Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Initial Response: on gender and writing - Ellen Renner

A few days ago, Keren David wrote an excellent ABBA post querying why women writers sometimes choose to use their initials rather than full names. She felt that women need to stand up and be counted. It's a subject I've considered for a while without coming to a conclusion. My thoughts on reading her post were too long and complicated to fit in the comments section, so I’m returning to the topic here.

I'll start with a confession: I wanted to be published as E. L. Renner, but my then agent convinced me to use my first name. I'm still uncertain that was the right decision.

Why? Partly because initials are more anonymous. My books are about my characters, not me. I want my stories and characters to stand alone, with as little 'author-as-brand' hype as possible. As a child and teen reader I didn't want to know anything about the author of books I loved except when their next book was coming out. I wanted to experience the magic of transformation into another person, another world, another experience. Author photos were a definite turn-off: I wanted magic performed by some unknown alchemist, not a real person. Terry Prachett has the wisdom to wear a magician’s hat for his publicity stills.

Then there’s the delicate question of the critical glass ceiling. It's a perennial topic in adult fiction and it would be naive to believe that children’s books are exempt. It would also take a large dollop of willful obtuseness not to notice that male authors attract more critical attention per capita than their female counterparts. It's not a conspiracy; critics don't exercise their bias consciously any more than did the editors of the publications who recently voted for Sports Personality of the Year and neglected to put a single woman on the list.

I believe that almost all of us, however pro-female we believe ourselves to be, are so conditioned by the constant bombardment of overt and subtle messages in every aspect of our society about the relative value of the male versus the female that we subconsciously take a story written by a man more seriously than we would the same story written by a woman.

I don't think J.K. Rowling's books would have been as successful had she published them as Joanne. I doubt George Eliot would have garnered such a strong place in the canon if she had written as Mary Ann Evans. If Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of the greatest stylists and most original writers of the twentieth century, had been a man, I am convinced that her books would be much better known today. Arguably, Virginia Woolf made it into the public eye not because she had a room of her own, but because she had a publishing house of her own.

Is it, therefore, a cop-out for a woman to write under her initials, in an attempt, however feeble, to combat the anti-female bias that pervades every aspect of our culture? Possibly. It’s a difficult question and one I’ll continue to ask myself. But I also know I'll use whatever tools I can fashion to give my books and my characters, both male and female, every chance I can.

Because the larger point is that, although gender shouldn't matter in life, it does. And the only way I can see to address this issue as a writer is to attempt to be as genderless as possible – a writing androgyne. I enjoy writing both male and female characters. I don't set out to write about a girl or a boy; I choose the gender which seems to fit the story best. And the reason I write at all is because I want imaginative experience. While it's true that I can’t experience what it’s like to be a boy or man in real life, I can imagine it as a writer, and I have never felt closer to any character than I did when writing Tobias Petch in City of Thieves.

‘Only connect.’ E. M. Forster knew that books teach empathy. Between the pages of a book a reader can become another person. Boys can become girls, and girls boys. Men can see the world, however briefly, through the eyes and emotions of a woman. And understanding may result. And then, perhaps, the word ‘girly’ will no longer be a term of disdain. When that happens, this entire discussion will be irrelevant.

Earlier this year I attended a conference where a speaker advised writers to ensure their main characters were boys, trotting forth that insidious mantra of marketing, ‘boys won’t read about girl characters’.

Please don’t tell that to the countless boys who read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, The BFG and The Magic Finger. Or the boys, like my son, who devour Prachett’s Tiffany Aching books (which gently poke fun at gender stereotypes through the dealings between Tiffany and the Wee Free Men). Don't tell the generations of boys who have loved Charlotte's Web and The Borrowers or those who, like my husband, read E. (!) Nesbit’s The Railway Children and fell in love with Roberta.

If boys hear the message that a book is good, they'll read it whether or not it has a girl as a main character. Who gives them that message? We do. Parents, teachers, librarians, publishers, marketing and sales departments with gender specific covers. If boys are refusing to read books where the main character is a girl, it’s because we’re telling them that they shouldn’t. We give them permission to exclude girls from their imaginative world, and that view of the female as 'other' will simply carry on into adulthood. That’s where writers need to draw the battle lines: not how gender specific an author’s name is, but the banishing of girls from the centre stage of life itself. It’s an appalling message to give to children of either sex: that girls cannot be heroes, cannot be the main characters in story or in life.

I happen to be female. That accident of genetics has shaped and coloured who I am, but it is not my primary definition as a person or as a writer. Despite my qualms that Keren may be right, and that I’m somehow betraying my ideals by using my initials, I am considering publishing my next book as E. L. Renner. It’s an older, darker book and I want to distinguish it from my younger fiction. That’s the obvious reason for switching to initials, but I know the issues I listed above will inevitably influence my decision.

Monday, 28 November 2011

In retreat

The barn occupied by my werewolf

I've just spent two and a half days shut in a room with a werewolf.

Dinner time
 Let's start this again. I've just spent a lovely, peaceful, regenerative four days at Folly Farm near Bath with a clutch of other members of the SAS, some of whom are also ABBA bloggers. It was called a 'Winter Warmer' and was planned and organised by the wonderful Liz Kessler and Elen Caldecott to break up the long, bleak interval between the established retreats (or jamborees) the SAS has in the spring and summer. So I was there with a wimpy vampire, a shoal of mermaids and a lot of stroppy teens, as well as my werewolf.

Hot chocolate in the forest

Lots of activities and workshops were planned, but I'm afraid I can't give any details of those as I was a bit of a boring recluse and locked myself away to work for the whole time. Well, I did venture out for the many and large meals, and the evenings of book-related jollity.

Lucy Coates and Miriam Moss 

Why do writers need to go away? And why do writers, who work best in solitude, like to get together for a week?

Cindy Jeffries and Mary Hoffman
Well, going somewhere where someone else does all the cooking, where there are no bints to look after (or anyone else), where you don't have to do any cleaning or tidying, or answering the phone, or justifying anything you do, frees up a lot of writing time. I was doing some bits on existing projects and starting something new. I wrote 6,500 words of the new thing (the werewolf thing) in two and a half days. I wouldn't have got that much done at home.

Fungi in the forest
And that was as well as going to a fantastic workshop on plotting by Sally Nicholls and Liz Kessler, having hot chocolate in the woods, failing to see any badgers on a badger-viewing trip, eating five meals a day, stargazing with Lucy Coates and Liz Kessler, gossiping with lots of people, helping Mary Hoffman edit a video, and spending all evening drinking/talking/playing/sharing our work.

Fun guy (Tim Collins) in the forest
But it's more than a chance to do some solid writing. It's fantastic to spend time with other people who understand the groans and grumbles - and thrills - of the writer's life. People whose eyes don't glaze over at the mention of agents and contracts and royalty rates, good or bad editors, poor choices of cover, incompetent proofreaders, and so on. It's wonderful to share work and rediscover the huge range that is covered by the umbrella 'children's books', and be astonished at how we all write such very different things.

Pencils? No, there are no pictures of
us working
 Perhaps best of all, at least for me, was the chance to refuel - to have the wonderful, kind, caring support of so many other writers and to feel creativity seeping back into my spirit. It was a brilliant, validating, refreshing, energizing, endorsing and inspiring few days. I just wished I could stay there forever.

A house of sticks, waiting for a big,
bad (were)wolf to come along
 And as for that werewolf? I got to know him, found out what it was like to feel the frosty leaf mold under your pads as you walk through the forest in winter, and how when you are in wolf form you don't think about your wife at all. Until you have to stay a wolf, and then your man-mind invades your wolf-mind and you live in despair. And I saw that being a werewolf is the same as being a betrayed lover, or being a writer (or maybe both at the same time), and that somehow this werewolf's story needs telling in a way that makes that clear. So I just had to be in the forest...

Sunday, 27 November 2011

BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS: On selling more Mary Hooper than Stephanie Meyer and more Penny Dolan than J.K. Rowling – Katie Clapham at Storytellers, Inc.

One of a series of guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors. We’re posting this one today by way of a ‘Happy Birthday!’ to Storytellers, Inc., who are just about celebrate the completion of their first incredible year, during which they have dared and done many brave things, always on a ‘handmade’ and human scale. Bookseller Katie Clapham describes some of Storytellers, Inc’s innovations, including their single copy policy, their ‘Cool Books in School’ campaign and their child-sized secret reading den.

Imagine a place where giant power authors, you know - the ones with their own signature font, are pushed aside for lesser known authors. A place where hand-written signs and friendly recommendations overshadow expensively produced online trailers and bestseller lists. It is your local independent bookshop – a magical enclosure where the bookselling playing field is somewhat smoothed (it will never be absolutely level, but that’s a good thing too).

At Storytellers, Inc. we generally stock single copies of everything. This was a decision we made during the initial stock of the shop nearly one year ago. Range was more important to me than filling shelves with multiple copies of the most popular titles - we’ve got a WHSmith in town for that. Of course this means we’re taking more responsibility for the stock but that’s a power I’m glad to wield. I delight in finding hidden gems and sharing them with customers who are excited to take the risk. Of course there is no getting away from the fact we get more requests for Julia Donaldson and Jacqueline Wilson than Kazuno Kohara and Reinhardt Jung but it’s also true that our bestsellers include Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen (we’ve got generations of recommendations and personal ties to the story’s location), the beautiful Madame Pamplemousse series which have dazzled lots of little girls, who’ve then come back to buy copies for friends, and Chris Ridell’s stunning Ottoline series, which a local school picked up as a class book.

We can’t afford to pay authors and illustrators to visit us in the shop yet so we’re gratefully accepting tour dates from publishers and booking school visits for the authors. They’ve paid off; we’ve sold more Mary Hooper than Stephanie Meyer and more Penny Dolan than J.K. Rowling. The children who heard Penny talk about her book were coming into the shop for weeks after, desperately asking for their MOUSE books with worn-out parents telling us how they’ve heard of nothing else since the talk. Having an author come to the school is a real treat and as the personal investment in the book and its author is sealed, the financial is guaranteed to follow.

As a business we’re trying to find ways of drawing this mass attention to new titles on a more regular basis. I’ve recently written a new scheme for schools that takes a brand new title and develops a term-length feature on it for local schools. The Cool Books in School campaign was launched in September with four local schools taking part. I have selected two new books (one for primary years 3 and 4 and another for years 5 and 6) to work with. The term started with a visit from me to introduce the book and read the beginning as a class storytime (repeated in as many classes as I could until my tongue dried out). Later this term I will return with a creative writing session loosely based on the text (theme or form etc.) and we will finish the term with a schools-wide writing competition. For the duration of the term the chosen books are offered at a promotional price to the schools and pupils taking part. I also wrote to the publishers of the chosen books demanding to know what they were going to do in return for my relentless promotion of their books.

I am planning to repeat this campaign three times a year, getting new releases into schools, raising awareness of current authors and sneaking some creative writing into classrooms. My personal goal is that with each term I will win another school over (some are proving very stubborn!) Author visits within the term’s campaign would increase the appeal even further and I’m really hoping this will form a part of the future model. Should my own children’s novel ever find a publisher, school visits would be top priority on my agenda. I truly believe they are the most useful and exciting way to get children to try new authors.

On the smaller scale we blog, we tweet, we facebook and do everything we can to get on first name bases with authors and publishers. Promotional material can really make a difference – a few extra Department 19 POS packs meant I could chop up some posters and make a window display around the new title; we sold more HB copies of Will Hill’s debut than any other teen novel.

Sometimes it can feel like a hard-sell. We email our regulars with newsletters and offers and I write to the head teachers and telephone their exasperated receptionists but it’s all worth while when a delighted parent comes to the shop telling us that this was the book that created an interest in reading that wasn’t there before, or a child who previously restricted their reading to one genre (or author!) decides to explore the literary landscape. We’ve made an effort to make our shop a place that encourages these discoveries, there is seating and storytimes, coffee and baby changing facility (no, you keep your own baby). We’ve got our child-sized secret reading den and creative writing workshops in the school holidays.

We can’t compete with the prices online and in chain shops so like everyone else we’re trying to stand out in all other areas. It’ll be our first birthday on the 1st of December and we’ll be celebrating the fact that there is a market for the independent bookshop, particularly for children who want to see and touch and smell and maybe chew the book before they buy it. They also want to hear how great it is and for you to look excited and congratulate them on the book they have chosen, they want to come back and tell you about it when they’ve read it. As adults we are so fond of our booky memories, it is such a charming privilege to be part of these new memories in the making.

Caption: photograph of Katie Clapham with her homemade dump bin.

Storytellers, Inc website

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Tiffany-Mae or TM? by Keren David

Mary Ann did it. So did Charlotte, Emily and Anne.  But why do some of us?
Heathcliff, in the new film of Wuthering Heights
Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot. The Bronte sisters adopted male pseudonyms too. They lived in an age where women were denied the vote, were barred from most professions, and, until 1870 if married, could not own property. So it is not surprising that they disguised their gender when presenting their work to the world, especially when the work contains darkly sexual undertones, as does Wuthering Heights.
But now, we’re past all that, aren’t we? Feminism has fought important battles. We’ve had a woman prime minister (soon to be lionised in a new film), we can do any job. We are often the highest earner in the family, we own property, we speak our minds.
Of course there is a long history of authors, both male and female, using pen names and initials, and it was particularly popular in the 1930s,40s and 50s. D H Laurence was not hiding his gender, and nor was C S Lewis.  But the practice waned in the less formal Sixties, and with the rise of feminism in the 1970s, one might expect that it  would die out. It did not.
JK Rowling giving evidence this week
The most famous recent example, of course, is JK Rowling. Read some accounts and her publisher ‘insisted’ that she dropped Joanne or the more neutral ‘Jo’ for JK in order to attract boy readers. Other reports suggest that she and her publisher agreed on the strategy, but again for the same reason. Watching her give evidence this week  to the Leveson  Inquiry, I wondered if there was another explanation. I was struck by her concern, even right at the start of her career, for her privacy and for that of her children. Maybe adopting initials felt like a good way of preserving her own identity, even before her magnificent success.
But the result, I think, has been the growth of a myth that women authors have to ‘do a JK’ to avoid being shunned by boys. I was talking to a YA writer the other day, and she told me that the first ‘boy’s’ book she wrote came with a suggestion from her publisher's marketing department that she adopt initials -  even though her first books were written, very successfully, under her own name. She refused. 
I think she was absolutely correct. What message do we give boy readers when they realise that ‘TM’ or whatever is hiding ‘Tiffany-Mae’. Why shouldn’t Tiffany-Mae be worth listening to? What do real girls called Tiffany-Mae (or whatever) think, when they realise their name is somehow unacceptable?  And do writers called Michael, Patrick or Marcus ever feel pressure to become Michelle, Patti or Marcie?
I am aware that I am preaching from a fortunate position here, thanks to my parents' decision to pick a name for me which baffles many people into thinking I am really Keiran, Kevin or just a spelling error. The masculine surname (changed from the more exotic Buznic by my grandparents in the 1930s) nudges readers away from associating Keren with Karen. Perhaps if I were named Trixibelle Fotheringay -  or even Belinda Buznic -  I might not feel it was the best branding for a writer of urban thrillers.
I hope I’d have the gumption to show that there’s nothing that a Trixibelle can’t do. Trixibelle is worth listening to.  Trixibelle isn't frilly, or silly, because women are just as strong and sensible as any man.
I’d love to know how others have dealt with the same issue. Have you happily adopted initials or a pen name, and felt that MM or Max had more success than Maxine would have? Or did you have to fight for the right to remain an Arabella?

Friday, 25 November 2011

'Footfalls echo in the memory...' Sue Purkiss

I've just re-read Terry Pratchett's book, Lords and Ladies - such fun! Part of the renowned  Discworld series, it stars the three witches, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. It also features the wizards - in particular, Archchancellor Ridcully. At one point, a bandit chieftain foolishly holds up the coach which is carrying Ridcully, the Bursar, the Librarian and Ponder Stibbins. The chieftain sees the wizard's staff poking out of the window.

'Now then,' he said pleasantly. 'I know the rules. Wizards aren't allowed to use magic against civilians except in genuine lifethreatening situa-' 
    There was a burst of octarine light.
    'Actually, it's not a rule,' said Ridcully. 'It's more a guideline.'

How familiar was that? It's almost exactly what Captain Barbarossa declared in Pirates of the Caribbean, when Keira Knightley called on him to stick to the terms of the Pirates' Charter. I think that bit was used in a trailer; it was certainly quoted in reviews as one of the funniest lines in the film. But here it was: Lords and Ladies was published in 1992. Terry Pratchett wrote it first.

I'd be willing to bet that whoever wrote the script didn't realise the line was second-hand. For some reason, it resonated, as it did with me: it lodged in the scriptwriter's mind, and out it popped when it was needed. He probably had no idea he'd first seen the line in the book.

It made me think about why it is that some combinations of words are persistent, echoing in the memory long after what surrounded them has been forgotten. I haven't come up with any answers so far, but I have come up with some examples. Here are my first ten. They're in no particular order, and they're not necessarily accurate - they're as I remember them. Incidentally, I don't have a good memory for quotes - or for jokes - so if I remember something, it must have very considerable staying power!

'Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams...'
(W B Yeats - the whole poem is gorgeous. It's lovely as a song, too.)

'Christ if my love were in my arms'
And I in my bed again!
Anon (but very old!)

'Today was bad, but tomorrow will be beyond all imagining...'
Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising

'Je crains notre victoire, autant que notre perte.'
This is from a French A-level text, Horace, by Corneille. It means 'I fear our victory as much as our defeat'. I think the speaker had a lover on one side of the battle and a brother on the other. Beyond that, I remember nothing about the play, and I've no idea why this phrase has stuck. Mind you, now I come to think about it, there are all sorts of situations to which it could apply.

'The drunkenness of things being various.'
(From Snow, by Louis MacNeice)

'We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.'
(The Sunlight on the Garden, also MacNeice)

'I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams...'
(Shakespeare's Hamlet)

'Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine...'
(Casablanca - like Shakespeare, the source of so many resonant quotes.)

'I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not like this. Not on the cess of war.'
(Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting)

'Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.'

(From T S Eliot's Burnt Norton - as is the quote I used for the title of this post. And here's a picture of a rose garden, just to remind us of summer. It's at Hestercombe, in Somerset)

Do you have any similarly sticky quotes? Or, to borrow from Eliot - footfalls which echo in the memory, as these do in mine?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Heart of the Great Alone by Lynda Waterhouse

As writers how much attention should we pay to the emotional journey we taking our readers on? Do we have a moral obligation to care about our reader's feelings? Or is the telling of the story paramount and hang the consequences.

I was brought up knowing the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his ill fated journey to the South Pole. He was one of the star turns in my Grandpa’s book of heroes and heroines. On TV I watched the 1948 black and white movie ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ starring John Mills.Years later it was the adventures of another explorer, Ernest Shackleton that stirred my imagination as I watched the silent film 'South' accompanied by Neil Brand’s haunting music.

At the moment at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, there is an exhibition of Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic photography. I find this collection of black and white photographs taken in the first part of the 20th century incredibly moving and inspiring but will 21st century children feel the same?

Fellow author Bridget Crowley and I are currently leading creative writing sessions in the gallery for children between the ages of 7-11years. The children respond to selected photographs and we set them a series of writing tasks.

Then we move on to Captain Scott and The British Antarctic Expedition 1910 -1913. Most of the children have not heard about him and there is an awful moment as they gaze at the final photograph and they realise that this group of weary men ‘were destined never to return from the heart of the great alone’

Some children are upset.We move back into the education room and ask them to express their feelings in a letter to Captain Scott. Some children go back in time and rewrite history rescuing him. Others tell him about what is happening in the Antarctic now and thank him for the scientific samples that he sent back. Some just tell him they feel sad.

It just doesn’t feel right to end the session at this point so we tell them about the fate of one of the dogs that was washed overboard and then immediately washed back again!

( Spoiler Alert – if you a bringing a school group PLEASE don’t give any of this away)

These sessions have been a stark reminder to me to pay attention to the emotional journey in my own writing and that strong emotions need to be handled with care and discharged appropriately before the story ends.

Beautiful Dead Girls

Recently on her blog 'Trac Changes’, Rachel Stark highlighted a disturbing and worrying trend in teen/YA book covers in which female characters were depicted as dying, beautifully and tragically. Her post “Cover Trends in YA Fiction: Why the Obsession with an Elegant Death?” discussed why the imagery of dead girls has become so popular in teen/YA lit. She considers that these images are “less the product of an overt “male gaze”, and more the product of teenage girls’ morbidity...anyone who has worked with teenage girls will know that many have an astonishing taste for that which is melodramatic, desolate and downright morbid.” Rachel Stark explores the idea that, at least in part, this fascination is a product of the internalised misogyny of teenage girls. You can read the whole post here - .

This post comes in the same week as the trailer for the film The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins hits the airwaves. If you haven’t read the series, Katniss Everdeen is the main character and she has gripped the imagination and emotions of thousands upon thousands of people, from pre-teens, young teens, older teens, young adults and adults, and she is also one of the strongest heroines to have emerged in recent years. Yes, there is lots of violence in the books, a love triangle, a terrifying dystopian world, but at the centre of it is a captivating heroine who refuses to die.
The book covers for the Hunger Games Trilogy do not figure a beautifully elegant dead girl. Yet the books are best sellers and they have captured the imaginations of girls and boys alike.

The covers of YA books are typically designed by publishers’ in-house designers, who usually first read the book to capture the mood and the story and who will then discuss the design with authors. But editors, and importantly, the sales and marketing department, have a huge say in book cover design.

Personally I believe that the design of book covers is largely in the hands of the publishers rather than stemming from a demand from teenage girls. I do buy Rachel Stark’s line that there is a strong undercurrent and receptiveness towards images of “beautiful morbidity” amongst teenage girls. But I’m not prepared to believe that this receptiveness has grown explosively. I think it’s down, as usual, to the sales and marketing department’s tendency to hunt in packs and to copy the latest fad. Perhaps too some authors get less of a say in the look of their cover than others.

But to whoever decided that beautiful dead girls on covers sell books and to those who continue to endorse the trend, isn’t it about time for a trend change?

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Discipline: the need to write and the craft of writing

These days, writers are supposed to be a brazen brand; masters of mobile and internet wizardry; and magicians of marketing. And they have to create "products" too.

It's easy for the time required for the craft of writing to be squeezed, and this has led me to consider the nature of 'discipline'. See where I'm coming from?

When I grew up, "discipline" was kind of a dirty word. It's also a frequent topic of questions in interviews, as in that awful one: "It must take a lot of self-discipline to write a novel/be a writer".

Well, no, we tend to answer patiently... self-discipline is not an issue. If you have the Calling to be a writer, actually you can't help it. In fact, you go crazy if you DON'T get the time to write.

For example, when unable to write for prolonged periods, I am prone to the feeling that I will start scraping the wallpaper off with my fingernails or yelling something deeply regrettable at my loved one if I can't get back to it very soon.

Yes, others might call it a form of mental illness, but, as anyone will know who has read biographies of many top entrepreneurs (like Steve Jobs), scientists or artists, this kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour is a pre-requisite for success in many fields.

However nice a person you are, you have to demand the time to write, and this is not to be considered weird. Other people have no choice but to clock in nine to five, 46 weeks of the year. You have to claim that time for yourself.

What's almost pathological is the frustration I feel at having to spend hours doing all the self-marketing, twittering, email-answering, bill-paying, phone-call returning, website-updating, meeting-attending, computer-fixing, filing, tidying and a hundred-and-one other things – and it seems to be getting worse - before I can get a tiny window of time to do the one thing which I, however strangely, feel I was put on this planet to do.

Now, I'm one of the lucky people who make most of their living from writing. Lucky, but underpaid. I have to do several different kinds of writing to survive rather than just write fiction (my favourite form), and I feel that I've worked hard to be in this place.

For the past year, my work pattern has changed, involving a new discipline, and this has had an interesting effect on my writing.

Every weekday morning, I have to write an article, as soon as possible and usually within two hours, of about 700-1000 words, and post it on a web site.

This is an enforced discipline, but one that pays off well in terms of developing the discipline of the craft.

Typically, I have no idea before I start what the subject will be, and have to research it as I write it.

This type of journalism, for a specialist, largely business, audience, demands many qualities apart from accuracy and readability.

In particular, there is an instinct for what people want to read that no one else is providing, which can only come from knowing the field intimately.

There is also the kind of fluency that comes from being able to trust oneself that the process of writing at speed will result in something that isn't completely unintelligible and is of great interest to my readers.

This is a very different process from writing a novel, partly because it operates on a totally different timescale. It is topical, and so consumed, like a meal, within hours of preparation, after which it is likely to be forgotten; although one hopes that it will have greater influence, just as a top chef's creation may be talked about for long after it has disappeared.

The self-editing process is therefore different. When writing a novel, one can leave a draft for a few weeks so that, when re-reading it, one may see it afresh and notice errors and omissions that were obscured by the afterglow of creation.

Since adopting this new work pattern, and because I cannot expect my editor to spot my errors, I have developed new techniques to force myself to both edit as I write and to see my work freshly as if I had left it for weeks, even though it was only minutes. These techniques have fed into the novel-writing process.

I continually edit as I write, checking that I've said what I meant to say. I write in a text editor, not a word processor, so I can concentrate on the words alone, not be distracted by how they look.

I re-read and correct it, then copy and paste it into OpenOffice. I do the same there. Then I copy and paste that into TextEdit (I use a Mac) and repeat the process. Both of these have spell-checks that notice different words (OpenOffice doesn't check American spellings).

Each time I paste it into different software, it looks different, and my eye is forced to notice different things.

So I'll have read and re-read, continually correcting, this blog copy several times this way before posting it. Even so, I won't be surprised if someone spots a mistake!

There we have it: two types of discipline. One, that is about finding the time to write; the other, that is about the development of the craft.

Monday, 21 November 2011

A Common Dilemma - Joan Lennon

Once upon a time, there were two poets. For the sake of anonymity, we will call one Emily and the other Sylvia. They were both extremely good writers - modern yet accessible, challenging yet mellifluous, edgy yet musical. They each kept a wary professional eye on the other’s successes and failures. Because they were decent human beings, they tried to rejoice at the former and not to rejoice at the latter. Sometimes they managed this better than other times, but still, they tried.

For many years their areas of special interest did not overlap, so they did not tend to be up for the same awards or invited to the same festivals. Emily focussed largely on urban subjects; Sylvia’s work was strictly metaphysical. But then – an example of convergent evolution – both Sylvia and Emily became interested in birds. Perhaps they both received literature from the RSPB during the same mailing campaign. Perhaps they both were given bird feeders as Christmas presents by totally unrelated relatives. Whatever the reason, both writers began to produce reams of poems about our feathered friends …

… until the inevitable happened. They were both short-listed for the RSPB Bird Poet of the Year Award.

On learning that one has been short-listed for anything, a writer’s invariable first thought is, What shall I wear? This is because they are not normally dressy people. Pyjamas, baggy track tops, elderly jeans – these make up the usual uniform of work-from-home writers. The two poets hadn’t a thing in their wardrobes appropriate for such an occasion.

So, after thinking, What shall I wear? Emily went out in search of an outfit that would be as beautiful as the subjects of her poems. Something feathery, colourful, suggestive of wings and flight.

After thinking, What shall I wear? Sylvia also went out in search of an outfit that would be as beautiful as the subjects of her poems. Something suggestive of flight and wings, colourful, feathery ...

On the fateful evening, they arrived at the award ceremony, both a little late, just in time to go onto the stage and be introduced to the audience.

They were dressed identically.

Sylvia turned to Emily. “Nice dress,” she said.

“Thank you,” Emily replied. “So’s yours.”

“Symbolic?” asked Sylvia.

“Absolutely,” said Emily with a cautious smile. “The old form and content thing.”

“Where would we be without metaphor, eh?”

“Damn straight.”

There was a short pause. Then Emily crooked her arm, inviting Sylvia to link up with her.

“The grand entrance?” she murmured. “As if we’d planned it?”

Sylvia grinned. “For the cause!”

And so the two poets, in their identical dresses, walked on stage. And in the RSPB magazine the next month, over the article describing the event, this headline was proudly displayed:


Visit Joan's website.

Visit Joan's blog.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

END GAME - Dianne Hofmeyr

So what is so hard about endings?
I’ve just written the last word on my first draft of a Work in Progress and have employed all the brain strain I can muster to get it right. There's no easy answer. The ending is what the reader walks away with – the resonance of the entire story. Wrap up the novel well – deepen the reading experience – and you’ll knock your readers out! But how?
Opening lines grab attention but it’s that final sentence that leaves the reader with a lasting impression. I flipped through a few last sentences of recent novels and found brilliant ending sentences harder to find than brilliant opening sentences. Maybe this sums it up. Most authors struggle.
What is it about endings? At its simplest there are only three options.
  • Positive ending. Protagonist gets what he wants.
  • Negative ending. Protagonist doesn’t get what he wants.
  • Ambiguous ending. We don’t know if the protagonist will get what he wants.
Slight twists can turn each option into something more complex. In the positive ending the protagonist may get what he wants, but with a negative result i.o.w. at moral cost. In the negative ending he might have to give up what he wants, but gains by doing what’s right. This is often used in a ‘battle’ ending. At the end of my Egyptian novel Eye of the Moon, my hero had to give up what he’d hoped for throughout the novel… to regain the crown of Egypt… because the battle was at too great a cost. Too many lives were being lost. Not to give the protagonist his goal, is a risk for an author because readers want success but sacrifice can also be very powerful.
The ambiguous ending is sometimes the only choice. But don’t think of it as being weak. Sometimes it just ‘feels’ right and its power lies in it being able to generate discussion. What now? A good example of a powerful ambiguous ending is The Road. I won’t do the spoiler thing here.
What worked for me this time around (I’m a non plotter) – somewhere in the middle of writing the first draft I brainstormed all possible endings, however feasible or silly. Then with a list in hand I reduced them to the three strongest possibilities. And finally I found the one that felt right.
Once I had the right option there was still the business of needing to write it well. What makes an ending resonate? In my struggles, I came up with this:
  • feels right for this type of story
  • is not predictable and still has an element of surprise (hard one that)
  • maintains tension until the last
  • has some flourish
  • calls not just for physical courage but moral courage as well
  • has emotional appeal
  • ties up most but not necessarily all loose ends in as little space as possible (the reader wants to reach the end)
  • has a last sentence/ paragraph that leaves you feeling wow! like that moment of silence at the end of listening to a great piece of music.
For the first time ever on writing a first draft ending, I felt I wasn’t floundering like a drowning person. As to that final sentence… I think it can be dialogue or description. I’m not sure I’ve found mine yet. But make it ‘zing’ and if you’ve come across any great last sentences/paragraphs please share them.

Friday, 18 November 2011

On being understood (or not) - by Rosalie Warren

Do you want to be understood? As an author, I mean, though possibly as a person, too.

I imagine you probably do - as an author, at least, in the sense of wanting to write clearly and cogently and to bring your fictional world alive to your readers. And I think most of us want to feel understood as individuals, at least by our loved ones, at least some of the time.

But on what level do I want my books to be understood? Given all the above... I would still hate it if someone - child or adult - finished one of my books and thought: 'Oh, I see. I get it now. I've sussed her out. I understand what that story was about, what I was supposed to get from it, what the author was trying to say...'

Urrrggghhh. That is not what I want at all.

All this was prompted by an email exchange I had yesterday with a longstanding writer friend - someone who, if anyone does, appreciates my work and has given me lots of good advice and help. She admitted that she had never 'really understood' my first novel, Charity's Child. Good, I said - you weren't meant to. Enjoy it, yes. I hope you found my story interesting and that it perhaps raised a few questions in your mind. But 'understand' it - please God, no!

I don't understand it myself. And I don't think that novels are written to be understood any more than people are born to be understood. Glimpses of comprehension, yes. Sudden insights, and those wonderful moments when a reader points out something about one of your characters that you hadn't seen yourself, or finds a 'theme' in your book that you certainly never intended putting there. That's OK. What's not OK is someone feeling that they've successfully and thoroughly deconstructed you, your work, the whole caboodle. If it were true, it would be somehow demeaning. And I don't believe it ever is true, anyway. If a novel can be deconstructed in that way - if that's all there is to it - then it's not a novel at all but something else.

As a reader, my favourite works of fiction are the ones that leave me satisfied in one sense but, in another, not quite sure. What exactly was going on there? Yes, the plot was tight and well-constructed, the characters were alive and real, the story plausible (if it was meant to be) - the whole thing worked... and yet... I think that's one reason I hated the stuff we did at school. 'What were Hamlet's motives for a, b, c...?' Did Shakespeare know? Are we really meant to know? I'm pretty bad at working out my own motives, let alone anyone else's.

I think, ideally, I would like to be one of those disappearing authors like J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee, who wrote their books and then ducked out of sight. No explanations, and certainly no apologies, if any were needed. I don't like the idea of trying to explain myself as a writer, or of trying to explain my work. (So why am I blogging? Good question, I suppose...)

Answer: I'm a realist, who knows that readers like authors who talk about themselves and their work. And I need company. I need to know there are others out there not too different from me. And I do want to be understood, at least partly, at least some of the time. I need to be told I'm OK; not too different from the rest of the herd, or not to the extent that I'll be cast out...

So I wrote a longish piece to try to explain why I wrote Charity's Child and how the religious stuff in it relates to the slow, uncertain retreat of my personal faith. I also wrote to explain why I made my narrator a young lesbian, when I am straight. These explanations were there as a response to some reviews and comments I had when the book came out - why, as a straight person, had I chosen to write about a gay Christian, and why had I attacked the Christian church? My answer to the latter was, I didn't. Or I didn't set out to, anyway - anything but.

Anyway, with the piece written, what do I do with it now? Post it on my blog, or hide it away in a drawer and let the book (which is to be reissued as an eBook soon) speak for itself? Perhaps I flatter myself that anyone would want to read my explanations, anyway. I'd much rather they read the book! So I think I'll wait a while and see (though if anyone would like to read it, please let me know and I can send it to you).

To broaden the discussion again - do you think authors should explain themselves, or not?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

BLACK, WHITE AND JUST RIGHT - Malaika Rose Stanley

Mixed-race people have existed ever since our ancestors first set out to explore and wage war - and today, the UK has one of the largest and fastest-growing mixed race populations in the western world. Partly this is because of the greater number of people who choose to define themselves as mixed-race on census forms and elsewhere and partly as the result of more mixed marriages and relationships and more blended, adoptive and step-families.

The BBC’s recent Mixed Britannia series told some of the stories behind the headlines and statistics and stirred up quite a few personal memories of my own. As a result, I decided to try and compile a list of children’s and YA books which feature mixed-race and mixed heritage main characters and I began by asking friends, colleagues, social network contacts and UK publishers to let me know what’s out there.

I didn’t particularly want to politicise the idea but, of course, it is political. For some people, racial mixing represents the hope and positivity of a multicultural society whilst for others, it undermines national and cultural identity.
Simply asking the question raises some tricky issues because the mixed-race (or bi-racial, multi-ethnic, mixed heritage or whatever you want to call it) experience is so varied and complex. Whether someone chooses to identify themselves – or the characters in their books – as mixed-race depends on who’s asking – and why. Is it The Office for National Statistics, a National Book Week event organiser or the British National Party?
Self-definition is crucial and in my experience, physical appearance, familial influence (or lack of it) and racism all affect how mixed-race people identify themselves and this can change at different points in their lives.

For me, as the daughter of a Jamaican father and an English mother, I sometimes felt rejected because my skin was too fair and my hair was too straight and sometimes because my skin was too dark and my hair was too frizzy. ‘Mixed-race’ was definitely preferable to the labels of half-caste or coloured that I had dumped on me as a child growing up in care in the 1960s – and to the names I got called at school and in the street.

In the 1970s, complete with my Angela Davis style Afro and radical pan-African and feminist politics, I was shouting it loud: I was black and proud! I was black and beautiful too, although my skin colour was actually rather more beige.

My sons were born in the 1980s and that was when I realised that the lack of diversity in children’s and YA books had persisted from my childhood to theirs. Racial identity has never been the problematic issue for them that it once was for me, but we still had to search hard to find kids that looked like them in the pages of books and it was one of the reasons that I started writing myself. My sons are now both in ‘mixed’ relationships – one with a beautiful young Hindu woman and the other with a beautiful young woman of Irish and Jamaican descent. And if I’m ever lucky enough to have grandchildren, they’ll need books too.

Of course, most families encourage their children to be proud of their cultural heritage, but what happens when, for whatever reason, children do not have access to these family connections?  What happens when mixed-race and multi-ethnic children do not see themselves reflected in books – except possibly as the ‘best friend’ or ‘trusty sidekick’ or in gritty tales of so-called social realism and the tortured search for identity? Where is the magic, the romance, the comedy?

As the mixed-race population has increased, in the media at least, ‘brown is the new black’. Mixed-race people have been appropriated as the supposedly more acceptable and less challenging face of diversity. But that’s not the whole picture. Although mixed-race people are highly visible in some spheres of life – we can model haute couture, win F1 Championships and BAFTAs, and even become the President of the United States - in some fields like educational policy, we are often ignored. Is the same true in children’s and YA publishing?

I contacted the publicity departments of 18 UK publishers – and heard back from only three! Sadly, one of these had no books with mixed-race characters, but OUP sent Catherine Johnson's Face Value - a murder mystery set in the London fashion world - and Barrington Stoke sent James Lovegrove’s The 5 Lords of Pain – a series of fast-paced stories about saving the world. So let’s hear it for models and gangsters and for martial arts, magic and demons from hell! Of course, I have to mention Tamarind – publisher of several picture books and middle grade fiction titles with mixed race characters, including my own Spike and Ali Enson – a story of inter-planetary alien adoption.

I am grateful to everyone who took the time and trouble to let me know about their own and other people’s books: Sarwat Chadda, author of Devil’s Wish and Dark Goddess, featuring ‘bad-ass’ hero, Billi Sangreal; Catherine Johnson, screenwriter and author of ‘enough books to prop up several tables’ including the historical Nest of Vipers and the contemporary Brave New Girl; Eileen Browne, illustrator of Through My Window, now back in print but first published in 1986 when ‘it was the first ever picture book in the UK – and the USA! - about an interracial family, where ethnicity wasn’t part of the story’; Zetta Elliott, author of A Wish After Midnight and networker extraordinaire; and so many others, too numerous to mention.

I hope the final list, now hosted by Elizabeth on the Mixed Race Family website (click here), will be a useful resource for families, children’s centres, schools, etc. Many of the books are quite dated and many are US publications which may be less easily available and less reflective of the British experience, but I felt it was better to leave people to make their own choices and draw their own conclusions. I am happy to correct errors, add omissions and include new publications.

It’s a short list – and not in a good way - but in the end, isn’t quality always more important than quantity?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Set Texts - Andrew Strong

Without exception, all of the set texts I studied at school put me off reading literature for a very long time.

Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare: ‘Hard Times’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Hamlet’. Each of them rinsed, squeezed, hung up to dry, until there was nothing left but questions on the text, model answers, the dreary farce that is English literature for most school pupils.

As a child I read superhero comics. I loved all that stuff; the flawed hero, the ridiculous costumes: a perfect preparation for Jane Austen. After comics I read nothing at all. I don’t think I picked up a book for years.

Luckily, I found literature for myself through a curious route: pop music. Every evening, once I’d escaped school, raided the fridge, had a fight with my brother, kicked a ball against a wall for twenty minutes, I would retreat to my bedroom and lose myself in sound.
Music was more noise than anything else, a beautiful aural slush that obliterated the horrors of the day. When things were particularly unpleasant just a song title could whisk me off into a distant realm: John Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’; Nico’s ‘The Marble Index’.

And now and again a single phrase transported me from suburban south Wales into a parallel universe. There are lines from David Bowie’s songs that summoned up images that now, decades later, are still with me.

Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise (‘Aladdin Sane’)

With snorting head he gazes to the shore
Where once had raged a sea that raged no more
(‘Drive-In Saturday’)

This isn’t Keats, but I’d had enough of Keats by the time I was fourteen. I needed to create my own world, and I couldn’t do that in the sweat and plimsoll stench of the classroom. At home, with Bowie, a few words would capture a thought and I’d be gone, lost.

These handful of images were a lifeline. I began writing songs, three or four chord constructions vamped on an old Bluthner in the front room. I grew to love the smell of that piano, the polish, the musty waft of the mechanism when I pulled off the panels to make the sound brighter.

And then, when all the exam revision was behind us, pupils were asked if we’d like to contribute something to the school magazine. I submitted some of my song lyrics, rewritten on Basildon Bond with an ancient fountain pen so my words looked like proper poetry, and every one of my efforts was selected for publication. To this day, it felt like the beginning of a new era. Someone was taking my writing seriously.

The meaningful texts of my youth were pop song lyrics. I don’t think of them as literature, but they did more to lead me to writing than ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Hamlet’. Decades later I’ve grown to love Austen and adore Shakespeare. I’d like to be able to say I’m fond of Dickens too. But two out of three isn’t bad.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Obstructions and Freedoms - Elen Caldecott

I have two very different takes on the creative process to share today: obstruction and freedom. They may seem like opposites, but I think they can both benefit creative people.

Obstructions are the limits that other people set on what we can do. I first came across this idea a good few years ago when I watched Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions in which von Trier challenged his friend and mentor, Jorgen Leth to remake the same short film five times, each time with an arbitrarily imposed obstruction. Lars chose the obstructions, naturally, and they ranged from technical (one short could only be made up of sections that were 12 frames long) to the emotional (another short had to be filmed in the worst place in the world). It should have been a disaster, but Leth rose to the challenge and, for the most part, the short films he produces are sublime. In each case, it is the obstructions that inspire Leth to try harder, to think bigger, to be bold.

Freedoms, on the other hand, are what you have when no-one is looking over your shoulder. When an idea comes, characters take shape, words spring and there are no deadlines and contracts and editors. Freedom is what you have when writing is done simply for pleasure. It is often the thing that self-publishers will guard jealously.

This week I attended a meeting for a writing project that comes laden with obstructions - it is for the educational market. There will be no violence, no dangerous activities, no pigs, no swearing. There will be a phonics list. I might have felt the weight of a depressing constraint. But I didn't. Instead, I felt challenged - how do you make a story exciting if it also has to be safe? How can I keep readers asking for 'just one more chapter' if it all has to be written in phoneme-decodable language?

Actually, I found myself bristling with ideas. By setting up obstructions, the publishers are forcing me to think harder, to be ingenious.

Next week, I'm attending a writer's retreat. That will be all freedom (even the freedom to lie around in bed eating biscuits all day, if I want). I won't be doing any contracted writing. I hope that it will be invigorating and luxurious. It is just this kind of freedom that keeps writing fresh for me.

And just to illustrate how good things can be with a bit of obstruction, here's Jorgen Leth's 'cartoon perfect human':
Elen's Facebook Page

Monday, 14 November 2011

Significant Dates - Celia Rees

I mean calendar, not the other kind.


A date of particular significance. I thought I ought to mark it in some way. Write it down somewhere. So at 11 o'clock, I opened a brand new notebook, filled my fountain pen (I rarely write in long hand, let alone fountain pen), wrote the date, and officially started a new project.

I don't usually attend the Armistice Day Service in the town where I live, Leamington Spa, and did not consciously intend to do so when I set out for a walk this Sunday morning, but I found myself on the edge of the knot of people gathered around the War Memorial. My Uncle Bob's name is on it. That's him. The boy in uniform, standing next to his father in the photograph that was taken before he went off to France and didn't come back. As I stood in the crowd I thought about my family, my grandfather and grandmother, standing here when the memorial was erected, their remembrance new and raw. The family stories: that my uncle had been killed on the last day of the First World War (he hadn't, of course, he'd been killed some months before); that when my grandmother heard the news her hair went white over night. Then I thought about another war, my father here with Bob's brothers, all in their uniforms, standing to attention, honouring the memory of another generation of young men who did not return.

They are all gone now. The town has changed, the bronze figure verdigrised and weathered, but the crowd still gathers, sheltered by the tall lime trees, much as they would have been fifty, sixty, eighty years ago.

People disperse. The assembled groups from the different services line up and march off, standards held high. I go on my way.

Not much to do with writing, you might say, but then, isn't everything?