Friday, 30 December 2011

Six things that must happen to reverse this headlong rush to an illiterate British generation

Halfway through 2011 came a horrifying National Literacy Trust survey of more than 18,000 children.

It listed the following staggering statistics:
  • one in four children is unable to read or write properly when they leave London's primary schools
  • three in ten live in households that do not contain a single book
  • one in six people in the UK have the literacy level expected of an eleven year old
  • in 2005, 1 in 10 of the children and young people surveyed said they did not have a book of their own at home; but by 2011 this figure had increased to an incredible 1 child in 3.
Why is this not seen as a national scandal?

I believe it's because we have two cultures in this country. Those of us who are educated and read all know other people like ourselves who encourage their own children to read.

For these statistics to be true, we must be outnumbered by those for whom reading books is virtually an unknown pasttime.

All my life, newspapers have been wringing their hands about the levels of childhood and adult literacy.

Successive education ministers of every political hue have experimented with different teaching methods.

And all this time the problem has been getting worse and worse.

I believe that it's a root problem of our British culture; a culture that is leading to the closing of so many libraries.

Library closures

I learned my love of books from my local library.

But the latest figures on closures are that 415 libraries (323 buildings and 92 mobiles) are currently under threat or closed/have left council control since the beginning of this financial year out of around 4612 in the whole country.

Librarian professional body CILIP forecasts are even worse: it says that 600 libraries are under threat (inc. 20% of English libraries).

This does not include school libraries. Here, as this article from the Guardian reveals:
  • school libraries are facing drastic funding reductions
  • many school librarians are being downgraded or even made redundant
  • School Library Services are closing
  • some children’s book awards have folded
  • book gifting schemes have had their funding reduced
  • some schools have postponed author visits.
Every month brings bad news: in December we learnt that Hertfordshire Schools Library Services, one of England’s largest and most respected Schools Library Services, is set to close in the New Year.

The latest library visitor figures, covering the year to March 2011, showed overall library visitor numbers down 2.3% to 314.5 million and book issues down 2.9% to 300.2 million.

Although this is a reduction, it is less than what you might expect given these closures.

In November, Alan Gibbons called for a moratorium on the closure of libraries.

Tackling illiteracy and library closures was also the subject of Patrick Ness's Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, which he won with Monsters of Men, the third of his Chaos Walking series.

Too often, writers are told by publishers (I was told myself this year) that teenage boys don't read books and so we can't publish your book.

What can we do?

As writers, we must join with Ness and Gibbons. We can no longer be complacent. Our livelihood is at stake.

Yes, we have to keep writing compelling books. But we also have to act.

Here are six things that need to happen:

  1. We must be prepared to occupy libraries faced with closure, just like the occupy movement.
  2. The government must stop closing libraries and encourage more children to read in every way possible; even if it comes to giving away books. This happens in developing countries where the level of literacy is higher than ours, for God's sake!
  3. Publishers must reconsider the pricing of books. Books are expensive compared to other media which children enjoy, much of which is free, like television, the Internet, radio, music and video games. There needs to be a range of cheap books aimed at less literate children to get them reading so they can later migrate to more difficult books for their age group.
  4. The pricing of e-books needs to be much, much cheaper (for the iPad etc.), with all kinds of promotional tools like the vouchers used by iTunes, which would be the modern equivalent of book vouchers.
  5. Reading books must be made more cool. Celebrities rated by children need to come out and encourage children to read.
  6. You should get involved in CILIP's advocacy work on school libraries and schools' library services, if you aren't already.
It's going to take a lot of effort to turn this devastating trend around. But for the sake of the next generation, we have to do it.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Paradox of Reading - Joan Lennon

Isn't it amazing that anything so outwardly solitary can be so densely populated, anything that we do so quietly can resound with so many voices, anything that we do in such stillness can fling us quite so far?

Here's to reading, then, as the year turns towards spring and blessings get counted. First page of the list, for sure, and not far from the top.

Visit Joan's website.

Visit Joan's blog.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011


The period between Christmas and New Year is probably a time when most writers take a break. Right now I’m sitting on my deck with my feet up on this African Senufo bed with a view over the sea and a cup of coffee in hand contemplating 2012. Like Rosalie in her Taking Stock blog yesterday, I’m taking stock.

Last year in the run-up to Christmas when everything ground to a halt in snow-bound Britain and Heathrow had more iced-up aeroplanes on its runways than a flock of flamingos on a salt pan, I spent hours forced to slow down. My suitcase was packed, the desk cleared (as far as I’m able to clear it) and I waited. In one of those incredible long periods of more than 12 hours at a time over three days in the halls of Heathrow, I started a new novel. It was set on the coast of the place I was about to fly to, and started with a shipwreck. Perhaps I was metaphorically shipwrecked.
Now a year later I’m physically back on that coast having just flown out yesterday but this time with a completed first draft in my suitcase. It’s taken a year. (Am I the only writer who needs a year for a story to formulate?) Now begins the task of strengthening that tentative and fragile text. Time to assess.
In no particular order, I’ve come up with the following actions we can take to turn first drafts into second drafts.
Cutting out the Flack
Measuring Inner Change
Strengthening Point of View
Bridging Conflict
Freezing Moments in Time
Raising the Stakes
Developing the Protagonist
Developing the Antagonist
Discovering the True Theme
Writing the story to its Fullest Potential.
Making the story more Robust.
Deepen the Dilemma
I’m sure you can all add to this list. But with my coffee hitting the adrenalin spot, it's suddenly struck me how many of the things we do with a first draft, are things we can apply to our lives… especially when a New Year is fast approaching. This could get very psycho-analytical. I might start feeling very flawed!
And first drafts often feel flawed… particularly if you write intuitively rather than with blow by blow planning. The bundle of newly printed-out pages waiting in my unpacked suitcase, is fragile. Over-exposure to too many friends or family or even an agent, while a story has just moved from something inchoate to a more fully fledged shape with a beginning, a middle and an end, can leave any writer feeling undermined.
At the start of the New Year, I’m not going to put myself through the rigours of analytical appraisal (even though my family might think it a good idea) nor am I going to be too harsh on my first draft. I’m going to take it for what it is… a first draft… slightly flawed but with great potential!!! That list can be put on hold for a while. I'm drinking my coffee and enjoying the view hoping for a few dolphins in the Bay.
PS. Have just thought of another one for the list... Cutting a lot out!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Taking Stock... by Rosalie Warren

Sorry about the visual pun, but it's Christmas after all and I had a lovely picture of some leftover gravy just begging to be posted...

It's now a little over five years since I gave up my university post as a result of ill-health and decided to take the opportunity to focus on my writing. This was something I'd always wanted to do but had never found much time for, in among the demands of bringing up a family, studying for a PhD and then being a researcher and lecturer.

So maybe it's time to take stock and ask myself what I've learned, where I've failed and what I've managed to achieve, as well as trying to decide my aims for the next five 5 years or so.

The failures speak for themselves. I'm not a household name, my books are not bestsellers and I'm not a millionaire... though I'm not sure whether I was aiming at those things, and I certainly wasn't expecting them. What I have achieved is three published books, several more completed ones which have not yet found homes, and an exciting new project for younger readers recently commissioned (and still under wraps). But, much more importantly, I've learned quite a bit, made some wonderful new friends and had a lot of fun.

I spent the first two years of my 'freedom' writing short stories and submitting them to competitions, as well as joining several online writers' groups and learning how to give and receive feedback. I took a creative writing class and began work on two novels, one of which I'd had in mind for several years. It turned into Charity's Child, and an independent publisher, Circaidy Gregory, with whom I'd had a short story placed in a competition, expressed interest. It was published in 2008 and I experienced all the joys (and disappointments) of being a first-time published author. The trouble was, I knew very little about how to publicise a book and my publishers, though enthusiastic, had limited resources. I had some encouraging reviews, did a couple of signings and was invited along to some bookgroups to discuss my novel. An agent read it and invited me to London to meet her. It was all very exciting, but she didn't sign me up (a story that would soon become familiar).

My second novel, Low Tide, Lunan Bay, was less serious - a sort of comedy-suspense-romance. I sent it to an appraisal agency, who recommended that my protagonist, who found new love on the internet at 46, had her age reduced by ten years. I did just that (gosh, I was compliant in those days...) A publisher, Robert Hale, liked it but said it was too long - could I cut it by 25%? I did - by removing the sub-plot and sewing up the seams. Hale accepted it and I was, of course, delighted, though I still think it would have been a better book with the heroine ten years older and the sub-plot still in place.

My next novel, Alexa's Song, failed to tick a number of boxes. Male protagonist for a female readership - black mark. Too 'dark' for a love story. Mental health issues - woopsadaisy. Several agents said it would be 'difficult to place'. It still hasn't found a home, but I may well revise it and publish it myself as an eBook one of these days. I think there's a need for more books about depression, bipolar illness and so on, and I'll be only to pleased to add to the list.

I attended the Winchester Writers' Conference in 2008 and entered one of their competitions - to write the first 500 words and synopsis of a novel for age 12+. My entry made the shortlist and became, eventually, Coping with Chloe, the story of a teenager whose life is being taken over by her twin. Several agents expressed interest, but no bites. I sent it to Cornerstones for an appraisal, then rewrote and resubmitted it. One agent, who shall be nameless, got very excited and promised (I thought) to sign me up when I'd made a few changes. I made a few changes, while she made just the one - her mind.

I was distraught, to the point where I didn't submit anything or even do much writing for several weeks. Then I picked myself up and sent Chloe to a new children's publisher, Phoenix Yard, who liked it... and signed me up. My editor there was brilliant - and thanks to her help it came out in March 2011 and has had some great feedback and lovely reviews. Though not, sadly, huge sales - or not yet, anyway...

In March 2012, Charity's Child is going to be reissued as an eBook and as a new edition in paperback, by the original publisher, Circaidy Gregory. Other possible eBooks for the future include my 42000 word novella about a woman with Alzheimer's, which is probably too short to be considered by a publisher. There's also an SF book for 12+ which hasn't yet found a home. And my current project is an SF novel for adults, which draws on my research interests - cognitive science, linguistics and AI. If it doesn't find a publisher, I'll definitely publish it myself.

One thing I've learned is that it doesn't get any easier - you just set the bar higher as you go. And there are always going to be people who are more successful than you, so why worry about it? I've also discovered that authors, and children's authors in particular, are some of the maddest, funniest and kindest people in the world.

I've learned that you have to stay true to yourself. There are always compromises to be made in terms of what agents and publishers are looking for - but if you lose your vision of what you want to write, you might as well give up.

I'm very happy still to be writing, after five crazy years. I wouldn't want to do anything else... though to earn a bit of money from time to time might be nice.

And finally finally... I've discovered that hearing a child or young person say they liked your book and found it interesting, exciting, helpful or whatever, is one of the best feelings in the world and no writer could wish for anything more.

Wishing all of you - readers, writers, whatever you may be - a very happy, healthy, prosperous and successful New Year.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Twong in My Heart - Andrew Strong

Have many of you have read Roberto Bolano’s ‘2666’? I can’t remember why I bothered to start reading it. Perhaps it was the title, it had an enigmatic lure of some sort. I'm not going to even try to describe the book here, but I will list some adjectives that occur to me when I think of it: long, infuriating; irritating; convoluted; plotless.

But I couldn’t put it down. After I’d finished it, I wondered what it was all about. What was it about that book that held me in its power? The hold a book can have, without obvious attractive characters, or clever plot, I felt it with Murakami’s ‘The Wind Up Bird Chronicle’. A sense that I was being carried along by a current of words, rather than what they meant.

For the last few weeks I’ve been recuperating from Bell’s Palsy. This is not unrealted to Bolano’s book. You’ll see, in a minute I’ll tie it up. Be patient. The palsy started with a numbness around my lips. I couldn’t blow a raspberry. If I was a professional brass musician, I’d have been in serious trouble. Before the diagnosis, I quietly considered whether I could be having a stroke. I went to my day job (I’m a primary school headteacher) and felt my eye beginning to do strange things, and at this point, other people were beginning to notice.

I was driven to my GP who conducted some tests. I was not having a stroke. (He asked me to wrinkle my brow. A stroke victim can still wrinkle his brow on the side of the paralysis; I couldn’t.) Slowly, creepingly, my face was losing more feeling. My lips, eye, tongue all began to lose sensation.

My GP scrolled through my medical records. “You’re stressed,” he said. “You’re lucky you didn’t have a stroke. You can’t work like this. One month off, at least.”

I ignored him and went back into work the next day. Soon enough I realised I could hardly speak, I couldn’t eat, and I certainly couldn’t drink. I kept spilling coffee down my shirt, on to my trousers. I couldn't smile. And then my right eye refused to close, and the left wouldn’t open. I gave up and went home.

My colleagues were very supportive. They insisted I take time off. For the first few days I woke thinking about work; about emails that needed an answer, cheques that had to be signed, a child whose story I had promised to discuss and had not been able to. If this continued, I wouldn’t get better. I had to find a distraction.

I wasn’t able to write: my eyes opened and closed at random intervals. I had to tape one down, and intermittently feed the other eye drops. I had to find something else.

With no one else in the house all day, I began playing music at window rattling volumes. It was bliss. I cranked up a recording studio that’s been in various stages of evolution over the years, and began composing music again. Very pleasant, it was, to be hunched over the keyboard, my eyes closed in reverie.

At the same time I was trying to make up jokes to donate to the Twitter community. I like making up jokes, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to algebra without doing maths. Here are a couple of seasonal efforts. (Yes, I know, they wouldn’t make it into a damp cracker.)

The salt just bid me 'good morning' and then the pepper said 'how are you?' I suppose those are seasonings greetings.

My daughter wants some felt pens for Christmas. I said I could afford to get her some that no one had even touched!

And so it goes on. There are millions of people out there, furiously tweeting jokes, and some of them are really quite good. Twitter is a madhouse . Twitter is a force for political change. Twitter is dull. But, don’t think you can do what you like on Twitter, you can’t. Here, for example, are Roger Quimbly’s Rules of Twitter. Please take note:

So, having decided I wanted to start composing music again, but needing inspiration, I looked to Twitter. I wondered if I could compose the musical form of the tweet. A ten second opera, or musical. Something that made a point musically, in a few seconds. But what?

In a moment of sublime joy I knew what I had to do. Set other people’s tweets to music. Eureka! It became my sick bed passion.

Some tweets threw themselves at me, others crept up and whispered in my ear. But one by one, each told its own tale. Each was a little mystery to solve, a code to break.

These tiny phrases, unlocked, revealed more than their surface meaning. I began recording the best ones, and as I did, I sang them over and over to find their heart. Because of the palsy, my singing was a bit odd. I sounded like Tom Waits, but with a drink problem.

I had to find the rhythm of the tweet, extract the melody. Some revealed an emotional depth that was sometimes quite surprising. One particular tweet moved me so much I found it hard to sing. Another suddenly revealed itself as a waltz, transparently in three four time.

When my daughter was tiny, just months old, we communicated in a sort of wordless song. I would sing a meaningless phrase, she would complete it. If I hadn’t recorded our wordless conversations, I would think I had imagined it all. But I still have her pre-verbal songs, and lovely they are.

What occurs to me is the underlying music of language, below the meaning of words and sentences, may have a more profound effect on us than we acknowledge. And so, back to Bolano. I know the book I read was a translation, but nevertheless, I wonder whether if some of its hold on me was musical. That between them, Bolano and his translator had created a sort of emotional sound map. Not that I know what that means.

Writing these little songs helped me get better quickly. I was told I should expect to start feeling better in six weeks. In three, I was smiling again. Here are a few of the twongs: tweet into song.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Top Reads of 2011 - Elen Caldecott

There is a section of this blog devoted to reviews, so it might seem odd to post about my favourites here. But sometimes, rather than review, it's nice to simply celebrate the books you've enjoyed. Reviews seem such a grown-up thing to me, perhaps with a touch of A-Level English about them - character development, plot arcs, language and imagery... It also gets especially difficult when you know the writers, may even be friends with them! Sometimes, it's better to just press a book into someone's hand and say, "read this. You'll love it."

So here I am, pressing books into your hand. "Read these. You'll love them."

A Tangle of Magicks by Stephanie Burgis was a real treat this year. It's a sequel, so do read A Most Improper Magick first. It's a lovely mix of a Georgian comedy of manners and witchcraft - Jane Austen does Hogwarts. I loved the sequel as it's set in Bath and makes good use of the ancient elements of the city.

A Year Without Autumn by Liz Kessler was a joy. It's a time-slip novel, but rather than finding herself in a Victorian kitchen or Medieval stable or somesuch, the heroine moves forward through her own teenage years. She sees the consequences of one event played out among her family and friends. It's warm, sad and very readable.

One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson may be my new favourite book (sorry, Holes by Louis Sachar, but you had a good run). It is really simple, direct and honest. I wish I'd have written it. Sigh. Still, that's why reading is so good for writers - it should inspire us to try harder ourselves. It's the story of a lonely boy and his quest to keep the dog he loves; this is one I'll come back to again and again.

I do occasionally read books for adults too. So, I have a grown-up choice to add. A Song of Fire and Ice by George R R Martin is quite an old series of books now (the first, A Game of Thrones was published in 1996), but the TV adaptation was first aired in 2011, so I'm counting it for that reason. I started watching the series, but having to wait a week for each installment was killing me, so I stopped watching the show and read the books instead. I say 'read', actually I'm listening to the unabridged audio books. They weigh in at 40 hours per book and with seven books planned for the series I have a lot of epic, sword and sorcery to come. Hurray!

So, those are my highlights of 2011. What would you have chosen?
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Year's Midnight - Celia Rees

' 'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ; The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk, Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph. '

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, Being The Shortest Day - John Donne

For John Donne, the shortest day was St Lucy's Day, the 12th December. For us it is the 21st. We are a day away, but as I write this and a dismal afternoon turns more drear and the light fades, it feels as if it is already here. The Winter Solstice has always been seen as significant, recognised all over the world and celebrated as a time of re-birth, a time of hope and re-affirmation as the year turns back towards the light.

Short days and long nights have always made this a good time to read. What else is there to do, once Christmas is over? It's a chance to withdraw from the world for a little while, curl up with a good book and maybe a glass of something, and read in front of the fire. I guess everyone has their favourite seasonal reading, their favourite Christmas stories and poems and there have been some memorable children's books set at this time of the year. When I was a child, I didn't particularly enjoy the stories of Beatrix Potter and I didn't like Alison Uttley's Little Grey Rabbit. I preferred the rougher charm of her Sam Pig and Brock the Badger. My favourite story from the Tales of Sam Pig was The Christmas Box, and my favourite part of that story was when Brock the Badger goes to the Christmas Fair. The light is going and no-one notices a 'little brown man' going from stall to stall with his silver penny, buying things for his wards, Sam, Tom, Bill and Ann. I used to look out for him in country markets, late on a December afternoon. I still do.

'Miracles happen on Christmas Eve', Brock says, and maybe it is true. it is a magical time of the year when it is possible to believe strange things could happen, like badgers going to market, so it is little wonder that two of the best children's fantasies ever written are set at this time of the year. John Masefield's hugely influential Box of Delights is exactly what it says on the cover. First published in 1935, every subsequent British fantasy writer owes an immense debt to Masefield's imagination and his inventiveness. The book is set in deep mid-winter with the hero, Kay, returning from boarding school. He meets a mysterious Punch and Judy man, the owner of the box, who then entrusts it to Kay to avoid it falling in to the hands of the evil Abner Brown. The gripping, powerful story unfolds over the few days Christmas. The weather and the feeling of dislocation, of being out of normal time, that is often present during this period, add significantly to the power of the fantasy and the sense of danger and isolation.

The other book on my Solstice reading list is Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. Another brilliantly inventive, original and influential fantasy, like the Box of Delights, it takes place over Christmas and New Year and deals with the battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of the light. Perhaps both books are so powerful and convincing because they tap into the atavistic fear that fuels our midwinter festivals, rituals and celebrations, a fear that goes back thousands of years, the terror that the warmth and light may never return and we will be kept in a state of freezing darkness. M. R. James used to tell his ghost stories at Christmas and that seems entirely right and fitting. The impulse to read and tell stories of this kind, involving supernatural and magic, may be very ancient, a way of warding off forces that might engulf us, forces that grow in the darkness and shrink in the light.

What's your favourite Solstice reading?

Monday, 19 December 2011

This Is Why We Do It - Liz Kessler

What is it that defines us? 

Have you noticed how often it’s about our jobs? But how does it really work? As writers, is it about the number of books we've written, the number of people who've read them, the amount of money we've made from them? What exactly is the thing that means we can confidently claim the title of 'writer' as part of what gives us our place in the world?

Before I was published, my day job was as a teacher, although writing was my passion and the thing I spent most of my hours doing. But I found it hard to say to people that I was a writer, because it wasn't what I did as an actual, paid job. 

My best friend recently passed a test which means she is now trained to work with the local Coast Watch station – an organisation which exists to keep an eye on people out at sea, and which in all of its years of existence has saved many lives. Loads of people congratulated her when she passed this test, but she was embarrassed by the congratulations – because this is ‘only’ a voluntary role and not a 'proper' job. 

But why do we find ourselves defining our role in the world and our status by how we earn our money? This can't be right. So I've decided that we should start doing it differently. I believe a better way to think about our role is in terms of the difference we make to other people. 

So…if you work in a shop and you recently helped a customer buy a lovely Christmas present for someone they love – just think, when that present is opened, you contributed to the smile it will bring! If you’re a teacher and you gave a pupil some praise for their work this week – believe me, that praise could stay with them for years. (I know it did for me!) And my friend at the Coast Watch station, think of the difference she could make to the world with just one phone call if a fisherman were to get into trouble along the local coastline. 

These are the ways we should judge our place in the world – not by money or cars or houses. 

So what about us writers? Where do we fit in with this idea? How do we know when we've made a difference to someone's life? Well, how about this as a start? A picture that one of my readers sent me this week. (It's my character Emily Windsnap, in both her human and mermaid forms!)

To think that a child has been so involved in one of my books that they have taken the time to make such a sweet picture, and then wanted to send it to me, is absolutely heart-warming. 

Or this, from a recent message on my facebook page… 

“I lent one of my best friends your book, "The Tail Of Emily Windsnap", for her book report. She hardly ever reads and didn't like to read, and now she's reading your books like crazy! Thanks for helping my friend to like to read!” 

I helped a child to learn to love reading! Wow! 

If you'll forgive me a tiny moment of trumpet-blowing, my latest book, A Year Without Autumn, has just been shortlisted for an award. (The first award I’ve ever, ever EVER been shortlisted for, which is why I can't resist sharing the news!) 

The best part of it is that this is the Blue Peter Book Award, which is judged by children, not adults. Whether I win or not, if only a few of those children enjoy my book the most, I will know that I've had the opportunity to contribute to a few enjoyable hours of their childhood – and what could be better than that? 

Well, actually, I'll tell you what could be better. 


What’s this? I hear you ask. A pile of books? 

This is, in fact, an example of the generosity and all-round wonderfulness of my fellow writers. 

I’ve recently become involved with a charity that has been building a children’s hospice here in Cornwall. The hospice, Little Harbour, has just opened and has, this month, started taking in its first families. When I visited, I noticed some empty bookshelves. A few messages and a few calls later, and within a week, I had over 200 books - mostly signed specially for the hospice from fellow writers, and a couple of boxes from my publisher and agent, too. 

I took the books to the hospice this week, and saw the bedrooms where they’ll be placed, the family room where they’ll adorn the bookshelves, the cute little nooks and crannies all around this amazing place, where children in the most difficult circumstances that any of us could imagine will be able to sit quietly and get wrapped up in the wonderful world of a book. I have to say, my heart melted on the spot. 

So, yes – of course we want the pay cheques, the advances, the royalties – and yes, we dream about the film deals and the sales and even the book awards. But really, these are only the things that make us feel good on the outside. What matters most is what makes us feel good on the inside. 

And if I can play a part in the short life of a child who comes to stay at this beautiful children’s hospice – if a child spends a few happy hours curled up with one of the huge Little Harbour teddy bears, reading one of my books and losing themselves in its world – well, THAT is why I am proud, honoured and grateful to call myself a writer.

Find out more about Liz here
Find out more about Little Harbour Children's Hospice (including how to make donations) here

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The ones that didn't make it - Abi Burlingham

What do you do with the ones that don’t make it, with the stories that you really enjoyed writing but that never became a book? With the poems that you put your heart and soul into but whose audience was only ever the one person who put it to one side and gave it a ‘no’. What happens to them? What happens to the ones you loved and nurtured, re-wrote again and again, full of hope that someone would want them? What happens to those?

When I first thought about writing children’s picture books, I really had no idea what was out there and what was selling. So, before putting pen to paper, I researched it for a year. I looked at publishers' websites, ordered their catalogues, found out their submission details. I read a wonderful book, by Eric Suben and Berthe Amos, ‘Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books for Publication’ – the only book I have ever read on how to write! I also read a huge array of picture books, noting which ones I liked and why, and tried to ensure that my stories would have the same elements. I thought about the stories I’d loved as a child and what it was that had grabbed me and pulled me in.

When it came to the actual writing, I thought about characters, setting, action, crisis point, recovery from crisis, triumphing. I thought about the way the words sounded, the rhythm, the layout, how my text would be represented by an illustrator. I did sketches and paintings of my characters - this one here is of Bengo, my old bear-dog who I lost many moons ago. I even made dummy books. I was convinced that it was because of all this preparation that one of my first attempts at a children’s picture book story, ‘All Grown Up’, became my first published book, and became part of a series of picture books on growing up, along with another book I wrote, ‘Best Friends’.

So why couldn’t I sustain this? Hadn’t I found the magic recipe for story telling? No, I hadn’t. I wrote story after story that dwindled and died, convincing me that I had clearly struck lucky first the two picture books. There is an element of luck, quite a lot of it actually, in getting published – being read by the right person, sending off to the right person at the right time, unknowingly competing with someone else who has sent something off to the same person at the same time as you, a thing we really have no control over.

I continued to write, but I lost all sense of whether what I was writing was good or not. Sometimes, I thought I’d really hit on something. I’d draw from a childhood memory, convinced that a particular teddy or bike I'd had for Christmas would form the kernel of such a good story. But they came to nothing. The initial ideas in my head that I felt would make good picture books seemed to lack something when I wrote them. I instinctively knew, even as I went through the same process of sending them off to publishers, that they weren’t quite right. I began to live in hope, not that one of them would get published, but that publishers would see enough potential to give me feedback and point me in the right direction.

This was rather cheeky on my part, but publishers are very nice people, I have found, and, although I had a lot of rejections, some publishers did write back saying that they liked my writing and giving me enough constructive feedback to make me feel that I could produce something better, and more than anything, that they considered me worth encouraging.

Most of these picture book stories are now in pretty lever arch folders up in the attic – where they belong to be truthful. There’s more to writing a children’s picture book than a sweet idea, and even if you know all the ingredients, it doesn’t necessarily make your story publishable.

There are one or two stories from this period that I have hung on to… erm, well, actually, five or six. Well, I’m attached to them! But more than this, I think they are my best, unpublished, work and there is the germ of something there. That germ is in the characters. In fact, I have recently re-worked an old favourite, initially written around five years ago, reducing the main characters from four to one – as an experiment initially - to see how this change affected the other elements of the story. It did, in very surprising ways. I don’t know yet whether someone will deem it publishable, but I feel it’s worth a go.

As for the Bengo stories, The Shiny Purple Bike, Ben’s Blankie, Annie’s cakes … and all the other that came to nought, if I hadn’t written them, I probably wouldn’t have got it right for the Ruby and Grub stories, and I wouldn’t now be looking forward to the publication of ‘Buttercup Magic: A Mystery for Megan.’ We can only learn from our mistakes, and when we do hit on the right thing, publishers recognise that too.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Just Keep Swimming! - Karen Ball

Lego Christmas Tree at St Pancras International

As publishers wind down for Christmas (which often means pinging last, frantic emails to authors so that they can work over Christmas!) and parties abound (check out Katie Dale's recent amusing guide to surviving publisher parties here) it's a good time for the author in the street or the novice writer to take stock. How has your year been? Did you achieve all you set out to? Were you as productive as previous years? Are you happy with the publishing scene in 2011?

Actually, children's publishing has not been hit as hard as others in this staggeringly bleak recession we're currently enduring. According to The Bookseller, sales of children's books have rocketed over the past ten years. (I can't show you that article because it's subscription only. I'm sure this says something deep and meaningful about online journalism and the book industry, I just don't know what!)

Stroppy Author posted a great blog on annual self-appraisal recently. I love Stroppy Author's blog - it's jam-packed with wisdom and information gained from years of experience and staggering productivity. I like the narrative tone, too - our teacher lays all the cards on the table and then leaves us to do what we will with this information. No over-optimistic encouragement, no words of doom. Just plain, solid facts.

So what did I achieve in 2011? I wrote a novel! A novel that I absolutely loved working on and am about to start revising. I wrote several commissioned titles for a publisher. I helped organise Undiscovered Voices. I blogged up a storm in various venues! But I think my most important achievement this year was retaining my optimism and love of writing. When times are tough - and oh my, they are tough despite Bookseller articles - it's easy to close the door, change the locks and find something else to do.

Rejection is part of every author's life, in good times and bad. It's important to give yourself time to cry and wail, punch pillows, kick furniture. But then it's very, very important to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start thinking about what you'd like to do next. Do you need a new direction? Is it time to take advice from other professionals who have become friends? Do you just need a rest and to come back? The most important part is, in the words of Finding Nemo, to 'Just Keep Swimming!'

I hope you have a nice, warm pool or gentle tide to swim in. I hope you're gearing up for a back flip!

Please visit my blog at

Thursday, 15 December 2011

An obvious (and slightly inconvenient) truth - Nicola Morgan

You know that thing when you realise something and then you realise it was incredibly obvious and you feel embarrassed for not having realised it before? Well, that. But, just in case there's anyone else out there who hadn't thought about this, I will share it with you. Please tell me I am not alone in my foolishness.

Non-fiction is much easier to sell than fiction. And now I realise why.

First, let me tell you how I realised that this was even the case. In August I published my book on Twitter - Tweet Right - The Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter. And in November I re-published Mondays are Red, which was my debut novel back in 2002. I published both books as ebooks only.

Now, Mondays are Red should have had an advantage because it has been published before and has a raft of lovely reviews from newspapers as well as readers; also, it's been out of print for a couple of years and people are still asking for it. But it's selling about a quarter of the number that Tweet Right sells on a weekly basis. (Which is not a vast number, let me tell you, but it's very respectable.)

And this is despite the fact that I did more to push Mondays. A blog tour, for example, which I didn't do for Tweet Right. And TR is more expensive. And shorter. It is, by word count, much less good value. With Mondays are Red, I pleaded with my blog readers and employed blatant emotional blackmail. I never did that with Tweet Right.

However, none of that really worked. (I'm actually a bit relieved - I don't like pleading or blackmail! And btw, let me be clear: I do NOT expect people to buy out of duty.) So, TR continues to outsell Mondays by about four times.

And it seems to me the reason is obvious.

When you try to persuade a reader to buy your novel, you're trying to persuade them to want this one more than thousands - hundreds of thousands - of others. Even if yours is the genre they like to buy, you're still competing in a crowded, often poorly differentiated market. It's easy to be invisible. (Especially since there are some things I won't do to get myself or my book seen.)

But if they are looking for a book about something - Twitter, or my next topic, writing synopses (Write a Great Synopsis - An Expert Guide, coming in January!) - there are very few books that I'm competing against. Very few indeed. It's easier to be seen. Also, it's relatively easy to find the audience, because you know where they hang out. But readers of novels are everywhere, everywhere, I tell you. And they are slippery. God, they are.

So, it's obvious when you think about it, isn't it? It's much more a numbers game than we'd like to think.

In view of this, I will not bother to plead with you to buy Mondays are Red. Honestly. Don't. There are hundreds of thousands of other novels you might like almost as much. But, on the other hand, there's only one at the other end of this link. :)

EDITED TO ADD: I have a suggestion: if any published* UK authors with YA titles which are also in ebook format for Kindle would like to get in touch, I'll do a blog post (on my blog) after Christmas which will list them, with links. SO, if your book is YA, published and in ebook format, email me, in this order: title, author, publisher, 25 words to describe including genre, and Amazon link (UK or US, just one). By Christmas Eve. 

(* I'm really sorry but I have to offer this only for authors who have had novels published by a trade publisher. This is purely so that I don't end up having to put eleventy million books in a blog post when I could be eating mince pies.)

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

On Writing Competitions and Envelope Fatigue by Penny Dolan

I don’t go in for Writing Competitions, which is far more my laziness than an ideological position. Yet many people, including published writers, find them fun, possibly because of the attraction of a deadline. Nevertheless, I have just been the Secretary for a small, local writing competition.

The whole thing was organised by a newly formed Friends of the Library group and was publicised through the library, the local paper and other contacts. It was quite a success, especially the social evening when the Top Ten Ghost Stories were read aloud by a trio of experienced readers.

(Before you ask. While it can be important to honour writers by letting them read their own work, this library is large and has no microphone system. So it was far better to honour the works by letting the words be heard.)

Back to the Secretary role. We had fewer then a hundred entries but by the time the pile of envelopes had been emptied, I was very sure of what entrants to all postal writing competitions should know.

So. Things Not to Do when sending in to a Postal Competition.

Do make sure you put on the correct value of stamps for an A4 envelope so that it reaches the destination. (Yes, I went to the nearby Sorting Office, because I wanted this first Competition to be a success. Yes, I got the envelope. Yes, I found it was from an elderly writer I actually knew. No, it didn’t win.)

Those impressive named judges are very unlikely to receive your entry directly, so any ”wow” factor such as decorative coloured envelopes will not reach them, let alone affect the judging. Stationery, in such quantities, is not as amusing as when one is idly luxuriating in stationery shops.

Be aware that triple-sealed envelopes will truly annoy the competition secretary. She or he may have to use scissors to get the wretched envelope open and might, by then, be in a very bad mood. You think your work is so precious? Then use a better quality envelope in the first place.

Come to that, use a better size envelope anyway. Do not fold your A4 story to fit into something designed for a notelet. Haven’t you just spent time on this story? Relatively, is this envelope a fitting choice? And you did use A4 paper, didn't you?

Use a cover sheet with title name, address and so on. However, do put the title of your piece clearly at the top of the first page too. And when you do, give the poor title a bit of room. Don’t cram it right at the top of the page and start your story a single line space below. You need to show you value your work.

Do put those page numbers on the top right hand corner. Please. Your story may be photocopied among several others as part of the judging process. Copying machines are erratic creatures, liable to break down at odd moments. It is very easy to (almost!) lose an un-numbered page - especially if the story is an informal dialogue between two un-named characters. If your story becomes a chosen piece, any numbering at the foot of pages will make it harder for performing readers to lightly check through the order of your story when reading.

Yet, after all the above, do not put your name on the top right hand corner of every page as well as numbering it. You can place the title there, but do make sure the page number is to the right and clear. Redacting those documents took a long time – and this was a small competition that I wanted to succeed. .

Finally. Never, ever, ever include any photograph or illustration when entering for a writing competition. Even if you have been taught extreme cut ‘n paste techniques and hold a. M.Phil in Photoshop, my feeling is that nothing puts judges off any written entry more than an accompanying illustration. Or any “original” use of font, especially the gothic styles. Let your words speak for themselves.

Which reminds me to add my writer’s tip. Make sure that you read your work aloud before sending it off, more than once. So many stories, in this and in competitions where I've been a judge, have felt too front heavy and too light at the end, even for the Ghost Story genre. The end needs just as much careful work too, even if you feel relieved to have reached it.

If you are entering on-line? Read any entry information thoroughly and do just what they say. Tormented geniuses can apply but they should follow all entry rules. I'm sure that variations of my real world secretary niggles apply there too.

Reminder. The Ghost Story event took place in a Library and was organised through a Library as many literary and community events around the UK are. There’s an open letter to Ed Vaisey around on FB and elsewhere that needs all the signatures it can get by 19th December, so please add your name. That’s what I’m off to do now.

Penny Dolan's exciting novel for 9-12 year olds is A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E. Out in paperback now from Bloomsbury. (And an ideal story for Christmas, if I say so myself)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

12 Gifts of Christmas - For Writers

           By Ruth Symes / Megan Rix

There are so many lovely gifts for writers out there, from extremely cheap to lavishly expensive. We must be the easiest people to buy for! Here’s my top 12 Christmas list:

1. Journals and notebooks and paper: You can never have too many or too much, in my opinion, (recycled paper best if poss). A4 books for getting down to some serious writing. Smaller notebooks for stuffing in a handbag or pocket, along with a pen, for when inspiration strikes!

When walking on the beach this spring I even found a waterproof notebook that you could use in the rain or in the bath.

2. Yearly Planner Wall-chart: I love being able to put a daily sticker (occasionally two) on my yearly wall-chart to mark off each 1000 words written. The best part is coming to the end year of the year and having a wall-chart covered in them - very satisfying.

3. Timer: If I’m needing help to get motivated I put a timer on for an hour and tell myself I can’t have another coffee or lunch etc until the hour is up. A friend of mine used to tie herself to her chair so she couldn’t stop until her designated time was over. I think tying yourself up is too extreme - but a timer is good to have. 

4. Books to read: Reading for pleasure and reading for research. Books you like and ones you don’t. When I was thinking of writing my memoir ‘The Puppy that came for Christmas’ my non-fiction agent told me to read as many animal memoirs as I could. I must have read over 20 before I put pen to paper.

All that reading must have helped because it made the Sunday Times Non-Fiction Bestseller List last year.

5. Mobile phone: With email on it, so the writer never misses a precious publisher or agent’s email while out walking the dogs.

6. Incense sticks: These help me focus when I’m not in a writer-ly frame of mind. I also find them very good for getting me in a mystical, magical mood for when I’m writing the Bella Donna books.

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7. Smart Pen: I love writing by hand and although this pen is expensive, along with the special notebooks it needs, it lets my scribbled handwriting be converted into print - it also lets you write anywhere as you just plug it into the computer once you’ve finished – and voila you have text - just remember to turn it on! (I forgot to do this when we were on holiday and came back with tons of handwriting that couldn’t be converted into print - v. annoying.)

8. Dragon Dictate:  For when the poor writer’s hands are too tired from typing and mouse manoeuvring. Seriously though, RSI should not be taken lying down - if a writer starts getting twinges of pain in  their hands they should try to vary the way they write.

9. Pens and pencils: Must haves! You can never have too many pens because you can never find one when you need one.
10. Diary: To record all those things that can be turned into a story or go in a memoir one day.

11.Subscriptions to Writing Magazines: How To ones and Book Review ones. I loved getting this one from America last week: So you've made your list. You've checked it twice, but if "The Puppy That Came for Christmas" isn't on it, you need to check again.’ Thanks Terri Schlichenmeyer.

12. Writers holidays/retreats/courses: A luxury, I know,  but it’s very important for a writer to be rejuvenated every now and again - to keep them going for the next year or two!

 Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and Power to your Pen in 2012!  xxx

More details of my holiday gift ideas can be found on my website or

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Power of Words

I live in Gloucestershire, and recently the courts told my county council that they needed to rethink their library policy on equality grounds. The excellent Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries fought long and hard to get this result, which was won on the very thing that was closest to our hearts. Now, for a little longer the elderly users of the mobile library van service, and the many children in deprived areas of this diverse county will still be able to enjoy their local libraries. For how long we don't know, and recent developments aren't exactly heartening. We don't want more precious money thrown away on court cases, but we do want the vulnerable protected.

In a city in the USA my granddaughter and her parents recently joined their local library. At the entrance were notices asking the customers if they'd like to vote for a few cents more to be allocated from the local council budget to the libraries in the area. Usage was steadily growing, and the extra money would enable the service to be improved.

I was quite taken by the idea of voters being able to make such choices. It's interesting to speculate what the outcome would have been if our local council had asked the electorate the same question. Funding comes from several sources at my grand daughter's library. State and county both contribute, and the library isn't too proud to ask for donations either. In fact, they explain on their website which of the libraries they run will accept what sorts of books, and in which languages. But it's not all good in the US. We in the UK aren't the only country with library funding problems.

I don't know enough about the system in the US, but it seems to me that we in the UK need to look at more than one model of provision to give libraries the best chance. A US company ISS, which runs some privatised libraries in the States, has just announced that its stated intent of doing the same in England had been put on the back burner, because it seems we in England aren't ready for privately run libraries. Probably not, even if they would still be 'free'. But maybe we ought to consider more possibilities. I don't think volunteer run libraries are the answer either, but then maybe there simply isn't a suitable one size fits all.

The members of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries have fought a wonderful rearguard action, to force the council to deliver on its statutory duty, and deserve high praise, but the library service has been underfunded for years. I am hoping that the committee to look into library provision, which was at last announced by the government, will consult and consider as widely as possible, but I'm not hopeful that it will come up with any exciting ways in which libraries can become the vibrant, well stocked places they ought to be, with wide appeal. The very real threat is that councils will tidy up their act, do just enough to be legal, and still find ways to close them.

Meanwhile, across the channel too, books are under threat. I recently signed a petition to the French government asking them not to raise the VAT on books from 5 to 7.50%.

The VAT levied on ebooks in Britain has me worried. How long will it be before some bright spark in government decides that if you can tax digital words without anyone objecting, why not printed ones? And as the French experience shows, once a tax is applied it becomes very tempting to raise it when times are hard. The written word is having a difficult time, and I don't think we can relax yet.

Yet it's not all bad. Libraries are being supported by a vociferous, well informed group of people, many of whom don't actually need to rely on the service, but still understand that for a nation to be fully inclusive, information must be freely and easily available to all, from the smallest child, through the homeless, and unemployed, to the elderly, and everyone else in between. And with youth clubs, pop in centres and other valued places at risk, where better than local libraries to take up some of the slack?

There have been some wonderfully imaginative celebrations of libraries, witness this in Scotland, and appreciated far beyond our shores. Sometimes it's hard to be optimistic, but people like the library phantom raise my spirits, and remind me that we can't give up now. One battle has been won, but the war is still being waged. And the weapons we have are words.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Fahrenheit 451? Zannah Kearns

I entered an exclusive club recently... A friend, who’s a teacher, had been very excited at the prospect of my first novel coming out and immediately suggested I did an author visit at her school.

In November, I got an email from her telling me how much she’d loved reading my book... but that in fact she and the head of English didn’t feel it had ‘appropriate content to promote to our students.’

Her reasons were that the issues touched upon - single parent families in inner city London, a little on teen pregnancy, drug abuse (but these aren’t the main themes of the story, which is more about forgiveness and belonging) were beyond the realms of the experience of their students at this small independent school.

So, what to make of it?

Recently I’ve seen some slightly Shocked and Appalled responses to such instances - cries of book banning and the stifling of pupils. But I just wanted to give a shout out in defense of teachers and librarians who have to make this call.

Saying an author’s book might not be right for the demographic of students represented at a particular school is not the same as banning that book.

Teachers have a responsibility of care for all their students, and while some might be ready to discuss certain issues or explore realities beyond their own experience, maybe some are not. Isn’t this the very reason teen fiction isn’t put into age categories? So whilst I've been to some schools where the librarians have got Year 7s reading my novel, I've been to others where I've met with the Sixth Form.

Is discussing issues raised in a book the same as 'promoting' its content? Are teachers too conservative?

What do you think?

Friday, 9 December 2011

THANK YOU, FCBG - Emma Barnes

The sun was streaming down when I arrived at Harrogate library, and I feared all my punters would have decamped to the Valley Gardens. But no: every seat was taken in the lovely events room.

I was there to talk about my latest book, and I was welcomed by a very keen group of child readers. Some of them had already researched the book; others asked penetrating questions about my own childhood reading: “Which Narnia book is your second favourite in the series?” They all did extremely well on my Rascals and Tearaways In Children’s Literature Quiz (sample question: Who was it that sailed away to where the wild things live?) We shared writing tips, the parents chuckled amiably, the powerpoint worked, my tea was hot and sweet...

This lovely event was part-hosted by the Harrogate Children’s Book Group – part of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups (FCBG). This in itself gave me a warm feeling – for when I was an unpublished writer, and knew no other writers, and very few adults interested in children’s books, the FCBG was very important to me.

The FCBG is, as its name suggests, a federation of local groups. Some run author events, others discussion groups for adults: all of them foster a love of children’s books. They come together at their Annual Conference, publish a magazine Carousel , and also run the Red House Children’s Book Award, the first Book Prize to be awarded on the basis of what children themselves actually think about the books. Its child judges early recognised the quality of authors like Anthony Horowitz and JK Rowling, who went on to become household names.

The FCBG was founded 40 years ago by Anne Wood, whose deep interest in children’s later led to ground-breaking children’s TV, like Teletubbies. (To learn more of her story, listen to her recent appearance on Desert Island Discs). At that time, her main interest was as a parent – and I suspect parents still make up the bulk of the FCBG’s members.

I initially joined FCBG as an individual member, because there were no local groups close by – which at least meant I could get Carousel magazine, read the interviews and the reviews, and feel in some small way part of the world of children’s books. Later a group started close enough for me to get involved. We hosted events with authors such as Chris de Lacey and Jonathan Stroud, and I even helped out at a Jacqueline Wilson event: she wasn’t yet Laureate but she was already Royalty in the Children’s Literature world, with a stunning frock and feather boa, oodles of charm, and a whole team of minders to manage her queues of fans.

Through the FCBG I met other aspiring writers, and I got to attend the Annual Conference: three days of talks and workshops, of sitting up too late, and eating too much, while endlessly discussing our favourite topics: books, books and more books!

Life moved on, and for a while I was no longer directly involved in the FCBG. But that is something I have now put right. I have renewed my membership, and will be going along to events as and when I can. With libraries and independent bookshops under threat (as the last two ABBA posts point out) a network of people eager to sustain and nurture a deep interest in children’s books, and to find and celebrate the very best of them, is more important than ever before.

Long live the FCBG!

- On the 2nd December the FCBG was awarded an Eleanor Farjeon Award for its “outstanding contribution to the world of children's books”. Congratulations FCBG!

- check out Emma Barnes’s web-site
- Emma’s latest book for children is How Not To Make Bad Children Good