Monday, 30 January 2012

Live and In Person - Elen Caldecott

I thought I would chime in in what appears to have become an unofficial and impromptu publicity week on the blog.

(c) Eye Imagery
We've had great posts already from Liz, Nicola and Celia on the subject. I commented on one of those posts that my favourite part of book publicity was the live events. I would much rather talk to a room of 200 school children than try to follow a conversation on Twitter. So, events are always a big part of my promo efforts.
But what are events for? What can they achieve? And are they a good use of my time?

I am a secret exhibitionist. If there is such a thing, of course. I did Theatre Studies at A-level and was part of my local Youth Theatre. Whenever there was any getting up on stage and showing off to be done, I was your girl. But I came to dislike the close physicality of the business of show - everyone wanted to plait each other's hair all the time. Ewww.

Doing events pleases my inner thesp. I tell stories, I do the voices, I make 'em laugh, make 'em cry (I do a good 'angry security guard', and that usually terrifies someone...). So, I have a great time, but what else is gained?

In my opinion, there are three main audiences for events. First, there's the actual children sitting in front of you; they need to have a good time. Second, the person who booked you, so that might be a teacher, librarian or festival organiser; they're hoping that you'll bring some added value to their organisation. Finally, there's your publisher and perhaps a bookseller; they hope that you'll actually shift some copies.
And who does the author try to please? All of them, of course!

I try to make sure that every child feels involved and inspired. I show them how stories work and regularly have zombie invasions, pirates, aliens rampaging over magical landscapes. Last week I started a Jelly Babies versus Gummy Bears war, it can get very raucous. For the teachers, I smuggle in some genuine useful information in with the messing around. And I'll plug the books too.

It's that last part that I have the most trouble with - to my publicist's occasional chagrin. I'm more of a children's tv presenter than salesperson. Still, two happy audiences out of three ain't bad.

If you do events, who are you hoping to please? If you attend events, what do you hope to get from them?

If you'd like to see me at my capering best, you can catch me at the Imagine Festival in London on 16th February.
Elen's Facebook Page

Sunday, 29 January 2012

What do children own? – Michelle Lovric

Children have little claim on the material world. They own neither property nor cars. They do not hold mortgages. They can’t vote and they must live pretty much as their elders and would-be betters dictate.

Yet where’s the child who fails to make great claims on the universe? You see their imprint everywhere and most of all in the way in which they customize everything they touch.

I first started thinking about this idea a few years ago when our own lovely Catherine Johnson responded to my plea to be allowed to accompany an experienced writer on something that was new and terrifying to me – a school visit. At Bishop’s Hatfield Girls School, I watched thirty-odd girls at a time enter the library, take possession of the tables and begin to engage with ideas of writing. Catherine had them spellbound. I started to notice the girls’ pencil cases. Every child had a different one. Some were fluffy Hello Kitty, some were sleek Ted Baker; others had foxy tails or soft toys attached.

These girls were bound to wear the same uniforms but, where they could, they expressed their personalities abundantly and vibrantly.

I began to imagine what they did to their own bedrooms at home. In their own rooms, children express themselves, their tastes, their creativity, in every imaginable way. Even the music that fills the space; even the underwear scattered on the floor; even the Jurassic-period sandwich mouldering on a bookshelf; even the dried-out bottles of lurid nail varnish; even the desire to obliterate the light and paint the walls black.

And this gave me an idea for my new book, Talina in the Tower, in which a girl has everything taken away from her – her parents, her home, her neighbourhood, her freedom. Talina is an aspiring writer, and this is what she decides to do with her room in the lonely tower where she and her cat Drusilla are forced to live with a cold-hearted Guardian who writes morbid cautionary tales for children:
Talina’s huge bed was nothing more than a straw pallet supported on four piles of encyclopaedias. The counterpane was covered with books three layers deep. This left just a narrow channel in the middle, into which Talina inserted herself and Drusilla, like two letters in an envelope …
Much as she despised her Guardian’s books, Talina was determined to be a writer too. She’d been writing stories since she was five … Some of her most vivid ideas came from her dreams, especially since her parents had disappeared. She was so afraid to lose a brilliant thought in the night that she’d hung hundreds of pencils and pieces of paper from the roof’s beams on lengths of string. So, without even lighting a candle, she could always find a pencil with her fingers and make notes on the nearest scrap of paper. Some mornings, she woke up to find all the pieces of paper covered with scribbles. Sometimes she’d written ten different things one over the other on the same piece of paper, which was very irritating.

Later in the book, Talina escapes from her tower. At first she is relieved. But our fearless heroine is almost undone when she returns after many adventures to find that her cold-hearted Guardian has purged her room of every trace of her. Later, she tells him of the effect of this act on her feelings and her morale:
‘Great-Uncle Uberto, do you know what one of your worst deeds was? It was the way you emptied my room in your tower … Of course, I did not own that room – a child owns no place in the whole world, really. I knew it was yours, your tower, your walls, your everything – but I had made it mine, my refuge, the only way I could, with my little things, my pencils, my hanging books, my pictures. I’d hardly been gone a few days and you – you – you – expunged me, as if I were dead. As if I had never existed … What had I ever done to deserve that?’

Those pencil cases at Bishop’s Hatfield Girls School have a lot to answer for, as they also led me to look into other aspects of ownership in Talina in the Tower.

Can a human, for example, own an animal? I looked at our relationships with so-called domesticated creatures and those we deem wild. Who owns a city – the person who owns the land, those with a vision to build its wonders, or those who inhabit it with love?

As ever, Venice provided me with a perfect world in miniature on which to test my ideas. I watched the grannies of Quintavalle – a part of Venice where tourists are rarely seen – possessing their grandchildren in great waves of nagging and kissing. I saw monstrous cruise-liners subordinating Venice’s skyline. I saw arrogant tourists acting as if they owned the city by virtue of the money they had to spend. I saw the sponsors brutalizing the city by plastering cinema-screen-sized and tasteless photographs of their products over architecture whose remembered beauty burned their images right through the billboards. I saw children taking possession of Campo Santa Margherita and Campo Santo Stefano for their games. I watched my nephew climb a lamp-post and lord it over everyone.

I saw the other side of owning: being owned, and realized that, perversely, it is something most of us seek. We want to ‘belong’. But the bonds of good ownership are made not of money, power, or size. They are made of affection.

And this is something to which children may lay claim, and in extravagant portions.

Michelle Lovric’s website - see the new Talina web pages up now.
Talina in the Tower is published on February 2nd, 2012, by Orion Children’s Books
Michelle Lovric also blogs on the History Girls website

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Then and Now - Celia Rees

At the risk of 'bugging the life out of people' (see Nicola Morgan's recent ABBA Post of the 24th below), I've got a new book coming out next week. February 2nd, in fact, and I'm going to mention it because having a book published is one of those things that doesn't happen all that often to me, although with so many books published it is obviously happening all the time to other people, who then bleet and tweet about it, to Nicola's annoyance. I suppose that's part of the problem. In her perceptive way has put her finger one of the profound contradictions of social networking, and publishing for that matter. To an individual author, a book being published is A Very Big Thing; to everyone else, it's another 'so what?'. Cursory glance only before we go on to our own tweet, Facebook page entry, blog or planning our Virtual Launch.

At the risk of bugging, I anticipate publication of This Is Not Forgiveness with the usual mix of feelings: pride and a sense of wonder that my name is on the cover, but also complex feelings of nostalgia and loss. When I turn the pages, it is like looking through a strange kind of diary. I remember where I was when I thought that, wrote that, added that detail. It happens over a summer and I wrote it over a summer, so the weather, the descriptions, are like snapshots of particular places at a particular time. And there is something perfect about a book that is about to be published, before it goes out into the world to be the object of scrutiny and criticism, before it has a chance to fail.

I have another reason for nostalgia. This Is Not Forgiveness is a topical thriller set in the present and this is seen as a bit of a departure for me. I'm now known mostly for writing historical fiction. If not those books, then the old Point Horror Unleashed titles - Blood Sinister and The Vanished. But my first book was a contemporary thriller for teenagers. Every Step You Take. It was published in 1993. So long ago, that when I went to get the rights back from the publisher, they claimed never to have heard of it. That, too, was a contemporary thriller, so in a way, I've come full circle, returning to my roots.

That book was published into a different world. I'm typing this blog on a laptop, it is going straight by WiFi onto the 'net. I'm uploading pictures to go with it. I typed Every Step on an electric typewriter. Laptop, WiFi, 'net, upload? Terms not coined yet. I sent it off as a paper manuscript by Special Delivery, posted at the local Post Office (now a cake shop) not by attachment as I would do now.

The Internet was in its infancy, so no e mails. Publishers sent you letters. All you had to do was open the envelope, read and file. Everyone sent you letters, so it was easy to keep track of things. No matter how hard I try to be organised, finding things in e mails is like sifting though spaghetti. As for publicity, it didn't take up any time at all because there wasn't any. My first school visit came randomly from a librarian who had somehow stumbled upon the book by accident. When I phoned the publisher to ask how much I should ask for a fee, I was told by a posh sounding girl in Marketing that 'We simply have no ideah'. The book was ignored. Not quite the 'right thing' for the reviewers. Dismissed, I suspect, as a mere genre novel, although it was full of (I thought) relevant issues - a continuum of male violence from date abuse and rape to murder. It had strong male and female characters, friendship and betrayal, bullying and social exclusion, but because the characters were ordinary comprehensive school kids and it was written like a thriller, issues not to the fore, these aspects of the book weren't even noticed. So, no publicity, nothing to do but go and admire the single spine out copy in the odd bookshop that stocked it and get on with the next one.

I agree with Nicola (do read her excellent post if you haven't already) all this publicity work we have to do can be a time sucking nuisance and it is hard to keep a balance. We need to get on with our real work, which is writing books, but there is always the fear that if we don't do anything, then our new book will sink like the proverbial stone and when we next go to our publisher they will say what they have always said, backed up now with stats from EPoS, the last one didn't sell, so low advance or no contract. Yes, doing our own publicity is a time consuming bind and we risk bugging the life out of people, but if we don't do it, who will? The Internet has given us the chance we never had before, the chance of doing it for ourselves.

To work out if it is worth our while, there's always Liz Kessler's brilliant Formula (see yesterday's post). What was it again, Liz?

S to the power of something + P? I better go back to tyour posat and check it out...

This Is Not Forgiveness is featured in New Books above.
For Linda Newbery's excellent Review of This Is Not Forgiveness, go to ABBA Reviews.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The ‘Is It Worth It?’ Formula - Liz Kessler

There’s been quite a lot of talk about promotion lately. Nicola Morgan’s excellent blog on Tuesday looked at the issues of how to promote ourselves without bugging the pants off people. In this age of social networking frenzies, that is extremely important. But another equally important consideration is how to promote ourselves without running ourselves ragged. I think we’re all aware that nowadays, it’s important for us to be willing to put in some work to promote our own books. But how do we make sure we protect ourselves - and our writing time - in the process? And how do we make sure that what we’re doing is worth it?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I’d like to share something that I devised for a workshop with the Scattered Authors’ Society a little while ago. I call it the ‘Is it worth it?’ formula. (Warning: if you believe that weird mathematical equations do not have any place on a writers' blog, look away now!)
(S¹º + P + W³) ≥ T ¹º + C³ – E³ - G³

Benefit...................must be greater than or equal to......................Effort


S = Sales; P = Payment; W = Word of Mouth; T = Time; C = Cost; E = Enjoyment & G = Good causes              

OK, before you run screaming for the hills behind which you left your maths ‘O’ level many moons ago, let me explain. 

The idea is that the potential benefit to you of any promotional activity you take on has to outweigh (or equal) the amount of effort you put in. I’ve categorised benefit in three ways: Sales, Pay and Word of Mouth. Effort is categorised as the Time and Cost minus a couple of mitigating factors.

One of the mitigating factors is whether the activity is something we enjoy. We are likely to feel a lot more comfortable about putting time into something if we’re not hating every minute of it and resenting everyone in the world for the fact that we are doing it. And I've called the other one Good Causes. Is the activity something that’s going to help the local community in some way? Is it for a charity? If so, again, you might be more willing to put yourself out to do it. So these last two are offset against the time and cost.

Now then - putting it into action! The idea is that you give each element of the formula a rating, up to the number shown for each one. Bear in mind that as much of this is about trying to assess things that in reality we haven’t got all that much chance of knowing, the formula is really just a fun guide rather than something to seriously sit down and do before every bit of promotional activity. But it does have a tendency to work.

So let's put it to the test. As blogging and social networking in general constitute a big part of our promotional pie, let's start with that. 

As an ABBA contributor, I write a blog per month. Is it Worth It? Let's see...

Sales – This is always going to be virtually impossible to assess, but we can make a guess. I don’t think that ABBA will put on that many sales, but you never know, it could alert a few new people to my books. So let’s give that a 3 (out of a possible 10)

Payment – Well, I don’t get paid anything, so that’s a zero.

Word of Mouth – I think this is the main strength of ABBA, so I’m going to give this top marks. So that’s a 3. My total 'Benefits' score, then, is 6.

On the Effort side of the equation…

Time – it does actually take me quite a while to think up, write, post and illustrate each blog - but there again, it’s only once a month. So I’ll give this a 6 (out of 10).

Cost – it doesn’t cost me anything, so that’s zero.

I enjoy doing it quite a lot. I’ll give this 2 (out of a possible 3).

It doesn’t contribute to any good causes in particular, although I have used it to mention a charity that I’m involved with, so I’ll give this a 1. 

So the effort side of the equation is 6 (from T & C) minus 3 (from E & G) which equals 3.

My end result is that ‘Benefits’ equals 6, and ‘Effort’ equals 3. Which means that the benefits of being an ABBA contributor exceed the effort. Which is quite a relief. Yay! I'll keep on doing it then!

It doesn’t always work out like that though, and there are times when all of us find ourselves putting in many hours, shelling out our own cash and not getting much back in terms of sales, pay or ‘buzz’ about our books. Those are the times when we have to practise doing something that all self employed people find hard to do.


The world won’t end. Your book sales won’t sink into oblivion. Your publisher won’t turn their back and refuse ever to do anything for you again. Honest! It’s worth bearing in mind that a lot of the time, our reason for saying no is that we need more time to actually write our books. And at the end of the day, that’s something that publishers and readers alike will always be pleased to hear!

Why not try putting the ‘Is It Worth It?’ formula to the test with your own promotional activities? It might help you to feel more positive about something you have to do, or might help you have the confidence to say no to something you've been dreading. At the very least, it’ll give you an excuse to mess about playing with a silly idea and put off doing any work for another half an hour!

If you do give it a go, let me know how you get on – I’d love to know if the formula works for you!

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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Libraries are much more than books - Abi Burlingham

There’s a lot of strong feeling regarding our libraries and obvious disappointment, and anger, at the closures of some. Much has been said on this already, so I’m not going to repeat it here. But I would like to tell you a story, a story that spans five libraries and three generations.

There was… my first library. I guess I’d have been four or five. It was known as The Pork Pie library and stood on an island – was it actually on a roundabout? In my head it was, though hard to believe now. It was made up of two layers and was very round – hence its nick-name by the locals. My mum would take me and my brother every week. This library, its unusual curviness and its position in the middle of the road, made a lasting impression on me, so much so that it now features in Buttercup Magic: A Mystery for Megan (due out this April) as ‘The Victoria Sponge’. I remember sitting inside and finding my first ever Miffy book. I remember the blue cover and turning the pages. I don’t even have to close my eyes to visualise where I sat to read the book, and the excitement I felt when I saw those wonderful pictures.

Then… my second library. I was in my teens by now and would visit the library in the local town. It was about twenty minutes walk from my house and was a big, modern, part grey part glass building. Sometimes my mum would come too, or I’d go with a friend, but mostly I’d go alone… there’s something special about being alone, and yet not alone, in a library. It was vast compared to The Pork Pie library, but I loved the space and the silence. There was a record shop five minutes from it too, so I would combine a library trip, for peace and solitude, with a trip to buy some music – even then, my life seemed to be comprised of contrasts - moments of solitude and moments bursting with activity and sound.

My third library. As an adult, living closer to the city, I began to visit the main library. It was a wonderful, huge Victorian building with massive, heavy wooden doors. This was where my reading really began to take off. I would become so lost in the huge bookcases bursting with books, the wrapped up sounds, and people-watching – I used to do a lot of that. I’d often sit with a book and never get past the first page, just sit and watch the people around me, completely swept away to some other world. One of my discoveries, in this library, was a wonderful book called ‘The Winter Tree’, by Georgina Lewis – a very magical and atmospheric book. It is still one of my favourites.

Then… there was library number four. When I began working in a University, I’d visit the library there. This was a much more vibrant place, full of students from all over the world, stifled, and not so stifled, laughter, students - heads down, studying… what are they studying? I’d wonder, listening out for bits of conversation, peering at the cover of a book in someone else’s hand. But despite the more bustly nature of this library, I still always found myself taken over by some other-worldly presence, transported to the place of ‘Library’.

And… library number five. As a mum now, and living in quite a small village without its own library, we have a mobile library that visits every Wednesday and parks itself outside the local Co-op. When the children were toddling, and for a few years after, I’d take them every week, and they’d sit on the brightly coloured poufs at the end while I tried not to feel sick at the rocking lorry motion. They know me there now – not just as a mum but as an author. They have one of my books… how crazy is that? All the years I visited libraries and found other people’s books, fell in love with them, and now mine are in libraries for other people’s pleasure. I still have to pinch myself.

You see, libraries aren’t just about reading are they? They’re about being transported to another world, they’re about contemplation and memories. No amount of money can buy those.

'On Why I’m not a Pilot'

by Wendy Meddour

Yesterday, a local reporter interviewing me at toddlers asked me the question everybody thinks:

“But you have 4 young children. When on earth do you find time to write?”

I wanted to say something profound or glamorous, like: "I have a wonderful nanny called Beatrice Lightheart who does most of the menial tasks." Or, "I share a delightful singing governess with a family called the Von Trapps."

But instead, I told the truth.

“Sleep deprivation,” I said.

Now, I'm not as impressive as Cindy's son (see the post 3 below). But I have exchanged sleep for writing. And it shows. (Well, my Mum says it does – but I have a sneaking suspicion that this is just age and I’m about as good as I’ll get). But it also shows in my work: my first ever book is full of broken nights: sleep walking, night-feeds, yawns, siestas and general, unadulterated exhaustion . . .

(Disclaimer: Any apparent publicity about Wendy's
debut novel - due out on Feb 2nd - is solely the result
of her severely disrupted sleep pattern.)

I smiled at the reporter and rubbed my eyes. “Lack of sleep helps the creative flow,” I said.

The reporter looked rather unconvinced as a small person threw a dinosaur in my coffee. (The small person was of course mine).

Now, I know that sleep deprivation isn’t completely advised. In fact, it’s decidedly not. (I believe it accounts for quite a lot of health-related conditions – depression, anxiety, stinted tissue repair, that sort of thing). And I wouldn’t exactly recommend it. But if you’re doing it anyway, (with 4 young children, it’s kind of a ‘life-style’ choice), then isn’t it best to put it to good use?

My best-friend (or am I too old for those?) is married to a pilot, and she tells me that I’m writing "in the Window of my Circadian Low." Isn't that wonderful? It makes my nocturnal scribbling sound so grand. And wait, it gets better!

If a pilot has to report to their place of work before 6am (disturbing the rhythm of their natural body clock), then they have been scheduled in a W.O.C.L .

And if they are scheduled in a W.O.C.L twice in a row, then they are not fit for duty (F.F.D). A double W.O.C.L , which I will refer to as a ‘wockle’ from here on – (poetic licence and all that), results in 36 hours off! Yes! 36 HOURS OFF!

That is why I’m a writer, and not a pilot. (Well, that and the whole ‘flying license’ and ‘skill’ thing). I would NEVER be fit for duty because I am constantly writing in my ‘wockle'. Or should that be 'wockling'. Not once. Not twice. But pretty much every night.

There’s only thing that really scares me. What if wockling is what makes me a writer? A good night’s sleep could mean the end of my budding writing career!

That’s why I need to ask you all one question. Please be honest. I really need to know....

Can a writer write well if they’re completely FIT FOR DUTY?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Do you do too much promotion? - by Nicola Morgan

Recently, on my own blog, I was talking about "how much promotion is too much?" (There's no need to go and read that post, and it's not about the same thing as this one, but I'll put the link at the end in case you want to see the guidelines I was suggesting, as well as the useful comments.)

The question had arisen because, on Twitter, some writers have been bugging the pants off people by over-promoting. In fact, I've decided that the next in my series of writers' guides from Crabbit Publishing is going to be How to Promote Your Book Without Bugging the Pants Off People.

I think there are three main reasons why writers sometimes do too much jumping up and down about their books - bearing in mind that "too much" is going to be different depending on each beholder.
  1. Our publishers don't really do it for us. Most of us are expected to do vastly more than we used to have to; publishers' budgets have been slashed; and the window during which our publisher may do some activity has shrunk. Many of us (myself included) don't actually mind, and many of our publishers are delighted to let us do it.
  2. We can. Suddenly (and it really has been quite sudden) we have all the possible platforms of Facebook, Twitter, our own blogs, other people's blogs, etc, and they are free and easy. So it's easy to be a bit too free and easy with the opportunities. It's also easy for us to make connections with journalists and therefore easier for us to generate publicity opportunities in traditional media.
  3. Sheer blind panic at the thought that our much-loved, long slaved-over book might sink without trace, and a burning passion that people should get to read it.
In the blog post I referred to, I was answering the "how much is too much?" question from the viewpoint of "how much will bug the pants off people?" But there's another way to look at the question: how much is more than is good for us? How much will actually be self-defeating because we won't have time to write?

I've read numerous pieces by highly successful self-publishers (including this piece by Joe Konrath and also a recent interview in the Guardian with Amanda Hocking) in which the value of tweeting etc in actually selling copies is regarded as over-rated. Joe Konrath has analysed sales movements in his ebooks (yes, we all get RSI from checking our figures!) and believes that it's not the tweeting or FBing or blogging or being interviewed anywhere that boosts his sales. He's not saying don't use Twitter or even that it's not useful - he's saying, and I agree, that it doesn't directly hugely affect sales, or not as much as we might think it would. What both writers do is write, and write lots. Amanda Hocking's sales rocketed because she put lots of books out there in quick succession, not because she found thousands of followers on Twitter.

So, is one conclusion that a better way of promoting ourselves is to promote ourselves less and write more?

I rather think it may be. I think that spending two hours a day on promotion (in whatever form) will not be four times as effective as spending half an hour a day on that, and an extra hour and a half writing something. In fact, I'm rather sure that spending more time writing and less time promoting would be a very good idea for many of us - myself definitely included - for lots of reasons.

What do you think? Do we all do too much promotion, even those of us trying to keep it at the non-bugging end of the scale? Do we do too much for our own good? How do you know when you've done enough? What do you dislike about it? Or possibly like about it? Do you like the idea of doing less and writing more?

I'd love to know!

(Here is the link to the post I mentioned.)

Ahem. If by any chance you'd like help with how to use Twitter like a sensible and unbugging person, you might be interested in Tweet Right - the Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter, currently at a crazy cheap price on Amazon. I'm cringing at that blatant plug and the irony of its appearance in this post. But what the hell: in for a cringe, in for a crossing the line - my newest ebook for writers is Write a Great Synopsis - An Expert Guide. 

*slinks off to do some writing*

Monday, 23 January 2012

Hearing Things by Penny Dolan

Last Friday I met a lovely friend who is a writer and illustrator. We spent hours in a café, talking over a coffee. Now that festivities and tax are both neatly out of the way, it was a real delight to indulge in writing chat about each others possible new ideas and work, as well as the usual moans.

At one point, she mentioned listening to music while she worked. Interestingly, she could only do this while working on some piece of art, not while she was writing.

Now I know that some people write with music constantly in their ears. Some say they select soundtracks to serve their work-in-progress, which makes me wonder.

Do gritty teen/YA novelists work with hard metal and anarchism pounding through their head-phones? Or people writing for pre-teens opt for sugar-pop and Justin Beiber? Or do the big brave souls – Mr.Pullman, I may be looking at you - tackle such large grand themes with Beethoven blasting out from their stacks? I don’t know, but it makes interesting thinking

Somewhat sadly, I can’t listen to music while I’m writing. The stuff worms into my head and ears, messing up the flow, the rhythm, the music of the words. How on earth can I hear how this or that phrase sounds if there’s an alternative sound obliterating it? How can I fix the emotion in this part of my story securely into words when there’s a different emotion hammering loudly at the door? I’m glad some people can work happily that way but – rather annoyingly – it’s not a thing that works for me.

Even writers of fiction need to be able to hear the music in their work. One thing that does restore my ears – again, though not while writing – is poetry, which I’ve recently re-discovered as an activity.

I re-shelved my random collection of old poetry books in beside an odd armchair, far more conscious of making space for a large seasonal green tree than insightful workspace planning.

Yet, ever since, I’ve found myself snatching odd moments among the anthologies, greedily grabbing several writing voices at a time. It’s an amusingly mixed experience. Some poems are boring, some dreadful, some so embarrassingly of their time the should be wearing duffle-coats and some are still as breath-taking as ever. I’d recommend it as a way of waking up your writing head or even, as I did, finding a new idea.

So, are you a muso or a muser? What’s your sound of choice while you’re working? Or are you another one who needs word-whispering silence to get the work done?

And if anyone knows the name/location of the brilliant Arts-Council-funded poetry site that I glimpsed recently on Facebook but now cannot find, please, please add it to the comment box. Thanks.

The section I saw showed a soulful John Hegley speaking "Without You."
Unfortunately, I am "Without You-Tube".

A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E, published by Bloomsbury.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Party Time!

                                     Party Time! 
                     Ruth Symes / Megan Rix

With the weather outside cold and grey I thought I'd write about parties and in particular book launch parties - of which I’ve had precisely one. Before I was published I used to imagine what a launch party would be like - champagne, canapes, elegant people swanning about. But 20 books later and time for my own launch party the type of event I used to imagine wouldn't do at all, thank you very much.
animated gifs        After writing children's books for 10 years I wrote my first adult memoir ‘The Puppy that Came for Christmas and stayed Forever.’ It was about one amazing year when we were puppy parents for a charity called Helper Dogs that trains assistance dogs for disabled people. That year we had 3 different puppies, one after the other from only 8 weeks old - not bad for dog novices!

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     As soon as they heard the book was going to be published my friends from Helper Dogs said I had to have a party to launch the book - and they'd organise it. We'd have it at the Helper Dogs centre so the venue would be free and the publishers, Penguin, gave us £100 towards the food to drink. I provided the dog treats and found some amazing ones that looked like designer chocolates in elegant boxes. Dogs, of course, were more than welcome and the guests of
honour - as the book's stars.

At the party I signed endless copies of the book and stamped them with my pink paw stamp. Our local bookshop came along with boxes and boxes of them which was just as well as they almost all went and those that were left went at a book signing the following Saturday.

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I read from the section where I was learning how to be a puppy parent - trained by a highly experienced older dog called Rusty, who was at the party too, along with Traffy who was the puppy we eventually got to keep and the star of the book.
        Then Helper Dogs did a demonstration and were given a cheque for £100 towards their work. Helper Dogs’ friends made some of the food and we bought more with the money from Penguin along with wine and soft drinks.
        I asked just about everyone I knew locally and was amazed at how many people came as it was on a week day and in the afternoon.

 I couldn't have asked for a better party and it was well worth waiting for. I’m not sure if I’ll have another launch party - the next book that's coming out is set in World War 2 - I suppose I could have a 1940's party but then my Bella Donna books really deserve to have a party for them too and I suppose we could all dress up as witches... but where would we get the unicorns and dragons from?

                        What was/would your launch party be like?       

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Ruth's website is
Megan's website is

Friday, 20 January 2012

Not enough hours in the day.

I'm certain that when I was a small child there were far more than sixty seconds in every minute. Or, if you like, that every second lasted much longer than they do nowadays.

Of course, the world doesn't speed up as we get older, but we have more responsibilities, sometimes more than we can humanly fit into the working day. Clock time, being a human invention can mean different things to us, depending on what we're doing. A week is a long time in politics. My whole life flashed by in an instant. Every minute felt like an hour. A watched pot never boils.

Over the Christmas holiday, time seemed to slow down because there wasn't so much we had to do. Now it's speeding up again. There's the school run, going to work and visiting the gym to fit in. How are we to make time for the other, enjoyable things we got used to doing during the holiday? I was grumbling about this when my son said "Ever heard of the uberman sleep schedule?"
Well, no, actually I hadn't. Seemingly it goes something like this. REM sleep, the sleep our brains need, takes only a fraction of the time we spend asleep. It's possible to train ourselves to get by on REM sleep alone, and still to function adequately. There are various ways to limit your sleep, uberman being probably the most extreme. You can read more about it here

My son decided to give it a go, purely out of interest. It wouldn't be easy to fit into a normal working day, as uberman demands that you sleep for twenty minutes every four hours. He needed to try it before he went back to work. There is a lot of information on the internet about the possible health risks, so it's not something to undertake lightly, or for too long, but he felt that a short experiment wouldn't do too much lasting damage.

I was cast in the role of interested observer, although in the first stages (from midnight until 8am) I left him to it while I maintained my own usual sleep pattern. By morning he'd had three twenty minute naps, and had been awake for the rest of the night. How did he feel? Okay. Surprisingly un-sleepy. And what had he achieved during those extra waking hours? Well, actually not a lot, but if he kept it up he'd have about eleven extra years to do it in!

It was weird, seeing him doze off for twenty minutes every four hours. To my surprise he awoke each time looking quite refreshed, although he'd needed the alarm to wake him. And he was alert enough to do his tax return towards the end of the twenty-four hour experiment!

Of course twenty-four hours isn't anything like long enough to establish a pattern, or prove anything. And it's doubtful if he actually did achieve much REM sleep because he didn't report any dreams, which I would have expected. However, he decided that although not something he'd want to make a habit of, in special circumstances uberman could be very useful. And he didn't need vast quantities of 'catch-up' sleep. At the end of the experiment he woke naturally after nine hours. Not enough hours in the day? How about twenty-two usable hours out of twenty-four?

Seb Goffe's latest book, Zero to Hero is out in February with A & C Black. Although possibly ubercool it was not written while he was being an uberman.

Cindy Jefferies

Thursday, 19 January 2012


In 2008, I went out on a fact-finding trip to Belize. It was a massive fifty years since as a child I'd made my big career decision to become a writer when I grew up, and twenty years since I'd started writing fiction for children and young adults, and it felt like time for a shake-up.

In particular I was fascinated by the idea of gap year volunteering as a modern rite of passage. My younger son had returned from Belize changed to the point of being virtually unrecognizable after five months in the jungle, and I'd sensed a story. Who was writing gap year novels, I asked myself, targeting young teenagers who might one day want to head off round the world? Nobody, as far as I could tell, so funded by the Arts Council and backed by Fabers, I headed out to Belize to write one myself.

I like adventures. Mostly they’ve happened on screen but over the years research has taken me up the occasional Welsh mountain and Shropshire hill, down a few rivers from source to sea, underground into defunct mines and up into the sky in a hot air balloon.

Nothing I’ve done, however, matches Belize. I spent six weeks touring the country from Caribbean coast to jungle interior, enjoying its extraordinary cultural mix, staying as the guest of the Kekchi-Mayan people and seeing the rainforest with my own eyes - not only its destruction but its incredible beauty. I also saw the very real difference that young volunteers, fresh from school and with no particular skills [apart from a will to learn, work and endure discomfort] had been able to make in helping stem that destruction. And there was the story I'd gone out there to find.

‘In the Trees’ is the result of that trip. Fabers brought it out in 2010 and I’ve been visiting schools, libraries and festivals ever since, telling what I saw and encouraging young people to think about the wider world and understand that it’s not just governments and multi-national organisations that can make a difference, but people like them, with a will to get out there and give it a go.

I have such a story to tell, and this novel feels so important, that I haven't been able to start anything since. But there's another reason too, why I haven't started the next novel.

For the last twenty years I've been writing them back to back. There's been precious little time for seeing the world around me as anything but material for the next book. Those of you who are writers too will know what it’s like. The screen becomes your world, the world becomes your book and the years go by. Now, post-Belize, I've awoken like Sleeping Beauty to find life moved on, my hair turned white, my children grown up and the babies theirs, not mine.

How can this be? How come my husband and I are rattling round an empty house on our own? When did the kids leave? When did that little girl who dreamt of being a writer one day turn into me? And, if I do start writing again - if I dare - will I wake up after another twenty years knowing that the party was over and I might have been there but I'd missed the action?

One of the joys of this last year's sabbatical has been catching up with friends, taking time out for family, becoming a Chancellor in the wonderful Children’s University and making friends online. Which, of course, is what this post is all about.

ABBA is a new venture for me. It's my way of saying I'm here. If authors are online talking to each other, I want to talk too. If they’re sharing experiences I want to share. If they’re giving advice, I want to hear it - and maybe I'll have advice to give as well. And if they’re talking to readers, then I want to be a part of that conversation.

So a new venture this year – and, at the same time, an old one too. Twenty-one years ago my first novel, ‘Midnight Blue’, won the Smarties Grand Prix award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread. As one reviewer commented at the time, 1990 was my annus mirabilis. Well, in celebration of that win, an anniversary e-edition of ‘Midnight Blue’, newly jacketed and re-edited for twenty-first century readers has just been published - by me.

‘In the Trees’ is an e-book too, but 'Midnight Blue's different. This time, as well as being writer, I’m also publisher, marketing director, art director, publicist and editor. Suddenly this feels like being in the jungle again, stepping out into the unknown. The howler monkeys are screaming in the darkness, and I don’t know what tomorrow will bring - but better to make this trek in company than on my own.

So thank you Scattered Authors everywhere for the chance to join you on your Awfully Big Blog Adventure. And forgive me for this first post being so single-mindedly about myself. I do have other things to write about, I promise you. But this is the best way I know of saying hello.




Read more Pauline Fisk's blogs on AUTHORS ELECTRIC

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Covering Up: Same Characters, New Pictures

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Writers know this only too well – after all, we have little say on what goes on the covers of our books. Publishers know that covers are far too important to take much heed of writers. (Rightly so, in my case. I have little visual sense at all.) Publishers take covers seriously, because readers do. This is clear from the children I meet in schools. They are absolutely up front that they will read a book – or not – based on what they see on the cover.

Sometimes I show them a series of different covers and ask which they would read. The responses are unambiguously for or against. I then reveal that the covers all belong to different editions of my book Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher. Huge surprise! How can the same story be presented in such different ways?

It’s fascinating to me, too. As I have admitted, I am not visual. New paint, new clothes or new garden plants are all a challenge to me (and probably to those viewing the results). When I first wrote Jessica Haggerthwaite, it was my editor who suggested I might like to mention what Jessica looked like. I had to stop and think. What did she look like? I knew lots of things about her, but not that.

So seeing my characters brought to life by an artist has been endlessly fascinating. While a more strongly visual writer might feel a clash with their own imaginings, I’m always intrigued to see how each artist brings out a slightly different aspect of the book.

The first cover artist, for the original Bloomsbury hardback and paperback, was Tim Archbold. As numerous children I have met since have pointed out, there is undoubtedly a touch of Quentin Blake in the squiggly, eccentric style of drawing that Archbold favours. It suits the eccentric nature of Jessica and her family extremely well. And a lot of the foreign editions went for slightly different versions of the Archbold cover.

In the German translation, what I love most is how determined Jessica appears. I also like the prominence given to the tomatoes – a key element of the plot. I won’t tell you why.

The Dutch version is probably my least-favourite: however, as the book has done extremely well in the Netherlands, I shouldn’t really complain!

Last September Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher was re-issued in the UK by a new publisher, Strident, with a completely new cover by Emma Chichester Clark, the well-known creator of classic Blue Kangaroo. I love the results. The way the foliage arch frames the cover. Jessica is sweeter-looking, somehow, than the other versions, and more thoughtful – but still exasperated with her mother, as you can tell by her expression. Mrs Haggerthwaite looks suitably dippy. And there is a likeness between mother and daughter – which is completely true of their personalities, even if they have completely opposite views. It’s also beautiful without being “girly” – and this is definitely not a “girly” book.

To me, this is a slightly “retro” looking cover – bringing out the more old-fashioned elements of what is essentially a family story. Yet other readers have told me that Jessica reminds them of a “manga” character – an association I would never had picked out myself.

Manga character?

Which book covers do you love? And which books do you feel have suffered from the “wrong” cover?

Emma's Barnes's web-site
Emma's latest books are How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good and Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Science of Ideas - Lucy Coats

I am an ignoramus as far as science is concerned.  I freely confess it.  My education consisted of Biology (to O-Level only), and given the fact that we had a maiden lady as teacher who had to call in another member of staff to teach us basic human reproduction, it is surprising that I know anything about biology at all.  My all-girls school didn't teach physics or chemistry.  In that particular place, it wasn't seen as necessary to educate females in those sorts of things.  I've felt cross about it ever since - and rather ashamed at the scientific lacunae in my brain. 

Why should I care?  My particular sort of work as a writer means I don't really need physics or chemistry - they don't often crop up in mythology or fantasy novels. I guess it's because lately I've begun to find the whole physics thing fascinating, and I know I'm missing stuff.  I also (strangely enough) find it incredibly stimulating to my imagination. Take the recent BBC2 Horizon special: The Hunt for Higgs.  Among other things, there was a lot of talk about matter and anti-matter, and how they shouldn't exist in the same space.  Right away, my 'writing' brain clicked into life.  Perhaps they don't, I thought.  Perhaps they exist in the same space, but a different timeframe, a nanosecond apart. (Scientists, please note, the Nobel Prize is mine - unless someone's already come up with that one! *joke*) I've found lots of other examples too, where my brain goes off exploring possibilities.

What I particularly like about the more arcane sort of physics and science I heard discussed both on that programme, and on Stephen Hawking's Brave New World (C4) is that it is partly about imagining the unimaginable.  There's a lot of 'what if' about it all - and surely, as writers, that's what we do too?  I wouldn't dream of imposing my own 'what if' ideas on a scientist, but maybe there is a case for someone like me, with no pre-conceived notions, having a place in a lab experiment. I'd love to get a small group of open-minded writers and physics scientists together for a discussion and see what happened! 

For me, it's nice to embark on a new intellectual challenge midway through my life, and I'm thankful to have a fellow ABBA author (Anne Rooney, who is MUCH cleverer than me) to guide my first faltering footsteps along the path with her wonderful Story of Physics.  I'll leave you with the following serendipitous link between science and literature. Quarks, particles discovered in the last half of the twentieth century, are named after a passage in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. I find that very encouraging. Perhaps we're not so far apart after all!

Monday, 16 January 2012

Children Don't Change - John Dougherty

Individual children change, of course. They grow up, and much too quickly for my liking. And childhood changes, because it’s a cultural construct and our culture is ever-changing; and also because some childhoods are filled with more horrid plastic toys than others.

But what a child actually is - that doesn’t change. A twenty-first century baby is no different from a Tudor baby, or a Viking baby, or a stone-age baby; and a modern child has the same needs for love and nurture as any of its historical counterparts. I’m therefore deeply suspicious when anyone working in the field of children’s books talks about ‘the modern child’ or ‘our readers’ as if they’re substantially different from the children the industry was serving ten, or twenty, or a hundred years ago.

My daughter has recently become something of a Beano addict, so for Christmas - among other things - we gave her a big pile of Beano back-issues. She loved them. It became at times impossible to have a conversation with her that wasn’t preceded by “Put that Beano down!”

The interesting thing about this is that they weren’t new Beanos. They were 35 years old or so - copies I’d saved from my own childhood, and which had recently emerged from the back of a dark cupboard. And while she loves the old Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx strips just as much as the current ones, her all-time favourite Beano feature is Tom, Dick and Sally.

For those of you unfamiliar with the strip, Sally is the youngest of the three siblings, forever put down and put upon by her big brothers. They play tricks on her, offload their chores onto her, and generally do her down… but of course it’s Sally who wins out in the end, and often because the boys are hoist with their own petard. Hmmm… I shall have to ask my son if he has any idea why his younger sister relates so strongly to this.

Anyway, the point is that this is a story that was phased out of The Beano some time in the 1980s. But it’s just as relevant to today’s children because it deals with something that’s a childhood constant, regardless of cultural shifts.

And don’t the best stories?

John's website is at
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8.

His latest books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Politics of The Secret Miriam Halahmy

 Did you ever imagine someone would put Politics and The Secret Garden (TSG) in the same sentence? But that is exactly what happened when I went to a study day on this wonderful book a couple of months ago. 2011 was the centenary year of the publication of TSG and there have been events all over the world. Only this week I was asked by two different groups of schoolchildren about my favourite book and when I said, TSG, a cheer went up. Amazing - 100 years later.
Every author’s dream.
So why Politics and TSG? Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester in the mid-19th century into a highly charged political background. She used to play with the poor children in nearby streets and became aware of the divisions in society from a tender age. As she was growing up Engels was publishing his work, Conditions of the Working Class in England, based on his observations of the abysmal poverty in Manchester. The perfect background for an author with a social conscious.

According to our speaker on the study day, Dr Dennus Butts. TSG highlights the divisions in society and the way in which the different groups simply fail to connect.  Mary, the little orphan girl in the book, is brought to live in a great house with 100 rooms, long dark corridors and many mysteries. People in the house just don’t talk to her. Outside isn’t much better. There are long paths, high walls and a door with no key. Barriers everywhere, obstacles which prevent movement forward, just like society at the time.

The book highlights divisions in society in three ways :-
Firstly  TSG opens in India where there is a clear division between the British who are in control and the Indians. Mary has a truly shocking attitude to her ayah,or local nanny. Her father is a member of the ruling class. Until of course Mary is orphaned.
Secondly Frances Hodgson Burnett ( FHB) was always very interested in the social divisions of  great houses - the Upstairs/Downstairs. This is a recurring theme in her books – 53 novels in all. It is worth noting that she was one of the highest paid authors of her day and ranked as one of the top 5 novelists, together with Henry James.
Thirdly, the unequal and unfair treatment of women in the nineteenth century.

FBH wanted to portray the harmony that can exist despite these divisions and she is on a mission. At the centre of her argument is the character of Mrs Sowerby. She is the mother of Dickon the country boy who tames animals and lives in a cottage on the moor with his large and happy family. 
According to FBH, Mrs Sowerby, “is the most important character in the book. You only see her for a moment at the end of the book but she is the chief figure in it.”
Mrs Sowerby represents goodness, healing and an affirmative life force.
“I found out,” says Susan Sowerby, “that the world was shaped like an orange and I found out before I was ten that the whole orange doesn’t belong to nobody.” So there’s no sense in grabbing at the whole orange which is what many of the characters in TSG try to do. They have to be prepared to cross barriers, and bridge the divisions between themselves and others in the novel. Colin, Mary, rheumaticky gardener Ben, the maid Martha, Mr Craven, all make this journey.
Once Mary begins to see her maid Martha as a human being she starts to respect and then admire her. FBH demonstrates throughout her wonderful novel that the way to overcome the divisions in society between classes and socio-economic groups is simply to get them talking to each other. Simple! And very current!
It is Mrs Sowerby who points the way. Just like the robin!