I like to tell stories as often as I can; sometimes I'll just make a story up. I'll wait until almost the last moment, until I'm in front of them, and savour the feeling of a story popping out of nowhere. Last week I made up a story about a man who fell asleep on an inflatable bed and drifted out to sea. It was very exciting. Until I got to the end because I couldn't think of one. So I asked the children. The consensus was they wanted him to drown. I didn't let him, of course, he was too nice.

And not so long ago I told the story of Joseph and his brothers. Just as I was about to begin, one child put up her hand and asked, "is this R.E.?" I nodded vaguely. She groaned and sunk in her seat. But after three or four minutes, every face was turned to me. It was wonderful. Stories are powerful.

But when it comes to reading books to children, rather than telling stories, there are more challenges. After all these years, I think I know what to look out for. First, there must be natural breaks. Twenty minutes is enough. I need somewhere to end so that children are begging for more. Second, I don't want to explain too much. Keep content simple.

A few months ago I read a class some of the Mr Gum books. When I came to the line 'he was a gingerbread man with electric muscles' I almost suffered a stroke. I could not continue: the place was in uproar. I was shown the door - it was red, and covered with scratches. Some people, it seemed, had tried to claw their way out of that room.

After the Gum books, I wanted to be a little more ambitious. I wanted to try longer chapters and difficult vocabulary. I chose a book as far from Mr Gum as possible and by one of my favourite children's writers, Geraldine McCaughrean.

I say 'one of my favourite children's writers' but I have long held a suspicion that actually McCaughrean's books are far too sophisticated for ten year olds. But putting my doubts to one side, I began.

'The Kite Rider' is set in China during the thirteenth century, its vocabulary is quite tricky, and the background needs some explaining. I would need to take my time. Consider that there are some children who have only the simplest grasp of where they live. Yes, you point to a place on a map, you can tell them, show them again, repeat where it is, get them to explain to you. But ultimately if they have haven't travelled, not even as far as the nearest city, they can have little grasp of the scale or nature of the world beyond. China is a big step for them. Thirteenth century China, an enormous leap. Even one of the brightest children asked me if they had electricity back then. There is work to do before a book such as this can be tackled.

But, ten chapters in they were riveted. They loved the main protagonist, Haoyou, and suffered every one of his blows. McCaughrean is a writer of enormous scope, she can unpick a character's motives and lay out each thread for you to examine. Nine and ten year olds may have difficulty in appreciating this, but as the story is so powerful they are swept along.

I doubt that many of the children in the school, and very few I have taught, could have read this book alone. At the most there may be one or two who could have a go, but the vast majority would find it an impossible task.

Yet I think they need exposure to this quality of writing. It is simultaneously panoramic and microscopic. Including the preparation, it's taken us the best part of two months to read together. For some of these youngsters, it's become a big part of their lives. I am yet to find out exactly how much they enjoyed it, but I know that, in years to come, they will use the experiences of the Haoyou to discover their own world, and when they do, the flight of 'The Kite Rider' will have been time well spent

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Attack of the Graphic Novel - Elen Caldecott

I have a new book coming out at the beginning of July. The sensible thing to do right now would be to tell you about it. Maybe show a photo of the cover, or quote from a review, or something. If I was a proper businessperson, that’s what I'd do.

But I’m not a businessperson. I’m a writer, a reader and a booklover first and foremost. So, that’s not what I’m doing.

Instead, I wanted to tell you about some books that I’ve recently got excited about. Well, not books. Not exactly. I have stumbled into the darkest recesses of the library and struggled through the angst, boy stench and geek glares to find the graphic novels section. Yes, I’ve been reading comics.

It started at Christmas, when my husband told me that there was a Season Eight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. ‘Season Eight’? I squealed in a hopeless fan-girl way (knowing full-well that Season 7 saw the end of Buffy's Vampire-fighting days). ‘Yup,’ he said, ‘and I’ve got you episode 1.’ He then handed over a comic. I was wary to begin with. After all, Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2D must be missing a dimension?

It took about three pages for me to be hooked. It was an experience similar to watching TV or reading a book, but not exactly like either. I felt as though the characters spoke and moved in front of me, but with no time taken up with description or linking scenes. I had to work quite hard to keep up, but at the same time it was a quick read.

Since then, I’ve read the first few episodes of the brilliant Fables; the intriguing Y: The Last Man and the deliciously long Walking Dead. I’ve got most of these from the library and the ragged pages and mile-long date stamps suggest that I’m far from being alone. The library only has a small number of copies of each episode and the wait for current lenders to return them is agonising.

It strikes me that if I had an iPad then graphic novel apps would be so easy to spend money on. They have the addictive quality of a good TV Box Set, where you find yourself saying ‘just one more’ even though it’s 11pm and you know you’ll be bleary eyed in the morning. It would cost a fortune, but they’d be available right then and there and wouldn’t smell like teenage boy.

Are there any comics...sorry, graphic novels...that you know of that I should add to my list?

Oh, and in case my editor reads this, then the new book is called ‘Operation Eiffel Tower’, it's out on 4th July and you can read more about it on my website:

Monday, 13 June 2011

Rituals and e-visiting old friends - Celia Rees

The other day, a student asked me if I had any particular rituals associated with my writing. I was about to answer, 'No, not really,' in a lame kind of way, when I realised that I do, I just never thought of them that way, that's all. I collect things. Some objects are almost talismans, others are just fun - like the models that make up the interesting Pirates! tableau. I have witches in all sizes from big, to very small with flashing eyes, that belong to Witch Child; models of pirates, ships, flags, eye patches, pencil case, t shirts (Pirates! - what else?); a tricolour rosette I bought in Paris (Sovay) and various jesters for The Fool's Girl. I don't stop when the book is finished - the Lego pirate ship was free with last week's News of The World and I always give money to street performers because of Feste.

Perhaps the reason I go on collecting is because books are never really finished. The characters stay with you long after the book has been published. You've lived with them for a long time, they are part of you, like memories and people from your real life. I realised this when I re-visited Pirates! recently. This was a stand alone book, published in 2003, no sequel planned, so none written, but that didn't stop me wondering, speculating about what happened next, so when I was invited by a blogger, who was having a pirate month in May, to write a piece for her website, I thought, why not?

She wanted it to be called a The Brawl in Triton's Tavern. I've had stranger requests. I decided to write an episode from Pirates! 2, the phantom sequel. As soon as I began to write, the characters and their voices were back again. It was like visiting old friends. The result can be seen

It was fun. I might go back there again for a longer visit. Who knows? In these days of e books and kindle, we can write what we like, what we want to write, not what is asked of us by publishers.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Teach To Become A Better Writer by Lynne Garner

Although I've always written it was not until I was in my thirties that I fell into writing. Discovering I was even good enough to become published. As well as writing I have always had that teaching gene and I was lucky enough to fall into teaching when I graduated University. However it was not until a few months ago that I combined the two and started to teach creative writing. Concerned I didn't know enough I began to read and research all things creative writing related. During this time I've discovered so much. A great example of this is the skill of using repetition in my children's picture book stories. I never knew there are so many ways to repeat yourself and each one has it's own name. For example:
Anaphora where you simply use a word or collection of words at the beginning of a sentence several times to give emphasis for example:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
(Winston Churchill)
Or Epizeuxis:
The same word is repeated for emphasis, here is another example from Winston Churchill:
“Never, never, never quit.”
As well as Anadiplosis:
Where you take the last word of the previous sentence and start the next sentence with this word, for example:
"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
(Yoda - Star Wars)
And that’s just three ways you can repeat yourself.
Now whilst researching I worked on a follow on title from my last picture book 'Dog Did It,' which has just been taken by my publisher. In it I used many of the tools I discovered and I'm convinced teaching has helped me become a better writer. Not only that, during this time I produced around 40,000 words of notes. This will soon become my first Kindle eBook (How To Write A Children's Picture Book).
This experience has convinced me more than ever you can never stop learning. So I intend to continue to read everything I can on creative writing, in the hopes I not only improve my own writing skills but also help others improve theirs.
So my advice if you want to improve your writing. Don't just practice, practice, practice also read, read, read!
Lynne Garner

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Survival of the Fittest – Karen Ball

Inspired by the launch of Nicola Morgan’s book, Write To Be Published, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about blogs and their ability to cement publishing deals. For anyone who doesn’t already know, Nicola’s book began as a blog called Help! I Need A Publisher into which she poured an incredibly amount of energy and a terrifying number of words. I don’t even want to think about the hours!

This week, The Guardian ran an article on the rise and rise of food bloggers and how they are becoming the new authors of cookery books. A sewing blogger, who I read fanatically - Gertie’s New Blog For Better Sewing – has found a book deal with STS Crafts/Melanie Falick Books. If my own fun sewing blog, Didyoumakethat?, found me a publisher I'd think I'd died and gone to heaven!

Finally, we can hardly ignore the food blogger who inspired a book and a film, Julie & Julia.

So, for some, blogging definitely works as a route to publication – it’s a free platform that laughs in the face of the ‘No Unsolicited Submissions’ banner on many publishers’ websites. (When I say ‘free’ I’m trying hard not to think about the blogging hours that could have been writing-a-jolly-good-manuscript hours!)

I hazard a guess that this route to publication works best in the non-fiction market. Someone has a talent or interest, shares it with the online community via well written, engaging and regular blog posts and a book deal may happen. If I was a commissioning editor for illustrated non-fiction, I’d be scouring the blogging community! (I’d love to know which way round things work. Does the blogger put together a pitch or does the publisher approach the blogger?)

How does this relate to fiction authors and publishing? Blogs provide a platform, for sure, but I’m not convinced a publisher would ever commission a novelist blogger, based on their posts. We can’t share extracts. Well, we can, but I wouldn’t advise it. It’s difficult to share the process – writing fiction does not necessarily move forwards in a linear way – and it’s probably foolish to reveal ideas.

Still, the fiction blogging community is thriving. Community blogs are popping up left, right and centre: Crime Central, Girls Heart Books and The Edge are three I know of. A group of US chidren's book professionals have had a collective blog for quite a while now, to be found at Blue Rose Girls. Forward-looking publishers have blogs, too – how brilliant was yesterday’s debate between ABBA and Nosy Crow?

Blogging is a living creature with its own evolutionary trajectory. Have we raised our knuckles from the ground yet? Are we cave men? Can we grip a pen in our furry fists to sign a publishing contract? (You betcha!) Or will traditional publishing deals lose currency as the world moves rapidly forwards? Will there soon be other credible options?

I’d love to know what you think to blogging as a route to publication and blogging as a profile builder. It feels as though 2011 marks significant shifts in this most glorious form of communication. What do you think is the next stage of evolution?

If you're not already blogged out, you can visit my writing blog at!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Books, bacon and chain bookseller of the year - by Nicola Morgan

Gosh, how proud I am of my favourite supermarket! It has a fantastic selection of bread, and beans and bacon and even lots of other foods that don’t begin with b. Yes, I know: man or woman cannot live by bread (or beans, bacon and baking powder) alone, but fear not because Sainsbury’s has just been honoured for its bookselling wondrousness. Yep, it’s won the “Martina Cole General or Chain Bookseller of the Year” award.

Admittedly, this surprised me a little. I tried to think where the books were in my large branch of Sainsbury’s and I couldn’t quite remember. I thought that might be because when I go to Sainsbury’s I’m usually focused on the beans etc and don’t expect to see books. And the brain often doesn’t see what it doesn’t expect to see.

Anyway, according to the citation, this award was for “reinvigorating book zones, increasing book sales by more than 33% and attracting new book buyers to the market.” Book zones? Fab!

Despite knowing that you can’t believe everything you read in the papers, I was cautiously optimistic when I went to look at my nearby Sainsbury’s. After all, it’s big and has very recently been refurbished, so it must have a book zone.

And there, behind the clothes, it was! Just the green bit, as the rest is toys, but it was verily an actual cardboard shelfy thing, all for books. Well, three titles. And did you spot that it has some batteries hanging from it, just in case you need those for your torch while reading under the bedclothes?

But no! Silly me. This wasn’t the real Book Zone, merely the taster, the introduction to the gloriousness of the real Book Zone.

Look! Books! Please don’t be surprised that it took me a while to find. It was right at the back of the shop, in a corner. I’d literally never seen it before.

Also, I didn't notice at the time but if you look very closely at the top right hand corner of the photo, you'll see a big sign: WE'VE DUMPED THE JUNK! Meh. (By the way, yes, that is my shopping trolley in the shot and yes they are my bottles of pink Cava. I got those from the Wine Zone.)

Anyway, no time to lose. I measured the Book Zone: three metres long, with six shelves. I counted the books. There were between fifty and sixty titles – it was difficult to count because everything was a bit of a mess and people kept coming past to get to the DVDs. There were the forty best-selling paperbacks (I’m not too sure whose chart that was) and a few scruffy picture books, Jeremy Clarkson’s latest and some pink things that looked like cupcakes. Oh, and two cupcake recipe books.

I went looking for something to compare this with. Now, I could have chosen crisps or yogurt, each of which occupied metres and metres and metres of shelving and countless products, but a) that’s a lot of measuring and counting and b) it would have been unfair to books and c) they don’t begin with b. But, just round a few corners, was the bacon. The Bacon Zone.

I did some measuring and counting again – I was quite enjoying this, along with the surreptitious photography. (Not that I think I was doing anything wrong, just that photographing bacon is not a very impressive thing to be seen doing.) Three metres, six shelves, and 55 products. (Also a bit difficult to count, not because people kept coming past to get to the books but because people kept wanting to buy the products, which hadn’t been a problem in the Book Zone.)

Well, zone-wise, books and bacon pretty equal, possibly even a few more products in books than bacon. But I needed to be sure. And sure enough, round the corner, a whole other Bacon Zone. And, what’s more, in pride of place at the end of an aisle. Clearly they really wanted to sell this bacon stuff. Victory to bacon! Maybe Sainsbury's are going for the Dan Brown Bacon Retailer of the Year award.

So, “reinvigorating book zones, increasing book sales by more than 33% and attracting new book buyers to the market,” eh? Give me a break. That book zone needed a rocket up it. There were no book sales going on while I was there and no book buyers at all, let alone new ones. Actually, a man in shorts did come by and lingered but I think he was hiding from his wife. He didn’t buy anything.

If Sainsbury’s wants to enter the book-selling game with a mission to “attract new book buyers”, that’s great. After all, we’ve just heard that 30% of UK households own no books. But you do that by supporting and enthusing libraries, schools and families with your passion for books, not by filling a dark corner with the top forty, chucking in a few scruffy deep discounted publisher promotions, some cupcakes and Jeremy Clarkson.

Listen to me, Sainsbury’s: people come to your stores for the bacon and the beans. (And in my case the very cheap and decent pink Cava at £4.89 a bottle.) If you really care about books more than bacon, then here’s an idea: fund book-buses, full of the lovely books you want to sell, and take authors into schools. Pay the authors a reasonable fee and we’ll talk about books, not just ours, but any books, good books, fascinating books, inspiring books. We’ll do the enthusing, we’ll display the knowledge and the passion and we’ll help you sell the books. Just think of the good publicity you’d get for your lovely supermarket, too.

Then, you really would deserve the Martina Cole General or Chain Bookseller of the Year. In the meantime, frankly, you don’t.

By the way, this evening I'm having my launch party for Write to be Published. In a bookshop. But not Sainsbury's. The Edinburgh Bookshop. I did buy my fizzy wine from Sainsbury's because Vanessa doesn't yet stock it. Come on, V, what are you waiting for? You could be the Nicola Morgan Cava Retailer of the Year!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Naming of Names : Penny Dolan

Do you know or don’t you? If you’re reading this before twelve noon, you may be in a state of subtle anticipation and nervous curiosity.

If you are reading this after midday, you’ll be relaxed. The name will have been revealed. We will know the name, the one that matters: the new Children’s Laureate.

There’s been announcements about the other name. Waterstones, as sponsors, are now honoured officialy within the name itself, which has caused understandable murmurs of concern among hard-working independent booksellers.

Moreover, will the name be a he or a she? Four men and two women have accepted the honour so far. How many of each were on the long list – and on the short list? Of course, some wonderful people are not free to accept such a nomination, knowing that the role of Laureate would cost them too much personal and/or creative time on top of the required public appearances.

What will the new name be known for? Will they be a poet? A story writer? Or both? Or will they be an illustrator, or work in some other area so far not recognised by the award?

And, once we know the chosen name, what will they choose to highlight over the next two years? So far they have all interpreted the post in their own distinctive way.

The role of Children’s Laureate award is a great idea, but sometimes it feels an odd mix. The main purpose is to honour the artist for their own individual body of work and to honour the importance of creating books for children. Agreed.

However, just now, when books, schools, libraries and reading are daily pronounced upon by people who have probably read no more on the subject than their briefing notes, I have hopes that the role will also bring a voice that will be happy to speak out loudly on behalf of children as readers, and to talk about the value of the reading experience and the importance of books for children in school and in the home. Or, the very least, inspire lots of other people to speak up.

So what, as this short item in the Guardian asks, do you think the new Children’s Laureate should do?

Penny Dolan

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Day-Glo and the Seven Firemen – Michelle Lovric

The fire-engine screams down the street at midnight, lights flashing. It disgorges a squad of London’s finest. Suddenly, we can smell something burning. Our two-hundred-year-old wharf is a timber-framed – so my husband gets up, dresses and rushes down to the street to investigate.

Ten minutes pass. Suddenly I hear manly voices and heavy footsteps on the fire escape. Then seven firemen thunder into our bedroom. I am still in bed with the cat, wearing the most abbreviated form of sleep attire and immersed in the excellent Beswitched, whose day-glo holographic cover (WHY, for a book set mostly in 1935?) glitters chavishly in the lamplight.

‘Evenin’, ma’am,’ chorus the firemen. The cat pokes her head out from under the sheets to give them a withering look and a long, sour miaow. I try to turn Beswitched over, but the back cover is just as bright.

The guys examine every crevice for fire. There’s nothing smouldering, except me.

‘Nighty-night. Sweet dreams! Fine cat you’ve got there!’ They thunder back down the stairs.

Actually, the real story is that my husband loyally prevented the firemen from entering our bedroom. As he said, ‘I still don’t feel I know you well enough to guess how you’d take it if I let seven men into the bedroom with you wearing that.’ (Mr and Mrs Morrison have been married ten years, though only my mother-in-law refers to me as ‘Mrs Morrison’.)

‘But you SHOULD have let them in,’ I cried, ‘because then I could have written about it!’

‘What’s stopping you?’ my husband grinned.

And indeed this is the difference between life and writing, or, to put it another way, between blogs and books. Life – and blogs – are feral, rarely pondered deeply. Most blogs are no more calculated than a sneeze, no more rehearsed than a scream. Because real life generally offers roads timidly not taken, and glimpses – from the sidelines – of major excitement and visceral danger.

Writing, on the other hand, offers an opportunity to regain lost opportunities, pursue every what-if, make hay even if the sun doesn’t shine all day. Writing is the better version of life – the one you’ve had time to refine, think about, rewrite, run past others, get copy-edited. Writing goes out into the world with its tie straightened, a clean handkerchief, and an apple for the teacher. Writing is also a form of displacement activity – but not in the usual sense. Writing allows you to take a real feeling or an incident and place it in an entirely different context, one in which it can work for you and your story.

I won’t forget the agony of my nearly-naked embarrassment when I thought seven firemen were truly about to storm into the bedroom and find me, the cat and the day-glo cover. Should I jump out of bed and make a dash for the bathroom … or should I cower under the covers? And that huge squirm, physical and mental, will eventually make its way into a book, maybe set a hundred years ago, maybe five hundred, maybe in London, maybe in Venice, maybe in Tasmania. It may be felt by a twelve-year-old girl, or a mythical creature.

The experience will be valid, in all those contexts, but only if it’s written well enough to convey its dreadfulness. The secret of the success of Bridget Jones’ Diary is that it is entirely made of such squirms. I see a lot of firemen and a lot of day-glo in Helen Fielding’s past, oh-so-cleverly recontextualized and harnessed into a best-seller.

For the moment, ‘Day-Glo and the Seven Firemen’ is just a kind of demi-monde blog, not quite the truth and not quite real writing, suspended between truth and fiction. Undigested material, like the little bones in an owl-pellet. Something to poke at with a stick, before proceeding on your way. But the book version – should it happen – will, one hopes, eventually end up on a shelf in a home, where it might earn its keep. At least until the next car boot sale, anyway.

Blogs have their hour, or their day. Books earn their years, or even generations.

PS. Sorry to post in advance. Tomorrow morning early I have to go to the lunatic asylum on the island of San Servolo. Really. Life-really, not blog-really. Though I’m not ruling out a blog either …

Michelle Lovric’s website is at
See the new video trailer for The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium on YouTube

Saturday, 4 June 2011

How long is a piece of string? - Josh Lacey

Someone recently asked me how long it takes to write a book.

I wasn’t sure how to answer: I could have said a few months, a year, seven years or ten years.

All those answers would have been true for the same book.

I’ve got a new book coming out in July: The Island of Thieves, an adventure story about a boy and his uncle on the trail of a hidden treasure.

The book itself is out of my hands, but not yet in my hands. Every word has been tweaked, every sentence has been polished, and I can’t touch them again, but I haven’t yet seen a copy of the physical object, the book itself.

I started writing this book seven years ago. When I say writing, I mean sitting down at my computer and typing a few hundred words every day.

I can’t remember when I had the original idea for this book - the initial spark that set the whole story into motion - but it must have been three or four years before that.

Let’s say a decade from inspiration to completion. A decade from the moment that an idea first arrived in my head to the moment that I can hold an actual book in my hands.

Of course, I haven’t really been writing this book for ten years. The book itself lay dormant for much of that time, gathering dust in the darkest regions of my imagination. But not just dust. All sorts of ideas float in the goo at the back of my mind, neglected and almost forgotten, but some of them refuse to sink. A few insist of bobbing up again and again, demanding to be remembered. They’re the good ones.

I had an idea about ten years ago. Three years later, I tried to turn it into a book. I wrote a few thousand words. I threw them away. I wrote another few thousand words. I threw them away too.

Over the past seven years, I’ve returned to the book again and again, writing a bit, reading around the subject, thinking about the characters.

Last year, I finally sat down and tried to write it again. This time, for some reason, I found the story that I wanted to tell. A few months later, the first draft was done. After a year and much rewriting, the final draft was on its way to my editor.

A few months, a year, seven years or ten years: how long did it take me to write The Island of Thieves?

Friday, 3 June 2011

Phil Baker and Me

There's always been my brother, because he was older than me. I had no terrible adjustment to make(as he had, when I came along), having to share my parents' attention all of a sudden - on the contrary, I had a special person to tease me, torment me sometimes, and tell me stories. And to act stories out with.

On those evenings when my parents went out - either to the Youth Club they ran at the YMCA in Kendal, or to go dancing at a hotel in Windermere - Phil and I were left in the care of our poor grandmother, which was as good as being left with the cat to look after us, because she had mental health problems, and when we were naughty, all she did was to pray. God did not cause us to behave, I'm afraid, instead, we did exactly as we liked.

What fun we had! We'd go under one of our bedspreads and travel all over the world - to the North Pole, which was too cold, and the South Pole, which was too hot, a searing desert. I was so disappointed when Phil told me that he'd found out that the South Pole was actually cold, too. It seemed so pointless to have one Pole so exactly the same as the other, and it was years before I found out that this was not totally the case.

We'd play the 78 rpm records on the radiogram in the sitting room and act out exciting ghost stories to 'The Night on the Bare Mountain.' And on long rainy Lake District sunny afternoons, when our father was away leading a conference or training course somewhere, and our mother was studying for her external degree from London University, we'd act out the dramas of our respective king/queendoms, Philipland and Leslieland.

Mine was populated by teddy bears, his by cars. I can't remember the content of these dramas, except for once when Philipland invaded Leslieland and Phil claimed that my bear wasn't Allowed to defeat his tanks by sitting on them. Unfair!! But that was the kind of stand-off about the imaginative life that prepared me for negotiations with editors.

Later, he brought exciting books home from the library, like Candide, which I read with my eyes popping. Later still, when he was doing A-Levels and I was doing O-Levels, he introduced me to literary criticism my teachers hadn't told me about. Like John Dover Wilson, who taught me (quite rightly, I still feel) that Shakespeare should always be studied as something that takes place on stage, not read as a book.
By the time I was doing A-Levels, he was at Cambridge, and further stimulated my ideas. He always had the knack of making literature exciting - though it has to be said that sometimes, when I actually read the book or went to see the film or play, it wasn't as exciting as him talking about it, so he was clearly putting something of his own into it…

He read my poems and suggested alterations - he had started a poetry magazine at Cambridge. He was always encouraging and interested in my writing, even when it wasn't in any way outstanding. He was far more musical than I am - he played a multitude of stringed instruments - I was in the school choir, only - but I learned vestigial skills on his bouzouki, and we used to improvise together, and sing together - I feel that really helped build an ability to comprehend narrative structure in my brain, because I'm sure that the structure of storytelling is the same, at neurological level, as the structure of music. Now that I'm writing a novel whose main characters are in a band, he's being characteristically generous and imaginative with advice and information.

I think it's often parents who are acknowledged as Formative Influences - and certainly our parents were that, providing me with an endless hoard of source material, both as villains and heroes. They were amazing people who contributed much in their respective fields, but though they thought it'd be great if I became a writer, they were very prescriptive about the way we should live, and about the kind of things I should write. When I didn't follow their spec, they were outraged.

It was my brother who first shared that imaginative space with me, and then encouraged me to find my own voice.

Thanks, Phil!

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Just William, Just One more Time - Emma Barnes

Some books you don't get - however loved and praised they are by everyone else. I have never got along with Just William.

I love the idea of it: the trouble-prone child, the continual scrapes, the childhood anarchy, the poking fun at the grown-ups. It's all the kind of stuff I put into stories myself. And it's not that I have a problem with dated books about English school boys - give me a copy of Jennings and Darbishire by Anthony Buckeridge, and I will laugh so hard I'm falling off the sofa.

But every time I pick up a copy of one of William's adventures, I struggle. Just not for me, I thought. The language seemed convoluted, not witty. William's manner of speech annoyed me. Maybe I didn't read it at the right age. Maybe it's one of those books that adults love for nostalgia, but in actual fact is not that good. Maybe it works for others but it's not my cup of tea. (Not everyone likes the same thing, which is something I always stress talking to children in schools. A book may have prizes, or be your teacher's favourite - but that doesn't mean you have to like it. The important thing is don't give up on books - just go back to the shelf until you find a book you do like.)

It slightly annoyed me that Just William was constantly reissued and Jennings wasn't. It was on the radio too. And lots of children seemed to enjoy it. It was, a friend told me, her kids' favourite. What was wrong with everyone, I wondered?

Then something happened. I happened to watch an episode on the TV. (I didn't even know the BBC had adapted Just William. If I did I would have snorted "typical".) But I happened to watch it and it was ...good. Delightful. Clever. Witty. Best of all, it was extremely FUNNY.

So as soon as I have written this, I will be heading for the book shelf, digging out my neglected copy, ready to give William Brown one more try. Which makes me wonder - which books would you give another chance? Which books did you discover first thanks to TV?