Monday, 30 April 2012
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.
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
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.
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?
- You should from time to time actually look through all those notes you've made in that oh-so-pretty notebook.
- It's not just about having ideas - it's about actually doing something with them.
- 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
|A prehistoric skull inspired my Beast books.|
Thursday, 26 April 2012
We still have her books, but I’ll miss her. I’ll miss her, but we have her books.
Wednesday, 25 April 2012
Tuesday, 24 April 2012
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.
Monday, 23 April 2012
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|
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|
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 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
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
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
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
Friday, 20 April 2012
Many years from now archaeologists working in
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
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. “
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
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!
Tuesday, 17 April 2012
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 ...
Visit Joan's website.
Visit Joan's blog.
Monday, 16 April 2012
Saturday, 14 April 2012
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.