Monday, 31 October 2011

A child's Jane Eyre by Miriam Halahmy

 This year is the centenary of the publication of The Secret Garden which the British author and friend of Frances Hodgson Burnett (FBH) called, 'a sort of child's Jane Eyre.' There are lots of interesting parallels; Yorkshire, an isolated house, an absent owner and a girl who turns up, orphaned and alone.

I’ve just been on a wonderful study day on The Secret Garden, held by the Children’s Historical Book Society.  I received my copy of the book as a prize when I was nine and someone else on the study day had exactly the same version with her, for the same reason.
I fell in love with the book straight away. We often visited Yorkshire as we had family there and I loved tramping over the moors. We also visited Haworth and marvelled over the tiny handwriting of the Bronte sisters, viewed through a magnifying glass.
I found Mary and Colin so strange and compelling, Martha was like the big sister I never had and I was probably in love with Dickon. The book has remained a favourite ever since.

On arriving at the Study Day someone showed me a handwritten, undated letter which had fallen out of a second hand book she had recently acquired. Here is the transcript :

Maytham Hall

Dear Mrs Parkes,
I should come with the greatest of pleasure now that I know that I shall not be a pariah and an outcast.
Yours sincerely,
Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Two of FBH’s biographers were next to me, Ann Thwaite ( who also wrote a biography of A.A. Milne) and Gretchen Gerzina, from New York. The letter caused quite a stir and according to the experts, probably referred to FBH’s  unhappy relationship with her second husband, Stephen Townsend and the problems these caused her socially.

The day was filled with talks by some of the world’s experts on FBH and her books and was full of the most marvellous insights. Ann Thwaite had met members of the family as well as former servants when researching for her book, including a man in his 80s, Harry Millam, who was a 12 year old stable boy at Maytham. I asked if he might have been the inspiration behind Dickon. Both biographers responded with, Oh, interesting, yes, well never thought about it before. Afterwards someone said, ‘Well done for asking the best question, you electrified them!’ It was like winning the school prize all over again.

Ann Thwaite’s husband, Anthony Thwaite, edited Larkin’s Letters to Monica and found a letter about The Secret Garden which Larkin read for the first time in 1953. He found the book ‘astonishingly good..calls on everyone to live life to the utmost....masterly ( about Yorkshire).’
Larkin observed how technically clever it was to depict two children, neither of whom had ever seen the spring. I hadn’t really thought about that before. Wonderful.

Snippets about FBH and The Secret Garden (TSG) you may or may not know ( taken from notes made on the day, so any errors are mine)

1.      FBH wrote 53 novels, mainly for adults, out of print now.
2.      There is a memorial to TSG in Central Park in New York.
3.      FBH wrote TSG in America where she lived for many years.
4.      FBH was considered one of the top five novelists in America and was ranked with Henry James.
5.      She crossed the Atlantic 33 times ( by sea) and was met by paparazzi every time, both sides.
6.      She was one of the highest paid authors, ever.
7.      The robin in TSG who showed the way came from Maytham, her home in Kent.
8.      Dickon was originally called Dick but FBH was told this was a silly name. She felt that Dickon was a good country name.
9.      TSG didn’t become famous until the 1930s after her death in 1924 aged 75 years.
10.   FBH would be most surprised at the celebrations all over the world this year for the centenary of The Secret Garden.

I could write more on Mrs Sowerby and the politics of The Secret Garden but I think that will be a whole new blog. I do hope you share my enthusiasm for the enduring fascination of this author and this book.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Every Day in Every Way I'm Getting Better and Better: N M Browne

As anyone who knows me will testify, I love a good argument - the four minute or the ten minute variety. I don’t go in for rancour or nastiness but a fair and frank exchange of views sharpens my brain, not to mention my tongue, and adds a certain spice to life.
Lately I’ve been arguing online - surely the biggest and most pointless time sink yet discovered - about progress. No, not evolution or anything contentious like that, but the view, firmly held by many people, that the more we write the better we get.
It is partly the fault of those of us who teach creative writing; we suggest that students will improve with practise, with redrafting and rethinking, with time. This is true enough of very inexperienced writers, but I’m not sure it is true of the rest of us. Will our next book be better than our last? Well, it kind of depends what you mean by better doesn’t it?
I always want to do something different. Each book is a new departure, an experiment and by virtue of the fact that I have not written this particular book before - I am always a newbie, making new mistakes, screwing up in ways I hadn’t thought of before.
I was surprised that this view was not universally acknowledged as a self evident truth- as even well known writers don’t always produce their greatest work at the end of their lives, and how many brilliant first novels are never followed up?
Yet the response to this view was horror: ‘ I could not go on if I felt like that’,‘ Unlike you, I will keep striving to improve my craft,’ or words to that effect.
It struck me that as a society we want to believe in progress, economic, social and personal and are inclined to ignore evidence that does not fit this thesis: the idea of continuous self improvement has moved on from being a nineteenth century religious aspiration to a twenty-first century fact of secular faith.
I don’t think it is true and it doesn’t bother me in the least. I am about to publish my tenth novel and have written a couple of others that may never see the light of day, I am completely comfortable with the idea that each one is not ‘better’ than the last. I don’t feel I have yet produced my ‘ best’ ( though I might have) that isn’t really for me to judge. I just keep bashing away, taking each idea as it comes, trying to shape a good book, meet the challenges I’ve set myself and get it out there. What about you? Are you getting better?

Friday, 28 October 2011

Selling and Not Sellling Catherine Johnson

Dear people, I know this is stupid, seeing as I do try and earn some money from writing, but one thing I find excruciating is trying to sell my own books. I know some people can do this, and I wish it was a skill I had, but the times when I've been behind a book shop counter or stall I have found it so much easier to sell other people’s.
Look at it this way, you may not even like my book, I mean, I can't really explain what it's about, not coherently, not in one sentence or less, and anyway aren't there a gazillion better books than mine out there?
I love it when I find something that I think is fabulous and will rant on and on about it, Nicky Browne's Wolf Blood? Brilliant,.... Sarra Manning's Let's Get Lost? Heartbreaking... The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman and David Roberts? Sheer genius... and I haven’t even mentioned The Sterkarms or anyone of the many other books I hold close to my heart. You would be here all day.
My own stuff? Well, it's all right I suppose, some of it....if you like that sort of thing...
Talk like that though, If you are not careful, can end up close to the other end of the spectrum which is - in my mind anyway - quite sick making. The 'little me' fishing for compliments thing. As our young people say today: ew!
So how does one sell a book, how do you say to someone who isn't related to you, that you think they might like, or might know someone who might like your book? Shouldn't you hone that this is my book in one sentence thing? So that when you do go into schools and stuff you can be confident about it? I suppose so....
And for some of my books it really does come easy, for example, NEST OF VIPERS is that TV programme, Hustle, set in the 18th century, with teenagers.
But this new one has been hard.
Try this; BRAVE NEW GIRL by Catherine Johnson, a novel about Seren, her best mate Keith, and her complicated family, she tries to make things right and only ends up making everything a whole lot worse! That just sounds like so many books.
No, please, I hear you say, what is it about, really?
How about; Friends, films, falling out and family. There.
Now, lets hear yours for your books....

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Collaborating or flying solo? - Linda Strachan

Writing is normally a solitary occupation and I rather like that about it.

Tuscany- my shed
There is that feeling of living with and in your characters' heads, so beautifully expressed in Ellen Renner's ABBA post a couple of days ago Visitors From the World Called Imagination    

I like to slope off to Tuscany (my shed), to disappear into another place or time, and live in my head for a while.

I am not sure I know where the ideas and characters come from but I find that nothing will kill off my enthusiasm for a story idea more than  plotting it all out before I begin to write.

I prefer to discover the plot alongside my characters and feel all their uncertainty and excitement.

Without this I lose that tingle in my spine and the sense of wonder and endless possibilities that make writing such a delight and pleasure.  I have to admit that sometimes it can also become incredibly hard if I lose my way, and I imagine that those who plot carefully before they begin at least have signposts to keep them on track.  Unfortunately each time I try to plot a story out chapter by chapter beforehand, it all too soon begins to feel a bit flat.

Some writers have written successful collaborations but I've always wondered how they did it.  What was the mechanism? Were they working together bouncing ideas off each other, throwing around phrases or dialogue while one wrote it all down or working separately, each adding different segments of the story?

I once wrote part of a novel with another writer in the form of letters between two characters who knew nothing of each other to start with. Each of us took one character and replied to the previous letter as suited the character and their temperament. It was a lot of fun being really stroppy and fascinating to see how the characters developed and changed as the story progressed and they drew nearer to meeting each other.  It was never finished as other writing commitments got in the way, but it might be interesting to come back to it one day.

from  Hamish McHaggis

  Working closely with an illustrator - as I have for some years with Sally J. Collins on the Hamish McHaggis books -  is again a different way of working.

It is a collaboration but, although I have written the storyline before Sally begins her pictures, writing a picture book is quite different than writing a novel and I find myself looking forward to seeing her ideas for the pictures
Linda Strachan - working on Hamish McHaggis
We find that the books grow much more organically as we work together, with images and text evolving and progressing in tandem.

 It's been a couple of years since the last one, but our latest book Hamish McHaggis and the Great Glasgow Treasure Hunt is the 10th book in the series and it's good to be back working with Sally again.  The new book is currently being completed and will be published in the spring of 2012.

In the last month or two I have also been involved in a couple of other collaborative stories that have been just a bit of fun but I find that writing short pieces sparked off by other writers, is a great way to keep my 'imagination' muscles working!

The Bath Kidlitfest Big Blog Story was a collaboration of writers and bloggers, 20 in all, and worked a bit like the game you may have played as a child called 'Consequences '.

The ABBA contribution was written by four of us, Joan Lennon, Dianne Hofmeyr, Lucy Coats and myself  and we all added our own bit to the story, each writing about 250 words to make up the 14th chapter.  With a new chapter of the story being posted every couple of days it was a bit of a scramble to read the previous entries and find time to write our own part within the specified time.

It was interesting to follow the story and try to see where it might go next. It turned out to be a very strange tale indeed, and nothing was quite what you expected.  On the last day it was cleverly rounded off by Jeremy Strong who wrote the final chapter. You can find all the links for the entire story here if you scroll down to the end of the final chapter. Do have a look, it's all about the day the moon fell into the sea....

 The Society of Authors' short story tweetathon was another collaboration to highlight the BBC short story cuts campaign which protested against the BBC Radio 4 short story cuts.

Ian Rankin
There were 5 different stories composed of only 5 lines.
Starting with Ian Rankin, each Wednesday of the month one of five writers  - Ian Rankin, Sarah Waters, Simon Brett, Joanne Harris and Neil Gaiman - were invited to provide an opening line and this was posted on twitter with the hash tag followed by soatale.  All followers of the #soatale were invited to contribute the next line.  It was open to anyone who wanted to try and all manner of ideas and weird possibilities turned up.
The only criteria was that it had to be only as long as a tweet and include #soatale.
The curator for each story chose the winning line every hour until all five lines had been completed.  The final stories have  been recorded by actors Bill Nighy, Brenda Blethyn and Hugh Bonneville.

It was a great displacement activity, waiting to see what the next line would be and then trying to think where the story might go from there. It was good to see just how inventive people can be, in so few words!
You can find all six twitter tales here

Despite all these collaborations I have to admit that for most of the time writing is something that I want to disappear into - all on my own. I do like to have my characters to myself until I reach the end of their story when I can release them to find their own way in the world.

Are you a plotter or do you run with the story?

Do you want to work alone or enjoy collaboration?

Linda Strachan is the  author of the Hamish McHaggis series, YA novels Spider and Dead Boy Talking and writing handbook Writing for Children
Blog Bookwords


Wednesday, 26 October 2011


By Ann Evans

On a recent school visit, one little chap innocently asked, “How old are you?” Now, I'll answer any question truthfully to a class of nine and ten year olds – even that old favourite: “How much money do you get?” Oh but the age thing. So out came my stock answer, which is to say that I started writing when my children were tiny and now they are grown up with children of their own. Then as they're busy calculating the years, I get on with telling them something more interesting.

But that old cliché 'out of the mouths of babes', certainly rings true whether you're talking to a class of junior school children or your own offspring and grand-kids. One bright spark at another school did a quick calculation – not about age this time, but on rejection. I always tell the youngsters that I had six different novels rejected before I finally had one accepted – stressing the need for perseverance. I'd earlier shown them a typical 60,000 word manuscript (I was trying for Mills & Boon and adult crime stories at the time). Out of the blue a little ten year old put his hand up and said, “Miss, you wrote 420,000 words before you got anything accepted!”

Put like that I was stunned. So thanking him for making my day, I reiterated the need for perseverance in whatever you choose to do. Fortunately almost half a million rejected words didn't seem to put anyone off wanting to be a writer when they grow up!

What would we do without the thoughts and comments of our young readers though? It was purely because of an email from a little girl that two of my books even got written. Shortly after my book The Beast came out, I received an email via my website from a little girl who said, “I enjoyed The Beast, what's going to happen to Karbel now?”

Karbel is my ghost of a sabre toothed tiger, haunting a remote Scottish Valley. So I sat down to reply to her, thinking, I haven't a clue what's going to happen to him, but I had to think of something... Before the day was out I'd got an outline for a second and third book. Happily the publisher loved the ideas and I loved the little girl who had pushed me into thinking a little deeper.

I count myself lucky now in having my very own number one fan and critique all rolled into one – Jake, my eldest grandchild. At 13 and almost as tall as me (as he constantly points out) he's always been keen to read my latest offering. In fact there was an incident that made me smile a while back. He was sitting on my bed reading one of my books. I was sitting at the computer next to the bed madly typing away on a new story. For a moment it felt like a little production line which made us both smile.

I was looking through one of those old rejected manuscripts from years ago. It was an adult crime story and in it, the dog dies. I remember at the time, talking about the story to my local writers group and how horrified they all were at the thought of the dog dying. “You can't kill the dog!” they all yelled.

As a keen reader and story writer himself, Jake has always been eager to come up with ideas and suggestions when I've been stuck and one suggestion he made recently certainly struck a cord.

I told Jake my storyline. Surprise, surprise when he exclaimed, “You can't kill the dog!”
Never mind the humans who come to a sticky end, the message was loud and clear, the dog had to live. Perhaps that was why it never got accepted. Maybe the newer dog friendly version will have better luck.

Grandson Jake and pal.
When visiting schools, I generally read a section from one of my Beast books. The Reawakening has a puppy called Scooby in it, and my favourite passage to read is when Karbel snatches the puppy and runs off with it in his ghostly jaws. It's a great cliffhanger and I just love seeing their faces when I end with the line: ...Until finally, he couldn't see the mass of shimmering light at all, and Scooby was just a speck in the distance. And then she was gone.
Inevitably they all want to know - does the puppy dog die?
Fear not, I tell them – no animals were hurt in the writing of this book!
I wouldn't dare do otherwise!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Visitors From the World Called Imagination - Ellen Renner

‘Where do ideas come from?’ It’s the one question you’re bound to get during a school or library visit. I’m always truthful and say I don’t know. Oh, the disappointment in the eyes of that future author in the third row who sits, pencil poised, hoping to be gifted with the secret of story. I offer comfort in the form of tips on how to generate ideas and catch them before they fly away, like Roald Dahl’s BFG scooping up dreams in his net and bottling them, and the child is satisfied.

And, for me, there is a sense of disaster averted. I truly hope that no clever, obsessively inquisitive neuroscientist ever cracks the mechanics of creativity. I don’t want to know where my ideas come from, I just want to spy them fluttering past my eyes at unexpected moments, like translucent, technicoloured butterflies. Actually, I have a superstitious fear that if the magic process is examined too closely, it will wither away under the white hot glare of intellect. Some things grow best in the dark.

The origin of characters is even more mysterious to me. There’s a wonderful, darkly funny story by Diana Wynne Jones called Carol Onier’s Hundredth Dream. It should be required reading for all writers, especially those whose characters have a habit of hi-jacking the story.

I remember typing the last words of the final scene of my second book, City of Thieves, and feeling an overwhelming sense of bereavement. I had spent a white-hot six weeks glued to my computer, writing sixteen hours a day to get the story out. Not because of editorial deadlines but because Tobias, the main character, refused to get out of my head until I told his story. And it is a good story. Compelling and heart breaking. And although I know I created that story and remember long sessions working out the plots and reveals, it still feels as though Tobias told it to me.

When I’d done the deed, and written the last word, I lifted my aching fingers from the keyboard, looked round my extremely untidy study and suffered real grief that these characters I had lived with so intensively for a month and a half did not actually exist somewhere … in some alternative world. I believe I actually cried.
I always tell that story with a slight worry the men in white coats will be sent to talk with me by kind well-wishers, but I’ve come to believe that, for me, it perfectly illustrates why I write. It’s all about the characters.

Oh, you do need plot. And pacing. And themes … and all the other lovely mixture of ingredients that are so much fun and make up the craft of writing well. But characters are the heart, the soul, and the ‘why’ – at least for me. But where do they come from?

Some writers (I know, because there are whole chapters in ‘how-to’ books and entire units in creative writing courses dedicated to the subject) draw their characters directly from life - observing people they know and those they don’t; taking notes, adding, subtracting, rubbing out and re-drawing, until they have the characters they need to populate their plot.

I don’t do it that way. I start with a concept, an idea, a theme. After that, the characters form a casting queue outside my mental door. Of course, they must also be drawn from life – from a lifetime of observing people, of reading books obsessively, of watching television and film. But I don’t have to build them mechanically. They seem to create themselves as I put the first chapters down, and tell me their stories as I write. It truly does seem a form of magic.

I’m in that delicious, tantalising stage of a new book. A book I’ve been waiting nearly six months to start. As the time approached when I knew I’d be clear of other writing commitments and able to begin this new project – a shiny new strong idea that I don’t want to mess up – I was torn between anticipation and fear. I was wracked with the classic anxiety: had I forgotten how to write my own stories? Would I be good enough to tackle this big idea? Would the words come; the plot? And – especially – the characters?

A few weeks in and anxiety is easing. I’ve become caught up in my own storytelling web. Or, to put it more accurately, I’ve fallen in love with my characters. They have arrived, wholly-formed and real, from some hidden part of my mind, and are living their lives on the pages as I write. I’m enjoying their company tremendously. They’re teaching me about their world, about pain and strength and courage. This time, I do have a deadline to meet; I know how long I have to be in their company, and am already dreading the day that I will type that last scene and raise my head to look around a strangely lonely study.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Failure is so-o-o-o good for you

by Yvonne Coppard
(with absolutely no pics, 'cos I'm still learning and completely failed in my attempts to include them, sorry...will procure the Idiot Guide to Blogging before next attempt...)

I am not by any means a scientist. I failed almost every Science exam I ever took (and I went to the sort of school where you took a shed load of them every year). I couldn’t understand what Doctor Kornfeld was going on about as she chalked up diagrams and chemical formulae on a rolling blackboard (no Internet, no power point, in those days). I argued frequently with her (she was my form tutor, poor woman) about whether or not surface tension, the different qualities of gases and so on, were things that mattered to me. In Physics, I sat in the darkness with my classmates around a ripple tank watching tiny waves begin to form – very pretty, very soothing, but WHY? I still don’t know.

And I was often in detention with my Biology teacher, who firmly believed that I could keep up and do well, if I would only TRY to be interested in the life cycle of a locust or the dissection of a crayfish. (Tip for budding teachers – nagging and imprisoning your pupils will never endear them to your subject. D-uh.)

Five years ago I made a deliberate decision to step away from being a children’s author for a while, and try new things. I went travelling, filling my notebooks with the sights and sounds of nine different countries and cultures. I read books that I would never normally pick up – romance, science fiction, horror. I didn’t stop writing; I wrote articles, a travelogue, book reviews, non-fiction of many sorts, and half a novel for adults (still in progress). It was a great experience, and I am now ready to return to my first and proper love – fiction for children and teenagers – with the kind of enthusiasm I had twenty five years ago when my first book (Copper’s Kid) was published.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered Science.
It came as a huge surprise to me that suddenly, nearly forty years after I jubilantly left school and Science lessons behind, I have begun to devour articles, books and TV programmes on Astronomy, Engineering, Geology – even Chemistry, once – in the quest to answer questions that I belatedly have about the world. How do you make lipstick? How does thermal heating work? Could I really predict when and how I am likely to die by analysing my DNA ? (Would I want to know? The way that traditional science links up with religion, psychology and philosophy was NEVER explained to me at school). Is the truth really out there?

I blame fellow author Anne Rooney, in part. Last year, as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Essex, I shared an office with Anne Rooney. Her knowledge of all things vaguely scientific or mathematical astounds me. I read the books she put on our office shelves, books designed for children and therefore pitched at just the right level for me. I loved 1001 Shocking Science Facts

I sort-of understand what a light year is now (title?) And thanks to her ‘Technology All Around Us’ (Franklin Watts, 2005) I’ve almost grasped how it’s possible to communicate with Mars (still a way to go, on that one).
So, these days, I’m devouring a stack of children’s science books and pop TV programmes, hoping to move on to the more complicated stuff once I’ve grasped the basics. It may show up in my writing in the future, it may not. They say education is a lifelong process; they say it’s never too late to learn. I hope that’s true. My Science teachers said their stuff was relevant to my life, whatever I was planning to do with it. I wouldn’t listen, and I fought any attempt to engage me with their world. If you are still out there somewhere, Dr Kornfeld, Mrs Trevass, Mr Cole, Dr Jones...I’m sorry. You were right, and I was wrong.

Is there anyone else out there who wishes they could go back to primary School and learn stuff they missed first time around?

I am currently working on The Arvon Book of Children’s Fiction, with co-writer Linda Newbery, to be published by Bloomsbury (UK and USA) early in 2013. Also in the pipeline are two novels: ‘Amelie’s Secret’, and ‘In the Kingdom of Abbadon’, but no publication details yet. Finally, I am working on my website, to be re-launched in a couple of months with a new look and contributions from young readers, joke tellers, rant-and-ravers and fellow authors. Hopefully it will be finished sometime in November: in the meantime, if you want to know more, there’s still :

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Once was bookseller

The last in our current series of blogs by booksellers who work with children’s books, this time by our own Leila Rasheed. These blogs have been intended to give a glimpse of relationships between booksellers and children’s writers, something usually transacted behind the scenes. Leila has been both, as you’ll see in this fascinating account of life in a cross-Channel Waterstones. We hope you’ve enjoyed this ‘Month of Sundays’ and we plan to bring you more tales from behind the till next year. Meanwhile, we at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure would like to thank the contributors and also all those who opened out and enriched this discussion with their thought-provoking comments.

Round about the same time I decided to take my writing seriously I met a random Danish composer and we moved in together in Brussels. I found there was a Waterstone’s, applied for a job and went to Italy. I rang from a phone box in Italy to see if I’d got the job and apparently that swung it. I was now a bookseller. It was 2002.

Waterstone’s Brussels was a WH Smiths from 1921 until 1997. It was once managed by Marina Warner’s father. During the 2nd World War it was a Nazi officer’s mess. It is the bottom two floors of a typical central Brussels mansion, and the building has a faded, stately huge heaviness, like a woman who’s grown too thick around the waist for her crinoline. On the third floor, where the offices are, corridors and false walls maze like secrets in a heart. It smells of dust and creaky, twisted wood.

I loved working in that bookshop. Loved it. The staff (hello guys) were amazing: bookish, funny, intelligent, crazy (literally, not ‘wooo, I’m so crazy’), arty, cosmopolitan. I loved the books. I quickly got to be in charge of the children’s section, probably because no-one else wanted it. This was bliss. I loved tidying my section so it looked enticing, like rearranging the sweets in a shop window. I loved unpacking boxes of new stock. I loved selling books, I loved people buying books. I loved writing shelf-talkers (those little bits of card under a book that say how great it is) and seeing people read them and smile and pick up the book and buy it. I loved poring over the publishers’ catalogues, thinking, ‘That’ll sell here’ and buying it in and seeing it fly out. I loved seeing my profits go up, my section do well. I even loved stickering and de-stickering (de-stickering less so; it wrecks your nails). I did not love the waste; the piles of 3 for 2s shed like Imelda Marcos’ last week’s shoes.

Waterstones in Brussels and in Amsterdam, the chain’s only two branches abroad, sell the same books as you would find in a Waterstones in the UK. There is a huge audience for English language books in Brussels. Belgium is a country of two parallel languages: French and Dutch. English is a neutral space between these two language communities, whose inability to get on with each other, politically at least, has led to the country entering the record books as the country which has taken the longest time to form a government after an election. (It’s like some incredibly unstable chemical compound, as soon as a government comes into being it decays). Middle class Belgians, especially Flemish Belgians, almost without exception speak fluent English. Ex-pats working in Brussels will frequently speak and read English as well as their own native language/s, French and Dutch. University courses are taught in English. Many of the international schools there teach curriculums in English. It is the official language for many if not most businesses in Brussels. Aside from Waterstone’s, Brussels supports an independent English bookshop, Sterling , many, many independent bookshops specializing in (for example) art and travel that sell books in English as well as other languages, Passaporta, which is a multi-lingual bookshop and includes a residency for writers, and an independent English language children’s bookshop, Treasure Trove, which has been established over 20 years. There are of course local French bookshops and Dutch bookshops and the Dutch bookshops in particular will also stock some English language books.

In the Waterstone’s chain, some books were assigned ‘core’ status and had to be kept in stock. Beyond that we were fairly free (depending on space, not much of which was left after the core stock, a fair amount of which was dire TV tie-ins and so on, was on the shelves) to buy what stock we wanted. Our customers were typically Eurocrats, politicians, diplomats and business people, some English teachers and many students. Our strongest sections were therefore politics, business and economics, while core stock memoirs of C-list British slebs languished un-sold. Good books for bright children to learn English as a second language were in demand. There seemed to be very few around, and I would say this is a gap in the market waiting to be filled by any clever publisher out there. The Usborne First 1000 words in English was a strong seller when put face-out with a shelf-talker. Not on Waterstone’s core stock, but we could shift 5 or 6 a week on average, a lot for us. Overall, we sold books. We made a profit, unlike some other flagship branches. We were therefore allowed to behave in many ways like an independent bookshop but with Waterstone’s purchasing might behind us. Glory days, etc.

To begin with, there was a form I had to fill in stating what I had spent on stock. But that vanished, and then there was no budget. Managers came and went like stressed moths. Now and then a bigger manager came from London and zoomed up the stairs to the office and zoomed down the stairs again and out to the pub. There was a mysterious thing called CPD that was meant to happen. I wrote my novel on the staff computer on Sunday afternoons. There was a revolution against uniforms.
The international schools came and swooped upon us and spent hundreds of euros. We did events. A customer asked Jackie Kay to direct her to the gardening section.
Once there was a thunderstorm and the roof came down in the children’s section and drowned several Enid Blytons. We mopped and dried out stock on the radiators. I collected things people lost in the children’s section. I considered making a little museum.

We had Johnny Depp in there once, filming up the road. I served his bodyguard, a tall, sad-eyed man in a ten gallon stetson. Michael Jackson visited before I arrived, the shop was closed for him and he bought children’s books. We had theft. I never noticed, I’m a bit rubbish that way. People would walk in and walk out again with overcoats full of hundreds of euros worth of dictionaries and Tintin books which they sold on the black market. We had two armed robberies. I wasn’t there at the time. We got a security guard.

We were sandwiched between a gun shop and a porn shop, behind us junkies slept in doorways, on the other side of the street was the red light district. A footstep behind us was Rue des Cendres, where the Duchess of Richmond’s ball before Waterloo was held. The rain ran down the arch of the disused cinema opposite and dripped like saliva from an open mouth. It’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever lived in. Last time I was there a man tried to slash my face with a knife as I walked down the street. We sold crackers at Christmas and Cadburys’ Crème Eggs at Easter. We were an ex-pat institution. Why do I say were? It’s still there. It sells coffee now. We angled for a coffee shop for ages and now there is one. You could go there and get a coffee next time you're in Brussels.

If I could do anything in the world, I would go back to bookselling as a career (alongside writing). I think I was a good bookseller and I know I enjoyed it. But I don’t think it would be practical in the long term. Why? Well, there has been some good news for bricks and mortar bookselling, there’s no doubt about that. Children’s publishers are springing up everywhere. That has to translate into sales. Waterstone’s has a new beginning. I have been following the James Daunt news on the Bookseller and am very excited at the changes. Scrapping the 3/2 is good. It’s good for customers who now have real choice rather than the illusion of choice. It’s good for staff who are trusted to do their jobs and know their books. It’s good because it gives value to something other than price, and this is what bricks and mortar bookselling has to be about, because it simply cannot compete with big online booksellers for price or convenience.

And there’s the rub. The bricks and mortar bookshop faces huge, specific and fundamental challenges – online bookselling, e-books, rise of the self-publisher - and all against a backdrop of worsening economic conditions. So much so that I cannot imagine career bookselling will last into a new generation in any other than a very boutique form. I hope that I’ll be proved wrong. I hope commenters can persuade me that I'm pessimistic. But in Birmingham we do not have one single independent general bookseller. Do you know how many people there are in Birmingham? One heck of a lot, that’s how many. You’d think they could support one single sole little independent bookseller. But the last, Bonds books in leafy Harborne, shut a couple of years ago. Over in equally leafy and more intellectual Moseley/ Kings Heath, we’ve got an Oxfam books that is usually jammed. That’s doing well – the second hand bookseller with the cheap charity rates to help it make a profit. The organic yummy mummy cafes have Usborne stands in them.

Books are selling but bookshops are closing. People will browse and pick up a second hand book but they’ll do their serious book shopping online. I cannot help thinking that much as I love real proper bookshops, all things pass. Like cassette tapes or VHS, or the steam engine, or the Bronze age.

Still, if a dedicated independent bookseller can stay afloat anywhere, it should be able to do so in Moseley/Kings Heath. Does anyone out there want to open one? And give me a job?

leila rasheed once was bookseller; now is book writer.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Who reads writers' blogs? - Anne Rooney

In the late eighteenth century, the French Royal Academy of Sciences and the American Patent Office were so overwhelmed with proposed perpetual motion machines that they banned further designs. I wonder if writers' blogs are a form of perpetual motion machine, where we each comment on one another's blogs in a constant cycle, but there is never any input from, or leakage to, the outside world? Or like a snake eating its own tail?

We are all busily blogging away, encouraged by publishers who want us to have a platform, and buoyed up by good stats and interesting comments. And it's all great fun and we enjoy each other's writings. But who's really watching? We can see who comments, but we can't see who reads and doesn't comment. One of my recent posts on Stroppy Author has had 250+ hits and 8 comments. So I don't know who 242+ of the readers are.

I have a horrible fear that many of the people reading writers' blogs are other writers. That's OK for blogs actually intended for other writers, such as mine, and Nicola Morgan's fine Help! I Need a Publisher. But what about the more bookish or personal blogs? What about this blog? We hope they reach readers, librarians, teachers, publishers, agents, parents, booksellers, and other lovely people who are interested in books, read books and - sometimes - even buy books. But is it true?

If you are a silent reader who never comments, we can't know if we are saying things that you like or not. Or what you would like more of, or less of. So I'm investing my posting slot today to say - please, silent readers, let us know what you like to read on ABBA (and elsewhere). Because we really want to write things you want to read! Which posts do you like best? What do you like to read about? And who ARE you? Thank you!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Shout it Loud by Keren David

I recently wrote an article for a newspaper, about my horror that a school had moved into a brand new £25million building with ('in an advance on tradition') no school library.
I showed the draft article to my husband, before sending it to the editor.'It's no good,' he said. 'You have to spell out the benefits of a school library.'
He was right of course, and so I did, but it felt like a very strange thing to do. Surely anyone with a brain, anyone who cares about children and their education, can see the benefit of a school library. A place where children can access books and information, learn to research, to browse. A place to meet writers, and hear them talk about books and writing. A place to do homework, shelter from the playground bullies, stretch yourself intellectually, or catch up with your peers. A well-run school library is all these and much more. A good school librarian changes lives.
Sadly it seems that the benefits of a school library are lost on many in influential positions. Some are dazzled by technology, others just want to save money. 'Architects don't like books,' a school librarian told me the other day, 'They don't look good on their plans.' Her school -  one of the first academies - was planned without a library. Then a couple of classrooms were put together at the back of the building. She insisted that the light airy atrium at the front of the building should be cut in half.'The children need to see us right at the front of the school. That's more important than vast open space.'
That same day I went from her school to another one nearby.Halfway through my talk, the librarian stopped me, and gave a quick summary, drawing a mindmap of what I'd said so far, to demonstrate to her pupils how they should take notes.'I simply can't believe that the national curriculum contains no study skills,' she told me.'So I always do this, to teach them how to learn.'
The next weekend, a friend introduced me to her grandson. 'He loves your book,' she told me.'He didn't even know I knew you. His school librarian recommended it.'
According to a recent survey by the Times Educational Supplement, 600,000 children in the UK have not got a school library service. This is truly shameful. I am completely certain that no member of the government would dream of sending their child to a school without a library. Why is it acceptable for other people's children?
A new campaign started this week. The Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians (ASCEL), the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and the School Library Association (SLA)  -  yes, people who traditionally ask you to hush -  want people to shout about school libraries, to make sure young people have access to libraries and librarians n their schools.
Gillian Harris, Chair of ASCEL said, “Teachers need a wide range of stimulating, up-to-date and relevant learning resources to deliver an exciting and vibrant curriculum. ... Schools Library Services are an amazing cost-effective way for schools to make sure children of all abilities have the best quality materials in the classroom to inspire their learning.  Add to this the professional support, advice and books Schools Library Services can provide to those wanting to build a reading culture and an excellent library, then they should be at the top of every school’s list to buy in.“If anyone should be shouting about school libraries, it's children's authors. We visit them, we meet librarians, we hear about their successes, we see their value. I've been to one school so far with no library (just a Learning Resource Centre full of computers). There were four shelves of books to borrow in an English classroom. It was the only school I've been to where a boy boasted to me that he never read 'books with words.'
Go out and shout!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

A Dream Imprisoned: Sue Purkiss

Five years ago, I wrote a book called The Willow Man. It was about three children who were 'stuck' in different ways, and it told the story of how they became unstuck. The catalyst in this process was the Willow Man: a figure forty feet tall, woven out of willow.

I knew children who were stuck in the ways I describe in the book. And I knew the Willow Man. Ever since the year 2000, he had stood beside the M5, just outside Bridgwater. Thousands of people drove past every day, and like me, they gazed at him and marvelled. This is how I described him at the beginning of the book:

His powerful torso was twisted at a slight angle to his massive thighs, so that his small head gazed with a mixture of defiance and contempt across the concrete ribbon of the motorway. He seemed to be perfectly balanced on one leg: the other was bent, as if at any moment he might choose to complete the step and take his freedom...

He was created by Serena de la Hey as part of the millenium celebrations. She knew he wouldn't last forever: how could he, when he was made out of living willow? I don't think she guessed what an iconic figure he would become: the north of England had the great metal figure, the Angel of the North - but now we had our own angel, the Angel of the South. He stood outlined against the sky, emblematic of the power of life and nature.

About a year later, I was driving down the M5 and I saw that something terrible had happened. All that was left of the Willow Man was a steel skeleton. Vandals had set fire to him, and all that careful craft, all that artistry which had been woven in with the willow - all of this was turned to ashes. There was a public outcry, a positive howl of sadness and outrage: the Willow Man must be rebuilt. And he was.

He became an emblem of Somerset; his picture has appeared on leaflets, on posters, on the sides of trains. He was a part of the landscape - an expression of the landscape. But now the Willow Man is under threat from another direction. Well - from all directions. In fact he's not just under threat: it seems as if the battle is already lost. Developers have succeeded where vandals failed. On one side of him is a massive complex of warehouses, belonging to the supermarket, Morrisons: on the other, a housing estate. Instead of a proud figure silhouetted against the sky, a focus for wonder and imagination, he's hemmed in and imprisoned - you can scarcely see him. Look at the pictures: look at him as he was, and as he is.

It seems like the death of a dream.

Houses matter: new jobs matter. But something that makes thousands and thousands of people pause, and reflect, and experience the power of the imagination, every single day - that matters too. Would it be beyond possiblity to set the Willow Man free and rebuild him somewhere else? He cost in the region of £15,000 the first time round. Surely, even in these times perhaps especially in these times - that's not such a great sum for something that delivers so much?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Fridge Philosophy by Lynda Waterhouse

A lobster telephone fridge magnet needs no explanation…..does it??

Reading recent posts about Celia’s notebooks and Diane’s beautiful sketches got me thinking about where my writing day begins. It usually begins with my glazed eyes staring at my (none too clean) fridge as I wait for the kettle to boil and the bread to toast.
And so the Dance to the Music of Time begins.

This painting by Nicholas Poussin inspired Anthony Powell to write twelve novels after all. I often view the original when I’m working at The Wallace Collection so this fridge magnet is a memory shorthand for me for that wonderful place.

The map of St Anthony Head in Cornwall reminds me of a wonderful holiday but also of a childhood dream to be a lighthouse keeper because ‘you get two weeks on and two weeks off.’ It seemed like a perfect combination to me – two weeks of solitude and two weeks back at home. This formula is still important to me - 50% solitude and 50% society.

I used to have a gym timetable on the fridge but I replaced it with Oscar Wilde. Laughing burns up calories and smiling firms up sagging jowls. Steve Bell raises a more sardonic smile which helps me cope with the dire economic and political situation. Harry Venning’s Claire in the Community is hilarious too.

This quote reminds me that I should be getting on with some writing and if Frugal Husband isn’t in there (systematically) working on his book I should be heading for the shed. It may not be as romantic or warm as Ian Fleming’s Jamaican retreat but it’s mine.

Finally I have a newspaper clipping that quotes the top five regrets of the dying as compiled by Bronnie Ware and I promise that today I will try to have the courage to live a life true to myself and not the life others expect of me.
Which brings me back to the Dance to the Music of Time and my pot of tea is brewed. Let the dance begin!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Shameless - Savita Kalhan

The Long Weekend is my debut novel. When it was published I was disgustingly naive (I’ve blogged about this before). I had never spoken to another children’s author much less met one. I was utterly internet illiterate and didn’t have a clue about so many aspects of the publishing industry. I didn’t even know that book bloggers existed.

Over the last couple of years I’ve learnt so much. I wish I’d known all of it before my book had been published, but at least I’m better prepared for when the next one is published. My list of book bloggers and reviewers is ready. I have sourced where to get book marks made, and now that I’ve found an amazing director, I know where to go when I want the book trailer for the new book done.

Book trailers are supposed come out before the book. They’re supposed to promote your book, create awareness of it, and stick in people’s memories so that they remember to buy it.

Well, rather than wait for the next book to be published, I’ve just had a book trailer done for The Long Weekend. Why? Because I always wanted one for The Long Weekend, and although it has come out a considerable time after the book, it can still tick all the other boxes, which it has been doing.

My agent was very pleased when she learned of this. She said that publishers like it when the author takes a pro-active role in marketing their books. She is submitting my manuscript to various publishers and said she will definitely be including the link to the book trailer too.

My book trailer is directed by Mal Woolford – an exceptionally talented film director. You can watch some of his work on Vimeo. They are not suitable for children, so I won’t post the link here, but go and watch them if you get the chance. RedBlack is a personal favourite. I was confident that he could capture the mood and the feel of my book – and he did! He did his research, read my book a few times, sourced the music, discussed his ideas with me, and this is it -

Take a peek at the book trailer – it’s less than two minutes long. I’d love to hear what you think.

Monday, 17 October 2011

This blog post has no title!

I have just changed the title of the novel I'm currently working on.


I just can't decide on the right title. I almost feel like letting the publisher decide.

Just think how important the title of a book is. A good one will not only be memorable but make potential new readers actively seek out the book.

It will resonate in your head like a tuning fork. Stick in the mind like stubborn egg stains. Have an emotional punch like Muhammed Ali.

A good title even becomes an icon or a touchstone in its own right.

Catch-22. 1984. Brave New World.

It can also signify the genre.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
could not be anything but fantasy.

The Unquiet has to be a thriller.

It can be eponymous, like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary; or signify the theme, like Crime and Punishment or Pride and Prejudice.

Or it can be quirky, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, or The Knife of Never Letting Go.

And just silly and quirky, like Puckoon, or The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

At the same time as thinking about this I'm reading an autobiographical monograph by Haruki Murashami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

People, he says, often ask him if, while running, he is thinking about the novel he is currently writing.

"No," is his answer. Actually, he is thinking about nothing. Or, as he puts it, The Void.

Now, here is an interesting place. I love The Void so much I have a room permanently reserved there.

The problem is, I often lose my way when trying to reach it.

The Void is variously also known as The Still Point of the Turning World (T.S. Eliot), The Supreme Point Where All Contradictions are Resolved (André Breton and the Surrealist Manifesto), and The Uncarved Block (Chinese Taoist Art training).

In a world drowning in a surfeit of words, to which we are all, writers par excellence, fatally addicted, The Void is reached by taking a Journey to the East - which is East of Eden - by jumping off Brighton Rock, following the Songlines along the Road to Wigan Pier, through the Heart of Darkness, crossing the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, at the end (where else?) of The Road Less Travelled.

Not enough people go there.

It's quiet: in The Void you can't even hear yourself think.

Here, you can try without trying, be without wanting, start without stopping.

All opposites are reconciled like identical poles of a magnet brought together as if they were north and south.

And here, as Pierre Reverdy said, is the place where the most successful poetic images are generated.

"The image is a pure creation of the spirit. It cannot emerge from a comparison, but from the coming together of two distant realities. The more the relations between those two realities are distant and right, the stronger the image will be - the more it will have emotive force and poetic reality."

Is not this also what we require from a successful book title?

So what, you're hopefully wondering, is the title I have settled on (at least until a better one comes along)?

In truth, it's not one I thought of myself. I have my fiancée, Helen, to thank.

She, being a musician and composer, knows the Void well, since music is another conveyance that transports to it the sympathetic mind.

The rejected titles were: The Drowning. The Essence. The Ending.

The new one: Stormteller.

Would you pick up a book with such a title?

Sunday, 16 October 2011

BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS - To Be Free or Not To Be Free, by Elaine Penrose of Books at Hoddesdon

The third in our warmly-received series of guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors in different ways. These guest blogs are designed to show life behind the scenes of a crucial but neglected relationship – the one between a writer and a bookseller. These days, such relationships are more intense and more important, as increasing numbers of authors go on the road to promote and sell children’s books – a goal shared by the booksellers who will contribute to this series

Never has there been such a volatile time as now for independent bookshops. Every week we hear of further closures. The net is tightening. I have worked in our local and now only independent bookshop in East Herts, Books @ Hoddesdon, since it opened in 2005 and we strive to maintain our presence when others are folding around us.

Not a day goes by without us being reminded of the increasing competition. We are fully aware that some of our most loyal customers are now buying from other sources and have succumbed to the Kindle. We can’t offer books at the same prices as supermarkets, or big internet sites! Unlike them, career booksellers can offer customer service, and that’s what keeps people coming back. We don’t just say, ‘the computer says “’no”’. We say, ‘You can only remember a few words of the title ? Half the author’s name? You mean x, perhaps? Sorry, that’s not in stock but we can order it for you. Yes, we’ll let you know when it’s in. And meanwhile have you seen this book by the same author? It’s really good.’

Customer service goes beyond the shop. Books @ holds regular ‘Meet the Author’ events at local theatres, village halls and even in restaurants. Many writers, both famous and emerging, have now given our audiences an insight into their worlds. We work hard. And, like children’s authors, we booksellers also wonder why it is that television producers seem almost exclusively prepared to promote authors who write for adults? What about publicity slots for children’s books on peak-time shows? We may see an occasional children’s author on breakfast TV. Yet we know that the public is enthusiastic about children’s literature from the queues at the many book festivals around the UK, and from the people we meet in the shop.

Adults may read on Kindles, but let’s hope they will still recognize that children need to handle books, turn pages, smell a new book and feast their senses on picture books. We need to encourage all reviewers of adult literature to consider featuring children’s books as well, and giving them a bigger share of the review space. Why do we have a Bestsellers List of books for adults but none with such a high profile for children? The answer is that it’s adults who buy and the impulse, other than for titles such as Harry Potter, never occurs with children’s books until the child comes of an age to express a true interest. When will we see a billboard featuring the work of members of the Scattered Authors Society? If Martina Cole, Jackie Collins, Ian Rankin, or Sophie Kinsella were to venture into children’s books it might just happen. But there is already enough talent out there to justify it, without celebrity authors from the adult world …

Children are our future readers and we should raise the profile of all children’s books, starting with those for the very young. Many parents have no idea what to buy, other than the books they remember from their childhood. It’s great to sell the Classics, but we need new books to offer a wider range – these could go on to be future classics. We need such greats as We’re All Going on a Bear Hunt, The Gruffalo and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, but what about the hundreds of wonderful new titles that yearly get lost on the shelves? It’s a sin.

Parents and families need to be better advised of the choice available to them. Booksellers need to rise to the challenge and make people aware of the vast number of wonderful children’s books on offer. Otherwise, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We try to display all new titles in the bookshop, but space, of course, is an issue. We’d love to work together even more with authors and publishers in raising awareness, in contacting local papers, local schools.

If you are a real bookseller, you don’t park your passion for books when you shut down the till. Career booksellers work in their own time to host events and organise festivals. Our work invades our bedside tables, as we try to read all the books we want to promote, and in order to be able to have sensible, welcoming conversations with our visiting authors.

And this raises a thorny question.

I know everyone wants and deserves to earn a living but sometimes giving time for free gives authors a valuable chance to promote their work. It’s a tricky issue for authors, and one that needs more open discussion between booksellers, publishers and writers. What do the Scattered Authors think? What do other readers, publishers and booksellers think?

Books @ Website

Picture shows Elaine Penrose reading Icky Sticky to nursery children at Duncombe School, Hertford, with author Claire Burgess demonstrating each page.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Rhythm Method - Joan Lennon

Writers lead multiple lives. Like Doctor Who, we have two heart beats (minimum). We dance to several different drummers at once. While the right hand rubs the head, the left hand pats the tummy, and the feet do a ragtime shuffle.

I just finished re-jigging one book and editing another. They had to happen at the same time if I wanted to dance with these particular publishers. And I did. So I did. A little bit of presto agitato never hurt anybody, right? Things like the state of my desk or my laundry basket carried on a sort of ground bass grumble throughout, but I'm good at ignoring them. Just white noise. Actual people don't fade into the background so conveniently, but with a bit of fancy footwork, you can respond like a human being as well.

But the second - the second - the music stopped (bow to your partner, smile and step away) and those bits of work were sent in, the other books that had been wallflowering all this time leapt onto the floor and into my face.


All of them. All at once. Factor in this scratchy throat that's been incubating for the last few days, the sudden heart-sinking discovery that I'm meant to be blogging on ABBA today, a neglected internet platform, and the shameful admission that I haven't phoned my ancient mother all week, and there you have it - rhythm AND blues.

There is madness in the method, but what would you choose to say no to?

Ginger Rogers famously said of Fred Astaire, "I do everything he does, only backwards, and in heels."

Add in "and to a different beat" and a writer's life is a lot like that.

Visit Joan's website.
Visit Joan's blog.

Friday, 14 October 2011

DO YOU DRAW? - Dianne Hofmeyr

The best gift I ever received as a child was a box of Faber Castell coloured pencil crayons from my father. It was a tin box and if you pressed the back corners the lid popped open to reveal a layer of crinkly tissue paper and 24 crayons each sharpened to perfection, laid out in a rainbow that gave me my first introduction to names like rose madder, cadmium yellow, burnt ochre, raw umber and burnt sienna… the last two, long before I’d ever heard of the colours of Italian earth. They all had numbers and were faceted with sides of gold that alternated with the colour of the pencil. I know this because I still have the white one… least used and was kept because I read somewhere as a teenager that I should whiten the underside of my nails with a white crayon!
So why the digitally enhanced artwork heading up a writer’s blog on drawing? Firstly it’s the cover of a book I co-authored with Louisa Sherman on Print-making at GCSE level and secondly because there’s been a lot of right and left brain talk recently. Most say pencil and paper wins over digital but with technology so superb that can enable Richard Hamilton to produce this intense portrait of fellow artist Dieter Roth, then all is not lost.
As a former art teacher, pencil and paper are still for me the most direct form of story telling. That’s all any child is doing when they’re drawing. With those very first ‘head-feet’ representations, they’re telling: This is me with my large head and big smiling mouth with teeth and eyes, I eat and I see and (probably no nose…) I don’t care about smell just yet. I’ve arms and lots of fingers (possibly even looking like overgrown tarantulas) because I’m a tactile being and I'm so dexterous I can pick up the tiniest speck. I stand on my own legs (though they’re probably still floating aimlessly on the page or they might just look like one leg to you) because there’s nothing more important than me— its just me, me, ME in this world.
All this the child tells us in a few random but amazing marks he makes on paper. It's his first story.
Cavemen knew something when they were drawing their stories. Not only did they use the cave walls as story boards but they turned story telling into a multi-sound-visual event with dance, music and drumming with firelight and the odd lightning bolt too, adding atmospheric lighting affects. True story-telling and showmanship! In fact they were far closer to the idea of visual story-telling as in film or video than a lot of civilizations who came after them.
After Celia put a post up on notebooks, I went back to mine at random to see if I was trying to tell a story while I drew. I didn’t find any of my really early ‘head-feet’ representations but I found a conte crayon self-portrait done a few weeks before my twentieth birthday. The others are from more recent notebooks.

The giraffe page became my story of Zeraffa. The date on the page in this notebook is 1999. The book will be come out in 2013. Some stories take longer to infuse than others! But from the notebooks I discovered why I’m a writer rather than an illustrator. I’m an observer. Critical observation is the worst form of editor. It takes away the playfulness and stifles the way I want the story to grow and be ‘more’ than what I see. It seems easier to evoke this magic with words. It doesn’t mean to say I won’t be sitting with scissors and coloured paper like Matissse one day and telling stories of snails and blue dancing ladies when I’m ancient and can’t see too well.
So where is this blog meandering? Do you draw? is the question I began with and how I’ll end. Matisse has been quoted as saying later in life when he took up paper collage... Freedom is really the impossibility of following the same road as everybody else: freedom means taking the path your talents make you take.

Whether you draw with words, or with Faber Castell crayons, or through the lens of a camera, or through digital wizardry, its still story and as long as you do, is all that matters… if we lose the power to use our imagination and to create story we’ll lose what it means to be human. Let’s use all we have… digital and paper, bells and whistles, drums and dance!