Wednesday, 31 August 2011

I have often walked down this street before - Elen Caldecott

This isn't going to be about writing, I'm afraid.

Instead, I thought I would tell you about the affect that art is having in Bristol.

Like London, Birmingham and other UK cities, Bristol has had its share of trouble lately. Young people have felt an appaling disconnect between themselves and the city that is their home - with ugly consequences.
But two weeks after the riots, a different kind of ugly has taken hold and it has changed the way that Bristolians see their streets, well, one street anyway.

Nelson Street in central Bristol was always rough as a badger's brillos. It has high-rise buildings, many deserted; overhead walkways that smelled of tramp's undercrackers and alleys that may as well have had 'get mugged here' written in neon above them.

But last weekend, a group of international street artists reclaimed the walls. The graffiti they produced is breathtaking in scale. Everyone who walks down Nelson Street now is affected by it.

The most noticable thing is the change of pace, no-one hurries anymore. People stop to stare, take pictures, point out things they want others to notice. Complete strangers smile at each other.

It isn't confined to the usual suspects either, urban hipsters and trustafarians are outnumbered by families, tourists, older folks and children. I saw one older lady being helped up steps to get a better view - steps that two weeks earlier would have needed a bleach enema before anyone could walk on them.

I don't pretend that this will cure all Bristols ills. But I do think that anything that makes us feel more connected, less afraid, can only be a good thing.

Here, with apologies to those using dial-up, are some pictures:

The building my husband works in

Steps and walkways

Slowing for a look

My favourite - these columns are wearing knitted jerseys. And check out the new sign.

Adding greenery to the cityscape

Find out more about Elen on Facebook or at

The Empty Chair - Celia Rees

Every day, authors appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival give their time to stand in solidarity with persecuted writers by reading aloud from their work. The readings are organised by Scottish PEN, in conjunction with Amnesty International. Pride of place at these events is given to an empty chair. The chair represents those writers who cannot be there, who have to have their words read by others because they live in repressive regimes that seek to silence them by censoring their work; subjecting them to imprisonment, torture, or worse, for daring to express their views and for demanding that their voices be heard.

All the writers taking part in this event must feel, as I did, honoured and humbled to be reading from the work of fellow writers who have suffered, and are suffering, for the right to do something which we take so very much for granted. We are free to write what we like, read what we like, say what we like.

I sat in the tent, listening to my fellow writers reading the words of our brother and sister authors, famous and anonymous, imprisoned or in hiding, in China, in Cuba, in Burma and in Bagdad. All around us events were going on, audiences queuing up, readings being given, while back in the yurt, a fair few egos were on display. I thought about how lightly we hold our freedom to take part in this sharing of words and writing and I found myself looking at that empty chair and wondering: would I be prepared to take the risk? Would any of us? As I did so, words came into my head. Words from the hymn, As I Survey The Wondrous Cross:

my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

If you are attending trhe Book Festival, go along to show your support and solidarity. These events are free and happen at 5:30 every day.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

"I'm reviewing the situation" by Lynne Garner

When I first started to write professionally I produced non-fiction how-to pieces for craft magazines, something until very recently I still did. However reluctantly and after much coercion from him-in-doors I took the words of Fagin to heart and "reviewed the situation." I carried out an analysis of how long it takes me to write a magazine feature compared to how much I was earning. This is what I discovered:
  • In 1997 I was being paid £25 per page
  • By 2000 this had gone up to £50 per page
  • By 2007 I was earning on average £75 per page
  • In 2011 I was earning on average £33 per page
I knew my income had been dwindling but I was shocked to discover I was earning less than I was eleven years ago. When I started in 1997 I had never written a published piece of work, so the rate of £25 reflected this. Since then I've had 21 books and over 200 features published worldwide. Yet this wealth of experience is obviously no longer reflected in the payments I'm receiving.
Also many magazine publishers have changed the way they work. I used to supply a feature on a first serial rights basis. This meant I could sell the feature to an overseas publisher and double my income from the same work. However today they want full rights, which takes away my ability to top up my income. Now I understand the magazine industry is having a tough time. I understand they have reduced budgets but it feels they want not only their piece cake but my piece as well. So I've decided to change the way I work. For the fist time since 1997 I have no features commissioned and am not actively seeking new clients. I've decided to step back from magazine features (unless they are worth my while) and concentrate on writing Kindle eBooks which I can sell via Amazon to a growing buying public.
I'll admit it's a scary situation to be in, turning down work and not looking for paying work. But the time feels right to find another way to make my writing earn me a living wage. If I don't I'm scared I'll be forced into finding myself a 'proper' job, one that pays a regular wage, sick pay and even holiday pay. Just the idea makes me shudder!

Lynne Garner

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Career Merry Go Round - Karen Ball

Does your career trajectory look like this:

Or this:

Or this:

I think we all know which graph is the most accurate. This is one of the most challenging parts of being an author - we have close to a total lack of control over our own career paths. Luck is a huge part of the journey. The right manuscript landing on the right desk at the right time. Your as yet unsold novel hitting a trend that no one saw coming. The sales director having a headache the day of the acquisitions meeting. We need to have talent, craft, commitment and hope. We also need a massive dollop of luck.

When we get lucky, we want to stay lucky - but I haven't worked out the recipe for that one yet. The moment life feels good, the rug can be pulled from under an author's feet. The email that makes your face drain of blood, when the book you've slaved over is having its contract cancelled. Modest sales that leave you with a distinct sense of lukewarm enthusiasm from the editorial team who once promised you a glorious marketing strategy.

What control do we have over any of the above? Close to none. Is that likely to change? Well, some would argue yes with the advent of ebooks. Personally, I'm not rolling up my sleeves for the revolution quite yet.

Why do we keep writing when we're so tossed on the storm? Time and time again, in moments of angst, loved ones have told me, 'You do it because you have to.' They're right. The little girl who slaved over stories in her exercise books had no concept of sales figures or failing book chains. She's still part of who I am. And, oh, the rollercoaster ride! And the friends. Want to find a really good friend? Share some of your bad writing news. You'll soon find out who cares.

These are the type of friends you need when times become good again. I have a personal theory about book launches. The most important people present are usually standing at the back of the room, quietly watching, smiling, going largely unnoticed by all except the author. They're the husband, or the parent or the childhood friend who knows you're doing exactly what you should always have been doing. They're there to enjoy your good times, and they'll be there for the bad times, too. They could probably draw an accurate graph of your career trajectory, because they'll have been there every step of the way.

But they have more sense than that. Like us, they know writing isn't about plotting data.

It's about plotting.

You can visit my website at

Friday, 26 August 2011

Of Yurts, mud and wellies - Nicola Morgan

I'm cheating a bit with this blog post, I'm afraid. Many of you know some of the things that are busifying me at the moment and I'm really struggling to keep up so I hope you won't mind my bringing you a link to a post I wrote recently for the Guardian books blog during the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which the Guardian now sponsors.

Even that post was a teeny bit cheaty, as I've blogged on ABBA about the gloriousness of the Yurt once before. But the Yurt is magically glorious and magical gloriousness deserves an audience.

However, not everything about the EIBF is magically glorious. But they give us due warning.

Which is very necessary when you see this:

But, in no way does this spoil anyone's enjoyment. In the very same minute that I took the mud picture, I took this, just a few feet away:

And besides, what do I care? I haz these:

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Blurbling On: Penny Dolan.

The blurb is so simple that Year 1 children – the five to six year olds – can recognise the thing. They point to the patch of text on the back of book cover, proudly telling you “It’s the bit that tells you about the book.”

Is that truly what a blurb does? Does it tell you too much? Or not enough? I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve had examples of both.

In books I’ve written for an early reader series, the standard blurb format sometimes gives the twist of the plot away.

Eight enormous elephants turn a little boy’s house upside down.
It seems nothing can stop them . . . until a little mouse appears.


When Ed dropped his gum on as stormy day, little did he know what would happen. Can Granny save him from the Big Bad Blob?

Why? I wanted both the mouse and the Granny to be a surprise.

Does it help the young reader’s reading and enjoyment to know what the surprise is? Would it help readers of Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” if the blurb contained the words But the narrator did it all along?

The writer doesn’t usually write the blurb, in my experience. The words comes from someone at the publishing house. The copy editor? The editor? Are the words agreed with marketing who must surely know what aspects of the book might make it sell? It’s all a mystery to me.

However, for my long novel for upper junior readers, A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E, there was some information missing.

The book blurb emphasizes Mouse’s earlier life and his time in a dreadful school. Here’s an extract:

Mouse cannot know there are people who want to kep him hidden away . . . or worse. Frightened and alone, what Mouse does know is that he must get away from Murkstone Hall – and fast.

The blurb is gripping and compelling stuff, but nowhere does it mention that the final third of the book takes part in the busy backstage world of the Victorian theatre, nor that the play that involves Mouse is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Originally I had decided this had been missed out because someone at my new publishers felt that any hint of “the theatre” might put readers off. Maybe it would have attracted readers? I’m not sure. Or perhaps it just was that, with a long and complex story, there just wasn’t enough space for everything? Ah well.

I looked at quite a few book blurbs before writing this post and must admit that one stood out:

Once I escaped from an orphanage to find Mum and Dad.
Once I saved a girl called Zelda from a burning house.
Once I made a Nazi with toothache laugh.
My name is Felix.
This is my story.

I can’t help wondering whether it was Morris Gleitzman or his publisher who wrote that blurb for "Once".

Can any of you explain the mysteries of blurb writing? Or do you have your own favourite “blurb” blurbs?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Kindling - Josh Lacey

I'm sure there's a good joke to be made about Kindles and kindling and book burning and the fact that Waterstones wasn't looted in the riots, but I can't think of it. Can you? If so, please make it on my behalf.

Anyway, in the absence of that elusive gag, I'll simply confess that I've finally got my hands on a Kindle and, to my surprise, and perhaps disappointment too, I rather like it.

I wouldn't say I love it, though. It's certainly nowhere near the electronic book that I've always been hoping for, the lissom screen that could be pulled out and extended to the appropriate size, then rolled up and stuffed in my pocket, a device so small that I won't even notice its presence until I want to use it, and so hardy that it could be dropped in the bath without suffering any damage.

Even if I wasn't really expecting such ebookish fabulousness for another decade or two, I did imagine, after years of using macs, that the interface would be intuitive and cunning and beautiful, which the Kindle's really isn't. It works, yes, but it's clunky and quite annoying. And very grey.

As for reading on it; well, it feels more convenient than pleasurable, more efficient than transcendental.

What the Kindle does really well is encourage you to buy books. The whole process is magnificently smooth and straightforward.

Only one of my own books, Bearkeeper, is currently available for the Kindle, and I'll be intrigued to see how the children's book world adapts to the brave new world of ebooks.

Josh Lacey

Monday, 22 August 2011

Threatened Words, by Leslie Wilson

It's supposed to be the 'silly season', though the awful riots have rather knocked that one on the head. However, I have decided to be silly anyway - or maybe this isn't silly. Who knows?

A browse through your dictionary will reveal the problem the Society for the Preservation of Threatened Words (SOPTW) was set up to combat: there are all these words that are fading away because nobody uses them any more. Words, like dogs, need exercise. They don't need food or water, but someone has to give them a trot, in a nice suitable sentence. They can stand traffic, noise, bad smells, and exercising directly under the flightpath within a mile or so of a major airport - but failure to exercise them is death to them.

Blog-readers, do you want to do this to all these poor words? Condemn them to the awful fate of being OUTSA (Only Useful To Scrabble Addicts)?

However, the following list of words could be useful to Scrabble addicts, I have no problem with that, only do, please, look them up in the dictionary so that subsequent to getting your nice score on the board, you also give them the exercise they crave.

The challenge to my readers today is this: you are all concerned with words, one way or another, or you wouldn't follow ABBA. Please, please, give these words a walk - the Comments section is open below for you to do so. Subsequently, use them in a novel, or in conversation, or whatever. You will not only have done an act of great humanity, but will have enriched the English language (and maybe your Scrabble scores.)

CASTRAMETATION - the art of designing a camp.

GRABBLE - to grope, scramble or struggle.

HYLITHISM or HYLISM - materialism.

MISWEEN - to judge wrongly, have a wrong opinion of.

PONEROLOGY - the doctrine of wickedness

to POMPEY - to pamper

RECKLING - weakest, smallest, youngest of a littler or family, adj puny.

TOLSEY - a tollbooth or exchange

VISNOMY - physiognomy or face.

SEE IF YOU CAN USE ALL THESE WORDS IN ONE SENTENCE!!!! If you can, and the sentence is sufficiently fascinating, you will get a free copy of: My Life in the Fast Lane: The art of Exercising Threatened Words, edited by Jenkinson Hornswoggle, published on recycled dictionary paper, bound in composted leather, by Camera Obscura,$12-00 2007. (The Society's judgement on what is deemed to be fascinating is FINAL)

Disclaimer: The heading of this blog is in no way to be understood that I, Leslie Wilson, have ever in my life threatened a word.

ps. See today's Guardian at I believe it is in other newspapers, too! But this coincidence is clearly serendipitous (or clusionomietous)

Saturday, 20 August 2011

How Bad Can You Get? by Emma Barnes

I love writing about naughty children. I loved reading about their exploits as a child – whether it was Anne of Green Gables walking the roof-pole, Daisy Bagthorpe setting fire to the dining-room, or Laura Ingalls giving her prissy sister a good slap. So naturally I wanted to create my own fictional little demon.

But writing about naughty children is harder than it looks. Too wild – and the adult world of parents and schools will be down upon you. Too tame – and your readers will lose interest. And unfortunately that balance is harder to find now than it has ever been.

How so, I hear you say. Isn’t children’s literature more embracing, and less preachy, than it has ever been?

Not really. Just look at this example:

A boy keeps kicking footballs over the garden fence. His crusty neighbour refuses to give them back. So that night he dons a mask, and breaks into her house. He finds the ball in her living-room, and when she comes into the room, he pretends to have a gun and threaten her, thus making his escape. She reports the incident to the police – exaggerating the circumstances – and he blackmails her into never keeping his ball again.

Which child is this? Horrid Henry or Dirty Bertie? No. This school boy rogue is Just William. First appearing in print in the 1930s, naughty William is able to do things that no contemporary child hero would be able to get away with. (Leading a gang, and regularly setting fire to things, being two others I can think of.) Naughty William may still be in print – but only because he is so wrapped around in the glow of nostalgia. Otherwise, just imagine the outcry!

For all the talk about liberal parenting, and “anything goes”, it just ain’t so. Most modern children do not go far afield compared to previous generations; they do very little without adult supervision. And horror of children running amok will be even greater after the recent riots. If you want to write about a contemporary child is a realistic setting you have to take this into account.

And yet every new generation needs new anti-heroes. They need to see child heroes push the boundaries – if only in fantasy-land. It’s an form of escape. And it’s good fun.

So, how to make it work? Here are some thoughts – using as examples some wonderful, classic anti-heroes.

1) Keep the protagonist young.
Younger children have the “Get Out of Jail Free” Card in that they can’t be blamed. Judy Blume’s Fudge falls into this category. When he eats his older brother’s pet turtle, it’s OK, because he really doesn’t know any better.

2) Keep it to home and school.
Current favourite Horrid Henry rarely goes beyond this world: his arch rival is his little brother, his bitterest enemies good old Mum and Dad. In the safe haven of the family, chaos can still reign!

3) Have a moral heart.

Perhaps my favourite naughty children are the Herdmanns, created by Barbara Robinson. They are seriously naughty – the first thing they do is to burn down a shed. They also bully, thieve, swear and smoke, and they never really pay for their bad actions either.

And yet nobody could object to the Herdmanns! For the stories have a moral centre to them that is irresistible, whatever your own particular set of spiritual beliefs, because it is ultimately compassionate and humane. Also, they are set in a small town world that seems inherently safe and secure in its values.
Which leads me on to –

4) Set your story in the past.

My Naughty Little Sister seems gloriously nostalgic now, but the stories were “old-fashioned” even when they were written, in that the writer was recalling her own childhood. A child’s exploits are a lot less threatening if they they are taking place in another era.

5) Make it fantastical.
Pippi Longstocking refuses to go to school, but she is a larger-than-life character in a larger than life world – so that’s OK. And finally:

6) Make it sufficiently inventive, clever and funny
– and even the sternest teacher or parent will forgive you!

Have I made it work in my new book How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good?

Well, my heroine, Martha, is young, and her world is mainly that of home and school. There is a fantastical element too: the Guardian Agent Fred who is sent from an Agency in Outer Space that specialises in Making Bad Children Good. But the story is set now, because I wanted to write about the contemporary world we live in.

And is there a compassionate, moral heart? And is it inventive, clever and funny? Readers must judge for themselves.

So what are your thoughts on writing about naughty children? And who is your favourite little rascal?

How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good out now
Emma's web-site is

Friday, 19 August 2011

Going Dark: Abandoning the Social Networks - Lucy Coats

What?  Abandoning the social networks? Me?  For those of you who know me--yes, I hear your scepticism.  For those of you who don't--trust me, for me to talk about abandoning Twitter and Facebook is like a chocoholic abandoning all cocoa products.  So why would I do it?

Well, in the Twitter world, there is a thing known as #goingdark.  This signals that one will not be around for a while--and usually, if a writer uses it, it means that they are going into self-imposed purdah to work on a project, to edit, to think.  In short, to do what writers do best--create. 

This, of course, is what I'm talking about--not so much abandoning the networks, as being absent from them for a while (come on, did you really think I would jump ship?).  I had a good reason for being absent for a whole month* recently--a YA novel to finish.  When I'm in that race to The End, I need a head uncluttered with any distractions.  My brain somehow shifts to some strange space off to the left of my eyebrow, and I walk through the world in a daze, entranced by my characters--wanting to talk only to them.  It's an intense sort of conversation, and while I love chatting to my Twitter and Facebook friends (some of whom are Real World friends, and some who I know only in the Virtual World), this stage of writing, for me, is a particularly private time, and so I shut myself away with my characters and go dark for as long as it takes.

Now that I've 'finished' and am at the rewriting and fiddling stage of my novel, I'm dipping a toe in the social networking waters again. Have people missed me?  Doubtful.  Have I missed much? If it's important enough, someone will tell me.  One thing I'm glad I didn't miss this week is the publication of Nicola Morgan's wonderful, witty and eminently useful and sensible guide to using Twitter.  It's called Tweet Right and if any of you were thinking of venturing into that particular corner of the social networking playground, I'd strongly advise reading it before doing so.  Now that I AM back, I've signed up to be one of Nicola's Twitter Angels.  So if any of you want to come and see what it's all about, I'll be happy to help and advise.  You can find me at @lucycoats.  Unless I've gone dark again.  In which case, you won't.

* a whole month is a LONG time for one who Tweets and Facebooks much more than she probably should each day.

Lucy's latest series Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Victims of Tokenism? - John Dougherty

When I was young I was a voracious reader, but I never read any books about children just like me. I don’t think anyone had written any.

There were lots of books about children a bit like me. I mean, most of the kids in the stories I read shared my skin-colour, more or less; but they were English. The Famous Five, the Pevensey children, Wendy Darling and her brothers - English, and posher than me, the lot of them.

But that was okay, because all the children on telly were English too. Clearly, people like me just didn’t get to appear in books and on television. Probably nobody from Northern Ireland had ever written a book, or at least not one good enough to go in the shops.

Well, apart from CS Lewis, I was proud to discover; but he didn’t really count - not properly - because according to the potted biography in my Narnia books, he’d only been born in Belfast. Being born somewhere isn’t the same as living there, and it didn’t say anything about him living in Northern Ireland. Maybe his parents had just been here on holiday or something. He’d certainly done all the interesting things in England, like being a professor. And anyway, he’d written a book, and hadn’t I already learned that people who were from Northern Ireland - I mean really, properly from here - didn’t write books? So he can’t have been from here. Not really.

So while I could enjoy books - and I did, believe me; I did - something inside me just accepted that books were about English kids, and written by English people.

To be fair, there were a few non-English children in some of the books I read. There was Prince Paul in Enid Blyton’s Secret series. He was African - although, as we learned approvingly in The Secret Mountain, his behaviour in the face of danger was just like an English boy’s, so that was okay [Note: see correction in comments, with thanks to Saviour Pirotta]. And I think Donald and Jean in Borrobil were Scottish. I liked Scottish people, probably because they were pretty well the closest you got in fiction to Northern Irish - apart maybe from the odd thick Paddy in sitcoms, and they really didn’t count, because they weren’t like real people at all.

Oh, and there was Nico in The Luck Of Troy. He was Ancient Greek.

I did come across one novel about Northern Ireland, when I was a teenager and they were just starting to invent Teen Fiction. It was called Under Goliath, and it was really good. Of course, it was about the Troubles, because the only time you ever saw anything about Northern Ireland it would be about the Troubles. Even if to me it was about being miserable, and bullied at school, and escaping into magical worlds any chance I got, I understood that to - the people who wrote books and made TV programmes - Northern Ireland meant the Troubles.

It was only a few years ago that I came across a series of books about children like me. By that point, of course, I wasn’t a child any more, but my inner child still was, and he was very happy about it. They’re by Sam McBratney, best known for Guess How Much I Love You, and they’re about Jimmy Zest and his classmates. My inner child and I could tell at once that these were children like us, because they said the sorts of things we and our classmates used to say:

“Ah, go on, give us one of your scones.”
“Go and get lost, Shorty.”
“Go away and give my head peace.”
“Just a wee bit, Gowso, I’m starving!”
“Your head’s a balloon, Zesty.”
“Wise up, Zesty.”

None of the children in the books I read as a boy ever said anything like that, nor did the kids on television - even when Grange Hill was invented - but my classmates and I did. These children, my inner child and I were sure, were Northern Irish children. I looked up Sam McBratney on the web; and, sure enough, he’s from Northern Ireland. I just had to be right.

Best of all, they weren’t Northern Irish children from sectarian areas learning important lessons about tolerance or getting involved with paramilitaries; they were just Northern Irish children being, well, children. Getting into scrapes, falling out, being silly. I loved them.

So when, a couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I came across a copy of Jimmy Zest, Super Pest in the library, we borrowed it. But it was a more recent edition - 2002 - than the one I'd read before; and in the illustrations they’d done something terrible.

They’d made two of the characters - Penny Brown and Stephen ‘Gowso’ McGowan - black.

Don’t get me wrong. Black kids are still, I think, under-represented in children’s fiction, as are most minority groups. The tendency in children’s publishing is still to default to white; a few years ago, an editor asked me if, in a story I’d submitted, I could perhaps turn one of the characters - any one - into a black child. To which I replied, “How do you know none of them are?” She’d just assumed they were all white because I hadn’t specified otherwise in the text. And that’s wrong. Where there’s an opportunity to even up the balance in favour of a minority, it should be taken, because all children need to see themselves represented in fiction.

But Northern Ireland does not have a large African-Caribbean population. Take a look here if you don’t believe me. Statistically, it’s enormously unlikely that you’d get two unrelated black children in the same class anywhere in Northern Ireland. Which means that this no longer looks like a book about children from a Northern Irish community.

Jimmy Zest is already about a minority group - a group that’s horribly, horribly under-represented in children’s fiction. And - in the name of equality - they’ve made it look like just another book about English children.


John's latest book, Zeus Sorts It Out, has just been published by Random House Children's Books, and his next, Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en, will be published on September 1st.

You can visit his website at

I'm going to be away when this post appears on Thursday. If I can get online I'll join in any discussion; if not, I look forward to seeing your comments when I get back! - John

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Helping the book become its Best Self by Miriam Halahmy

All writing requires editing. Very occasionally a piece of writing will arrive pretty well complete, as a gift. I have written one or two poems like this and passages in fiction. But everything will need some sort of revision process. Editing is the process by which writers develop and grow.

My editor, Lucy Cuthew, recently wrote an article about how she edits a book. Lucy’s process is to ask literally hundreds of questions. Her purpose is to try to understand, “What it is a book wants to be.” Lucy writes dozens of comments on a manuscript, including lots of those attractive little bubbles which appear in the right hand margin. “I edit a book,” says Lucy, “by trying to make it the best version of itself it can be.”

I can think of no greater goal for editor and writer than helping the book to become its ‘Best Self’. I want all of my writing to be its ‘best self’. To me this means that I am always striving to improve my writing, always challenging myself to work harder, learn more, take on something I haven’t tried before.

I was very impressed by Hilary Mantel when, after winning the Man Booker Prize in 2009, she was asked what was next and she replied, “To write a better book.”
Sue Gee, prize winning author of nine novels and Head of Creative Writing at Middx University, states, “All writers are apprentices all of their lives.”

In my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island, I set myself a new challenge for each book. I have used the first person POV, the third person POV and two different POVs, moving between two characters. Each book presented me with the opportunity to try something different - different viewpoints, different dilemmas and different characters, such as characters who don’t speak much English or a major character who doesn’t actually speak at all!

Karl, the second main character in ILLEGAL ( Meadowside, March 2012), is mute for a large part of the book. I have taught children who are mute. Yet it still took me more than a year to work out how to portray this complex character on the page. Karl is one of my favourite characters in the cycle.Setting myself new challenges keeps the writing process fresh and exciting for me.

One of the beauties of language is that we are constantly developing our ability to express ourselves, to describe what we are trying to do. Lucy has given me the phrase, ‘Helping the book to become its Best Self’. This is what I have always tried to do. Now I have the vocabulary to express the thought concisely.

What have you learnt from the editing process?

You can read Lucy Cuthew’s article about her editing process here.

Monday, 15 August 2011

An interior Life? N M Browne

I read a book last night. Nothing new there you might think, but this one set me thinking about the creative process.
It’s an old book published in 1990 and written by a US online friend under the name ‘Katherine Blake.’ In it the heroine day dreams a conventional, if well thought out fantasy story which develops against the background of her daily ‘chores’. Moreover the characters she invents help her to get a grip on her mundane life: advising her on redecorating her house, sewing and baking, encouraging her to develop her musical and artistic tastes and to learn about the medieval period so that her husband gets a promotion and she gets self esteem, friends - and a more successful husband.
It was very much a product of its time and place - the domestic milieu of small town America in the eighties seemed if anything more exotic than the fantasy, but it is an interesting idea. My first thought was that I’m glad that my husband has never had to rely on the quality of my housekeeping to get a promotion, but the second was that creativity just doesn’t work like that for me. It is a very romantic idea that while washing up or listening to a boring conversation you can envisage scenes from a novel, that characters can give you sartorial advice ( just as well as mine seem to wear altogether too much chain mail which is a tad impractical for everyday) or even that the courage of your heroes can give you confidence in awkward situations. Surely that’s just wishful thinking?
And yet... honesty obliges me to admit that I do imagine my characters talking. When a book is going well they play out scenes when I’m walking the dog or lying idle in the bath. They don’t ever talk to me directly (no voices in my head no, no, none of that here!) and they are strangely silent when I’m listening to a boring conversation or needing help with cooking, but I have broken off in the middle of doing something sensible to scribble a solution to a knotty problem on a spare scrap of paper. In occasional moments of stress or when teenagers have been particularly difficult, I have even imagined myself to be a six foot female warrior who takes no prisoners and has a very big sword.
So, as often happens, my third thought is a radical departure from my first two. Maybe my friend had a point? Real life and work do get more confused than they probably should and creativity is not something that you can keep in a box, but an invasive, transformative and often inconvenient manifestation of a little bit of madness in even the most well ordered of lives...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Action! Catherine Johnson

This is a happy blog. I have had a good year writing wise, although my finances are in ruins there is plenty of hope on the horizon with a lovely TV commission which I must get writing now.
I've always done bits and pieces of screenwriting and think the parallels between this sort of writing and writing Young Fiction are legion. I thought I'd share, but I do hope you're not all going to go and start writing incredibly brilliant TV drama and leave me standing...
It's obvious really, when we write for young readers we have to tell our stories through action, through drama, rather than simply sitting inside our characters heads. We want our readers to know our characters by what they say and how they say it, and what they do and how they do it, not by streams of consciousness or acres of description.
We need to be able to do good dialogue, to hear our characters speak so our readers can hear them too.
All those little nuances of emotion and tendernesses, all the ways our stories hurtle towards their conclusions, have to be shown and not told.
Every scene has to work really hard, to be revealing as much of the story as possible, to be revealing more stuff about our characters and worlds without once telling the reader or hitting them over the head with exposition.
That's it really, externalise, dramatise and show. Easy.

So I'm off, in my head, to South Tottenham in 1971, (I know? prescient or what!). For a feel good, rags to riches, hard hitting, roller coaster story about the birth of now (the birth of now? Did I just right that? Have I had enough of pitching to TV companies....)
Anyway, there's a great soundtrack, from Ride a White Swan by T Rex, Knock Three Times, by Tony Orlando (and Dawn) to Rougher Yet by Slim Smith if you don't know it.
And of course it may never get made, but hey ho, that's life....

Photo is by Colin Jones

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Of Yurts and Spiegeltents: Book Festival-ing in Edinburgh - Linda Strachan

Where can you find a Yurt and a Spiegeltent, comedy, politics, cuddly creatures, crime and all kinds of great writing?
Well, if you are in Edinburgh in the next two weeks or so there is one place you should not miss.
By the time you read this the 28th Edinburgh International Book Festival will have kicked off.  Billed as the 'largest and most dynamic festival of its kind in the world'
 Now that is a huge claim to fame but for those of us who live in the vicinity - and the some 220,000 visitors it attracts- it is easy to see why.
Edinburgh at festival time is a completely different place than it is during rest of the year. It feels looks and even smells different!

Playing host to the The Book festival, the International Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Jazz Festival and several other festivals all at the same time, the city is converted into one huge venue, where even the streets become the stage and performers attract audiences in the most unlikely places.

In all this exciting cultural mayhem the Book festival is an oasis of calm.  You enter Charlotte Square (which for the rest of the year is a leafy private garden) and immediately the bustle of the city is converted into an excited hush, a tranquil setting resounding with gentle roars when the audience in one of the tents begins to applaud.

Of course the Edinburgh weather can affect the Book festival as much as anywhere else and there have been a few years when the rain left delightful little ponds around the square- delightful for the little yellow plastic ducks that suddenly appeared! Their equally sudden disappearance gave rise to discussions about the possibility of a plastic crocodile..... ?

But each year they have added more solid walkways, then covered walkways to and from the event tents and the bookshop tents and finally even to the author's green room - the yurt.

There was one particular year when there was much comedy to be had watching the staff wielding large umbrellas to shelter celebrity authors in the dash across what seemed to be the only uncovered walkway- the first 2 metres as they stepped out of the yurt on their way to their events.  Thankfully that was sorted the following year.

But when the sun shines the grassy centre of the book festival fills with people. They sit about chatting and reading in the sunshine, eating ice cream and sipping coffee. People of all ages, families with tinies and octogenarians, and from all walks of life, they have one thing in common, they love books and discussion.

creating the Spiegeltent

In the signing tent or walking around the book festival you might spot a first time author or a megastar, a politician or an actor. The Book festival also has a Spiegeltent where in the evening Unbound is free and brimming with music and performances.

As you can see I am a huge fan and look forward to the last two weeks of August each year.

It is a chance to spend time listening to wide variety of fascinating authors, to meet up with old friends and new and to discover books and authors I might never have found otherwise.

Preparing to chair an event with Nicola Morgan

The Authors' Yurt is a particular delight.

The 'green room' for authors appearing at the festival, it is a lovely space and even has a separate area for quiet preparation before an event.

Hamish McHaggis  & friends

Hamish McHaggis decided to pay a visit to the yurt a couple of years ago and the staff were keen to pose with him!  I am not sure if Hamish is going to make an appearance during my event this year - it will depend if he has recovered from his recent trip to the USA!

I will be spending quite a bit of time at the book festival again this year and aside from my own events I hope to catch up with quite a few SAS authors and ABBA contributors who are appearing there this year, such as,  Celia Rees, Liz Kessler, Nicola Morgan, Gillian Philip, Cathy MacPhail and many more.

Here are details of my events below and in the comments perhaps those of you who are also appearing in Edinburgh will add your names and the details of your events, too.

If you are coming to Edinburgh don't miss the Book Festival or put it in your diary for next year!

Linda Strachan is appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival on-

On Thursday 18th August 2011 - 5.30pm 
Amnesty International Imprisoned writers series
On Friday 19th August 2011 - 5.00pm For teens and Adults -
Exploring the research involved in writing her teen novels Spider and Dead Boy Talking 
On 25th August 2011 
- writing workshop (THIS EVENT IS SOLD OUT)
On Schools Gala Day  - 30th August 2011
 Hamish McHaggis and friends


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Lyres and Lutes vs Liars and Looters

"Every shop in Clapham high street appears to have been looted. The only shop that has escaped is Waterstone’s.” BBC Radio (via Nick Green)
“This fire he beheld from a tower in the house of Maecenas, and being greatly delighted, as he said, with the beautiful effects of the conflagration, he sung a poem on the ruin of Troy, in the tragic dress he used on the stage.” Suetonius, Life of Nero
“Why read literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps [...] to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.” Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory
“I think elephants are overprotected. But what do I know, sitting in my ivory tower?” Milton Jones
[Nursery teacher to prospective parents] “We teach them that the world can be an unpredictable, dangerous, and sometimes frightening place, while being careful not to spoil their lovely innocence. It’s tricky.” New Yorker cartoon
I’m not going to speculate about the causes of the rioting in London (and now beyond). I learned from November’s student protests and the events in Stokes Croft in Bristol earlier this year, for both of which I was able to talk to trustworthy eye witnesses, that media reports about such things don’t always match reality. This time I’m a long way off and can’t pontificate to any purpose – having said which, I found this post by a London ex-teacher depressing and inspirational in equal measure.
Instead, I want to ask some related questions to which I don’t know the answers. They’re in my mind right now, because when cities are on fire it’s hard not to wonder whether sitting down to write a fantasy is the very best use one could make of one’s time. Am I not fiddling (or playing the lyre, to be historically pedantic) while Rome burns? So this post is really a rather pathetic whinge about what I should be doing with my life, but I’ve disguised it by putting it in the form of a Cosmo personality quiz. No one will notice.
Got your pen and paper? Here goes...
1) Why was Waterstone’s left untouched, when the rest of the street was looted? Is it because:
a) Looters don’t read.
b) Readers don’t loot.
c) Looters do read, and they have such an ingrained respect for bookshops that they would never dream of breaking into them.
d) Books don’t have the same re-sale value as iPhones.
2) If concentration camp commandants can relax with Goethe, and Nero can burn Rome to make an aesthetic backdrop for poetry, is literature:
a) The opiate of the masses and a decadent distraction
b) A tool to help you become a better person.
c) Its own justification.
d) Irrelevant.
3) What’s the most valuable thing that children’s writers can do for children?
a) Teach them the truth about the dangerous world out there.
b) Help them to envisage a better life, and a better world to live it in.
c) Give them experience of timeless pleasures.
d) Make them literate so that they have a useful transferrable skill when they grow up.
Now, let’s see how you scored:
Mostly a): You’re a bit of an anarcho-cynic, aren’t you?
Mostly b): You’re an idealist with a social conscience – books really can change the world!
Mostly c): You’re an aesthete - you might as well be going round with a teddy bear named Aloysius.
Mostly d): You, by contrast, are a philistine who knows the price of everything and value of nothing.
So, dear Abbatistas, what were your results?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Domain name - tick; blog - tick; twitter - tick... (Anne Rooney)

It used to be the case that when you thought of a title for your book or series you were pleased, tried it out on a few people, and got on with writing. You might check whether someone else had used the title for anything similar. Now there is a whole post-title task-bank to work through.

Task 1: buy the appropriate domain names and put up holding pages. Tick.
Check the domain name for your title is available, or something you can plausibly use instead. If you can't use the title, is that being used for something you don't want your child readers to visit by accident? My series title is Vampire Dawn: it would be entirely plausible for a steamy temptress called Dawn to have taken this domain for her page of naughty vampire photos, in which case I would have changed the title. Luckily, no such vamp is operating. has gone (to someone respectable), but is now secured and a holding page in place.

Task 2: set up twitter account @VampireDawn. Tick.
Get any useful twitter names and start using them. This might be the title, or the name of a key character. Gillian Philip has @sethmacgregor for one of her characters, for instance.

Task 3: set up blog. Tick.
Now the blog. This was trickier as the blogger name had already gone. Wordpress, then. Pick a vaguely appropriate off-the-peg theme for now and put up a post or two promising what is coming.

Task 4: set up Facebook page and start using it. Tick.
And the Facebook page. For now, this will have updates on progress and a few snippets, but it's important to get the name now in case it goes to someone else. It's better to have a few followers on it before publication day, too.

Task 5: set up YouTube account. Tick.
We'll need a trailer, eventually. Here I ran into problems, as there is an independent film in production called Vampire Dawn. That's the group that has taken and vampiredawn.blogspot. And they have the YouTube account. So I grab VampireDawn2012 quickly. No need to make any films yet, but it's a good idea to start commenting with the account occasionally.

From the publisher, I needed the logo for the series and an early cover image - nothing else. Depending on your book, you might need something else - or nothing at all. And you might think this is all too much faff and you aren't going to do it. The characters in my series will be using Facebook and an iPhone app to keep in touch, so some online traces of these make it all more real. If your story is set in the eighteenth century - or even the 1980s - that won't be necessary. Phew.

Now - time to get on with writing the books....

Vampire Dawn website
Vampire Dawn on Facebook
Vampire Dawn's blog

Monday, 8 August 2011

The Reading List by Keren David

Just a few weeks from now my son starts at secondary school. He’s got the blazer and his house tie (blue and green stripes). I’ve ironed name tapes into his new sports kit. We’ve bought a pencil case, a scientific calculator and a mouth guard for rugby. We’ve even met the kids and parents from his new class at a picnic in the park.

But the main intellectual introduction to this new educational adventure is a reading list of 25 books. Five each from the genres Fantasy/Adventure; Around the World; Real Life; Humour and Historical, they include a graphic novel (Maus by Art Spiegelman) and a novel in verse (Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust). They have a chart to map their reading, and they can add their own choices too. They’re expected to read at least one book from each genre.

The list came with a letter from the English department. ‘We think reading is interesting, fun and the best way to improve your English,…wherever you like to read best - on the beach, on the bus, on the lawn, in your bed, in the park, in the bath - please record your reading experience. You will have opportunities to share your favourite reading experiences of the summer with other students!’

I’m not sure how long the school has used the same list, but most of the books on it seem to be about ten years old. He hadn’t read  any of them -  and I'd only read two - although he did know authors such as Michael Morpurgo (Across a Wide Wide Sea) and Gillian Cross (Dark Ground). The ‘Real Life’ and ‘Around the World’ sections weight the list towards ‘issues’ books, and as a whole the list is serious. At least three are about refugees (Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy; Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth and Ally Kennan’s Bedlam) and two about the Holocaust (John Boyne’s The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas and the afore-mentioned Maus).
There are books set in Afghanistan (The Breadwinner, Deborah Ellis), South Africa (Gaby Halberstamm’s Blue Sky Freedom), France (Sally Gardner’s The Red Necklace) and Israel (Crusade by Elizabeth Laird). There are ghosts (Eva Ibbotson’s Dial a Ghost), wolves (Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother) and Mer-people (Ingo by Helen Dunmore).  It's totally shaken up his reading habits, which had recently become dominated by the Glory Gardens series about a fictional cricket team by Bob Cattell.

Michael Gove wants to introduce a reading list for schoolchildren, and in general I’d support the idea, although - as always with our Education Secretary - the devil is in the detail. It’s best if schools can pick better pick their own lists and take into account the school demographics and the availability of books. That's the biggest problem with a list like this -  how to get one's hands on them exactly when you need them.

Buying 25 new books was beyond our purse, so we’ve borrowed some, bought others second hand and will be visiting the library for others. Almost every book on these lists is available on Amazon for one penny plus postage - so even buying second hand, with nothing going to the author or publisher, to buy the whole list costs nearly £60. I feel guilty buying second hand - and worried – the 1p Amazon thing drastically shortens any book’s shelf life. In mitigation, the list has already inspired me to buy one sequel (Maus 2) and one prequel (Ice Maiden by Sally Prue, prequel to the stunning fantasy Cold Tom). It also showed me - me, champion of libraries – how normal it’s become for me to look for books by sitting at my computer and logging onto Amazon.

As for my son, he’s already read and reviewed seven books - not bad for someone who loves to be active and sees holidays as a time for cricket and swimming and football and hanging out with his mates. Real Life is his favourite category, and Bedlam and Maus his favourite books so far. Humour is the most disappointing category – ‘This book was good - it just wasn’t funny!’. Cold Tom, his only fantasy book so far confused him at first (‘What is he? Why doesn’t the author tell me?) but won him over. (And it bowled me over -  I've read it three times in the last fortnight)  And, after reading and enjoying Crusade, he’d like to tell authors everywhere that they should be careful not to make character names too similar.

He’s hoping to read 24 books out of the 25 – I vetoed one, on the basis that I’ve heard bad things about the author (no, I’m not telling!). Having a list has given him powerful motivation to try new authors, subjects and forms and - even more importantly - find time in his busy life to read. I hope that the English teachers at his new school will make him feel that the effort was worthwhile. His sister had a similar list to work through before she started Year 7 at a different school. ‘We never heard anything about it again.’

Last word to the boy himself: ‘I think the list is a good idea because it encourages people to read. Most of them are good. The best one so far is Bedlam by Ally Kennan because it was very real and it had some good jokes in it.’