Saturday, 31 March 2012

Pauline Fisk on Secret Heroes [Who are yours?]

I was sitting in a local coffeehouse when the background music struck up with a few immediately recognisable guitar notes, followed by Leonard Cohen’s voice intoning Suzanne takes me down... Immediately a shiver ran down my spine, not because I loved the song so much, but because I’d been reading about Cohen in the Guardian [the Dorian Lynskey interview] and had just got to the bit about Suzanne when up she popped in Starbuck’s music stream. Synchronicity, or what?

Who are your heroes? The names that spring to mind for me always start with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and end somewhere around Bob Dylan, passing through the likes of Marilyn Robinson, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Dillard, Robert McFarlane, Ella Maillart, Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In fact, if you bring in poetry, the list could go on and on, and the name Leonard Cohen probably wouldn’t spring to mind. Yet his song in Starbucks sent shivers down my spine. Suddenly I was transported back to the girl I used to be, lying in a darkened room, being young and green about some stranger’s lonesome voice.

Beyond my public heroes, it seems, are other heroes - secret ones who’ve so thoroughly woven their way into my life that I don’t even know they’re there. Plainly, Leonard Cohen is one of them. Even when he’s talking about how he writes, he’s speaking for me:

I think you work things out. I wouldn’t call those things ideas. I think ideas are what you want to get rid of. I don’t really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans. They tend to be on the right side of things: ecology or vegetarianism or antiwar. All these things are wonderful ideas but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart.

But Leonard Cohen’s not the only one. In any list of influence-wielding secret heroes, that giant of children’s literature, Hans Christian Andersen, has to come top. It was he, after all, who first stirred my imagination when I was young.

Hans Christian Andersen was a complex character, revered and reviled in equal measure. Welcomed throughout the palaces of Europe, he was regarded as puffed-up and vain by many, including some of his own countrymen. In a letter, Georg Brandes described him as ‘a mind completely and entirely filled by himself and without a single spiritual interest.’ When he stayed with Charles Dickens, the Dickens children couldn’t wait for him to leave. But when he met the Englishwoman, Annie Wood, she told him she’d kept his fairy tales under her pillow as a child, and believed him to be an angel. ‘At last,’ she wrote in an article in ‘Temple Bar’ in 1875, ‘I was in the presence of the man whose writings had been the joy of my early life, dearer to me than aught else in the world.’ Clearly, to those read his stories, Andersen had the power to enchant.

And I know why. I grew up in a decidedly unbookish family, apart from a single copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Stories, which I read so much that it nearly fell apart. In fact, I still have that book to this day. I love everything about it - not just the stories themselves, but the illustrations, the feel of the blotting-paper thick pages and even the shapes of the words. You say the words ‘Big Claus and Little Caus’ to me and I feel the way I did when Cohen sang that first word, ‘Suzanne…’

The same goes with ‘The Tinder-Box’ or ‘The Swineherd and the Shepherdess’, ‘The Nightingale’, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ or ‘The Snow Queen’.

Oh, ‘The Snow Queen’...

As a writer who delights in what some people call ‘magic realism’ and others ‘fantasy’, the influence of Hans Christian Andersen is all over my writing - and I’m not just talking about his stories but his choice of words. The same Georg Brandes who above criticized Andersen’s self-centredness later acknowledged Andersen’s influence on children. ‘What author has a public like him? His book of fairy tales is the only book we have spelt our way through as children and still read today.’ Certainly for me, coming to Andersen as the child of a new century, I learnt that stories are made of words and every one of them matters. And as a young writer, Andersen’s fascination with the magical amid the ordinary had me delving into folklore to enrich my own stories - and I’ve been doing it ever since.

If you’re interested, there’s an excellent programme on Scandanavian Children’s Literature to be heard on Radio 4, hosted by Mariella Frostrup. And if you’ve never read Hans Christian Andersen - or at least not since you were a child - give him a go. ‘It was Orpheus that he called to mind,’ August Stringberg wrote of him, this poet who sang in prose so that not only animals, plants and stones listened and were moved, but toys came to life; goblins and elves became real, those horrible schoolbooks seemed poetic; why, he squeezed the whole geography of Denmark into four pages – he was a perfect wizard!’

The Tiina Nunnally deluxe edition of Andersen’s Fairy Stories, published by Penguin, is worth every penny of its current price on Amazon of £8.44. [Oh, and if you want to listen to Cohen, you may find him playing at a Starbuck’s near you.]

All quotes in this post are taken from Hans Christian Andersen, by Elias Bredsdorff, which is worth a read.

Pauline Fisk blogs on and

Friday, 30 March 2012

Let’s Play! by Emma Barnes

Last weekend I went to see Swallows and Amazons. It’s a musical version, currently touring theatres across the country, and probably the best children’s show I’ve ever seen.

As well as being funny, clever and moving, having a great story and songs which are still going round and round my head, it was also thought-provoking. John, Susan, Titty and Roger are – wait for it – twelve, eleven, nine and seven (and the seven-year-old can’t swim) when they are set loose on their yacht, unaccompanied, to sail and camp around a Cumbrian lake.

Better drowned than duffers
if not duffers won't drown

is their father’s famous rationale for this decision!

As it happens, the children I was with were roughly these ages. I imagined waving them off from the jetty with their sleeping bags, compasses and pen knifes – and a couple of hours later the police arriving on my door. I’m not sure which precise law forbids you from sending kids afloat, alone, in the Lake District. But there must be one.

Maybe even in the 1930s that scenario was a tad unrealistic. But now it has become utterly incredible – and something has been lost as a result. In fact Play England made this very point in the show's programme. Children thrive on outdoor freedom and the chance for imaginative play.

I’m already well aware of this issue. I write books for children which are set in the here-and –now. I write about mischievous, curious characters having everyday adventures. And what a lot of problems that gives me with the action, in today’s constrained world.

If I want my young character Martha Bones to run away from home – as she does – where is she to go? Her 1930s equivalent My Naughty Little Sister struck out for the middle of town. (She also took trains unaccompanied- as a pre-schooler!) In the twenty-first century that’s just an impossible dream.

Martha ends up camping out in Next Door’s garden instead.

Children in 2012 can’t ride their bikes to their friends’ houses, jump on a bus, explore the woods or camp out alone. Just William would have surely exploded from the pressures of staying home all day. Or would he just have been glued to an x-box instead?

The imagination, however, is still its own realm. Like many authors, I’ve been on the road this last month, visiting the many schools who have been having their annual Book Week. (Why do they all choose March? But that’s another issue.)

It’s fascinating to come into contact with young readers, and to see their imaginations at work. In the workshops that I do, I try to give them the freedom to roam, to play around with their own ideas, without the preoccupation with planning, spelling and punctuation which is often inevitable in school hours.

Their imagination takes them all kinds of places – OK, sometimes rather gorey places for my taste – but also to funny and exotic worlds of their own imaginings, as they invent their own “naughty characters” and record their exploits.

It's this playfulness that we need to nourish - in school, at home and maybe even on the waters of Lake Windermere...

Emma's latest book is How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good
Emma's website

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Why Go To Bologna? - Lucy Coats

"Why on earth would an author go to Bologna?"
"What's the point?"
"YOU'RE PAYING FOR YOURSELF?" (in horrified tones)
Those were just some of the comments about my trip to the Bologna Children's Book Fair last week.

So why DID I go?

The short answer is that I've been wanting to go for nearly thirty years, ever since I was a lowly junior editor at Heineman, watching all the bosses swan off there, leaving me behind with a casual "one day". So when the opportunity arose to go with Fair expert Mary Hoffman, I jumped at it. I've never been good at unsatisfied curiosity. It was a perfect year for me to go too, since my agent had a novel and a new series to sell, and two new books were going to be on publishers' stands.

Was it worth it?

That's the million dollar question everyone wants the answer to. For me, the answer is a huge yes. But I learned that the fair might not be the right place for every author to visit. You have to know how to work it, and you can't be the shy and retiring type.

First of all, you have to be prepared to get organised early. Flights and the cheaper hotels sell out quickly. It's good if you can make a few appointments too. That means telling your publisher you are going. They'll be happy to see you if they know before the last minute! Your agent will need to know as well - mine was brilliant at getting me in to all the nice parties that go on every night (Bologna is nothing if not social) - and we went to see the publishers together too, which gave me a buzz when I was told some hot-off-the-press rights news! Who do you know on the social networks who's going? I met up with children's booksellers, an Irish kid lit journalist, a film scout and many more who I knew via Twitter and Facebook. SCBWI have a huge presence - a stand with many events (where I met and chatted to the US publisher of Harry Potter and the lovely Babette Cole) and they also throw a massive bookshop party with wild dancing. Do you have foreign publishers? Why not set up meetings with them too? It'll probably be your only chance to do that. Do your homework, be prepared, and carpe diem.

The thing which struck me as most useful when actually there, though, was the serendipitous encounters. Where else are you going to be together with thousands of people who are all interested in just one thing - children's books? I had a real 'this is my tribe' moment. The value of the conversations you have with chance met people is unquantifiable in terms of hard cash spent on the trip, so to speak. However, I can say that I'm currently discussing at least three very interesting new opportunities as a result of some of those encounters. I wouldn't have had any of them if I'd stayed at home.

If you'd like a little flavour of the fair as I saw it, then here's a short film for you to enjoy. All I can tell you is that I'll definitely be going again next year. Viva Bologna!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Othello and Hamlet on Hayling Island by Miriam Halahmy

 I must admit when I started to write my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island ( off the south coast of England), Hidden, Illegal, Stuffed - I didn’t give a thought to Shakespeare, but somehow the Bard has presented himself on the Island in more ways than one. As a natural fan I have embraced it with open arms.

Hamlet appeared first. Perhaps I should say here that apart from being one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, as far as I’m concerned Hamlet is a teenager, about to be sent over to school in England and this is why he never really takes the plunge and avenges his father’s murder. When writing, Illegal, with the main character Lindy Bellows as a vulnerable lonely girl from a dysfunctional family, I decided that Hamlet is the play she’s studying in school. At the back of my mind I had a quote from an article written at the time Paul Schofield died, which described Hamlet as a ‘spiritual fugitive.’ But that altered in my mind to ‘spiritual refugee’ and my image was born. Lindy starts to think of herself as a spiritual refugee in the first chapter and this image continues throughout the book. When she teams up with fellow misfit Karl, who has been mute for two years, she tells him he’s also a spiritual refugee.

However, I am not keen on books which take  well known plays or books and put them centre stage. I kept a firm grip on the role of Hamlet  in Illegal. Lindy is not about to turn into a literary boffin. My point was that even the most unlikely of students can be captured by the greatest literature and find something which is significant to their own lives. This is what happens to Lindy. She doesn’t suddenly become an expert on Shakespeare, but throughout the novel there is a strand which moves to the foreground from time to time because Lindy has identified with this particular Shakespeare character in her own way.

Moving on and just as Illegal is published I am invited to come and speak to A Level students at the Haringey Sixth Form Centre for World Book Day 2012. They want me to talk about immigration, Othello and Hidden.
Yikes! I know almost nothing about Othello and have never given it a thought when writing Hidden, a novel about human rights, asylum seekers and immigration. I rush for Wikipedia and start to mug up some facts.
But in the end it worked out ok because of course Hidden deals with the Outsider in our society.  And you couldn’t get much more of an Outsider than Othello, a black man in seventeenth century Italy.

This what the English teacher, Krysta, gave me as feedback after the session.

It was wonderful to have Miriam in our A2 English Literature class to discuss themes in ‘Hidden’. We are studying Othello and talking to Miriam helped the class to explore the decisions the writer made in constructing the text. Students discussed why a writer might be interested in exploring the theme of immigration and a range of very different responses to this voiced by different characters. One student raised a question about whether genuine communication between two very different cultures was possible. Learning about the setting of ‘Hidden’ also helped students to re-evaluate the use of an island as a setting in ‘Othello’. The class explored different ways the writers had written about war and the difficulty of addressing such a complex subject in fiction. Students without a doubt benefited from having had contact with a writer who so bravely addresses a range of difficult issues young people of today experience.

Perhaps the lesson here is that we have to be prepared for just about anything on school visits – and Wikipedia might be part of the prep!
I have to say that I am very pleased that not one but two of Shakespeare’s plays have found a place in my Hayling cycle. But I do feel I need to get to a production of Othello a.s.a.p – just to be ready in case this comes up again!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Power of Stereotypes - John Dougherty

Stereotypes can be really useful to a writer. You want to quickly communicate exactly what sort of person this is? Just pop in a few generally-recognised characteristics, and the average mind will fill in the rest.

So, for instance, you give a character bad breath and equally bad teeth, and chances are the reader will identify him as a bad person.

Or give her blonde hair, long legs and a high-pitched giggle, and you’ve got a bimbo. See? There’s even a specific word to match the image! And just one little detail can make a big difference: replace the giggle with a sly, sulky pout and, hey presto, instant High School Queen Bitch!

Then there’s this one: a young black man in a hoody wandering through an expensive, exclusive gated community at night. He’s got his hood up and is walking slowly, muttering to himself. There’s something in his hand. So: burglar, probably on drugs. Possibly armed. Definitely dangerous.

The problem here, of course - as some of you will already have worked out - is that real life doesn’t deal in comfortable stereotypes. And the character I’ve just described wasn’t a character. He was Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old who had every reason to be in the expensive, exclusive gated community, since he was staying with his father who lived there. And he wasn’t actually talking to himself; he was on his phone, using a handsfree headset. And he was walking slowly because…

You know what? I don’t know why he was walking slowly; and actually, it doesn’t matter. At all. There’s no reason anyone should have to explain anything about Trayvon Martin’s behaviour that night. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. Walking slowly isn’t a crime in Florida, where the gated community is; nor is talking on a mobile phone; or carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles; or wearing a hoody; or wearing your hood up; or being young, black and male.

Yet now Trayvon Martin is dead. He’s dead because he fitted another man’s stereotype of villainy; and because that man was licensed to carry a gun.

And because Florida has a law that allows anyone to use deadly force if they believe themselves to be in danger of death or serious injury, the man who shot Trayvon Martin has not been arrested or charged.

Stereotypes. They should come with a warning.

You can read more about the Trayvon Martin case here, and you can sign a petition to have his killer prosecuted here

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, 24 March 2012

Aliens, Zombies and Kidnapped Princesses by Karen King

Like many authors I like to visit schools and talk to the children about my work. I also run workshops to encourage the children how to come up with ideas for stories and to get them writing. They’re always good fun and I love meeting the children, it’s one of the best parts of my job. One of the things I like to do is to build up a story around the class and see what ideas the children come up with. Here’s a picture of me with some of the children of Straits School, Dudley. We’re building up a story with a box of toys. It was a brilliant story all about a crocodile and a peacock who lived in Sunshine City. We had lots of fun thinking of the names of the characters and making up a story about them.

Sometimes I show the children a picture of an unusual house and ask them who lives there, then we make up a story about that character. The children come up with lots of weird and wonderful answers but I’ve noticed that the favourites are aliens, zombies and princesses that have been kidnapped by a wicked witch. The scarier the story the more the children love it. They have a great sense of fair play though and the baddies are always killed in the end and the princess always either outwits the witch and escapes or occasionally a prince drops by and kills the witch for her.

These workshops are a bit noisy as the children shout out ideas, then another child will carry on with it, or change it, and the story gets crazier and crazier. I like that. I like to see children bursting with ideas. And when I tell them we’re going to do some freewriting, that they’re not to worry about spellings or grammar for now but to just write their story down and go back over it later to correct it, their pencils practically whizz over the paper. Many a teacher has told me how refreshing they’ve found it to forget all about structure for a while and let the children use their imaginations with no restrictions. I think it’s good for us authors to do that too. Sometimes we just need to write what’s in our head and see what story comes out. We can always go back and tidy it up after.

Friday, 23 March 2012

To everywhere and beyond: Sue Purkiss

So what have I been up to on the last few Thursday mornings?

Well, let's see.

I've been a little girl with a crush on a handsome German prisoner of war, who made her a tiny bracelet woven from strands of coloured wire - which she was still to treasure nearly seventy years later, even though her father told her she must have nothing to do with the enemy.

I've flown over the ocean on a giant seagull, and come home safely.

I've gone reluctantly to Death Valley in California, put off by the warnings to take at least five litres of water per person in case the car breaks down - only to be blown away by a landscape like nothing I've ever seen before, with a silver lake that turned out to be made of salt and rocks striated with brilliant colours.

I've said goodbye to my fiancee in the bustle of a London station during the war, not knowing that he would be captured and I wouldn't see him again for four years. And I've walked across London Bridge with a stranger, with fires raging behind me and the sky raining soot, unaware that the home I was hurrying towards had been destroyed by a bomb.

I've travelled through time when my mother looked out a dress that I could wear to a sixties party - a dress of cobalt blue, shot through with electric rainbows: a dress that changed the world as I slipped it over my head.

For the first time in a lifetime of riding, I've felt death touch my shoulder as my horse bolted along a precipitous mountain path.

I've been a small girl - a different one - taking refuge in an Anderson shelter as the bombs rained down over Birmingham. Terrified, I've felt my way along slippery garden paths in total darkness, following my grandmother in her best coat with the fox fur collar and the velour hat with its two ostrich feathers, wondering if my grandfather, who refused to give into the Luftwaffe by getting out of his bed, would survive the night.

I've done all these things and more by proxy, as I've sat and listened to the stories the students in my writing class had to tell. Only one of them has even a vague interest in publication; they write for the love of it and find that they have more to say than they ever imagined, and we are all the richer for this wealth of generously shared experience.

As it happens, though, some of their work is going to reach a wider public. One of the group, Jo, is organising an exhibition at Wells Museum, commemorating Harry Patch, 'the last  fighting Tommy', who died  at the age of 111 in Wells (in Somerset) almost three years ago. (I found this lovely tribute to him when I was looking for a picture.) Jo is going to use some of our writing in the exhibition, which will run from 21st April - 3rd June.

That's a bonus. But the real joy is in the creation and the sharing - and it's lovely and humbling to be reminded of that.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Walking with Ancestors by Ann Evans

A lovely old part of
Sunderland High School
Like most writers I seem to spend lots of time sitting at my computer, writing, researching, emailing, blogging, social networking, marketing and so on; but there's another computer-linked activity that I love getting stuck into, and that's researching my family history.

I’ve always known that my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all hail from the Sunderland and Durham areas on the north east coast. And over the last couple of years I’ve been going through the on-line censuses, gathering names and dates as well as seeking out old photographs.

This week however my research took an upturn and instead of just researching on line, I got the opportunity to head up the M1 and A1 to the bonny north east of England for a school visit, and decided to make the most of my trip and enjoy an additional day of sight-seeing.

I don’t usually feel excited at the prospect of visiting a different city, yet I really was looking forward to going back to my roots. Even booking myself into a hotel was exciting as the hotel I picked overlooks Roker Bay and Roker Pier. Places that I remember my mother telling me about, and I know they were favourite places where she used to walk - as did her mother and grandmother and great grandmother probably. Walking along the pier and the cliff paths, naturally I didn’t spot anyone dressed like the people in this old photo of the area, but it was easy to imagine them still hanging around…

Going back in time with the family tree research I can’t help but feel drawn to Victorian times. My grandma whom I vaguely remember, was born in 1872 (and lived till well into her 90s); and it amazes me to think she was around when Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Recently I came across this photo of a painting by Molly Davison. It features a stretch of the River Wear in 1890. My grandma lived very close to this scene according to the map that accompanies it, and I find myself wondering (fancifully) whether granny, at 18, had peeked over Molly Davison’s shoulder as she sat painting.

Victorian times and around the turn of the century is such an evocative period and while I’m aware of how hard times were in those days, I think that period offers so much atmosphere and drama for a writer to draw on.

But back to my trip up north. During one of the session with the pupils of Sunderland High School, I mentioned (as I often do) how I remembered as a child of 8 or 9 spotting a book in my local library written by someone with my surname! I was then Ann Carroll and spotting Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland had quite an impact on me. I couldn't believe that a real live (okay dead) author had my surname, and that book came home with me on many occasions.

I wondered if the children knew there was a link between the famous author and Sunderland. They didn’t. The link was something I chanced upon while doing more on-line research into the family tree. I read that Lewis Carroll was a frequent visitor to Holy Trinity Church which isn't just in Sunderland it's in Southwick just a few minutes walk from where my dad's family lived – Carrolls, all of them!
Surely Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had spotted the name Carroll on a church tombstone and was inspired to give himself a pseudonym! Okay, well I do write fiction!

However during my trip up north this week I just had to go and check this theory out. I found the actual Holy Trinity Church (which also excited me – I know, sad!) and wandered through the quite sparse graveyard looking for a Carroll inscription.  Ho hum! There wasn't any, although there were one or two which were so weather-worn and faded you couldn't quite read the names. Was that a C...? And that could be an A...

I wonder if anyone else is finding time to research their family history - and what interesting snippets you've discovered.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Grub Street Blues - Cathy Butler

A financial post seems in order, in honour of the Budget – always a nervous time for authors, as for other small businesses.

Apparently, the Chancellor is planning to start issuing us all with personal Tax Statements, showing how the money we pay in tax is divided between the various departments of Government. Serendipitously, I’d been thinking about such matters in any case, ever since an American colleague (in a children’s literature discussion group in a far distant corner of the internet) directed my attention to this sobering diagram showing the spending patterns of the average American family. (If you want to see the thing full size, click here.)

It’s an interesting chart in several ways, but the part that captured my colleague’s attention – and mine – was the pitiful proportion of the average family budget that was spent on ‘Reading’ - just $118, or 0.2%. To put this in perspective, this is 22 times less than is spent on eating outside the home ($2,668, or 5.4%), or on ‘Entertainment’ ($2,698, also 5.4%).

Now, it’s not clear that the figures would be exactly the same for the UK, though I suspect they wouldn’t be very different. It may also be that some book purchases are hidden away under ‘Education’. Just possibly people are reading a lot, but doing it at the library (I wish!). But even making reasonable allowances for all these, it seems clear that literature looms small indeed in the average household budget – somewhere between Tissue Paper and Loo Roll.

Of course, that’s a depressing meditation for authors. In addition, the royalties from that $118 are distributed far from evenly: I suspect that a good 80% go to the top 20% of authors, leaving the rest cadaverously thin pickings. Equally, I suspect that they come from an equally small proportion of readers – the readers of this blog, for example – who splash out far more than 0.2% of their income on books, but are dragged down by the majority who spend little or nothing at all. For this reason, there’s little point in my exhorting you all to go out and Buy Books, because you’re probably doing it anyway.

However, feel free to harangue your neighbours about it. And tell them I sent you.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that dividing ‘Reading’ from ‘Entertainment’, as this chart does, makes total sense these days. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, contributing to the same discussion, pointed out that from the point of view of many younger readers literature is now just part of a wider social experience:

It’s not enough for me to read a novel anymore. I have to run straight to the ‘Net to find out what people are saying about it. That’s changed since my childhood. I also have to post my opinion on the book on Facebook. But as a child who treasured my books more than anything else in the world, I learned to let it sit in my head like a great secret between me, the page, and the misty author “somewhere out there.” It was like I had this private world that was a protective force field against the woes and mundanity of everyday life... a place just for me.

We may – and I do – regret that vision of the book that sits privately in one’s head ‘like a great secret’, but if Ebony’s right the Tweeting Generation is still enjoying literature in its own hyper-social way, and doing so enthusiastically. I don’t claim that this shift in the way books are enjoyed explains the small amount actually spent on them, but if people are busy discussing the last book they read on their blogs, posting reviews on Goodreads, Librarything and Amazon, talking about it on Facebook and Twitter, responding to it via Youtube videos, composing fan fiction, and so on, when will they have time to buy anything new?

On the whole, I’m not sure whether that’s an encouraging reflection or a depressing one, but at least it suggests that the appetite for stories is alive and well, even if it’s not being transmuted into gold in the pockets of their authors.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Hey, good lookin'. What you got cooking? Steve Feasey

"What do you do when you’re not writing?" "What are you working on now that you’ve finished [insert book title here]?"
These are questions I get asked all the time (and I very much doubt I’m alone on this one). There seems to be a feeling among some people that when you are not in the middle of writing or editing a book, you’re sitting about twiddling your thumbs and achieving absolutely zip. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it took me a while to work that out. Being ‘between books’ can be a stressful and worrying place to be. But it doesn’t have to be.
I’m cooking at the moment.
It’s what I call that process when you’ve had the kernel of a really good story idea, but you can’t quite work out what the book is going to be. So you cook it in your head for a while and see if what comes out of the oven is a beautifully risen soufflé, or a sunken mass of sticky goo.

Everything else in my life is suffering at the moment because of my obsession with this idea. I’m inattentive at the best of times, but when I’m hacking through the jungle of ‘pick me!’ ideas to try and find my way to the Golden Temple of Story, I must be hell to live with. I wake at three or four in the morning, apologising as I turn on the light and fumble about for a notebook and pencil with which to scribble down the idea that my muse (who clearly keeps very unsociable hours) has decided to drop on me. Then I go back to sleep. Unfortunately, my wife rarely does.
Being a ‘pantser’ doesn’t help. I keep telling myself that if only I could plot; plan a route through the undergrowth before setting off on the journey, my life would be so much easier. But I’m not built like that. I have a sado-masochistic streak to me that forces me to make my writing life as difficult as possible. Not only am I a pantser, but I’m not a sharer. I shudder at the thought of telling anyone my idea, or asking someone to read the first part of a story to let me know what they think. I don’t even like letting my agent read early versions of my work. For me, getting an idea into something like a story, and a story into something like a book is an act of self-flagellation rivalled only by certain Filipino Catholics during the Penitensiya.

It seems to me that most writers have to go through some kind of pain barrier before they get to a point that they’re happy to start really working on their book. For some it’s the months and weeks of plotting, for others it might be days of endless speculation and navel-gazing. It’s what we do when we’re ‘not writing’, and it took me a while to realise that this was a good thing. Beating yourself up about not writing is a terribly counter-productive thing to do. Yes, it’s all very lovely to sit down each day and crunch your way through two thousand words, but if what you’ve written goes into the recycle bin of your desktop the next day, there was very little point, was there? I know, I’ve done it.
So right now, I’m cooking. I’m not writing, and I’m feeling pretty good about it. Somewhere in the oven of my brain there’s a story taking shape, the ingredients are all there, but I have to wait and see if I have them in the right proportions and if I have the skill to bring them all together into something that is edible and enjoyable.
Hmmm, all these food metaphors. Do you think I’ve possibly been watching too much Masterchef?

Monday, 19 March 2012

Potato's, tomato's and tornado's - a job for @SadApostrophe?

I'm a bit of an apostrophe fascist and don't agree with Michael Rosen that the apostrophe is a waste of space that's better off dead, just because it's tricky for some people to master. So is surgery tricky to learn, but I'd still rather some people make the effort to learn it properly.

It's common to blame falling education standards for all the apostrophes that either go AWOL or turn up uninvited. It's easy to find examples of poor apostrophe hygiene throughout history, though, so this is just another bit of education-bashing. The eviction of the Waterstone's apostrophe (or should than now be 'of Waterstones' apostrophe?) has led to the poor thing setting up a twitter account as @SadApostrophe to aid his/her/its search for another job. Well, I've a suggestion.

The much-maligned greengrocer's apostrophe actually has a valid claim to existence in some cases. Researching Renaissance maps for a historical novel, I came across some that marked dangers to look out for - of the 'hereby monsters' variety, but more plausible. Around the Caribbean, the sailor was to look out for Tornado's. There were no other misplaced apostrophes. Do greengrocers sell Tornado's? I think not.

But suddenly, all becomes clear.... the English spelling is 'tornadoes', of course. But 'tornado' - which is first found in the 1550s, just 20 years before the period I was researching - is probably a mangled form of the Spanish 'tronada'. Navigators who recognised the foreignness of 'tornado' were perhaps using the apostrophe to indicate the 'e' missing from a normally-formed English plural of a word ending in 'o', as in 'toes'. (One theory suggests that the possessive apostrophe always represents a missing 'e', that of the Old English genitive ending '-es'. I don't agree with that theory, but it's there if you like it.)

So that would mean Potatoes can legitimately be rendered Potato's and Tomatoes can be rendered Tomato's. But there is no excuse for Sprout's, Apple's or Pear's. 

Could someone call @SadApostrophe and ask him to send in a CV, please? 

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Orange and Pink by Keren David

The longlist for the Orange prize was published this month, and a fascinating list it is too, taking in books by eight British writers, seven American, three Irish, one Swedish and one Canadian author, on subjects ranging from the love between two Homeric heroes to post 9/11 New York.
 Oh, and they’re all by women. After all, that is the point of the Orange Prize, specifically set up to gain attention for women writers, and address the bias shown in the literary world towards men.  For many  this seems unnecessary, sexist, demeaning, patronising and unfair. However the bias is there – just look at this survey - and so why not have a prize which showcases some of the best writing by women?

Louise Rennison, the first Queen of Teen
 As the Books Editor of the Telegraph points out, prizes have differing values and purpose, and the important thing is to bring good books to the attention of readers.

In British teen fiction we have our very own Orange prize equivalent, and it’s a little more problematic. I’m talking about the Queen of Teen title, which opened for nominations this month.

 What’s good about Queen of Teen?  It recognises the body of work of a writer, not just one book. It gives a chance for writers of books with girls as main characters to be celebrated by the girl readers themselves. Its first two winners were Louise Rennison and Cathy Cassidy, both wonderful authors whose books can be enjoyed by all ages and all genders.

What’s bad about Queen of Teen? Well, check out the award’s website. It uses a font which may well be called Curvy Chicklit. The organisers seem to think that you can’t celebrate girls’ fiction without adopting a weird form of ‘chickspeak’.  Here’s their description of the award ceremony: ‘The super-stylish shortlisted authors arrived in incredible pink limos before entering the marquee where they met some of their biggest fans, nibbled on delish cupcakes, sipped pink lemonade and admired each other’s über-glam outfits.’

The winner sits on a throne, wears a tiara, and everyone dresses in pink. It’s an award ceremony for grown-up authors, styled by a very girly eight-year-old.

 The über-glamness of it all makes it easy to mock, which is a shame.  And the incredible pink frilly sillyness invites one to assume that the books and authors celebrated are silly and frilly as well. Which then leads you on to the notion that most books written by women for girls, often published with covers that feature a certain rosy hue, are the decorative end of children’s literature, as unhealthy and insubstantial as those delish cupcakes.

So, this week we’ve seen Anthony McGowan -  a writer for teens famed for his  mischievousness – beg for nominations as Queen of Teen, even though he's most definitely not Queen material and his books all feature boys as main characters. Furthermore, fantasy writer Zoe Marriott asked for nominations ‘to show that there is more to YA than snogging.’

I’m sure that Tony doesn’t mean to imply that books about girls aren’t as award-worthy as those about boys. And I’m sure that Zoe can’t possibly mean that most YA books aimed at girls are only about snogging – I can’t think of one, anyway (let me know if you do, I'd be very interested to read it).

 This is what the Queen of Teen organisers say about their award. ‘Queen of Teen has to be the most glitzy and glamorous award in the world of books, rewarding the nation's favourite authors of teen fiction. The award was founded in 2008 to celebrate the fantastic teen and tween authors who bring so much enjoyment to their readers, dealing with real-life issues in a way that is honest, entertaining and fun!’

Perhaps they should spell out that Queen of Teen is there to promote contemporary books with girls as main characters, well-written books which often handle difficult subjects with a light or humourous touch. That QoT recognises a bias against girls' fiction in the world of children's literature, and wants to reassure girls that the authors that they enjoy are more substantial and important than adults sometimes realise or recognise.

 Do we need Queen of Teen? After all the Romantic Novelists Association have just introduced a YA award, won for the first time by debut author Caroline Green for her book Dark Ride.  Teen authors are usually over-represented on shortlists for the Costa Book Award, the Carnegie Medal and the Branford Boase.  But, since the demise of the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the only other national award specifically for teen books that I can think of is the older age section of the UKLA award. The shortlist, out this week, is dominated by Kings of Teen -  Kevin, Phil, Andy, Kenneth and Carnegie-winning Patrick, all writing about boys (in fact, one book is called iBoy, another is Half Brother and yet another includes a boy’s name, Billy) The only woman author is Lindsey Barraclough, author of Long Larkin.

 Of course, I have nothing against  these wonderful books and authors, and indeed, with a first book called When I was Joe and a preference for writing boy characters, I’d look very foolish to begin to complain about a possible bias towards boy books. I do suspect though that part of the reason why 'boy' books do well, is that girl readers are happier to read a book about a boy than boys are to pick up anything with the pink and sparkly covers that marketing types love so much. All the more reason for an award that celebrates books for and about girls.

 If I wrote ‘girl’ books and Queen of Teen was my best chance of recognition, I think I’d be feeling pretty upset by the way that other authors mock me and my kind of book, and by the way the QoT organisers play into their hands.  Girly books have enough prejudice to contend with, without the people who like it making things worse.

 I know there is prejudice, because when my daughter was ten (before I started writing for children) I was less than impressed (why? I'm not sure)  to see her reading books which looked 'girly' -  until I discovered the excellent books by Cathy Cassidy, Karen McCombie and Hilary McKay hiding behind those covers. Recently, a friend of mine complained that her 10-year-old daughter was reading 'terrible' books - she was talking about Cathy Cassidy. Needless to say she had never read any of her books, and I was able to put her right.

 Awards aren't just for authors. They exist to recognise all sorts of excellence, and encourage more young readers, and the adult gate-keepers who guide them, to learn about more books. Queen of Teen is part of that process. It’d just be nice if they could step away from the pink and towards the Orange.

Friday, 16 March 2012

To Boldly Go - Linda Strachan

Twenty years ago if you had told me I would be writing this today I would probably have laughed at the very idea.  I had no real aspirations to be a published writer, in fact it was not even on the horizon. I got my first publishing contract in 1996 and I have never looked back.  Today I can't imagine why I didn't start writing long before that.

I often tell my young audiences  'I have the best job in the world'

Having a job doing something you love is a delight and a privilege, even if it is almost scary (just in case someone decides that you are actually a fraud and stops letting you do it any more!).  To discover that a book I have written has encouraged someone to start reading is wonderful.  To hear that someone has enjoyed reading my books or is encouraged to start writing themselves because of something I have said or written, lights up my day.

I'm not saying there aren't times when it is hard and things are not quite so wonderful.  It seems like all doom and gloom out there, with all the problems that libraries, librarians and  school librarians are having with closures, no funding and job cuts, and the retail side of things being squashed until there are so few bookshops left; not to mention publishers and publishing contracts being even harder to come by.

But despite all that.....

But what's not to like?

I wake up in the morning and I get to be anyone or anything I like.

A  'booky' dragon or perhaps a secret agent,

 a teenager, a five year old child, a man or a woman, a boy or a girl

or a cuddly haggis!
Hamish McHaggis (illus Sally J Collins)

Sometimes even an alien...
Zoola (Illus. Julian Mosedale)

Becoming something or someone else has its drawbacks and I have to admit that sometimes my characters, particularly the teenage ones, have a bit of a hard time and often tears are involved.

But I believe in being positive and I believe in the possibilities of the future so somewhere, even in the harshest story, there is a always glimmer of hope.

Another great part of my job is research.  I find out so many fascinating things because I often find myself having to write about things I know nothing about.  I need to do research and that leads to discovering all sorts of fascinating facts about things I never knew I had any real interest in!

 Fizzkid Liz  (Illus Woody)
I was once writing a story about a girl who had a time travelling pogo stick (...well why not?) and she ended up in prehistoric times.
I had to find an expert who knew where a pterodactyl would build its nest - whether it was in a tree or on a cliff, or somewhere else.  So I made a phone call or two and it turns out pterodactyls were all different sizes and also there is no hard evidence about where they built their nests, which was good news because it meant that to a certain extent I could make it up and it would still be right.

I've discovered that people can be incredibly helpful when they find out you are a writer, researching for a book.

 I've been invited to see the emergency services in training and had a chance to find out about police dogs and horses and armed response units.

Part of my job involves a fair bit of travelling.  I travel to visit schools, nurseries, libraries, festivals, conferences, writing groups and writing retreats and I have been invited all over the UK to places as far apart as Shetland, Kent, Cardiff and Tiree.

Last year I lucky enough to go to New Zealand where I was invited to visit schools in North Island and met lots of great children and teachers there.  I was also in Sydney to speak to the Sydney Writers about writing for children and in a few weeks time I will be travelling to Cairo to speak at an International school there.

I love seeing new places,  meeting new people and hearing their stories, whether they are about a child's escaping rabbit, or their hope to become an author, or an astronaut.  And it's not just the children who have fascinating stories to tell.   I hear stories of ordinary lives that are full of heroism and daily acts of courage.  There are truly stories everywhere, if you stop to listen.

I have the best job I could imagine. There are times it is very hard work and exhausting, and when the writing is difficult and not working out right which makes me want to throw it all in the bucket.  

There are other times such as when my first teenage novel, Spider, won the Catalyst Book Award - voted by teenagers themselves - that are moments of pure gold!

There will always be disappointments but also moments of joy, and wonderfully supportive colleagues in the other writers I meet.

So for me, this is definitely the best job in the world!

Linda Strachan writes books for all ages, from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing for Children
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