Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Do you see yourself here? - by Nicola Morgan

First, an admission: this post is really an excuse to use these pictures, because I paid for a licence to use them for some recent talks, and the licence includes website use. And I like them :)

(FYI, this evening I'm using them at a before-dinner talk to "senior women in publishing" and one of the things I'm going to suggest is that publishers sometimes ask too much of writers when they expect us to spend so much time blogging and tweeting. So, let's hope they don't throw bread at me when I say that.)

Anyway, these pictures represent different people's attitude to or behaviour on social networking sites such as Twitter. So, writers, which one are you? And readers, do you recognise yourself here, too?

Are you (or were you at first) reluctant, negative, grumpy? Dragged kicking and screaming to the party?

Plain terrified and absolutely no way were you going to get involved?

Or did you throw yourself into it with all sorts of hysterical OMGs and LOLs and <<<>>>> and far too many SQUUEEEEES and general exclamation-marky behaviour? 

Or regard it as a totally splendiferous way of promoting yourself, a platform to announce all your good news, sell gazillions of books by forcing them at the rest of us and generally punch the air at your own supreme awesomeness?

Were you eager puppy, keen to learn, wanting to be led to all the delicious smells but needing a bit of protection as you did it?

And now, having tried it (and possibly having had a bit of help from Tweet Right - The Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter), do you feel like superwoman (or man), ready to conquer the world, boldly, positively, and yet with a healthy dose of charm and common sense?

There's possibly a little bit of several of those characters in many of us. And I'd argue that success and happiness while using social networking media come from getting the right balance between them all. Though I'd rather leave awesome-guy out of it.

I do apologise that my recent ABBA posts, and my own blog posts, have been so predominantly about this platform stuff and not about writing, but I've been asked to talk about it so many times that it's been taking over my mind. But this is now (after tonight's talk) going to STOP! I am writing. I really am. I promise. I have had some absolutely lovely bits of writing-related news this year and they have put me right back on track.

I am a writer, not a tweeter.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it. :)

Nicola Morgan is an author - oh yes, really - of quite a lot of actual books, not just tweets and blogposts, though she's done a lot of that, too, in her wicked past. She regrets to admit that she wrote and published a little book called Tweet Right - the Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter, which people are welcome to buy, for only £2.25 on a certain site and similar elsewhere. She promises never to write such a corrupting and insidious book ever again.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012


Warning. This personal reflection contains Product Placement but unfortunately with no Financial Reward.

I’ve just come back from a weekend conference in Peterborough among some of the lovely people in the Scattered Authors Society, including Jacob Sager Weinstein and his amazing ticking red tomato.

The Conference was crammed with interesting sessions, including a talk by Uber-Librarian Joy Court. However, Jacob’s talk on “Increasing your Productivity” received some surprisingly alert attention.

This might be because it was the first item on Sunday morning after a late Saturday, when one has hopes of the week ahead. Or perhaps because we were far away from our over-loaded desks, Lists of Things to Do (now being broken down into small manageable tasks) it was possible to luxuriate in the fantasy that we might end up in control of our time, dreams and life.

Jacob is a young man and co-parent who, in desperation, studied how to Get Everything Done. I am not sure if he read Mark Fosters’ book of same name but he brought us a variety of useful time management techniques.

Jacob charmed us with tales of “tickler files”, set up for days, weeks or even months so we kenw when everythingh ad to be done by. I noted that he did not suggest tickler files for years or decades, which made me think he does not truly appreciate my personal level of procrastination.

He spoke of the need to break overwhelming tasks down into smaller manageable tasks. This is sometimes known as the“How Do you Eat an Elephant? One Bite at a Time!” concept although this is not a very vegetarian or ecologically sound image.

Jacob also addressed the problem of Procrastination by Proxy – that brief “five minutes” glancing at emails & FB & Twitter & blogs & websites & media . . . and on . . and on . . that begins around 9am and ends around 12..25, which is lunchtime, virtually and truly, and half the day gone.

Jacob suggested using the “Read Later” tool, which seemed as useful button to click (once I’ve found it) as well as various computer programmes that switched things off or hid them from sight and made lots of sense. I may not venture there. With my shallow IT knowledge, I could barricade my information highway forever.

Hmm. Was that my email pinging? Think there was something about silencing such sounds too. Oh. Emails. Emails about FB. Oh. Yes.

Now, where was I?

The moment of definite buzz when Jacob showed his Pomodoro slide, that's where. For those who don’t know, the Pomodoro is a bright red plastic tomato-replica timer. As the big red fruit appeared on the screen came choral mutterings of “Where can you buy one?”

Wisely, Jacob ignored them but explained further. The Pomodoro is a simple but effective procrastination-beating tool, especially when used by for writers.

Briefly, writer decides on the task, sets the Pomodoro for a shortish time such as 25 mins. Writer works fixedly for that time, resets the Pomodoro to give a 5 mins break for coffee, attending to the hungry cat, dressing and so on. Writer resets the Pomodoro for another 25 mins, and so the day goes on.

Jacob suggested that the round scarlet item had gained cult status and was beloved by the NANOWRIMO sect. I can believe that. I’ve used this timer technique and found it useful and am (thank you, Jacob) about to bring it back into action and I know at least one excellent writer who recommends it as a way of getting back into a book.

However, what makes the Pomodoro strategy work is not the cheery red tomato but its root in another anti-procrastination tip, one I’d almost forgotten.

What some – ahem - procrastinators and busy people have problems with is settling the mind on to the task. Especially if one works from home, it is so easy to get into the habit of idling along, half-ready to be interrupted, often for the kindest of reason or the hungriest of voices. So the brain gets into the habit of not fully committing to or attending to the task.

The Ticking Tomato technique is not actually about “writing to the timer”, as it superficially seems. No, what the big tomato does is give permission for you, Poor Procrastinator, to concentrate your entire attention on the task for twenty-five minutes.

Studies, as they say, have shown that if you give your undivided attention to something for 15 minutes (or 25 minutes) often the problem is resolved, the ideas begin or the words start to come again.


Jacob was big on habits, and for something to become a habit, the activity needs to be repeated. So if you are currently finding yourself stuck – not that this happens to readers of this blog - do find a timer and spare some part of a day to try out the ticking thing.

With World Book Day Week ahead, a short story deadline and a particularly trick tome, I’m very glad to have been reminded. Thank you, Jacob, and Useful Writing Times to you all.

Finally, please follow Jacob, who gave me permission to write this post, on Twitter : @jacobsw.

Penny Dolan

Note 1: Other timers and fruits are available.
Note 2. Placing the timer on a cushion softens the ticking but not the final ring
Note 3. Get your own office timer.
Note 4. The breaking down of large tasks into smaller tasks is known, in time management terms, as Batching. It will take you more than 5 mins but less then 25 mins to look it up.

Jacob Sager Weinstein’s book for younger readers “The Government Manual For New Pirates” is out now and his forthcoming book for adults on childcare is called “How Not To Kill Your Baby.”

Monday, 27 February 2012

Writer - Rewrite! Ruth Symes / Megan Rix

                                   Writer - Rewrite!
                              Ruth Symes / Megan Rix

When I started my writing career I hated re-writing. I wrote so fast it seemed to me that it was a whole lot easier to just write a new book than re-write the one I’d just written – which I was usually more than a teensy bit tired of anyway.

 But then a book or two down the line I started to think rewriting might not be so bad after all. Not just tweaking mind – a proper rewrite.  My opinion of rewriting changed  - due to a few rewriting success stories.

The Mum TrapThe first thing that happened was that after two books being taken and me thinking I’d cracked it the next 3 or 4 couldn’t find a publishing home. Audrey Adams was an editor at Andersen at the time and she kindly made a few editorial suggestions and the next thing I knew the horror story I’d written about the dangers of blind-dating (this was in 2000 – yikes – so long ago!) had turned into a comedy and Andersen published it as The Mum Trap – still in print 10 years on.

The next re-writing success story is even better:

I’ve always written for both print and broadcast and I wrote a script called ‘Merry Meet’ while on the MA in TV Scriptwriting course at Leicester DeMontfort University. Merry Meet was the pilot for a one hour TV show about an ex-witch trying to lead a normal life without magic. The script was selected by the Screenwriters Festival as one of the scripts they wanted to promote that year. They arranged for it to have a professional script reading and I was presented with a script report on my work.

Editors at publishing houses I realised, as I read the report, even the ones who seem fierce, are really sweet kittens compared to the killer dog savagery of a script report writer. No holds barred – that report went for the jugular and tore my script to shreds.

Afterwards I was told by a surprised producer that it was one of the kinder reports and I shouldn’t be so sensitive about my work – who knew???

Anyway, I started to rewrite Merry Meet and as I did so I began to think about what my lead character might have been like before she gave up magic. Was she born a witch or did she become one? And as I was thinking this I suddenly knew just what she was like as a girl and even what she sounded like.
I finished re-writing my one hour script but at the same time I started writing the first chapter and synopsis of a children’s novel about a young witch.

Piccadilly had just published one of my picture books - about a dinosaur called Little Rex - and so I mentioned this idea I had for a series of books about a witchling called Bella Donna to them, and Ruth Williams, the editor there, thought they might be very interested – but would like it written for a slightly younger market than I’d been thinking of.

More re-writes later ‘Bella Donna’ Book 1 in the Coven Road series was published in October 2010, ‘Too Many Spells’ was published in April 2011 and ‘Witchling’ came out at the beginning of October – a fourth’s just been commissioned.

As for the script – that isn’t doing much - although I might just need to take another look at it. And that blind dating horror idea could be good – maybe it’s time for some more rewriting!

Ruth's website is at
Megan's website is at

Saturday, 25 February 2012

How private are you?

How private a person are you? I assume I'm fairly average. I don't think I have any appalling, dark secrets that would ruin me if they came to light, but on the other hand there are parts of my life I like to keep to myself, or to share with only a few close friends or family. Some of these things are thoughts, some are letters or other documents, and there are perhaps one or two photographs and mementoes that mean something special that I would rather not share with the world at large. Other private things are pin numbers and codes that safeguard my bank accounts. I certainly don't want people to see them.

Until fairly recently it was simple to keep these private things as they were supposed to be...private. An old shoebox in a cupboard in a bedroom is pretty perfect for that collection of personal oddments that are an adjunct to our lives. A locked filing cabinet, if we feel the need, keeps all but the most determined away from our most private papers, while our thoughts... our thoughts are wholly ours.

And true is that today? Some of our storage solutions are looking decidedly leaky. Imagine living in a house with a front door so flimsy that it's hardly worth closing, let alone locking. Imagine if that house was in a city where numerous people were simply waiting for you to go out so they could walk in and sift through your life. Imagine having a private conversation with a group of friends and discovering it broadcast on the six o'clock news.

It used to be simple to be a private person, but no longer. Online information gathering has become ubiquitous. We leak our love of woollen socks, concern about our weight, and interest in Bengal cats through our so called private emails, and see the information gathering evidence in the advertisements that pop up by our inboxes. We gaily delete emails, thinking that they are gone forever, but how many people in public life have found that to be patently untrue? And, as emails give way to social networking, our lives are becoming increasingly leaky.

I'm not sure that we ought to become paranoid about these potential intrusions into our lives. After all, those fragments of conversations we read on a forum, twitter or facebook when the wrong button has been pressed don't matter, do they? Aren't they just like overheard bits of conversation on the bus? Well, mostly yes, but not entirely. If you are so minded you can often trace these fragments back to a careless person who doesn't understand all the ins and outs of online privacy. (And let's face it, that's most of us.) You may keep your own sites personal, but does everyone you communicate with do the same? No. Of course not, and so your words can spread like the water from a leaky washing machine.

It used to be so easy. If you wrote something a little indiscreet, not only were few people able to read it, but as time passed it got forgotten. Not on Facebook timeline, which makes it simple to find out what was said in any particular year. Just as we're encouraged to communicate the minutia of our lives, giving our hastily thought through opinions on this and that throughout the day, we also have to be careful of what we say, for we know not who will read it, or what they will do with what they read. Mostly of course nothing; sometimes comments or photographs might be used by 'friends' to embarrass us, which doesn't much matter if we don't have a public reputation to guard, but if we do, then the potential damage could be more serious.

Big Brother may not be watching us, (though he often is through street cameras and the like) but he is constantly collecting data about us. Some of this is government led, but much of it is fuelled by big business, wanting us to buy. And as well as that invasive, annoying advertising there's more. Some prospective employers are now using social networking sites to research interviewees. If you don't shape up on facebook you don't even GET an interview. In the old days a company would have had to employ a private detective to pick up some of the information that is available now in a few clicks. Do we want our employers to do the digital version of sneaking up to our windows and listening to our conversations with friends? Well no, I don't, but many of us are sleepwalking our way into this new world. Why? because social networking is fun, and addictive, and internet security is terribly tedious.

So is there nothing we can do? Will those unkind comments made five years ago remain for ever to embarrass us? Well maybe not. Word from the wise is that there is a law being discussed. It's the 'right to be forgotten'. Well hurray to that. But make no mistake. There is no going back. We can't un-invent digital data collection, and like many inventions it has good uses as well as bad ones. Society is changing, like it has done many times. Not every culture regards privacy to be vitally important. Maybe we should relax, and learn to value our privacy less. After all, most of the comments we make will be like digital pebbles on a vast beach, and will never come back to haunt us,

will they...

Friday, 24 February 2012

PAULINE FISK: On Writing the Gap Year Novel

'The gap year novel has arrived, hot from Belize and Pauline Fisk's capable pen.'
The Irish Times

I was going to write about heroes this time, in particular Hans Christian Andersen, who influenced me much as a child. But after last month’s post I was left with the strongest sense of a story only half told, so I’m leaving Hans Christian Andersen for next time and heading back to Belize.
As some of you may know, in 2008 I went on a research trip to Belize. My son, Idris, had returned from that country several years before, utterly changed by the experience of gap year volunteering. I’d waved goodbye to a white-faced youth incapable of even locating his vaccinations certificate, let alone surviving in the jungle and upon return had greeted a great hulking man who inhabited the same body as if landing from another planet.
I’m an author, so I know a story when I see one. Did gap year volunteering make as much difference to other people as it had done to Idris? And, if so, how? And how important were the projects these young people worked on? According to the press, gap years were the province of privileged young people working on cosmetic projects sandwiched together by beach-partying.
But how true was that?
Years passed whilst I waited for an author better qualified than me [who’d never been to the jungle or looked a snake in the face] to write the great gap year novel. Finally, however - courtesy of the Arts Council and the Author’s Foundation - I had a go myself.
And I’m so glad I did. My six weeks in Belize was without doubt the most challenging time of my life. Highlights included being hustled in Belize City, stumbling upon drugs-running on the Guatemalan border, hitch-hiking for the first time in forty years and staying with the indigenous Kekchi-Mayan people. And then there was the jungle too…
I’d come to Belize with a story to find, and I certainly found it. This is me doing that old cowboy-film thing of filling my hat with water and sticking it on my head. Ahead of me lay the largest rainforest outside of Amazon - a region so remote and rough that it was much used by the British military for jungle training. I was in the Chiquibul, home to jaguars, ocelots and scarlet macaws - not to say anything of gold miners, deadly gangs of poachers known as xateros and Trekforce volunteers. And it was these volunteers that I was being trekked out to meet.
The region we had to hike across was called The Devil’s Backbone. It didn’t take long to find out why. Days later I stood on a hilltop seeing for myself why the volunteers and I were in this lonely, wild place. It’s not everybody who witnesses the destruction of the rainforest with their own eyes - and with it comes the responsibility to share what you’ve seen.
That day I saw trees cut down. I saw a forest floor stripped bare of plants. I saw bare earth left to bake. I was told of jaguars and monkeys being poached, of fabulous forest birds, like scarlet macaws, being trapped and carted off. And all of that, I was told, was coming our way. At the rate the forest was being destroyed, unless drastic action was taken by the Belizean government, including utilizing the efforts of young volunteers - who, on this occasion, were building a bunkhouse to create a ranger presence in this remote region - the trees that shaded us now would be gone in a year.
It half-killed me getting out to Rio Blanco. I was no adventurer, just an asthmatic old writer hauling herself over the jungle-clad foothills of the Maya Mountains. But it was worth it to see the tragedy of destruction taking place in the Belizean rainforest, and the efforts of young people, mostly straight from school but prepared to live and work out in the wild, to help stem that tide.
At the end of my trek, I met Rafael Manzanero, Chief Executive of the organization that takes care of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. He shook my hand and thanked me for coming in person to see what was happening to the Belizean rainforest, and he agreed that when my book was written he’d write a Commendation for it.
I was so proud of the young people I met out in the jungle. I hope I’ve written a book that does justice to their endeavours, and to the great beauty of the rainforest and the threat it’s under. If ever I’ve written a book that I want people to know about, this is it. In going out to Belize, I had a wonderful time, but some of my research came at a high price. More than anything else, strangely enough, what I learned was that it wasn’t just governments and major NGO’s that make a difference in our funny old world. Ordinary young people, with no particular skills, can make a difference too.
For six week Idris and I walked, hitched, drove and even flew around Belize, meeting people from that country’s many different cultures and all walks of life. All the while I kept a detailed travel journal. Only at the end of the trip did I start writing what would end up being my gap year book. I happened across the novel ‘Kidnapped’ and in the predicament of its hero, Davie Balfour, the plot for ‘In The Trees’ came bursting out.
I’d always known Kid Cato wouldn’t be a posh kid, not a typical gap year volunteer as depicted by the press, but a south London boy of mixed race. But how to get him out to Belize, where he’d meet a group of young gap year volunteers, fresh from school, with everything to learn? I now had the answer, courtesy of Robert Louis Stevenson.
If you want to know more about my trip around Belize, do click this link to my website, where serialized extracts of my travel journal can be found. Or if there’s a school near you who might be interested in my story, or a local festival or book event, do let me know. Usually after finishing a novel, I move on seamlessly to the next. But I saw things in Belize which will live with me for ever. The beauty of the forests, for one of them. And the destruction. And the efforts of young people to help to save them.

In the words of Rafael Manzanero, who wrote the Commendation for ‘In The Trees’: ‘Everyone can make a difference to protect wilderness areas. It is not only moral to do so, but the survival of forests will make the planet a better place for human life’.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Boffins In Books: Why No Science In Children’s Fiction? by Emma Barnes

Science is not “sexy”. At least that it is the strong message you get on scanning the children’s fiction shelves. Fairies abound, as do spies, wizards, pirates and ballerinas, but scientists? Either absent – or the villains of the piece!

Ever since Enid Blyton bestowed “Uncle Quentin” upon her Famous Five, children’s authors (seldom scientific themselves) have taken for granted the archetype of the bad-tempered, impractical boffin, locked away in his study or laboratory (it’s nearly always a him, of course). This stereotype probably arrived in children’s fiction straight from Dr Frankenstein, and even such marvellous books as The Strange Affair of the Dog In the Night Time have tended to reinforce the notion that brilliance in abstract thought must mean personal strangeness and zero social skills.

Of course, there are excellent non-fiction books about science for young people. But with a very few exceptions – Russell Stannard’s Uncle Albert or Malcolm Rose’s scientific thrillers – science as a theme is either absent or else – in teenage books – portrayed as evil, with techniques like cloning bringing about terrible dystopian futures.

When I wrote Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher it did not occur to me that an eleven year old girl who wanted to be a scientist, was unusual in fiction. I like humour, and I like exploring ideas, and when I devised the story I loved the possibilities of a scientific daughter (rational, enquiring, persistent) ranged up against a mother (vague and mystical) who is convinced she has magic powers. Jessica's heroine is Marie Curie - but her mother thinks a test tube is only useful for storing love potions.

Jessica’s scientific interests have their quirky side. Would an eleven year old really be reading a book called Astrophysics Made Simple? But they are not just for effect either. To achieve her ends Jessica conducts a scientific experiment – a serious experiment, with a hypothesis and a properly demonstrated conclusion. The whole plot depends upon it. Only after the book was published did several readers – teachers in particular – point out how unusual this was.

When I visit schools, I rarely get asked to focus on this element of the book, however. Perhaps this is because teachers, like writers, too often place “science” and “fiction” in different compartments. And for too many children, the “science” compartment can become the “bad” compartment. When I’ve asked children or adults to describe scientists as characters, “dangerous”, “mad” and “nerdy” are some of the words they have come up with.

It’s a shame. Science is exciting. And fiction is an important way for children to explore the world – the whole world - that lies beyond their own immediate surroundings and understanding. So why exclude such a vital perspective on it?

Which books would you recommend that include scientific themes or characters?

Emma's latest book is How (Not) to Make Bad Children Good and she also has a web-site.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Truth about TV Stardom - Lucy Coats

The email popped into my inbox in the middle of a snowstorm.

Normally when I get that kind of email it's someone inviting me to participate in some surefire scam scheme to make loads of money - as long as I can provide the anonymous sender with tens of thousands of pounds in a sealed brown envelope. This one wasn't like that.

"Could you come on Blue Peter and talk about the books on our brand new feature of Best Books of the Last Ten Years?" it said.  Well, you don't get an invitation like that every day.  So I said yes to the very nice lady.  Then I started to panic. I'm not a natural TV performer.  I tend to either babble or go totally blank when asked questions I'm not prepared for.  I turn bright red when hot (TV lights are hot). Nyyarrrrghhh!  What had I done?  But of course I couldn't back out - things were in train, film crew had been booked, the director wanted to know which books on the (at that time embargoed) list I'd read, and (thrown in quite casually) whether I could read the whole list in a week.  That sort of thing.

At first we were going to film in London, but dates were tight, and they decided to come to my house instead.  More panic.  Where would we film? Which room was big enough? Should I spring-clean the aspidistra?  Meanwhile, I was reading my eyes out - reminding myself of some things, and discovering others for the first time.  Needless to say, in the end, the books I was supposed to talk about most were the ones I hadn't read before (mostly because they were boy thrillers, and that's not my usual reading matter - Charlie Higson's Silverfin, Anthony Horowitz's Skeleton Key and John Grisham's Theodore Boone). With the exception of the Grisham, I enjoyed them immensely - which will teach me not to prejudge. 

Being me (if I do a job, I do it properly), I made copious notes, read things twice, underlined quotes.  If I was well prepared, I couldn't go far wrong, I thought.  It was a LOT of work.  On the morning itself, I scurried around (dusting the aspidistra for the fifty-fourth time), laid the table (well, they'd want feeding, wouldn't they?), panicked about what to wear (discarded outfits everywhere), poked a mascara wand into my eye (makeup not my forte). I also spent some considerable time talking out loud to the dogs about books in the interests of not being terrified of the sound of my own voice (they were puzzled, but quite interested).  Then there was a crunch of tyres. My Fate was upon me

Naturally, I need not have dusted.  Nor chosen a nice light room.  Nope.  What they wanted was somewhere cosy and dark, with not a scrap of daylight. A studio, in fact.  Luckily I have shutters.  And curtains.  While the very professional and charming Patrick and Rob were unpacking lights and cameras and setting up the Blue Peter backdrop in the gloom, I hung about, taking photos and asking all sorts of intrusive questions (well, that's what writers do, isn't it). Then the Moment of Filming arrived. 

I sat in the Talking Head Chair, shaking slightly, mind entirely blank.  I had to sit on my hands (hands waving = not good TV). One camera was in front of me (I had to remember not to look at it), the other to the side for close up shots (oh God! My wrinkles would show!).  Suffice to say, I babbled a bit.  I froze often.  They were extremely lovely and patient with me. It all took a long time (about 1 1/2 hours of actual filming). Then they packed up and left (after a bit of soothing soup).

All that, and I was only on for about 3 seconds!  I'm quite relieved really - the truth is, I'm not sure TV stardom is beckoning me to the golden heights any time soon. But hey! At least I get a Blue Peter badge! That's pretty cool, isn't it?

If you like, you can watch the clip here till tomorrow - Thursday 23rd Feb (UK readers only, I'm afraid).  I'm on at 20m 15s.  But, honestly, blink and you miss me!

Monday, 20 February 2012

A cycle of novels - not a trilogy, not a Miriam Halahmy

I started to write Hidden, the first book in my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island, in 2007. At the time I had no idea that I was going to write three books or that I was at the beginning of writing what I would come to call, a Cycle of books. However, I do know that very early on a character called Lindy Bellows presented herself on the page and grew and grew until I knew she needed a book all of her own.

In Hidden, fourteen year old Lindy Bellows is an outsider at school, hostile to the other kids and the staff. And she has a nail sharpened to a spear point. The Bellows family are notorious on the estate near the school. Her older brother Terrence runs one of the worst gangs in town. The Bellows family don't live on Hayling Island.
But when the chips are down in Hidden, Lindy could have given away the asylum seeker that school fellows, Alix and Samir, were hiding in a hut near the beach. However she turns out to have a heart after all. She doesn’t tell the police or her brother  ( who guesses anyway and causes all kinds of trouble) and she actually protects Alix at a vulnerable moment.

Halfway through writing Hidden a story for Lindy began to bloom inside my head. I decided I would write a second book called Illegal. As an author I wanted to challenge myself to write something completely different. Hidden is written in the first person present tense. Illegal is written in the third person past tense. Both books are set on Hayling Island and the kids go to the same school. But new characters are introduced into the second book and the story is completely stand-alone.

 Illegal is the story of a teenage girl driven to take desperate measures when all other choices are taken away from her. It is a novel about growing up and gaining independence against the odds. Since Lindy’s baby sister died, her family have been caught in a downward spiral. Her brothers are in prison and her parents have turned to drink. Soon Lindy is out of her depth too, caught in the centre of an international drugs ring, with no way out. Then Lindy finds help from an unexpected ally: weird, mute Karl from school, and together they plan a daring and desperate escape. But when you’re in this deep, can you ever be free? 

As I was writing the second book I felt that two books felt uneven and there was a character, Jess, who had a minor role in Hidden and a bigger role in Illegal, who seemed to be asking for her own book. As Jess became more and more prominent, an idea for a story blossomed and so when I had finished the second book, it was quite natural to commence writing Stuffed.

Stuffed is told in two first person voices, Jess and her boyfriend Ryan, a new venture for me again. Jess and Ryan start to fall in love but both of them are keeping a terrible secret from the other. This is a story of secrets, lies, betrayal and responsibility. Will their love survive the pressure?

Three books, all set on Hayling Island - but not a trilogy where the story concludes in the third book; and not a series, with the same character in a different situation in each book. This is my Cycle of novels, taking a minor character from the previous book as the main character in the next and then putting them in a totally new situation. In a cycle of novels, the books can be read in any order. Each story is stand alone, but in my cycle the common thread is the school on the mainland and the wonderful landscape of Hayling Island as the backdrop.

In theory my cycle could continue. There are always more stories, more places as settings on the Island and more characters to emerge from the shadows. I have loved developing a cycle as opposed to a trilogy or a series and may well write a completely new cycle of novels set in a completely different place. But Hayling Island will always be my first love.

Friday, 17 February 2012

How do you guess the future? by Karen King

When George Orwell wrote his famous book Nineteen Eighty-Four about a dystopian future he didn’t have to contend with the continuous changes in technology that we authors have to today. In 1949, television was a recent invention and one that most homes didn’t possess, computers, mobiles, iphones, X-boxes and Wiis hadn’t even been dreamt of. He could invent away as much as he liked safe in the knowledge that none of his imaginary inventions would come to fruition for years, if ever.

It’s a whole new ball game now as I discovered when I started writing my dystopian novel Perfect Summer, which is set 20-30 years in the future when society is so obsessed by perfection that the government gives ‘personal perfection’ grants to everyone and anyone who isn’t ‘perfect’ is considered freaky. Although that’s only a small part of the book. It’s also about a girl called Morgan and her friend Summer, who seems to have a perfect life. Then Morgan's little brother Josh gets kidnapped and she finds out just how obsessed with perfection people are and that Summer's life isn't so perfect after all. The main problem I’ve had with writing the book is how fast technology is changing. When I first started it passwords were the norm for securing computers, now they are almost out, fingerprint scanning is being replaced by iris scanning and face recognition software is on the way in. So what will be used 20-30 years from now?  

Will everyone still be using mobiles? If so what will they call them and what will they be able to do with them? What will computers be like? Transport? How will technology have changed the world we live in?

I’ve had to go back and revise Perfect Summer many times because I've learnt of new advances in technology. Recently I read an article stating that robots are being designed with realistic hair and skin so they look more human and another article saying that in the future we might have flying cars or jet packs to help us get around quicker I can see me tweaking this novel for many months to come!

So what I want to know is if you’re writing a dystopian novel how do you guess the future? What do you think the world will be like in 20-30 years time?

Karen King writes all sorts of books for children. Check out her website at You can download her children's ebook, Firstborn at

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

What's in a name? - Linda Strachan

It may have caused havoc for the star crossed lovers, but as Shakespeare's Juliet famously said -

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

What does your name say about you? Does the person become the name or does the name mould the person?

In the Johnny Cash hit song 'A boy Named Sue' the main character's father named him 'Sue' to make him tough...
"I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named "Sue."
"Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean,..'

but it wasn't something he was going to repeat himself..
And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue!

How often have you heard a name that conjures up an image even before you meet the person? Is there a Sandra or a Melanie, a Kevin or a Jack who comes to mind when you hear the name, reminding you of a positive, or much worse, a negative experience?

Very occasionally I meet someone whose name just doesn't seem to fit them.
I know someone whose name is Bill, but every time I see him the name Paul comes into my head. I have no idea why, he just looks as if he should be called Paul.

It's not something that has happened often, but again recently I met a teacher in a school whose name didn't seem to suit her, either. The name just didn't fit the person I saw, and I had a bit of a problem remembering her name because of it.
Perhaps it is just me, but has this ever happened to you?

How important is the name you choose for your child?
It is a badge they will likely wear for most of their lives but have little choice in themselves.  

Baby names often vary with the times, with children named after popular TV series characters who are long forgotten, or celebrities who are no longer famous by the time the child is entering high school.

Then there are those bizarre spellings, a real pitfall for any author at a book signing!

Choosing a name for your characters involves thinking about lots of different things and it throws up a few possible plot ideas, too.
  •  Is it a name that reflects their age, their background, their personality?
  • Does their name matter to them? Is it a positive or negative force in their lives?
  • Is it something another character might make a fool of, or turn into a nickname?
  • Is theirs a family name?
  • Perhaps they have a their surname that might have complicated problems attached to it?
In fact the way your character thinks about their name and how they react, or deal with problems it may cause, can tell so much about their state of mind and their personality and frailties.

In a recent post on Picturebookden Blog  Paeony Lewis explored how some picturebook authors go about choosing their characters' names.  Some people use names of people they know, others need to know the names of their characters before they start to write because it is such an important part of the character.

Do you have a problem with names? Do you need to choose your characters' names before you start to write about them or does the name come along later?

Is there a character in a book you have read whose name seemed particularly right, or just plain wrong?

What's in a name?

Linda Strachan writes books for all ages, from tots to teens and writing handbook Writing for Children A & C Black
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Life After OOP by Ann Evans

It's always a huge disappointment when a publisher decides they won't be re-printing one of your books. When this first happened to me back in the 1990s and my early books started to slip into this OOP category, it really seemed like the end of the line for those stories.

It's funny when you think about it, because when a box of eggs or a pint of milk outlives its sell by date it's because its not as good as it was.

With books, the quality of the story remains exactly the same. The story is just as exciting as it ever was. The characters are still as interesting. Anyone who reads the book will enjoy it just as much as when it first hit the shelves years before. If it appealed to a nine year old ten years ago it's just as likely to appeal to a nine year old today. It's just that the publisher has moved on.

The thing that takes the sting out of the tail these days, is that when the rights are reverted back to the author, that author then has the option of giving their story a new lease of life as an ebook or getting it re-printed as a print on demand book.

Of course producing an ebook doesn't cost the author anything if they do it themselves and as well as the joy of getting the book back into the marketplace, I found that the whole thing of tackling the ebook technicalities to be quite absorbing - and exciting.

Obviously there's lots of work involved. Firstly there's all the re-formatting of your text. Original files – if they can be found at all, will probably be the basic manuscripts that were submitted. All the to-ing and fro-ing between the editor and author as we worked on the story, were nowhere to be found. The only way I could get my text back in a workable form, was to retytpe the whole book.

Yep! Loads of work, but the good thing was it was an opportunity of adjusting any bits that you always wished were different and you get the chance to bring the story up to date.

As anyone who has turned their OOP book into an ebook, you'll know that reformatting the text is one of those jobs that has you tearing your hair out.
But now that mine has re-grown, I'm glad I stuck at it. The sense of achievement is almost as good as getting an acceptance letter from a publisher – well, okay not quite, but it's pretty good!

The other thing to think about is the cover. Another tricky project especially if you haven't got a friend or relative who designs book covers. But generally there's always someone who knows someone... plus there are some great illustrators out there, and it's not such a mysterious world as I used to think it was.

And finally when your new ebook is up on Amazon or Smashwords or wherever, there's no denying the joy at seeing it back where it belongs. Back on the bookshelves – okay the virtual bookshelves. And the best thing is, you know that this time there's no sell by date.

If you'd like to see my ebooks efforts, my early Sealed Mysteries published by Scholastic eleven years ago are now my Little Tyke Murder Mysteries.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Fan Fair? - Cathy Butler

If the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are any guide, fan fiction is a relatively new phenomenon: the earliest use of the term dates only from 1944.

You know what I mean by “fan fiction”, right? I’m referring to stories featuring existing fictional worlds and characters, but written by someone other than the original author. The Internet is awash with Harry Potter fan fiction, Doctor Who fan fiction, Twilight fan fiction, Star Trek fan fiction, and so on. As that list suggests, it’s a practice that flourishes particularly in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, but it’s by no means confined to them. Just think of the people who’ve written books about Jane Austen’s characters (P. D. James is the latest, in Death Comes to Pemberley), or new adventures for James Bond (Kingsley Amis and Sebastian Faulks, amongst others). Indeed, there are whole genres that have no original. Every writer of Arthurian stories, from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory right up to Katherine Roberts (whose Sword of Light, about Arthur’s daughter Rhianna, was published at the beginning of this month) is a fan fiction author of a kind.

However, the term “fan fiction” is usually applied to the work of amateurs. That word need not imply any lack of quality, by the way: I use it here in its older sense, of a person who does something for love rather than money. (That’s the only concession to St Valentine in this post, by the way, so make the most of it.) Fan fiction writers are people who love a world or a character so much that they want there to be more of it, and if the author is inconveniently dead or has perversely lost interest, why then, they will do it themselves! What began with mimeographed fanzines in the 1960s has proliferated into a huge and dynamic literary culture, largely because the World Wide Web has allowed fans to publish widely and read voraciously. Not that the professional/amateur distinction is quite as impermeable as it used to be. Some writers have a foot in each camp. The publishers of the Doctor Who novels are said to have talent-spotted at least one of their regular authors from amongst the ranks of Who fan fiction writers; while the YA author Cassandra Clare cut her teeth writing Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fan fiction.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve never been tempted to write fan fiction myself, and I’m not famous enough to have had it written about my books – but I wonder how I’d feel if it had been? I know one fairly eminent fantasy writer who’s dead set against fan fiction treatments of her world. She sees other people using her material as a kind of theft. Worse, it sullies that world, confusing readers between canonical and heterodox stories.

On the other hand, there are published writers who feel fine about fan fiction – or even enthusiastic. Imagining new stories is a legitimate form of readerly pleasure, they argue; and once the book has been bought by a fan, it’s theirs to do with as they will. And, of course, it’s flattering to think that people like your imagination enough to want to spend more time there.

So, what about you? Are there any fan fiction writers or readers here on ABBA? Or authors whose books have been ficced? How do you feel about it?

Monday, 13 February 2012

Robots: Snog, Marry or Avoid? by Yvonne Coppard

Robots:  snog, marry or avoid?

According to Marshall Brain (Robotic Nation), by 2013 there will be 1.2 million robots working worldwide (1 per 5000 people). The Hello Kitty Robot, launched by Japanese retailer Aeon Co.  is apparently  perfect for ‘whoever does not have a lot time to stay with child’ (sic). If you’re in the market for that, you might want to add NEC’s Pa Pe Ro, which tells jokes, sets quizzes, and can track your child’s movements.

At Osaka University in Japan, a man named Hiroshi Ishiguro has built his own mechanical twin. It looks almost exactly like him - until its face moves, or it speaks, and then you realize...
When I was young, the ‘six million dollar man’ of the popular TV series , with his bionic body that was capable of incredible deeds, was pure fiction. Now, I think it would look a bit old hat: ‘is that all you can do?
A couple of months ago BBC Radio 4 gathered a bunch of professional and amateur philosophers together to pose the question:  what does it mean to be ‘human’?  It was a fascinating discussion, which covered not only what robots can and can’t do, but what our reaction to them says about us. Robots are now being programmed to converse;  to serve tables and provide care in homes for the elderly;  even to ‘think’ and respond to questions. They are not big on humour, or pathos, or interpreting metaphors or body language.  But this absolute adherence to the literal makes them very good teachers for autistic children, who have the same problems with interpreting the world that robots have – or would do, if they had the capacity to understand that they had a problem, and the capacity to worry about it.

While robots edge towards the boundary between machine and human, medical scientists  are edging  humankind  towards the same border, but from the other side.  More and more of the human body can be replaced or compensated for by artificial means: plastic joints, metal plates, silicon implants, fibreglass limbs, electronic pulses to the brain, artificial skin, insulin pumps, and so much more. When you combine this with the growing advances in stem cell research and transplant surgery, we must be close to a time when you could, theoretically, have a human body with almost nothing of the original left. With modern technology producing ever more life-like movements, even in robot faces, where is the boundary between a real human and a fake one?

I genuinely love the idea of attractive-looking robots noiselessly gliding up to my armchair to serve tea and cakes when I am old, without any need for emotional engagement, or the patronising chats and sympathetic pats on the shoulder. I ‘m fortunate enough to have a realistic hope of  family and friends to talk to in my dotage, but if not I expect that by then, robots will be able to converse intelligently on a range of topics including the latest celebrity gossip, questions of philosophy and ethics, and the headline news and current affairs. They will talk when you want them to, stay on task, never interrupt and shut up when you are getting bored. What’s not to like?

My family, friends and I have greatly benefited from the latest advances in medical technology on more than one occasion. Between us we can count shunts, joints, bits of heart, prosthetics, steel plates to shore up shattered bones ,various pumps delivering fluids to and fro, and skin taken from one part of the body and grown in a dish to transplant elsewhere.
What does this have to do with the writer? Well, if you write very plot-driven books, I imagine it’s a bit of a gift. Fiction already embraces the not-quite-human, with the growing popularity of tales about aliens, vampires, ghosts, dystopian mutants and so on. Human emotion becomes part of the plot rather than the character – villainous creatures destroyed or transformed  by the power of love, the force of a smile, the triumph of tears, or the simple question, why? But if, like me, you prefer to start from character; if you like to explore  light and shade, the hidden echoes and the backbeat of everything we know about what it is to be part of a human race stretching back further than the imagination can grasp, then I have a feeling that time is running out for us.  And that’s before you factor in the story-telling robot – or have I just identified a new emerging market for authors ?

To see Yvonne’s new web site, visit
Yvonne is currently working on ‘The Arvon Book of Children’s Fiction’, with co-writer Linda Newbery, scheduled for publication in the USA and UK by Bloomsbury in 2013.