Monday, 30 April 2012

The answer to your question... depends on who you are (Anne Rooney)

Google tailors the results of your searches to suit what it thinks you want to find. That sounds quite benign and helpful, doesn't it? Sometimes, it is helpful. But I don't want Google - a mindless machine - to filter information. I know better than Google what I'm interested in. And sometimes, I might be looking not for what I want to find but for what someone else would find.

The Google bias came into sharp focus the other day when I was doing some research for a new novel. On my laptop, a Google images search for 'Borromeo' came up with just the right thing - lots of images of a sixteenth-century cardinal. I wanted to print one to stick in my workbook for the novel, but the colour printer isn't wifi'd to the Mac, so I did the same search on the PC, logged in as Small Bint.

This time, Google images showed lots of pictures of an Italian model called Beatrice Borromeo.

So Google knows I like dead cardinals and Small Bint likes fashion. This seems harmless, if irritating. But now I'm worried. What if there is a porn star or a serial killer called Borromeo? I won't see his image when searching for Borromeo. Small Bint won't - she'll see fashion models. Now posit a reader of this novel-in-progress. And let's suppose the reader shares a computer with a family member who likes looking at porn sites or real crime sites. When they search for more info about the character, they see the porn star or the vicious killer.

Google's tailored search results make it hard to check that things are safe. I've always Googled the names of principal characters, just in case. But now Google is so careful not to show me what it thinks I don't want to see, who knows what other people will find?

Of course, it's possible to search not logged in as anyone, or go to the library and search on a different computer. But I don't like the idea that the information has been filtered like this. And I don't like having to remember that Google's top results might not overlap with what someone completely different would see.

If I were to come over all philosophical, I'd say it was quite profound - do I see blue like you see blue? Do things I don't know about exist? Nice as the philosophical pondering is, when you just want to know if a character is a cardinal, a model or a porn star, it's not much use.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Now there's a thought... by Sue Purkiss

I read Ann Evans' post yesterday with great interest, and - all right, I admit it, just a tiny little bit of envy. She seems to have so many ideas that she turns into stories. At the end, she asked what was the oddest object/place/thing to have inspired her readers so far. Hm, I thought, trying to remember even one. Could be struggling here.

It was at this point that I glanced up at the calendar that hangs above my desk - and saw that the next Abba post was to be by, er, me. Curses! Not an idea in sight for that either. I reached for my notebook, desperately seeking inspiration.

And I got a bit of a surprise. First I came across the preliminary notes for a Christmas story about a small witch who lived in a large cave at Wookey Hole, which is not far from here. That was printed in the local paper last Christmas. Had forgotten about that. The seed for it was planted a very long time ago, when I made up a story for my little niece (who, incidentally, has just got married) about the Witch of Wookey, after we'd been to visit Wookey Hole. Apparently she was terrified by it for ages afterwards. If ONLY I could remember it.... the recent one was a very much milder version.

Then I came across the beginnings of a story inspired by my grandson, who is undeniably gorgeous but also on occasion Rather Naughty. Hm, I thought, reading about the mother who was a Very Fast Knitter. Intriguing. Must come back to that when I've finished climbing the mountain-so-much-higher-than-Everest that is my current work in progress.

Next up: the beginnings of a story about an old man who has to give up his allotment. Not very thrilling, you may mistakenly think - believe me, that story will plumb the darkest depths of the human heart: full of drama, tragedy and pathos, it will leave you feeling wrung out, such will be its power. (If I ever finish it.)

Turn over a few pages, and onto the stage comes the Willow Man. I've already written a book about him, so he really can't complain, but he's currently being threatened by a gigantic Morrison's warehouse apparently made out of green Lego - so perhaps he's due for another story.

And finally, one that's been niggling away since I went to Brittany two years ago and visited the inn where Gauguin and  some of his friends stayed for a few months: the Buvette de la Plage. But that one's still on the boil: no, no,  it doesn't matter how much you plead, I won't tell you another word. (The picture was taken nearby.)

So what have I learnt from this exercise?

  1. You should from time to time actually look through all those notes you've made in that oh-so-pretty notebook.
  2. It's not just about having ideas - it's about actually doing something with them.
  3. Hurrah! I have more ideas than I thought I did.

Now - I suppose I'd really better get on with the mountain-in-progress - and then I can take some of those fine ideas out, dust 'em off, shake 'em out, and show them the light of day...

Friday, 27 April 2012

Dreams and Old Tin Cans by Ann Evans

Often when on a school visit I’ll talk to the children about where they get their ideas and inspirations from for their stories; and I'll tell them where the inspiration has come from for my books.

Their suggestions usually include getting ideas from watching television, or from books and newspapers, or from places they visit and so on. Generally someone will come up with the suggestion of getting ideas from dreams – and if they don’t - I’ll remind them that dreams – and nightmares are often a great source of inspiration.

Usually at the mention of nightmares they shy away and pull faces, until I tell them about the nightmare I had. It was a few years ago now, but that doesn’t matter, I tell them of how I’d dreamed of a horribly monstrous grave digger – and I'll do a swift impression so they get the picture! I tell them how I woke up in a cold sweat but instead of letting the bad dream worry or frighten me, I made good use of it - I scribbled it down on a scrap of paper by my bed.

A few weeks later I spotted a writing competition for a short horror story. I looked back over my notes written in the dark in the dead of night, and wrote them up as a scary story which went on to take first prize – and £200.

Every pair of eyes in the classroom always light up at this and I can almost imagine them begging their parents to let them have a nice chunk of cheese at supper-time in the hope they’ll have a nightmare!

It's all good fun yet true. I don’t know about other writers, but most of my stories and books – or scenes in books or characters have been sparked by something specific and it’s usually the oddest little thing.

A stained glass window inches deep in cobwebs that I’d spotted on holiday in North Devon found its way into Disaster Bay; the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons provided one of my favourite scenes in Cry Danger; an abandoned canal boat formed the basis for Fishing for Clues and a skull I spotted in a little Scottish museum was the trigger for my Beast trilogy.
A prehistoric skull inspired my Beast books.
But probably the oddest object that sparked the idea for a little horror story I called Bad Dreams came from a drinks can. I was driving at night with my grandson, Jake. He'd finished his can of pop, crushed the can slightly then placed it on the dashboard. As I was driving, certain street lights brought its reflection up in my line of vision. The dents he’d made somehow transformed the image I was seeing from a tin can to a face - a macabre bodiless face that was white and haunting... A storyline was already forming in my head by the time we’d got home.

We get our ideas and inspirations from all over the place. But what, I wonder - has been the oddest object/place/thing that has inspired you so far?

Ann Evans

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Remembering Diana Wynne Jones - Cathy Butler

Last Sunday found me at St George’s in Bristol, a deconsecrated church now used as a concert hall, and frequently the venue from which BBC lunchtime concerts are broadcast. What brought me there was not music, but a celebration of the life and work Diana Wynne Jones, who died last year, and who was both one of the best British children’s writers of her generation and, I’m proud to say, a friend.

I’d had some part in organizing and publicizing the event, but we weren’t sure how many people were actually going to turn up. We knew we could count on fifty or so family, friends and fans, but it was gratifying to see something close to two hundred people in the hall. Downstairs in the crypt there was a sale of spare copies of Diana’s books, accumulated over the years from her many publishers. The translated editions were made into a tottering Babel Tower, from which I was able to claim a rare German copy of The Skiver's Guide, published as Handbuch zum Wegtauchen. Proceeds went to St Peter’s Hospice, where she died in March 2011 (and it’s still not too late to contribute!). In the next alcove, Blackwells were selling advance copies of Reflections, a collection of her essays and lectures that’s being published in a few days by David Fickling. I contributed an introduction, and also conducted an interview with Diana for the book just a few weeks before she died, so perhaps I’m not altogether impartial when I tell you to rush out and buy a copy. But you really should.

The event itself consisted mostly of short talks by those who knew Diana well, in her personal or professional life (and often both): her sisters and her sons; her editors and agent; fans, friends, translators...  There were also clips from the adaptations of her work: Miyazaki’s animated Howl’s Moving Castle, the BBC dramatization of Archer’s Goon, and even an excerpt from the ballet of Black Maria written by her nephew, Tom Armstrong. As is the way of such events, laughter and tears were never far away or far apart. In the end, I believe we approached Diana from enough angles that we managed by a process of - not triangulation, perhaps, but polygonization? - to conjure her, if in a fitful way like a Star Wars hologram. It was the kind of event where one thought, "I wish Diana could see this - she'd really enjoy it!"

We still have her books, but I’ll miss her. I’ll miss her, but we have her books.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

One Thousand, Two Thousand, Three Thousand, CHECK!

Writing for a living and being beset with self-doubt go hand-in-hand. In becoming an author, you might as well face up to the fact that anxiety and angst are your new best friends.

And I don’t care how famous you are, the gig is still the same.

Nothing you do is ever going to be good enough. Get used to that, and get over it. Your previous works will seem a little clunky, and full of passages you wish you could rewrite (regardless of how proud of them you are). Your latest manuscript  - the one you’re working on right now, or at least would be working on if you weren’t reading this blog – has, in your opinion, gone from being a ‘sure fire winner’, to ‘something with legs’, to ‘hmmm, is this really the book I set out to write?’ You’ll curse yourself for wasting nine/ten/twelve/twenty-four* (*delete as appropriate) months on the damn thing when you could have been working on that other ‘whizzer idea’ you’ve thought of (the one you’re sure everyone will love.) All normal, all okay. Again, get used to it, and get over it.

This all sounds like pretty woeful stuff. But there’s a flip side to this self-imposed torture. It’s this very self-doubt that makes you strive to make your work the best it can be (and in doing so, become the best writer you can be). It’s the thing that makes you edit your work to within an inch of its life; worry about the weak points in the plot, and go back and shore them up; to ensure that the characters are as rounded and believable as you can make them.

Once you recognise both sides of the coin, you can turn what, on the face of it, could become a paralysing and demotivating factor into a positive strength. Your doubt is what makes you seek out the flaws in your work (that, and bloody good editor), and in doing so you are able to address them and turn your work into something finer than it would otherwise have been. Writers who appear not to have any of this doubt (and let’s face it, we’ve all met a few) are unable to recognise the weaknesses in their work, and if you’re unable to put your finger on the flaws, well, you ain’t gonna be able to fix ‘em.

There’s a thin line between love and hate, and an even thinner one between using your self-doubt as a positive force and allowing it to destroy your confidence. Writers, especially new ones (hark at me), can focus too much on their weakness, telling themselves that they’re not good enough, and end up stultifying their talent. Hey, nobody said this writing malarkey was easy. If it was, anyone would be able to knock out a book, ignore the editing process, pop it up for sale on an online bookseller’s site for 99p or give it away. Oh, er, hang on a minute…

I was giving a talk recently about writing for children, and somebody asked me what the hardest thing about writing was. I told them it was taking that initial leap of faith. Because that’s what it is. We all sit on the lip of the airplane door and tell ourselves that we can’t do it. The man behind us is screaming at us to, “GO, GO, GO!”, but there are a million reasons NOT to jump. Eventually, it’s those brave souls who shout, “Geronimo,” and throw themselves out into the void who are the people with the biggest grins on their faces at the end of the day. I tell people who want to write, to simply sit down and do so. Don’t worry TOO much about the mistakes you’ll make, but do worry about them enough to recognise that they can be a positive thing.

So, here’s to all the skydiver writers out there.


Tuesday, 24 April 2012

My D’oh Moments by Karen King

I’m never short of ideas for stories, anything can start my imagination going, an overheard comment, a line from a song, a newspaper article, people going about their daily lives, they’re all fodder for my over-active mind. And once I get an idea I run with it to see just where it will take me, I don’t put any restrictions or barriers on it I just go with the flow, writing away whatever comes into my head. The trouble is, sometimes I’ve got so carried away with the idea that I’ve forgotten to think whether I’ve got my facts right. I used to write for the Rainbow comic – remember the Rainbow TV programme with Bungle, Zippy and George back in the 80’s? Zippy was a hand puppet, a fact I completely forget when I had this wonderful idea for a comic strip set in a shoe shop where Zippy was trying on lots of shoes. I can’t remember what happened in the actual story but I can remember my editor phoning me up and saying “Karen, that’s a great story but there’s one problem...Zippy hasn’t got feet!” D’oh!

From then on I resolved to check, check and recheck my work to make sure not only the grammar and punctuation were right, but that the characters were consistent and true to their personality/characteristics. Despite that, I’ve had several other D’oh! moments in my writing career like the time an editor telephoned me to tell me that I had to change the name of a spider in my children’s story because the name I’d chosen was a rather rude slang word for a certain part of the female body.

Recently, I had another D’oh! moment when running a writing workshop with some children, creating a story based around the Olympics. One of the characters wasn’t very sporty but was great at walking really fast so we had him entering the Marathon. Then I remembered that the Marathon was a running not a walking race. D’oh! So we had to change it to Race Walking. At least the children learnt a valuable lesson, when you’re writing your story remember to get your facts right.
What about you? Have you had any D’oh! moments?

Monday, 23 April 2012

From student to teacher by Keren David

Can you teach people to write for children? I think you can. Although I've been a professional writer all my adult life, I don't think I'd have made the shift to writing YA novels without the course I attended at City University.
The course helped me focus on what I wanted to write, and gave me ideas about how. It challenged me to have a go at all sorts of writing, and it gave me a chance to relax and have fun with writing stories as well.

Recommended reading: picture books
Last term I was very flattered to be asked to take over teaching that very same course. I was nervous and excited when I met my first batch of students last January.

Over the course of ten weeks, we talked about every type of children’s writing, from picture books through to YA and crossover novels. I picked a list of recommended reading (that wasn't easy) which included classics and contemporary novels.

We analysed what made them work, talked about structure and word length, ways of planning and plotting and just giving it a go. We talked about getting published, approaching agents and joining helpful groups like SCWBI.  Maurice Lyon, editorial director at Frances Lincoln Children’s Books was kind enough to come and share his wisdom about all aspects of children’s publishing (I learned a few things!).

Recommended reading: chapter books
Every week my students tackled one or two writing exercises. The first week I brought in a selection of interesting objects - a broken bracelet, a wooden fox, a ship in a bottle - and asked them to come up with a story outline. They scratched their heads, they discussed, they wrote and crossed things out. ‘That was hard,’ said one lady. She never came back.

Others did though, and tried their hands at exercises for plot-planning, character building, world-imagining, finding your voice. We looked for stories in our own backgrounds, we rewrote traditional tales. Every week some students found the exercise particularly difficult, others had their breakthrough moment. Some only attended a few classes, others found it had a profound effect on how they thought about their whole lives.

Recommended reading: YA
I didn’t set homework, but suggested that everyone should try and write something by the end of the course to share with the group. The suggested length was 1,500 words. Some wrote picture books, others started YA and MG novels. One started writing a novel while she was doing the course - she’d reached 21,000 words by week ten. Someone else wrote a non-fiction picture book. I have to admit that I was full of pride at the excellence of their creations, even though I wasn’t sure how much I’d contributed to them. My students were so enthusiastic that they’ve set up a writing group to continue their efforts – we’re meeting up for the first time this week.

I learned a lot from teaching the class. It was actually very helpful to discuss areas of children’s writing which I’d never tried myself - fantasy, say, or picture books. I also realised how important it was to step away from formal ‘how to’ teaching, and give students the chance to talk about how writing made them feel vulnerable and nervous. That’s why writing exercises were important. They force you to come up with instant ideas, which often aren’t great - how can they be after ten minutes thought? At first everyone was striving for excellence, for a polished finished product. Then gradually they realised that the whole point of writing in class was to show that getting started doesn’t have to be perfect, it can’t possibly be polished, but it is possible in an hour to go from a blank mind and page to the start of something that might grow. That's what I'm going to try and explain to my students right at the start of term this time. I still feel bad about the lady who never came back.

 If you’re interested in signing up for the course, and you're free on a Tuesday night between 6.30 and 8.30pm, and you can get to Islington, details are here.  I’d love to see you there.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Ideas and Creativity - They are fragile things. Linda Strachan

A strange thing happened to me recently.  I was given an idea.
It was given into my care.  I can't wait to use it.

It happened when I got chatting to a chap who was sitting beside me on a plane, returning from a school visit to Cairo a few weeks ago. It turned out that we had both been on the same plane leaving from London at the beginning of the week. In fact we had exchanged a few words of courtesy, as one sometimes does with fellow travellers, while waiting in a queue.
So when we ended up sitting next to each other on the way home, we struck up a conversation. The usual thing about the reasons we had been travelling, the kind of work we each did etc.  During this conversation we got to talking about writing and he told me how he had written a story when he was at school, the only fiction he can recall writing.  He told me a little about the story and I was intrigued.

I found the central idea fascinating and immediately I found myself exploring ideas, and different scenarios started bouncing about in my head.

He told me his English teacher had not been too impressed with his story because it was not the piece of writing his teacher had wanted. They had been doing research on a subject and the teacher had assumed the essay would be about this subject and not an imaginative piece of writing.

Now, while I can understand that a teacher would be irritated by the end result not being what he had expected, although from what I understood it had not been made clear that the work had to reflect the classwork, I cannot understand why that teacher was quite so destructive in his comments.

The chap said that afterwards he had never felt any inclination to write anything again.  While he had been telling me about what his teacher had said to him I could see that there was an underlying resentment that his work, his enthusiasm for the idea that he had turned into a story, had been discarded so brutally. Not  with a comment such as   'This wasn't what I was looking for.'  which might have been fairly reasonable, but he was told that he had
" ..wasted four hours of his life, with this rubbish!"

He said he wondered why he had even told me the story because he hadn't thought about it for years . But even after all this time, it was obvious that it had been a deep cutting remark that stayed with him. I asked if he wouldn't perhaps write the story now, since the idea was obviously one he was still taken by.
But he said no, he wouldn't, but if I wanted to I was welcome to use it and if it got published, perhaps I could name him in the credits.  Watch this space!

His story reminded me of how I used to believe I had no imagination because when I was about seven my teacher had actually written in my report card    
               'Lacks imagination'. 
The problem was that I believed her and wore that description like a badge. It never occurred to me that she might be wrong. It may even have been the reason why I never considered the possibility of becoming a writer until I had was an adult with children of my own.   I sometimes wonder if teachers are actually aware how much power they have to nurture or damage that fragile creativity in children.

Creativity is a fragile thing that can be easily wrecked and shattered by destructive criticism, no matter what age you are.  It is one reason why I deliberate and use careful language when I am asked to evaluate someone's writing.   Most writers are fragile about their work, me included. It is important to get honest evaluation of your writing but we also need to hear good things about what we do, because most of us don't think we are any good, or at least not good enough.  It is not that we are looking for flattery, because empty praise is useless indeed.

A few days ago I was watching a re run of one of the Parky interviews with Kenneth Williams.  One of the other guests was Sir John Betjeman and at one point they were talking about critics and press cuttings.

Sir John Betjeman said he read them with dread because he believed anything that was said against him was true, and that anything said in his favour was flattery.  He said he never believed he was any good at all!

 How much does criticism affect you?

Linda Strachan writes books for all ages, from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing for Children
Blog Bookwords where you can find out more about her trip to MES Cairo

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Reasonable Flatmates – Make Art, not War by Lynda Waterhouse

Many years from now archaeologists working in South London will uncover a concrete slab inscribed with a heart with two initials, MG and LW. There is a slogan above the heart that says Reasonable Forever. What does it mean?

Twenty years ago Matthew Groves and I lived in a damp dilapidated short life housing co-op in the then unfashionable Elephant and Castle. We filled the empty house with his kiln, my Amstrad computer and an eclectic collection of furniture including a green baize card table from a gentleman’s club and a Bakerlite rocking chair all liberated from skips. We covered the drafty windows with clingfilm and entered into the role of being flat mates.

We navigated the storm and petty squalls of house sharing. We did each others washing up, tolerated guests, paid bills on time, kept our distance, never left each other complaining notes and always whistled the theme tune of the X Files as we sat down to watch it. We called ourselves The Reasonable Flatmates and it was in this creative environment that I began to develop my writing skills. Matthew left for the U.S to follow his heart and his art.

Here is Matthew’s current work entitled Harvest and created in response to the events of 9/11. If you live in Chicago you can see it at Gallery UNO until 30th April.

The curator Barbara Goebels-Cattaneo says ‘For his exhibition, “Harvest”, Matthew Groves created two pieces of ceramics work dealing with these complex and often conflicting matters. “Oranges and Lemons”, two huge tapered vessels, remind us of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, with their characteristic vertical stripes. Also reminiscent of cinerary urns, filled with ashes and memories, Matthew Groves decided to mount them so that they can be rung like bells, bells of mourning, bells of freedom, division bells, “The Bells of Rhymney”, a poem dealing with the conditions of coalmining in Wales during the 1920ies, to which Matthew Groves refers. The vessels without bases are permanently unenclosed, open to new thoughts which echo inside, ready to call for a peaceful revolution. ‘

Matthew was also inspired by the documentary ‘The Cats of Mirikitani’ about the artist Jimmy Mirikitani. Jimmy claims ‘Make art, not war.’

Here’s hoping that those creative thoughts are echoing and resonating inside you and that you make art, not war today.

Reasonable Flatmates Forever!

Thursday, 19 April 2012

No Signal Savita Kalhan

I’ve just returned from an old friend’s 50th birthday weekend in Shropshire where we stayed in a youth hostel, a first for me, for a weekend of walking, talking and celebrating. The hostel was in a valley without internet connection, mobile phone reception and television. We had taken books, walking gear, food and drink, and that was about it. It was a sort of reunion too, with many of us not having seen each other since Uni almost thirty years ago.

A twelve mile hike across the Long Mynd was the biggest challenge. Some of the hills felt like mountains, the ravines were deep and treacherous in places, but the views were stunning and the pub at the end of the walk felt like a haven. On a difficult descent one of the group lost his footing and slipped right in front of me. We both heard the doom-laden cracking sound his ankle made! With no phone signals, some of us trekked ahead until we found reception, and an air ambulance was called. He turned up later at the youth hostel with a pair of crutches supporting a broken ankle.
There were about 50 of us for the big dinner on the Saturday night, which was followed by a trip to the local pub where turns were taken by those of us who could sing a good story, and it turned out there were a few who could do it very well. I can’t sing, so I listened and wished that I could sing a story with as much aplomb!

What really struck me, apart from the beauty of south Shropshire, was how I’ve been spending much of my spare time over the past couple of years. I’ve been raising my profile as a new writer, tweeting, blogging, google plussing, tweeting some more... Some of that has been very, very helpful. I’ve made lots of wonderful friends through it, developed contacts, got to know the industry far better than I knew it before I began, all of which have been absolutely brilliant and much of it necessary. You do have to know as much as you can about the industry you are in. But the working day became increasingly stretched out so that writing and all the things associated with profile-raising and being a writer could be crammed in.

Spare time was no longer spare time, and somewhere along the line the balance tipped too far in that direction, and I almost wish I didn’t have a smart phone, which allowed me to access my emails, my twitter account and all the rest of it, at weekends and strange times of the day and night, or made me feel that I should be constantly checking in just in case I missed something important. Well, I couldn’t check in at all this weekend, and I don’t think I missed anything, did I? So I’ve decided not to check my emails late in the evenings or at the weekends, unless I’m expecting something urgent. Nor shall I tweet, unless I’ve got something interesting to tweet about, or retweet.

I’m not going completely cold turkey, or #goingdark in tweetspeak, but I do feel the need to rebalance everything and claw back some precious hours to write another book before I forget how to write anything that’s longer than 140 characters!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Signature Peace - Joan Lennon

Don't get me wrong - I love book signing. I'm even not too irritated by scruffy-scraps-of-paper-doomed-to-be lost-before-break-time signing. I draw the line at signing flesh or school shirts or books written by other people, but that's just because I'm scared of angry mothers and the prospect of Roald Dahl rising from the dead. But just because I love doing it, doesn't mean I'm completely confident.

There are so many things to not be sure about.

For example, the other day I was signing a sheet of sticky labels at top speed (the labels were to put in the books of kids who'd forgotten to bring in their money but still wanted to buy one, and the speed was because I was up to the wire in terms of catching the train home) and someone leaned over my shoulder and said in a slightly disappointed tone, "Oh. I can read your signature." And it's true. I'm legible. How boring.

Or what about the other things writers write when their signing? "To So-and-So" - well, early on I learned from an experienced author to always have some spare paper and an extra pen for children to write their first names on. You CAN'T just wing it, and it is a law of nature that the child with the most obscurely-spelt name is also the one with the tiny, tiny voice ...

And THEN what? Some words of wisdom? A pertinent - or even impertinent - joke? What about the date - do you put down the date? And don't even get me started on those wretches who can just doodle up a terrific little drawing, right then and there, while being watched with all that adoration ...

Nobody gives lessons in this stuff - until now! I declare that Book Signing 101 is now open for applicants - and tutors!

So, writers among you - will you tell the rest of us? What do YOU write when you sign books?

And readers? What would YOU like to see on the frontispiece of your purchase? Remembering, please, that the author may very well be hoping to catch a train ...

Cheers, Joan.

Visit Joan's website.
Visit Joan's blog.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Page Proofs - how to get rid of nits and lay frogs to rest - Dianne Hofmeyr

With the sea thundering in and the incredible view from this worktop, I’d like to say I’m scribbling away with words flowing faster than my fingers can type. But it’s odd how work timetables catch one out and page proofs in particular have a way of popping up at the least opportune moment. So instead of being on holiday and in full creative mode, I am doing fine-tooth combing on a novel set in a place that couldn’t be more far removed from the sea.

It’s reminded me of how chameleon-like writers have to be.
And page proofs are double-edged swords. It’s exciting to see the formally laid-out pattern the words make on the page – the story is captured never to be undone – but at the same time this moment of absolute finality is terrifying. There’s not much more you can do about it – a comma might help, italics here and there, a word replaced with something that zings more. With a bit of luck one might even get way with a few inserted sentences – a sleight of hand that is made to appear just as a tweak, lest your editor gets too upset. But basically the novel is all there in print. No more ‘what if’s’.
On the other hand, because it’s viewed in print for the first time, the story comes through as a surprise too and often seems much fresher than that tired manuscript that was rewritten and rewritten. Time seems to distance the author from the work so there’s almost the feeling ‘did I write this?’ And if you can forget about the gruelling task that lies ahead of fine-tooth combing, one can almost begin to enjoy the story. In truth even the fine-combing is enjoyable – who doesn’t like to get rid of nits?
And after a very, very long journey, soon the book will be out there
So while I might appear as if I’m staring out over the sea, I’m really in the heart of the Okavango Swamps in Botswana with pythons and man-eating crocodiles and only a red Victorinox Explorer Swiss Army knife for protection against dynamite-brandishing crooks with a sinister goal – to collect poisons from the most venomous frog of all – the Golden Poison Dart Frog in Colombia.
It’s not called Phyllobates terribilis for nothing. It has enough toxins to kill ten to twenty people. Poison can last up to a year. Just a single grain on an envelope or stamp would kill anyone licking it.’

OLIVER STRANGE and the Journey to the Swamps is the first of a 3 part series entitled FROG DIARIES that will be published by Tafelberg in June 2012

Saturday, 14 April 2012

When in Doubt, Rave About the Moomins

I think it's quite a good piece of guidance for life in general, but it's certainly useful for those times when you suddenly notice that you're supposed to be writing a blog post for Saturday and you forgot to start thinking of possible topics in plenty of time.

So I will rave about the Moomins. Just in case you don't know them, they are a family of cuddly and intriguing trolls, created by the Finnish author Tove Jansson back in the 1940s and still delighting children and adults all over the world (including me) today.

Many of the books I loved as a child disappoint me when I go back to read them now. That's not necessarily a fault of the books; it can simply be a matter of intended audience. It always surprises and delights me when books do stand the test of time; especially the test of growing up. 

I often tell myself I read for entertainment and escapism, to alleviate boredom, supply companionship and enjoy language. All those things are true. But I think the main reason I read (and always did) is to discover the magic formula for living. I still haven't found it, I know that much. It's what some people call an instruction manual, a kind of Hitchhiker's Guide to Life, but it's far more than that. Or it would be, should it exist. It would assure me of my place in things. Not too big a place - crushed by responsibility - but not too small, either. The bed and the bowl of porridge that are 'just right'.

So at times when I'm despairing of ever finding a way to accept myself, or when I doubt that the mush I call myself is even worth accepting, it's very important to have the right book - or series - to hand. The Moomins fit that bill. There's a central family: Moominpappa, Moominmamma and their son Moomintroll. They are smooth and round and covered in white, velvety fur. On a bad-weight day, that's exactly how I'd like to look. Tummies are fine in Moomin Valley. In fact, any size or shape or colour or hair/fur-type or personality is fine. You can disappear for months on end like Moomintroll's pal Snufkin, and turn up on the first day of spring to a wondrously warm welcome. You can hibernate all winter, presumably missing Christmas (hurray!) You can be brash and noisy like the Hemulen, a thoughtful philospher or a mischievous child  like Little My.

Life can be dangerous in Moomin Valley and beyond: this is not happy-ever-after land. There are always threats lurking - earthquakes, comets, tidal waves, floods, volcanoes and avalanches. The Hattifatteners, despite their name, are seriously scary electrically-charged beasties thtat grow from the ground in thunderstorms. There's a most unpleasant Groke, who sits on everyone and everything to try to warm herself, squashing the life out of you in the process.

Tove Jansson's love of nature, the sea, boats, landfalls and the offshore islands of her native land permeate these books. That's one of the reasons they work for grown-ups, too. But the main reason they work for me, I think, is that I just know that if I were to turn up in Moomin Valley one sunny April day, Moominmamma would put another leaf-plate on the table and tell me to sit down. I could find my own place in that extended family, which might include spending whole days or weeks alone but knowing there'd be a big velvety cuddle waiting for me when I needed it.

That's my definition of heaven, I think...

These books are inspired and if you, you children and your grand-children haven't discovered them yet, then you have a lifetime of treats in store, so dive in.