Thursday, 29 September 2011

Time for a tea party?

Tea. Is any other drink so adept at being acceptable in all walks of life, at any time of day and in so many parts of the world? I'd venture to speculate that tea was the first hot drink ever made by man (or some form of tisane made from leaves, fruit or flowers and hot water). Most houses I know have some form of tea worship paraphernalia. This is my everyday form. A kettle, and several pieces of mismatched crockery, depending on my mood. I do love a cup of tea, especially taken in the company of friends.

The most basic method relies on me dunking the teabag straight into a mug, so bypassing the teapot altogether. We all have our most sluttish...and most stylish way of serving tea. The smartest tea pot I have is an inherited silver one, which I use just for the hell of it, when the fancy takes me.

But receptacles for tea can be very basic indeed. Here are some little clay cups, sometimes still used by tea sellers at railway stations in India. They are the best of throwaway cups, much more ecologically friendly than paper or plastic, and far more elegant.

I'm sure I have read somewhere (to my horror) that sales of tea in the UK are declining, and have been for a while. Coffee, that altogether more sophisticated beverage is in the ascendancy, and soon we poor Brits will have totally turned away from our so called national drink. I don't believe a word of it. Have you seen the tea section in most supermarkets recently?

Besides, a lot of our literature depends on it.

How would the dormouse have fared if the Mad Hatter had dipped it into a coffee pot, and then presumably depressed the plunger? Get rid of tea and you immediately lose one of our finest mealtimes. Rupert Brooke knew that in 1912. Honey for tea, tea and biscuits, tea and sympathy...You can bet your life that in the background of all the Streatfields, Nesbits, Blytons and Cromptons, long suffering parents or guardians were busy drinking a reviving cup, while their offspring got into ever more alarming scrapes.

I suppose all this is why I'm so offended that the words tea party have recently been usurped. A small part of me rages when those most agreeable words are put together to describe political values that are far from my own. To begin with I hoped that the label wouldn't stick, but with the Republicans in the US beginning the long road to choosing a candidate for president, it seems that tea party is going to be used used more and more frequently to describe a certain kind of republicanism. And do any of them even drink the stuff? Surely there must have been a more recent, all American tax event that could have been used, rather than objections to the tea act in 1773?

But I'm not going to react by stamping my foot and behaving badly. No. I'm going to boil the kettle, select an appropriate tea for my mood, and sit it out, preferably at a tea table in an English garden, wearing a hat, with some good friends. So spread the word. A tea party is not an offshoot of a foreign political party. It is a British institution, the most irritating aspect of which might be the occasional visit from a wasp. Reclaim the tea party and put it back where it belongs! Bring cup cakes if you must, but with the weather turning cooler, crumpets would be better. So fetch the cake stands, man the tea tables and repel all usurpers of our wonderful institution, the tea party.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Indie bookshops - Josh Lacey

There was a piece recently on the New Yorker’s book blog about independent bookshops, asking if we should fight to save them. Why do we worry when they shut down? And, if we do care about them, why don’t we spend more of our money in them?

The article made me think about the independent bookshops that I’ve visited recently, doing events, talking about my books, and how each of them has its own flavour, its own way of presenting books, its own voice in which it addresses customers, browsers, book-lovers. Each of them is embedded in its community, giving locals what they want, and, just as importantly, each of them had a very secure identity of its own.

I went to the Wood Green Bookshop in North London, where alongside new and secondhand books, they sell jewellery and other bits and pieces made by locals. The owner gave me a cup of tea; our conversation was constantly interrupted by locals coming in to chat or ask whether a book had arrived; then a group of mothers and babies arrived for storytime, and I headed off.

On the other side of London, and closer to where I live, is the Kew Bookshop, a lovely little place in a row of shops between the train station and Kew Gardens. In the summer, I spent a couple of hours there, signing books and watching customers come and go. Every writer should do that, to see how people buy books, how bookshops work. My favourite thing about this particular bookshop is the taste of the owner, Mark; unlike in some bookshops, I absolutely trust the little handwritten notes that he puts under books on the shelves.

Last weekend, I went to Woolfson and Tay in Bermondsey, which opened just over a year ago. It’s part of a modern development near the chic delis and galleries of Bermondsey Street, and feels like the model of a modern independent bookshop, where the books compete for space with a gallery and a cafe. As I left, one of the owners thrust a little book into my hands, a collection of essays written by locals, who have been coming to a workshop in the bookshop.

Thinking about these bookshops, it struck that their importance isn’t simply the difference between the small and the vast, the individual and the mass, the local and global; it’s not just the difference in taste between a loaf of bread made by hand in a village bakery and a plastic-wrapped packet of sliced white from a factory; but there’s a deeper difference too, to do with the love of books, our reverence for the printed word, and our passion for particular kinds of books, the slippery ones, the difficult ones, the ones which sit uneasily on a supermarket’s shelves, the ones that don’t jump out of the screen as a recommendation from an enormous database. These are the books that you’ll only stumble across unexpectedly, and pick up, and read the back, and flick through the first few pages, because you’re browsing along some bookshelves that have been carefully selected by someone with impeccable taste.

Josh Lacey

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Things I Learned On The Road by Penny Dolan

Two weeks ago I was out on the road on a publisher organised tour. No doubt many Awfully Big Authors have done many such trips and tours but this was my first “official” time on show.

I am not new to the game. I’ve been doing school & library visiting for year – and still do if asked - but this was the first time I felt part of somebody else’s plan. Usually I’ve been a big part of the organising chat so have picked up some sense of what I’d been meeting, and been able to spread the events out to give some recovery time. This time, the knowledge was just a five-day paper schedule.

The trip was – with due respect- a low-key version. It wasn’t me swanning about among the venerable stones of Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, Cheltenham. Edinburgh. There were no hotels away from home, no glam meals and not even a Hogwarts express to whirl me along.

This was me, alone, driving to Lytham St Annes, Rotherham, Leeds, Stockton and Preston version, and not truly the worse for that. My publicity manager came all the way up from London to support me on Day One and Two, as well as meeting new on-the-ground contacts with a view to future visits by other authors.

So what do I know now that I didn’t before?

I know that having a kind of ”visit uniform” - no matter what style this takes - to put on in the groggy time after the alarm rings get greater as the week wears on but also that the putting on the "Showtime Coat" - as we call it home here - gets easier as the rhythm of the week goes on.

I know now that the sand dunes of Lytham St Anne’s are closer than I thought. I love learning the landscape, even when there are gale warnings across Lancashire and Yorkshire. The A59 has wonderful early morning views unless you get so dreamy about the hills (and the hour) that you forget to watch out for the pushy lorries, erratic tractors and slow tankers.

I know that a using a fixed book talk with powerpoint – rather than segueing through various titles as I have usually done - makes it much harder to edit down a talk when you must cut twenty-five minutes or risk book sales because the visiting schools arrive late and want to leave early and the kind bookseller is sitting there with piles of books on view.

I know that technology is definitely not all. The power behind the lamps of projectors is very, very variable which mattered when some of the images in my talk were archive photographs. One morning I had brand-new double screen clarity and brightness. That afternoon, even the best images could only be seen in the front row on a tiny unfolding screen. Ah, bless those 60’s plate-glass libraries with their daylight! So back to the original version, the "plain" author talk complete with a large display book of illustrations carried around the corners of the audience.

I know to check the tour sheet well. The schedule had a blip, a cut and paste address sent in that didn’t match the named school. If I hadn’t neurotically googled all the venues, we'd have lost one of the most positive and delightful schools of the week.

I know now that Publicity Managers need special skills. They need to be full of energy to cope with the early mornings, long days and late nights; full of calmness when not everything is as they had been told by their contacts and full of diplomacy when they have to witness the usually private witterings of pre-session authors. Time after time.

I know that I have met some brave people out there working as independent booksellers: the Storytellers Inc bookshop and creative space in Lytham St Annes, Silverdell of Kirkham which is both bookshop and ice-cream parlour, and Radish, a small eco-bookshop in Chapel Allerton, Leeds.

Last of all, I know that at the end of the day, I just love the Go Home button on my satnav and that any form of speech or sociability has given out by the time I get there.

But thanks to all involved!

the border between fiction and reality, by Leslie Wilson

This is my last blog for ABBA for a while, and I feel sad, but with the imminent arrival of new twin grandsons (all being well) and a novel to finish off, and my gardening blog (Leslie Erika Wilson, Literary Gardener, do visit it if you haven't already), and The History Girls, I have to pull my horns in somewhere. But I have loved blogging here and will continue to read and enjoy other people's blogs!

So - the parting note.

There's a path that goes - well, somewhere, where the Chilterns slope down to the Thames near Reading, and it leads to a place on which I have based the house in my novel-in-progress. I walked it first in the winter, when I was finding the spot, and a winter path is very different from a summer path. It's in summer that a scene actually takes place there, so the Sunday before last, I asked David and the dog if they'd walk it with me again. Matilda always says yes to a walk - well, she's a dog - but David agreed too, and off we went..

It was a good thing I went, because the last time the ground was wintry and muddy, but in summer it's lined with loose flints. I think it was a road before it was a path, because you can see that it was made and hogginned or whatever the word is, with the flints. It's only the ones at the surface that are loose. This is where Jack, riding a bike along there with his mind in turmoil, has to come off his wheels and into a thorny bit of hedge.

When I wrote the scene, I had blackthorn in mind, because that was what I saw there in the winter, but now there are brambles scrambling everywhere, covered in delicious berries, which we and the dog snacked on.
There were also spindleberries and woody nightshade berries, lovely, but more or less poisonous; elderberries, which I don't care for, and enormous fat haws, which I do like to nibble. The other candidate for thorniness was the dog-rose at the start of the path.
But I found the spot I'd envisaged, and there were brambles there.

So Jack slithers on the loose flints now, and his bike tips him into the brambles. Poor Jack, it's early June, so he doesn't get to eat blackberries for comfort. Then my heroine turns up on her elderly horse, with a posse of dogs, and all the animals nose at him.
We walked on up the path till we came to the estate gates - and there I stopped. I couldn't for the life of me have gone through there now, because the house I've imagined is totally, completely different from the house that's there, and I wanted to leave my mind unmessed with.

So we turned back, because I knew what was REALLY beyond those gates; the world of my book, with all the characters.

Odd, in a way, that none of them came along the path to greet me. Or maybe just as well. They might complain at me for everything I've put them through.

Monday, 26 September 2011

It's A Child Eat Dog Food World

Surprising numbers of children have eaten dog food.

This was the unexpected finding of my first bookshop signing. Determined to have plenty of interesting things for kids to do (and to avoid ending up behind a table bleating “Please buy my book!”) I had compiled a quiz on childhood misdoings. A sort of survey, if you like. As the heroine of my book, Martha, is a real “little stinker” I thought it would be fun to find out how many other little stinkers there are out there. So I compiled a list and handed it out.

Well, it turned out they were a pretty well-behaved bunch in Waterstone’s. However much they enjoyed reading about naughty characters, and chuckling at their exploits (they were good enough to chuckle loudly at Martha’s) they scored low on the naughtiness index. A more polite, obedient, considerate bunch I have seldom met. Maybe this is a sign that reading books makes for a well-behaved child? (And is yet one more reason to reverse those library cuts?)

Except when it came to eating dog food. Then it was a different story.

A little girl came up to me. Did cat food count, she wanted to know?

Certainly, I replied.

Include cat food, and everyone seemed to have tucked into their pet’s dinner, one time or another. One parent revealed that the family cat could only be fed when her son was elsewhere; another waxed nostalgic about the childhood joys of nibbling Whiskas.

Hmm. I grew up with a family dog – and somehow I never once felt like sharing his supper.

Anyhow, it certainly broke the ice, and the signing went with a swing. There were ups and downs, of course. I had brought too few colouring sheets. A friend of mine went dashing onto the street in search of photocopiers: thank you, Thomas Cook, who gallantly responded to his plea and ran off extra copies! Thank you everyone who did so much to help in different ways.

So here you go (be honest now):
  • Have you ever flushed your sister’s homework down the toilet?
  • Have you sneaked food from fridge, cupboard or biscuit tin?
  • Have you ever tried to sell your brother?
  • Have you eaten dog food?
  • Have you ever made a cake from dog food and served it to your family?

I’m glad to reveal that nobody said “Yes” to the last one. It wasn’t one of Martha’s misdeeds either. It was my sister.

Yes, I remember it well.

Read about Martha's exploits in How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good
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Saturday, 24 September 2011

Entering The Gay YA Debate - Lucy Coats

"YA Authors Asked to 'Straighten' Gay YA Characters" said the headline in the Guardian on 14th September. I already knew that this story existed from the Twitter #YesToGayYA hashtag, but reading that a (then unnamed) major literary agency in the US would only represent two well-respected authors "on the condition that [they] make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation" really shocked and horrified me.  Malorie Blackman, in the same Guardian article, is quoted as asking the question, "Are we still not over this nonsense?"  Well, aren't we?  And if not, then why not?  We damned well should be. 

Since the original article by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown in the USA, there has been much debate on the subject in the blogosphere and on the social networks, with all the differing viewpoints and arguments brilliantly summed up HERE. You may ask why I'm adding my two-penn'orth, when so much has been written already.  I am not gay (although I have many friends of both sexes who are), and I have not (so far) written a gay character in any of my books. What qualifies me to comment then?  Well, I am a writer.  By definition that means I can and do write about things well outside my own experience.  The novel I have just finished is YA fantasy, set in present-day London, but in my time I have written about pirates, dragons, fairies, mermaids, bears and a long list of mythical beasts and gods.  I also write male teenage characters. I have no actual empirical experience of being any of these things, (although I live with a teenage son, which perhaps allows me to claim a little observational expertise in that area at least!).  If, in my next YA book, one or more of my characters tells me they are gay, I will write their story too--and I'd like to be able to do it without a little nagging voice of censorship in the back of my head telling me that I shouldn't, because 'the market won't buy it'.

The truth is that many teens are gay in varying ways--LGBTQ is the umbrella acronym. Many are confused by this and ashamed, hiding their true natures from their peers, their parents (and even themselves).  Only this week there was a report on the teenage suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer in the US--bullied for being gay, who was told (and this is only one of many dreadful comments) that one of his peers "wouldn't care if [he] died. So just do it. It would make everyone WAY more happier."  Jamey himself wrote just before he killed himself that "I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens.  What do I have to do so people will listen to me?" Amongst a large number of teens, 'gay' is a perjorative word, and being gay is something to be mocked--despite the many PSHE lessons and talks on tolerance and diversity they will have had.  However much we don't like hearing this or don't want it to be so, (and however much some of those teens' opinions or attitudes may change, broaden, become more tolerant as they get older), this casually brutal attitude to gayness is an unpleasant fact of teen life.  Another unpalatable fact is that gay teens are four times as likely to attempt to commit suicide as straight ones.

So what can we, as writers for young people, do about it, other than instilling tolerance in our own families? I'm not saying that a YA book, or even several books portraying strong main characters who happened to be gay, would have saved Jamey (although there is much evidence that positive role models and open discussion of things like rape and self-harm in YA help many kids to cope with their own situations).  But what if there was a bestselling gay YA book as big as, say, Twilight? Would that change teenage opinions radically?  Well--it might make a start on doing so--or at least open up the discussion, (though the 'banned books' brigade would no doubt be out in force to prevent that happening). This is going to be a long and hard-fought battle, and it will not be won easily.  So where could we begin to change attitudes in our readers?  Well, for a start, we can and should lose the fear of writing a male character with a boyfriend, a female character who falls in love with another girl--or even a character who is attracted to both sexes.  I am not in any way advocating writing about LGBTQ teens just for the sake of it, (and there will be some writers who don't want to approach this subject for many and varied reasons)--but I am saying, for those who might: think about it, don't discount it. If it comes naturally,  if you can write your characters sensitively and appropriately, and if it adds something real and positive to your story, then go for it. Personally, I'd like my grandchildren to be born into a world where tolerance and acceptance of gays within YA literature (and in the wider world) is a given--as natural as being right- or left-handed.  To quote Martin Luther King, "I have a dream...", but I am only one person.  To make that dream happen, we all--writers, agents, publishers--first of all have to create, produce and sell amazing, gripping, unputdownable stories for our readers which will break down the barriers of prejudice and intolerance.  It is gradually and slowly (too gradually and too slowly--but that's another story) happening with race in YA.  It can happen with LGBTQ too, but only if we are all convinced of  the importance of standing up and fighting to make it do so.  I am.  Are you?
  • Lucy's latest series Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books
  • Lucy's Website
  • Lucy's Scribble City Central Blog (Shortlisted for the Author Blog Awards 2010)
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  • Lucy is agented by Sophie Hicks at Ed Victor Ltd

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Kindness of Authors - John Dougherty

This is a story about a little boy, and his favourite author, and the difference a few moments of kindness can make.

Sam has just turned nine, and he asked for a birthday cake shaped like a platypus, for two reasons: he’d seen platypuses on his recent Australian holiday, and he’d read in Mr Gum & the Goblins that Andy Stanton’s favourite word is ‘platypus’. It’s a bit of a running joke; in every book the favourite word changes. Sam knows that, but still…

Anyway, this is where I come in. Sam is a friend of mine - he and his family live across the road from me - and so is Andy Stanton. I was lucky enough to find myself on a discussion panel with Andy a few years ago, on which occasion I prostrated myself before his comedy genius and he was kind enough to offer effusive words of praise about my Zeus books, and, well, I like to feel we bonded.

So I texted Andy with a brief explanation, asking if he’d mind sending me a text that said Happy birthday, Sam and something about platypuses. It would, I thought, be quite special to show it to Sam round about candle-blowing-out-and-cake-cutting time.

Andy, bless him, texted back immediately with the generous message: Give me a ring from the party and put him on the line and i’ll say hi.

Sam, of course, was awestruck. He was a touch monosyllabic at first; and Andy had to loosen him up a bit:

Andy: Hello? 
Sam (shyly): Hi.
Andy: Is that Sam? 
Sam (lost for words): Yeah.
Andy: Do you know who this is?
Sam (still lost for words): Yeah.
Andy: Yes, that’s right; it’s Jacqueline Wilson.
Sam (little smile appearing like sunshine through the clouds): No you’re not! You’re Andy Stanton!

And they chatted for a minute or two - with Andy doing most of the chatting - before Sam returned to the party, and to the envy of his friends (including one who muttered, “I bet it’s not the real Andy Stanton, it’s just someone pretending to be him!”).

So - what’s the big deal? Successful author does nice thing for kid. So what?

Well, the ‘so what’ is that Sam can be painfully shy - and up until a year or so back, he was  selectively mute. He often finds conversations with adults difficult, and he’s never - I’ll repeat that: he’s never - managed a phone call of that length before except with his mum or dad. Phone calls and conversations with adults are, by and large, things of stress rather than joy for him.

Yet this was special. Sam’s been upset about not getting tickets for Andy’s event in Cheltenham this year; but that night, when they were talking about the party, and the games, and the cake, and of course the phone call, Sam’s mum said to him,

“It’s a shame we can’t see him at Cheltenham this year, isn’t it?”

and Sam replied, “It doesn’t matter now. That was even better!”

Sometimes, we have no idea what powerful figures we can become in the lives of the children we write for.

All the names in this post have been changed except for mine, Andy Stanton’s, Mr Gum’s, Zeus’s, and the platypus’s.

John’s website is at
His most recent books are:
-> a retelling of Finn MacCool and the Giant’s Causeway for the Oxford Reading Tree 
-> Bansi O’Hara and the Edges of Hallowe’en   
-> Zeus Sorts It Out (“Very, very funny!” - Andy Stanton. And he’s not just saying that).

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Preserving the Word by Miriam Halahmy

I have always owned a dictionary, from the little alphabet beginner books as a very young child right through to the Oxford tomes of my university years.

 I also like to collect dictionaries and so I have my son’s huge German dictionary and my Harraps shorter French which took me through a year in France, The Oxford Dictionary of new words which my brother bought me for my 40th, as well as Spanish and modern Hebrew dictionaries, etc. etc.

I take it for granted that I can find any word, in any language, somewhere in a book. And in these so modern of times, somewhere on the Net too. But of course it wasn't always like that.
Until Samuel Johnson’s English dictionary, which was the first to contain definitions  - albeit rather whimsical at times – words floated around unhinged, unboundaried, unrecorded in an accessible and agreed manner.
I just can’t imagine going through life without a dictionary. But even more remarkable, I now cannot understand why it took me until this summer to visit the home of the man who taught us how to preserve the very foundation of the writer – words.

If you haven’t visited Samuel Johnson’s house  you are in for a veritable treat. Situated behind Fleet Street, in a beautifully preserved 18th century square, the first thing you see is the statue of Hodge, Johnson’s beloved cat. Take a good camera (which I didn’t, so my photos are from my phone) because you will want to snap and snap.

Entering Johnson’s house is like entering another world. It is so homely, so beautifully preserved, with so many amazing features. Like this custom made chain for the front door to prevent London rioters breaking in. Sound familiar?

I went with the writer Sue Hyams, who writes historical children's fiction and is also Membership Secretary for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
Sue is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about this period in history. She even googled a complete Johnson dictionary and suggested we bought it between us - for around £1500.00. (Crikey!)

Here are some original copies of the dictionary - talk about massive undertaking!!

The whole house has such a warm, lived in atmosphere and of course Johnson had a reputation of mixing with all sorts and bringing people to live with him. But for writers and all lovers of words, the greatest joy is to go up to the room where Johnson wrote his dictionary. Here I am sitting at the actual table he worked at. Apparantly he had a whole row of tables at the other end of the room where scribes stood and laboriously copied out the dictionary for him. And everyone used quill pens!! Put that in your laptop and grind it!
Johnson's house is now top of my list to take visitors to London to see and I do hope you get round to visiting one day.

What is your earliest memory of a dictionary?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 1: N M Browne

Having just read Catherine’s excellent post and this latest rather depressing issue of ‘The Author’ I feel the need to find, Worzel Gummidge like, my Pollyanna head and list some reasons to be cheerful.
1. As an author you can lie in bed with your eyes shut claiming (sometimes legitimately) that you are not dozing but plotting...
2. Cafe Coffee and croissants post JK Rowling are a morally justifiable, if not a legally acceptable, expense.
3. You can still work in your dressing gown/birthday suit/wellies without anyone lecturing you on ‘inappropriate workplace attire’ or indeed horrific taste/cellulite
4. You can still feign shock at parties when nobody has heard of you: ‘Oh but I always thought you were very well read...’ or ‘well I suppose my books are rather demanding... ‘
You can also cause acute panic in certain types of parent with a raised eyebrow and a bemused: ‘ Oh I’m surprised that (insert child’s name here) isn’t reading my stuff yet... How old did you say she was?
5. Nobody expects you to be on time or entirely sober as you are obviously an ‘artist’ of one kind or another. Similarly eccentric dress, erratic housekeeping and disgusting personal habits can be indulged with equanimity and people may be persuaded it’s all down to ‘creativity’.
6. You can avoid almost anything by claiming to be working and as no one knows what the hell you do all day, no one will contradict you (See 1 above)
7. If your year has been anything like mine you can expect a tax rebate. (See 1 above)
8. If you have an accountant and you’ve had a year like mine he/she may be fighting the impulse to send you charitable donations and/or food parcels...
9. You can take out your irritation by casting all your enemies as villains and put all the clever things you never manage to say into the mouths of your heroes.
10. You can go somewhere else, be someone else, do something amazing just by sitting down and writing. And it’s all free! This is a very good thing. (See 7 and 8 above)

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Last Gasp of the Mid Lister Catherine Johnson

I love being a writer. I have been a mid list writer, writing books that get lovely reviews, that get chosen in 'best of' round ups, and put on shortlists (not winning though and sadly not selling that much), for longer than is technically possible. In fact, last week at a swanky private view in town, I talked to a literary scout. When she asked me what I did she said, "Mid list? I didn't think the mid list existed anymore,"
I know, from talking to friends that I am not alone. And of course I'm not about to jack it in. I know I live a charmed live, with plenty of everything except money. But things have changed. This time a year ago I had bookings that began in September, packed out October, trailed off in November, but filled my next years diary as far as next May. This year, apart from two visits to the wonderful Discovery Centre in Stratford I have none. Nil. Zero. Nothing.
I know I haven't had a 'big' book out for a year or two, and I am doing a couple of free events in local schools in November when the next novel, BRAVE NEW GIRL, since you ask, comes out.
But this is the first year in, oooh, ten, years, when I have hadn't gone into a school and been paid to do workshops or booktalks or anything.
I remember telling some adult would-be children's writers that yes, we do get smaller advances than adults, but that's ok because we have another revenue stream; school visits. Well it looks like that one just dried up.
Of course I am not suggesting there will suddenly be a drought of children's books. There are always new writers and there are always people (me! here I am!) who want to write. But advances are going down, and I do worry children's writing might become something that only the people who sell shedloads or who are lucky enough to do because they are already wealthy are able to do.....

Actually that is never going to happen. Writing books reminds me of suburban riding schools. There are a few lucky ones who actually own ponies, and there's the rest of us; hundreds of eager, keen as mustard kids who would do anything, mucking out, cleaning tack, running errands, licking the salt lick or abasing ourselves in any possible way, just to have a go at brushing the pony let alone sitting on it and having a ride.

By the way, the picture is of me at the Mudchute Riding School on the Isle of Dogs in about 1985.

My next novel, BRAVE NEW GIRL is out on November 3rd published by Frances Lincoln. It's funny and warm. Honest.

INFORMATION AND INSPIRATION: everything a writer needs- The SOAiS Conference. - Linda Strachan

On Saturday  17th September 2011 at The Surgeon's Hall in Edinburgh the
Society of Authors in Scotland (SOAiS)  held their annual conference with a theme of understanding and making the most of the digital revolution in books and looking for new opportunities.  
The conference was also followed on twitter and you can follow the tweets on  #soaconf

Sara Sheridan and Marion Sinclair
networking- 'Let me give you my card'

There were over 100 delegates attending the conference which was open to all, not just members of the Society.

It was a fascinating day with lots of great speakers who were generous with their advice and happy to answer questions.  We started off with author Sara Sheridan who as always was energetic and enthusiastic in her approach. 

She spoke about harnessing traditional media to promote yourself and your books. She suggested making a plan and if possible taking one day a week for publicity and that every event you do should lead to at least 2 or 3 other kinds of publicity (blog, Twitter, radio, newspaper).
'Look at your book from the outside.
What do people say about it when you leave the room?'
This bears thinking about.  Sara suggested looking to see if there are themes within your book that you can use to attract a slightly different audience than the obvious one.

Although I am sure most of us will struggle to be quite as proactive as Sara, there were lots of ideas which I will be mulling over in the next few weeks.

Allan Guthrie

Next Allan Guthrie  who is an author and an agent, spoke about embracing ebooks, and the opportunities in the digital revolution for authors. Following the route one of one author who decided to self publish his book as an ebook with tremendous success, Allan also regaled us with the progress of one of his own books in this direction, as an example of how crucial it is to work at promoting an ebook, and how important forums, discussion boards and online reading groups are, and also connecting with your readers online. He encouraged us to think about eBooks as an additional revenue stream for authors, a platform, a way of exploiting backlists; of getting paid regularly!
 'The writer now has control over what they do with their books, But also have responsibility too- including their own sales.'

Nicola Morgan

After a coffee break we returned to listen to Nicola Morgan who told us
'I am the one and only Crabbit Old Bat', referring of course to her online persona and her listing on google (she wasn't the least bit crabbit)!
As ABBA readers will know Nicola is a frequent contributor to this blog and mentioned ABBA in her talk about Building an Online Platform, something that she knows a lot about.
'Do not be panicked by what other people are doing online. But do try and see if it works for you.'
Great advice.

She continued to explain how to build an online presence - to blog, tweet - with reference to her latest eBook Tweetright - and how important it is to be human and not just someone who is endlessly promoting themselves.
You can find out much more about what she had to say on Nicola's blog about building an online platform 

A panel discussion came next about overcoming an author's reticence when it comes to self promotion.  One the panel were Vanessa Robertson -The Edinburgh Bookshop, Colin Fraser - Anon Poetry and Claire Stewart - Scottish Book Trust, chaired by Catrin Armstrong (Scottish Book Trust)

Panel with advice on Self Promotion for Authors

Vanessa Robertson told us how to make a bookshop love you, how their books are handpicked because they know what sells in their shop and what works for their customers. That authors need to work with booksellers. Also how important it is for an independent bookshop to stock books that will not only be what their customers know they want, but sometimes quirky and interesting books that will lead to an impulse buy, that the bookseller can hand-sell. She told us to 'befriend your local bookshop.'

There was mention of unusual combinations such as a 'poetry and perfume' event recently held in the Edinburgh Poetry Library, about tweeting a fragment of poetry, or your book, to encourage people to follow you, or to go to a link to your website or blog.  
Using podcasts, and having an interesting twitter or blog persona, something that might be a hobby that you tweet or blog about.  Once again the idea of attracting people to being interested in you as a person, who might then be interested in what you have to say in your writing or on your blog/website. This can then lead to interest in your books.   This is a theme that came up several times during the day.

With a break for lunch and an opportunity to chat about the morning, it was very soon time to re-convene for the afternoon session which started with a choice of breakout sessions; covering aspects such as Author appearances (author,Alison Baverstock), eDistribution and selling your eBook (author and publisher, Keith Charters), Diversification- a key to the future?(author Caroline Dunford) and Claiming eBooks for ourselves (author Lin Anderson).

Lin Anderson

I chose to go to Lin Anderson's session and it was a very practical and useful discussion of how to go about putting a book up as an eBook. Too much to go into on a blog but it is not as complicated or as difficult as it might seem.  Something any author with out of print books would do well to consider.
'Don't give away your work. 
Don't let your publisher bully you into handing over your ebook rights.'

She also said  'There was never a better time to be a writer.'

Andrew Dixon
 Andrew Dixon who heads up the newly formed Creative Scotland (previously The Scottish Arts Council) told the conference about the new structure of Creative Scotland, their commitment to funding writers and encouraging professional development, artists residencies, and of their plans to promote all things creative in Scotland over the coming years.  He spoke about how their budgets were less pigeon-holed now, allowing for more opportunity to allocate funding more 'creatively'  than in the past, especially with 2012 being designated 'The year of Creative Scotland'

 The final panel discussion was with agent Jenny Brown (ASLA),  Publisher, Bob McDevitt (Hachette Scotland) and Marion Sinclair of Publishing Scotland who were all talking about The Road Ahead. It was chaired by Keith Charters (Strident Publishing).

Jenny Brown, Marion Sinclair, Bob McDevitt and Keith Charters
Jenny Brown told us of reasons to be cheerful and optimistic despite the changes in the publishing industry there were lots of opportunities for writers and interest in books and writing.

Marion Sinclair spoke about how the number of Scottish publishers, members of her organisation, had increased and her message to publishers was to continue to 'care about books'. Also that niche publishing might be on the increase and one way forward for smaller publishers.

Bob McDevitt said there was still an important role for publishers and that it was easy to confuse books and publishing with what has happened in the games or music industries but that books were a different industry and would react differently because people saw and used books differently.  He also mentioned that some authors, who have made a name for themselves by self publishing eBooks very successfully, have still returned to traditional publishers and negotiated contracts for print books - as it is seen as a kind of validation.

The day was rounded off by an evening reception in the Playfair Hall providing an opportunity to chat about the day and meet the other writers, publishers and guests.

There is no doubt the publishing world is changing and at the moment no one seems quite sure where it is all going.  There are opportunities for authors to take more control of their books and their livelihood, but alongside that comes the commitment to spending more time and energy on self-promotion and publicity.
 This will inevitably impinge on writing time so it is a decision each writer has to make for themselves.  The possibilities with social media are varied and exciting, but it is not for everyone and can be distracting and time consuming. 

The conference was excellent.  Well done to the SOAiS Committee for organising it and to Anna Ganley and Rachel O'Malley from the London Staff who worked so hard to make it a success, and tweeted from the conference on #SoAconf 

The Society of Authors is also running the SoA short story Tweetathon find out all about it  Here  and read the first one, started by Ian Rankin. Why not take part in the next one on wednesday or follow it on #SoAtale.

Linda Strachan  has written over 60 books for children from picture books to teenage novels, and a writing handbook for aspiring and newly published authors Writing for Children.
Blog Bookwords

Sunday, 18 September 2011

News and Events

This is an interruption to our regular service.

There are lots of interesting things going on behind the scenes at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure which we thought you might like to know about.

The Bath Children's Literature Festival are running a very interesting blog experiement and we are taking part! A story is unfolding across the interweb, written in installments by some of the finest writers in the UK. Bath's blog began it all. Follow the links at the end of each post to read each chapter and look out for our contribution on 4th October.

We are also planning an exciting series of blogs that will bring in new voices. Those people at the heart of the buisness - booksellers! We'll be hearing from booksellers across the country in an Autumn Season of guest blogs, appearing in regular Sunday slots.

And finally, some of our ABBA contributors and our wider family within the Scattered Authors Society will be appearing at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in October. Look out for John Dougherty doing schools events, Jenny Alexander with Peony Pinker and Katherine Langrish discussing Vikings!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

How to draw a... by Hannah shaw

When I was younger I remember being obsessed a book called ‘How to draw horses’. I spent HOURS trying to copy the pictures in it. Who knew that horses were made up of a series of jelly bean shapes and circles? I still find it difficult to draw horses (it’s the legs) but when I find myself getting muddled I try to refer back to the instructions I learnt from that book.

Recently I was asked by Puffin Post to do a double page spread of instructions on how to draw a puffin. They sent me some examples by quite famous illustrators like Ed Vere... I panicked, I’d never drawn a puffin before! This is where Google images was, I shamefully admit, a life-saver. In defence, it was unlikely I would have been able to see a live puffin anywhere in a 100 mile radius (Bristol Zoo perhaps?). It is even more unlikely I would have been able to get close enough to draw one. I used Google images a bit like the ‘How to draw horses’ book except I had to interpret what I saw from some very romantic photographs of puffins at sunset or puffin landing majestically with fish. I found that breaking down a puffin into essentially a potato shape and then adding all the extra bits like wings and beak worked quite well. 

I worry that the children who had a go at following my ‘How to draw a Puffin’ instructions will think that what they have drawn is an anatomically correct puffin. They definitely haven’t, they only have to do a google image search to see what a real one looks like! However, what they will have, is a unique Hannah Shaw style 'one off' (with two eyes on the side of its head) because as much as I enjoyed doing this, I don’t think it’s likely I’ll be drawing puffins again for a while! 

Thursday, 15 September 2011

What Would Willy Wonka Do?

It was Roald Dahl day on Tuesday. Dahl would have been 95.
The day got some unwelcome publicity with the announcement by the Dahl Museum in Great Missenden that they were trying to raise £500,000 in order to move and restore the garden shed in which Dahl wrote many of his most famous works. Blogs and tweets ensued, many to the effect that a) that was a hell of a lot of money for a shed, and b) why couldn’t the well-heeled Dahl Estate pay for it?
I have sympathy with both points, but still, you’ve got to hand it to Dahl. There aren’t many writers who have museums devoted to them, and I can’t think of any, other than Burns, Shakespeare and Joyce, who have a “Day”. Even twenty-one years after his death, Dahl shoots effortlessly into the headlines, pushing aside Libya and the meltdown of the Eurozone, merely on the basis that his garden shed is a bit damp.
It’s harder for children’s writers to survive than writers for adults, simply because childhood doesn’t last as long, and their audience must be constantly renewed. Ideally they need to write for a long time, preferably for a generation. At that point, the people who enjoyed the early books are old enough to have children of their own, and may start buying all over again, starting a virtuous circle. Dahl has not only survived, he continues to be read in over fifty languages, and has sold some 100,000,000 books. In bookselling jargon, that’s known as shed-loads.
So here’s the odd thing. Dahl was, and is, incredibly popular. He still has the power to grab headlines. He’s widely loved, but he’s also controversial, having been accused of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and the glorification of violence amongst other things. He’s been the subject of two full-length biographies, and a third by Michael Rosen is reportedly in progress. Many of his books have been turned into successful commercial movies. There’s lots to be said about Dahl, whether you love or loathe him. So why is it that, apart from one short survey written a year or so after his death, there has never been an academic book about his work?
Let me put this in context. Children’s literature criticism is a thriving part of academia these days (I write it myself). There are, at a cursory count, no less than six full-length academic volumes on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995-2000). On the Harry Potter books (1997-2007) there are at least fourteen. But on Dahl, whose books have been around so much longer and are so much more numerous, nothing.
I should add that this is about to change, as I’m currently co-editing a collection of academic essays on Dahl that will (we hope) appear next year, but it’s still rather mysterious. Why is it that Dahl – controversial, headline-grabbing, eagerly-consumed Dahl – is so widely ignored by the academics? I find it genuinely puzzling.
Could it be because his books are funny?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Uncurtained windows: reading writers' notebooks - Anne Rooney

Writers' notebooks are personal, valuable, essential. Somewhere to jot down thoughts as they occur before they disappear back into the ether. They contain the germs of ideas, solutions to problems, plots and titles that never went anywhere - a nostalgia-fest for the writer and a boon for literary biographers and critics in the case of the famous. Reading them is like looking into lit, uncurtained windows on a winter night, especially those in the backs of houses passed on the train. They give a privileged insight into the interior life - the writer in the wild, roaming his or her territory unaware of observers.

I've been using a facsimile of Bram Stoker's notebooks for Dracula while researching my own vampire series, Vampire Dawn (Ransom, March 2012). They look familiar. Spattered with odd jottings that are hard to interpret later, but also with longer pieces meticulously copied or summarised from books and conversations. There are typewritten notes and annotated bits of typescript as well as pages of handwriting (thankfully neat in his case). They offer a fascinating glimpse into the process of composing Dracula. The bits he didn't use are just as interesting as those he did.

He was very thorough. He went to Romania and interviewed local people. He wrote long lists of Romanian words he might use. He researched boats that had sunk off the coast of Whitby and boats that carried their cargo to shore. He recorded any odd episode or story he could use. Just as we all do.

I have two types of notebook. There's always a general notebook that is carried almost everywhere, and filled with odd ideas, observations, scribblings of any kind. Those are a chaotic jumble that probably make little sense to anyone else. Then there are specific notebooks for each project. These show the genesis and evolution of a book. It's interesting later to see the bits that never made it, the ideas that look really stupid later, and how far the final book has wandered from the original idea or plan.

My notebooks will never be of real interest, like Stoker's, but I can't show his as the facsimile is copyright, so here's a peek inside mine as a poor substitute for the curious.

This is a Moleskin softcover brown notebook. On the cover is a printout of an early version of one of the covers of the series (the first cover we fixed on).

I always stick a picture on a notebook or folder as it's the quickest way to see which is which.

Inside... these are bits printed from the web. I needed to know exactly how a guillotine works and the position of the body of the victim just before execution. This continues on further pages. In case you ever need to know, there is a tilted bench that the beheadee lies on.

And this just goes to show that I don't always carry the notebook. These notes are made on the slips of paper that come in books ordered from the stacks in Cambridge University Library and then stuck in later.

I try to find pictures of the characters. This is a series of six books (seven if you include Shroud-Eating for Beginners, the guide for new vampires) and there should, all being well, be another series of six in 2013. It's useful to have a visual reference for each character to make sure they stay consistent - no sudden changes of hair colour, for example. This is Titania. I'm not showing you the modern characters in case the real people object.

And this is how Titania got her name. After I'd written Drop Dead, Gorgeous, I noticed similarities with A Midsnummer Night's Dream.

Some more characters - these are historical figures I've co-opted as vampires. They are Louis Pasteur (lower) and Dmitri Ivanovsky. Working with real people, it's important to make sure they look as they did and to write characters that seem to match their appearance. Pasteur is robust, lively, intelligent, friendly and relaxed. Ivanovsky is reserved, polite, intelligent. They are both in book 4, Every Drop of Your Blood.

All writers discuss their work with other writers they trust. If you have those discussions on the phone or face-to-face you have have to make notes if you don't want to forget the insights they offered. I spend a lot of time chatting online on Facebook or Skype with two very dear friends who are also writers. This is a Facebook chat about plot issues with one of those people, printed out and stuck in the notebook. I won't name her in case she minds, and I've blurred the picture for the same reason.

That's enough of  a peek from your passing train. My camera has run out of battery now. But writing this has made me realise how lucky I am compared with Stoker. I don't have to copy pictures laboriously by hand (just as well - they'd be rubbish); I can print things out and stick them in; I can use higlighters; I can stick in a transcript of a chat! And, perhaps best of all, I can make a digital copy or photocopy of it all in case - God forbid - I lose the real thing. Not that I have made a full copy.... Next task!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Tinker, tailor, soldier..nurse? by Keren David

One of the many services for young people that has fallen victim to the government’s spending cuts is the careers service. Head teachers have warned that millions of pupils will lack proper advice, as the Connexions service has been axed, before a replacement put in its place.

My daughter’s school, for example, used to have a careers adviser based in the library. Her office is now empty. It’s far from clear where pupils will go in order to get guidance on qualifications, courses, apprenticeships and jobs.

I did a school visit last year to a school in Manchester. Housed in a brand new award-winning building, the school Learning Resource Centre has banks of computers - and that’s all. Four shelves of books in a classroom could be borrowed, the school’s leaders clearly thought that its pupils didn’t have much need of them.

Quite often on school visits pupils wait until after my talk to ask for advice about becoming a writer. This school was no exception. But after I’d given some writing tips, one girl still lingered. ‘Please Miss,’ she said. ‘I want to be a nurse or a midwife. Can you tell me what I need to do?’

I’ve thought about her since, and wondered if I was able to help her at all, with my garbled advice about biology GCSE and googling the Royal College of  Nursing. It seemed almost old-fashioned to meet a girl who wanted to be a nurse, not a celebrity.
I remembered some books that I loved when I was growing up. The Sue Barton series, written by Helen Dore Boyleston between 1936 and 1952 follows Sue through her career as a nurse - from student, in hospitals, urban New York, rural New Hampshire. She grows up through the course of the book, marries (naturally) a doctor, has children. But the focus of the books is always her professional life (ignore that drippy cover, Sue was much more likely to be sewing up a nasty wound or splinting a broken leg than canoodling in a corridor). Even though I was the most squeamish girl ever – I loved them.
(My sister,  just as squeamish, loved them even more than I did. I do not feel it is entirely coincidental that she married a doctor)
I can’t imagine a series like Sue Barton being published nowadays. You can find out about careers in entertainment or fashion, sport and drama in today’s fiction. But how about nursing, journalism, science or the army? Where’s the fiction which talks about what it’s like going to university – and whether it’s worth it?  You can watch Casualty, of course, but that's different from stories which concentrate on career development.
I was talking to a girl the other day who was a school drop out. Her dyslexia was undiagnosed, she could hardly read, she fell in with a bad crowd and spent her time truanting and drinking. Hair-dressing saved her, she told me (she was doing my highlights at the time). Her aunt got her a part-time job at Toni and Guy, she liked earning money, she broke with the waster friends. The part-time job led to an apprenticeship and now she's got a good job that she enjoys.
But then she read a book -  'One of those misery lit books.'' For the first time in her life she felt a real connection with what she was reading. She's gone back to evening classes, is taking GCSEs She has a new ambition, to be a social worker. She inspired by the stories she's been reading to try and make a real difference to abused children
Young people have taken a disproportionate hit in our new age of austerity. Many don't seem to feel they have a satisfying future to look forward to. Nothing can take the place of a personal, informed careers service, but is there anything children's authors can do to inform and inspire?  Can we help young people  see that they don't need to win X Factor to be a success? Where’s the Sue Barton of today?