Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Welcome to the Audio Entertainment Center - Andrew Strong

Imagine you’re taking a group of ten year olds to the cinema. The film is eighty minutes long, and you've promised them it’ll be good.

Because it’s a special occasion you buy cartons of popcorn and other forms of mind altering confection.  Now your ten year olds are ready to be entertained. 

However, now let’s imagine it’s not an eighty minute film that awaits them but something else.

“Kids,” you announce, “I hope you won’t kill me when I tell you, but this isn’t actually a cinema.  It’s a brand new entertainment centre, and you are the first lucky visitors!”

Mouths spill with sticky-sweet gunk, eyes are wide in sugar-fuelled readiness.

“What is it?” they squeal and spit.  They imagine some form of multi-dimensional kaleidoscopic virtual reality.

“Kids,” you say, hardly able to contain your excitement. “This is the world’s first Audio Book Entertainment Centre!”

There is silence.  A peanut M and M can be heard hitting the carpet. 

“What?” says the first child.  “Audio book?”

“Yes!” you exclaim, “a whole book! Don't worry, it's the same length as a movie!”

“We’re just going to listen?” says a second.

The notion is preposterous, isn’t it? That any child, or any human being, would wish to sit in an audience and listen to an audio book for close to an hour and a half.  This difference shouldn’t astonish any of us.  But it demonstrates the supremacy of what we look at over what we listen to.

Could it be that since the advent of cinema and TV many of us have lost the ability to sustain listening with attention? And does it get worse with each generation?  Is listening attentively that much more demanding than watching a DVD? 

Here’s a bit of science: auditory nerves develop in human beings around the sixth prenatal month. The equivalent visual nerves are not fully developed until the sixth postnatal month. Our brains want us to listen first.

Maryanne Wood, in her excellent study of reading “Proust and the Squid”, states that by the age of five children from ‘impoverished-language environments’ have heard ‘32 million fewer words spoken to them than the average middle class child.’

Something needs to be done to plug the gap. Teachers could do it, but they are encouraged to use whiteboards and other wizardy pyrotechnics and visual magic. No one is allowed to just talk to children anymore. 

I believe listening is fundamental to children’s development, and as I am the sort of person who likes to believe serious, scientific things, I’ve decided I’m on a mission to create a form of listening that closes the gap between the dominance of looking over listening.

I’m not going to open the world’s first Audio Book Entertainment Center (TM), but I am in the middle of developing a project that hopes to make listening as instinctively enjoyable as watching. It’s as much for myself as for the participants, who at this stage will be schoolchildren.  We, the storytellers, must reclaim aural storytelling over visual. 

But because I’m a full time headteacher, and with very limited time during the school term, and because I want to see what school life is like elsewhere, I thought I’d start in Scotland, where the term begins earlier, and use some of my summer holiday to trial the project. To begin with I’m offering it free to primary schools in or around Edinburgh.

I may be wrong, and am yet to find out, but the Scottish curriculum seems more enlightened than Wales or England.  It hasn’t become the straightjacket of testing and assessment. 

I’ve already received several very interested replies  - and as soon as complete this blog, I’m going to get on with noodling, creating weird bleeps and bloops, a soundscape for a storyworld.  I will make it happen! And I may sell a few books on the back of it, too.

Monday, 30 July 2012

We Need to Talk About the Mid-list - Elen Caldecott

Before being published I had dreams of what it would mean: seeing my book on the shelf in a bookshop; seeing tattered copies full of library stamps; typing away on a shady balcony in some village in the south of France. I'm sure you know the sort of thing. I was dreaming bestseller.

(c) Christopher S. Penn
No-one ever sets out to become a mid-list writer, such dreams would be more getting texts from friends saying 'I was in Coventry Waterstones and they don't have your book'; being able to reserve your book only via the inter-library loan system; typing in the early hours before you go off to your day job. Nope, those dreams don't keep us going in the long, dark editing hours. But it is the reality for most writers.

The reason I'm talking about this is because I had a meeting with my publishers last week about 'reaching the next level'. It was a lovely, supportive, cake-filled meeting, but the bottom line was the bottom line. What can we all do (me, editor, art director, sales and marketing, publicity etc) to go from solid to spectacular sales? We discussed various strategies and ate some delicious scones.

But, a week later, I was left wondering at the disconnect between the art and the business of books. You see, solid sales give me a nice lifestyle that I really enjoy. I write three days a week on projects I find entertaining. I work three days a week in a lovely place alongside good friends. I live in a house that's just big enough, with a nice park nearby for walking the dog.

What's to be gained by going from solid to stellar?

There's the relationship with the publisher, of course. A good long-term business proposition, that sees them making money, will give me security. There's ego. It would be nice to not have to explain who I am to school receptionists. There's money. I could add a conservatory, or really have a flat in the south of France. All of that would be lovely.
But these feel a bit like the pre-publication dreams. While dreaming is attractive, I actually enjoy living my life in a quotidian way, without pinning too many hopes on the future.

And even if I we do make changes, will it even work? I think there's just a kind of magic stardust that gets sprinkled on some projects and not others. If you work diligently and you write with a commercial audience in mind, that doesn't mean you're bound to become stellar. No-one knows what makes a book take off in that way. And I don't have a handy packet of stardust in my desk drawer. Furthermore, I don't believe that being mid-list means that you've failed.

I came away from the meeting full of excitement. I will do the sort of thing they want to reach 'the next level', I do want a good relationship and a boosted ego, after all. But it's also important for me to remember that life is about the way I live right now, today and I have to be proud of the daily choices I make.

For more info about Elen and her books, go to:
Elen's Facebook Page

Saturday, 28 July 2012

RIP YA - Tamsyn Murray

YA books - sadly missed...
I heard a bone-chilling rumour the other day - Young Adult books were on their way out. The bubble which has made it the fastest growing area of children's publishing in recent years has burst and the big booksellers are wary about ordering large stocks of upcoming titles (unless it's a no-brainer - you didn't need to be Mystic Meg to have predicted that The Hunger Games would fly off the shelves this summer). Publishers are becoming more nervous than ever about taking a chance on something new - some of them, like Frances Lincoln, have closed their YA list altogether - and I hear that contemporary romance is as about as welcome as a dose of glandular fever. Bloggers are tired of paranormal romances (see here), which have been the big success story of the last few years, thanks to those pesky bloodsuckers and their werewolf 'mates'; they're starting to question the proliferation of these titles. And prizes specifically for YA writers, such as the Booktrust Teenage Prize, seem to be falling by the wayside. All in all, there are worrying signs that the whispers might be true: YA is gasping for breath and may not last the night.

It was certainly news to me. In the US, YA appears going from strength to strength. New titles are constantly appearing, featuring a rich diversity of genres and sub-genres. Here in the UK, fellow writers are working on exciting new novels for teens, blissfully unaware that they might not be of interest to publishers. The audience is still there - a lot of teenagers love to read, as any author making school visits will tell you. And perhaps bloggers aren't tired of YA novels, they're just a bit jaded with a constant diet of paranormal romance. I can understand that - wouldn't you be, if it was all you were offered to digest? Let's not forget, though, that there's heaps more to YA than vampire books and publishers like Hot Key Books are investing heavily in building a strong and varied teenage list. So why the rumours? I don't want to come across as paranoid but does everyone else in the publishing world know something authors don't?

Personally, I think we can hold off on the wailing and gnashing of teeth just yet - there are positive signs that YA books will defy the naysayers. New awards are appearing - the Romantic Novelists Association gave its first ever prize for YA Romance this year, won by Caroline Green's Dark Ride. Regional prizes across the UK continue to celebrate books for teens. Websites like UKYA are springing up, doing their best to pimp the brilliant diversity that the British teen market has to offer and lift it out of the shadow of our American cousins. Independent booksellers (or at least the ones I know) continue to be supportive of new and existing authors and enthusiastic about future titles. And anyone who has been into a Waterstones or WH Smiths recently knows that their YA selection is usually vast, if often skewed in favour of books coated in black and featuring sharp-toothed cover stars.

So are many of YA's symptoms down to the fact that we're in the grip of the worst recession for fifty years? Publishers aren't just anxious about teen books, they're nervous across the board. And it might be no bad thing to see fewer paranormal romance books on the shelves of bookshops - I'm all in favour of kick-ass heroines who don't rely on anyone else to make their destiny. The boys have been doing exactly that for years, after all. Bloggers are still reading and still blogging. And, most importantly, teenagers are still reading (along with some -ahem - teenageds).

Perhaps YA authors should be paraphrasing the excellent Mark Twain when asked about the state of YA in the UK today - rumours of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Because as long as our audience is there, we have a duty to write for them. Even if it does involve vampires.

Tamsyn Murray

Friday, 27 July 2012

Ten Thousand Ways To Say Thank You - Liz Kessler

My blog today comes to you with a couple of warnings

Warning number one – this blog is not entirely about books (although it is related).
Warning number two – it ends with a request.

To those of you who are still with me, thank you and read on…

About thirteen years ago, I was working as a teacher when I suddenly remembered that I’d always wanted to be a writer. As is sometimes my way, I acted swiftly. I packed in my job, enrolled on a Novel Writing MA and decided that I was going to be earning a living as a writer within a year.

As is sometimes Life’s way, it turned out I wasn’t destined to have the smooth ride I had planned. Within a few months of setting off on this exciting new venture, I was told I had cancer. Which rather changed things.

Right from the start, I was assured that I had an extremely curable form of thyroid cancer and the prognosis was about as positive as you could get. In fact, the surgeon’s words (and I shall never forget them) were that if he was told he had been bad and had to have cancer, but he hadn’t been that bad, so he could choose which cancer he had – he’d choose what I had.

Still, it’s never nice being 33 (or any age – and a bit of a hypochondriac at that) and told you have cancer. So my year of adventure took a few unexpected twists and turns. But cancer also did a few things that I never knew it would do, and left a few surprising gifts in its wake. Its biggest gift was gratitude. At 33, I now knew what it felt like to wake up each day being glad and grateful to be alive. Many people don’t have that awareness until reaching their later years. That gratitude gave me a strength I didn’t have before, and made me even more determined to become a published writer – if not within twelve months then definitely at some point. Cancer taught me that if I wanted to do something, I had to get on and do it. If I put it off, by the time I got round to it I might be too late.

And so I worked very hard, and I did become a published writer, and a few years later, I had begun to make a living at it. More reasons to be grateful.

A few years later still, I upped and left my life in Manchester, set off in a campervan and ended up starting a new life in Cornwall.

This meant that my life now consisted of doing something that is my absolute passion for my job, and living in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Add to that my daily knowledge that I was lucky merely to be alive – which I had felt since my earlier illness – and I can tell you, I was starting to feel very much in need of something to do with all the gratitude I had.

Which was when I heard about the Precious Lives Appeal.  This was a charity aiming to raise £5 million to open Cornwall’s first children’s hospice. As I was very much aware that Cornwall had given me a beautiful home and that children were largely responsible for my wages, this felt like the perfect fit, and I got in touch to find out what I could do.

A couple of years on from then, Little Harbour, Cornwall’s first and only children’s hospice, has now been built. The hospice this year started working with families across the county who have a child or children with life-limiting illnesses, and supporting both the children and their families. The work they do is utterly incredible, and the place itself is just beautiful. (Part of the ethos is that children coming here should feel that they are staying at a Five Star hotel, not a hospital.) When I first visited the hospice, just before they opened, I knew that I wanted to do whatever I could to help them. With annual running costs of around £1.3 million, they certainly need all the help they can get.

So I decided to plan a few events. The first of these is The Big Raffle for Little Harbour. For this, we have managed to get almost fifty local businesses to donate prizes. We have AMAZING prizes, ranging from a week’s holiday in St Ives at Ayr Holiday Park and one or two night stays at SIX top hotels around Cornwall, to meals out, private cinema screenings, even a signed surfboard from one of the UK’s top surfers. We hope that the holidays will appeal to people outside of Cornwall whilst the other prizes will appeal to local folk too. We are being very ambitious and hoping to raise £10,000 for Little Harbour with this raffle.

So here comes the request. (And don’t say I didn’t warn you – it’s up there at the top.)   Would you like to help support this charity by buying some raffle tickets? You can find out more about the raffle and a full list of the prizes here. In brief, though, raffle tickets are £1 each and we are selling them in books of five. So if you’d like to do any of the following...
  • Possibly win a holiday in St Ives
  • Win any of the other amazing prizes
  • Or just support a beautiful and incredible children’s hospice

...all you have to do is to write a cheque for any multiple of five (plus a pound for postage) made out to Children’s Hospice South West and send it to THE BIG RAFFLE, c/o Halsetown Inn, Halsetown, St. Ives TR26 3NA. We will send you your raffle tickets and, if you win anything, you’ll hear about it soon after September 4th. If you no longer possess such a thing as a cheque book, you can call us on 07554 631690 or message us on our Facebook page to find out other ways to pay. 
In the meantime, thank you (not that you had any say in the matter, but thank you anyway!) for letting me use my spot to share something that feels more meaningful and important to me right now than most other things I can think of.

Find out more about Liz

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Inspiration Around Every Corner - Lynne Garner

For the last three weeks and for the next five I'm working for a local language school. I'm helping to run a residence with just over 100 student rooms, something I've never done before. These rooms are home to students from 12 different countries whilst they study English as a second language. The building is just weeks old and has had a large number of teething problems including showers running cold, locks breaking whilst the students are still in their rooms, alarms going off for rooms that don't exist etc. etc. Although it can be long hours and some of the issues make you want to hit your head against a brick wall it has fuelled my imagination. I have so many new ideas I just don't know where to start.

The ideas started on the first day as I packed my bag (I'm having to stay on site at least three nights a week). This first idea was for a picture book story. A second picture book idea popped into my head whilst I took the picture on the right of two members of staff saying good bye to another. I also have an idea for a non-fiction title which was prompted by a chat with one of the graduates I'm working with. The exciting this is it will mean I'll be writing with a co-writer for the first time.

With each passing day more ridiculous things happen and I'm finding myself scribbling something down every day. I'm not even half way through the contact but already feel I have enough material for a mad-cap sit-com. I've never written one before but I now really have the urge to give it a go.

So next time you're stuck for an idea go and give something new a go. Work outside your comfort zone. Meet new people. You never know it may fuel your imagination as mine has been. Now I'm off to sort another problem and hopefully write a few more notes.

Lynne Garner
To visit my blog click here
Unashamed plug for my latest children's writing course starting 4th August 2012

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Caught read-handed... by Nicola Morgan

Recently, the Guardian reported the story of author Terry Goodkind, who "turned to Facebook to name and shame a fan who pirated a digital version of his latest novel".  As usual when a case of theft is revealed, there were arguments on both sides, regarding whether words should be free or authors should be entitled to protect their work and earn from it. Paulo Coelho is quoted as calling on "pirates of the world" to "unite and pirate everything I've ever written". Coelho has every right to say this of his own work - he is exercising the degree of control (or lack of) that he chooses.

However, I do not recall him calling on pirates of the world to pirate steal everything that anyone else has ever written. 

And this is what the proponents of the "words should be free" argument so often forget. Surely the choice should be made by the creator of the content? Otherwise it's theft.

Whether or not illegal downloading increases sales is utterly beside the point. It may well do so. All my self-published ebooks are DRM-free, not because I want them to be stolen but because I want my readers to be able to read them on any device in as many places as they wish, and if the price I must pay is that some people will steal, that's a price I'll pay. That does not mean that I am happy with anyone stealing it, or that I can afford to be stolen from. But frankly, even that misses the point: theft is still theft however much the victim can absorb the loss. 

Recently on my Crabbit At Home blog, I linked to an excellent but long piece arguing why illegal downloading is morally wrong, but to be honest, when will we stop making the arguments so complicated?

Taking something without the owner's permission is theft and theft is wrong. I grant that if you'd die without the stolen item, it's forgivable. But it's still theft. And last thing I heard, books may be important but you don't generally die for the lack of one.

It really is that simple.  

Recently, I downloaded the remarkably wonderful Adblock program, a piece of free software which instantly removes all adverts from my internet experience, including those dreaded "belly-fat" ads on Facebook. After I'd downloaded, I was given the option of paying a contribution, if I wished. I paid $5.

A few days later, I received this email (my bold):
Hi Nicola
I wanted to say thanks for paying for AdBlock at http://chromeadblock.com/pay. I wrote AdBlock hoping to make people's lives better, and you just told me that I managed to do it :) Thank you very, very much!  
It's been over a year since I quit my job, asking my users to pay what they can afford for AdBlock to fund its development. Most users (like, 99%) choose NOT to pay, so you should know that I appreciate your support that much more!

In any case, Katie and I feel that this is important work, so I'll keep working on AdBlock as long as I am able.  Thank you! :D
99% of people choose not to pay? I'm not sure whether I'm shocked or just mildly surprised. I'm sure that the vast majority of these, however, would not dream of downloading illegally. Would they?

Those are quite different scenarios, different choices by the creators, but each is about the struggle of the creator to earn from his or her work.

When we buy a book, we have several choices, of format, of price and of retailer, new or secondhand. Or we can borrow free from a library or a friend. It seems to me those are sufficient choices to make illegal downloading a purely selfish and/or ignorant crime that never has any justification. 

It seems to me that if we value creation, it is morally right to respect the creator and not steal from him. Many creators - Paulo Coelho and the Adblock guy, for example - are being extremely generous in their offering. Many writers, especially those who control their own output, are being similarly generous, trying to offer many options in price and free downloads. Other writers, whose books and pricing are controlled by their publishers, behave generously in many other ways, for example by going to great lengths to give up time to campaign for libraries - including school libraries, where we don't earn PLR, and none of us grudge for one moment a book lent free in a school library

That's what genuine book-lovers do. They do not steal from writers.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Writer's Problem Number 93 by Penny Dolan

Writer’s Problem Number 93

Dear Aunty Enid,

Help please! It is so easy to get disheartened. I am just back from an inspirational week with some wonderful writers. My confidence was up on its feet again and I truly felt it was time to attack the Recalcitrant Tome for once and for all.  (I confess I am not a one book a week person like you. )

I have found so many ways to avoid the large, lumbering thing. So - especially as Himself is to be away for a few days - I decided to go for the Big Writing Slog. I was feeling very excited about my plan. I am sure you would understand.

Now, I did realise that the Big Writing Slog would be all about sitting at the desk all the time doing all the writing. It’s a bit like Nanowrimo, but lonelier, and with less cheering and whooping and maybe with slightly more sensible writing at the end of it.

I was getting things arranged for the Big Writing Slog.. I was going to stock the fridge with the kind of food one can munch easily, whenever. (Note to Self: Not all in one day.) I was going to warn the postman that I would be in my dressing gown continually. I’d begun playing with post-it notes and cards and all that analysing-the-story sort of work. I’d even got as far as getting a new real-world paper file for my running notes. (“Running” being a loose term here and referring to the Work In Progress not Parcour.)

Then a mighty storm-cloud of Public Information arrived. I know it was possibly intended to nudge people towards buying up those few unsold Olympic tickets but my Bright Shining Scheme is now totally Darkened

 Emblazoned across various media headlines, came this big loud message:


It is as dangerous as smoking (I don’t) and probably as dangerous as eating ten cream buns at a time (I don’t, but only because nobody’s brought me any) and definitely  much more dangerous than tiger-wrestling in tights. Now there’s a thought . . .

I Have Definitely Been Told.
How Dare I even think of Sitting Down?
It was my National Duty Not To Be Inactive.
If I did not Move Briskly at all times, I’d cost the Hard-Working Tax-Payer Money.
If I did not Jig about like a Leprechaun thrice an hour, wiggling me lugs, I’d be bringing the NHS to its knees.
My Behind fixed on a Chair would become the National Affront.
(Ed: Surely some conflict of language here?)

And so on. Alas and woe is me!

This a Big, Big Problem. How exactly can I be Active with a Capital A and also do the lengthy wodge of work I really, really need to do?The “early morning walk” conflicts with the early morning pages. The “going to the gym” isn’t affordable, with no advance advanced. The “going for a swim” would use up three hours all told. Daisy petals don't help. Activity? Inactivity?  Activity? Inactivity?

I really do not feel at all calm about this. I need to sit still and carry on with my Work in Progress, no matter how loudly the headlines shout.

So come on, dear Aunty Enid. Come on all you Awfully Big Adventurers! I’ve seen some of your svelte publicity pics – yes, even those recent ones from barely ten years ago. Please answer my question before the Ministry for Health Inspectors come rapping at the door.

How in the Name of Nike can I a) get my Big Writing Slog done and b)  be Active at the same time? (Honestly, I’m having such trouble managing the laptop and the unicycle.)

Yours despairingly,

Ps. I've put all my spare Capital Letters in this post so I don’t overwrite while Tome-ing.

Penny Dolan

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Only 10 Days Left .... Megan Rix

But before that...

I love competitions and find it pretty hard to resist entering a writing one, even if I hardly ever win. I think they're a great way to practice writing and beat the dreaded writers block and you never know when that story might come in useful.

I'd like to say a huge thank you to everyone who entered some of the recent ones there's been for 'The Great Escape.'

And Congratulations go to Bethany Westoby from Hamstel Junior School who won the NPM Great Escape competition with her story entry 'Canine Confessions' and received a signed copy of the book and an author visit to her school.

And congratulations to Samuel Hart who won The Scribbler magazine competition with his story about Huxley to win a copy of the book and an mp3 player.

And congratulations to everyone who won books in the Bedford Link competition and the Your Cat giveaway.

And finally congratulations to Little M, Danilo Paganelli and Shahini Vijay who won books in the girlsheartbooks contest - and look out for the Cat Magic one coming in August.

And now...

There's only 10 days left...  to enter Young Times and Puffin's 'My Pet, My Hero' competition before it closes on the 31st July and judging by the enthusiastic response every time I mention it on a school visit there's going to be an awful lot of entries!

The prize is to name a character in my next book. I've found that what most of the children would really like is to have their pet's name in the book - or even their pet.

This week I visited Hamstel Junior School in Southend where Bethany had won a nationwide story-writing competition with a great story told from a collie puppy's POV.

Cartoon Cat Walking Clip ArtI asked the 120 or so Year 6 children at Hamstel if any of them had a pet they thought was brave enough to star in my next book set during the Blitz in WW2. Most of the children thought they had. One thought his cat would jump on a burglars head,

Happy Running Dog Clip Art
another's grandfather had a dog called Cora who saved someone drowning in the sea and amongst the many many others one that sticks in my mind is a goldfish called Goldie who was very brave because he always swam up to the top of his bowl as soon as her mum sprinkled his food in.

Goldfish Clip Art

Rainbow Paws Clip Art
Gold Paw Clip ArtAfterwards I signed books to the child and their pet and finished it off with a stamp from my trusty dog paw stamp.
Rainbow Paws Clip Art

There's only 10 days left and if you know of any young budding artists or writers please let them know about the competition.

                    After all, as they say, you've got to be in it to win it!

Download an entry form here: http://tinyurl.com/cr82woo

The Great Escape follows three pets, Buster, a lively Jack Russell, Tiger, a feisty Tom cat and Rose, a faithful Collie as they set of on the adventure of their lives across a country preparing for war.
Robert and Lucy Edwards love their pets more than anything; but the threat of the Second World War forces them to flee to Devon - leaving their animals behind. And as the air raid sirens sound over London, the frightened animals are sent to be put down.
Buster, Tiger and Rose make a daring escape but with danger at every turn, can the trio make it across the country as it prepares for battle - and cheat death for the second time?

My Pet, My Hero
Now we want to hear about your amazing pets! Is your pup totally fearless, can your cat climb to the highest tree - and come back down again - or does your hamster like to race around at 100mph in its ball?
Draw a picture of your pet in action, tell us why he or she is a hero and you can win the chance to name a character in Megan Rix's next book! You will also win a signed copy of The Great Escape. Download the entry form below for all the details.
Return your entry to: The Great Escape competition, Puffin Books, 80 Strand, London, WC2R0RL with your name, email address and phone number

Closing date: 31st July 2012

jacket image for The Great Escape by Megan Rixjacket image for The Great Escape by Megan Rixjacket image for The Great Escape by Megan Rixjacket image for The Great Escape by Megan Rixjacket image for The Great Escape by Megan Rix

Megan's website is www.meganrix.com
Ruth Symes website is www.ruthsymes.com

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Search for an Ending

Cindy Jefferies

I wanted something special for the end of a novel. I've been researching and writing this particular one on and off for over five years. I was pretty clear about how I wanted it to finish so far as the plot went. But there was one particular character who needed a special send off, and I hadn't nailed it.

But during this particular afternoon off I was actually thinking about the middle of the story, not the end. While I was enjoying the small, medieval churches of the Cotswolds I was wondering about surgical instruments on board ship after the Restoration, .
To my surprise, there was a model ship in Painswick church, along
with an unrelated and rather touching phrase from Spenser's Faerie Queene, scratched onto
a pillar in 1643 by an imprisoned soldier. "Be bold, be bold but not too bold." He must have been feeling pretty sorry for himself, locked up in the church at the end of a battle, not knowing what his fate might be.

It was tempting to find a place for him in my novel but his story was not mine, nor was the painted effigy of a gentleman, with feet resting on a goat eating a cabbage. These were of no use to me, although surely they all belong in somebody's fiction?

I hadn't thought of a monument. I had wanted something warmer than that, but a monument was what I found. In Miserden church, along with the cabbage eating goat, is an exquisite sculpture on a tomb chest. So many of these effigies are doubly cold in their alabaster perfection so why did this one speak so eloquently to me? With a sudden understanding I realised I had been concentrating on the wrong character. The ending needed to dwell on a person who featured hardly at all in the novel, and never when alive. She was lying here, waiting for me to find her.

Her effigy was beautifully done, carved probably by a local man, Samuel Baldwin. It was much finer than some other examples of his work in greater churches than Miserden. In life, my character had a habit of fiddling with the lace of her collar. In death, this beautiful young woman was shown playing with the delicately carved fabric at her breast. How much easier it would have been to carve her hand praying or at rest, as is usual. Why had Samuel Baldwin made such an effort to thread the carved lace so beautifully through her fingers? There was something so poignant about it, so very human and so utterly my character.

The photograph doesn't do it justice, but I shall revisit it again and again until the book is done. There she lies, totally unexpected. And what also surprised me was that against all the odds she was finally reunited with the husband she loved so much.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

CANADA MINUS FIFTY-FOUR DAYS: Pauline Fisk on Canada [the country] and ‘Canada’ [the book]

Last Saturday I bought the novel ‘Canada’ by Richard Ford. I’d seen the book around, read a couple of reviews, happened to be going to Canada myself in the autumn – a country I’d never visited and knew nothing about – and thought I’d give it a go.

There’s something, isn’t there, about discovering a new author, especially one for the ‘Favourites’ list. People talk about remembering where they were when Kennedy died, or men landed on the moon or the first airplane ploughed into the twin towers. But it’s the first time I realized a particular book or author was wonderful that I remember.

Like A. A. Milne, at the age of nine, and Alan Garner’s ‘Weirdstone’ scaring me senseless. Then Tolkien, read beneath the bedcovers at night, and Emily Bronte [who I’d have given anything to be, in order to have written ‘Wuthering Heights’].

Then, later, there was Graham Greene, whose writing seemed so effortless, followed by Ella Maillart, crossing China with Peter Fleming, brother [of sorts] of James Bond. Then, in no particular order, Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Carver, Marilyn Robinson, Richard McFarlane, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and on and on until only last month I read my first short story by the American writer, Linda McCulloch Moore, and got so excited because it was good.

Electric. That’s what these moments of discovery are.  And it’s not only [in fact rarely] the sorts of books and authors making media waves that have this effect on me. It’s the ones I stumble across all by myself, blundering from book to book in pursuit of something precious and mysterious, which is impossible to explain.

Having said all that, it’s not authors I want to write about this month.  It’s not even Richard Ford or his novel ‘Canada’. It’s Canada itself. 

The country, I mean.

For a while now I’ve been sensing the need of a new adventure, and to get back on the road.  Needing a new landscape and to shake myself up.  Never though - not in a million years - would I have thought that Canada might be that adventure. It wasn’t anywhere I particularly knew. Wasn’t anywhere I ever thought about. Wasn’t any of the countries that left me tingling at the mention of its name.

But suddenly the dates are fixed, the plane tickets bought and here I am, googling websites on national parks, choosing between Rough Guides and even buying ‘Canada’ by Richard Ford.  This is serious stuff.  It isn’t just some idea I find myself thinking about in my idle moments. It’s an actual event waiting to happen. It could even be the shake-up I’ve been hoping for. 

But why Canada? Looking at the thickness of my Rough Guide, I ask myself the same question.  Because it’s there? No, that won’t do.  Because my husband has family in Canada? That won’t do either - by which, I mean, of course it’ll do; families are important, they make all the difference to our lives.

But, I’d like to think that as well as family links there are other reasons for this trip.  After all, this is the country of one of the Great Train Journeys of the World.  It’s the home of the Rocky Mountains and the Trans-Canada Highway. It has the mighty Hudson Bay, and Nova Scotia, and not only black bears and grizzlies, but polar bears too. And the Northern Lights.  Mustn’t forget them. And then there are all those great cities that my husband’s going on about –Toronto, Quebec, Montreal and all the rest.

So why aren’t I more excited? I’m a person who loves travelling, discovering new places, not knowing what’s round the next corner. And this is a big country - it’s going to have enough corners even for me. There are endless possibilities waiting to be discovered. So what’s the matter with me?

I think it’s the bigness of Canada that’s the matter with me. When we touch down at Toronto airport, the Rocky Mountains will still be just about as far away as Toronto is from the UK. Even getting from the airport to my husband’s relatives [a blink of a distance on my map] means traveling for miles. And that’s just Toronto and its outskirts. Factor in the vastness of Ontario, then add in the rest of Canada, and you’re talking about seriously big.

I hail from Shropshire - a rural county rich with open space, so it’s not as if I’m unaccustomed to a sense of wilderness. But from the eerie wilds of Whixall Moss to the gaunt rocks of the Stiperstones, Shropshire can be encompassed in a single day. Even thinking about Canada gives me vertigo. And my reading doesn’t help in this respect.  Here, from Richard Ford’s ‘Canada’: ‘There was no feeling, once the hills disappeared behind us, of a findable middle point from which other points could draw a reference.  A person could easily get lost or go crazy here, since the middle was everywhere and everything at once.’

That’s what I’m afraid of.  How am I supposed to get my head round a country that’s so big that, depending on my choice of transport, it could take weeks to cross? The Rough Guide really isn’t helping here. It’s making me want to go here and here and here, but places that look close on the map are hundreds of miles apart.  Not only that, but what’s this grid all about – all these ruler-straight roads running in parallel lines across my map?  

These aren’t urban roads, I realize checking the scale.  They’re twenty, thirty miles apart with nothing but wilderness in between.  Endless miles of ramrod roads - and what does driving straight for hundreds of miles do to your head? Also, what if, when you reach your destination, you don’t like it, or the pub is shut, or the building you’d hoped to see is in another town and you’ve made a mistake? Given the scale of this map, you can’t just hop back into your car and pootle down the road to the next town. 

What’s it like living in a country comprised of long straight roads? I’ve always nurtured the theory that the twisting, turning nature of Shropshire’s roads has formed my character in some way. That I’m smarter because of them. That they keep me on my toes. That I’m livelier, readier for surprises, more open to change and to things not being what they seem.

But by that token what do straight roads do to the brain? Do they imprison, or does the open highway liberate? Do they iron out the kinks, or does everybody end up - as Richard Ford has it -‘getting lost or going crazy’. I understand, of course, that if you live in a big country, it’s quicker to get where you’re going if you have straight roads.  But once you’ve driven on them for thousands of miles, what’s the long-term effect?

 It’s not that I’ve got anything against the idea of bigness, especially when it comes to wilderness. Getting my head round the idea of what we in England call ‘the countryside’ existing on a grand scale is truly exhilarating.  But roads on a grand scale? Not so sure about that.  And if Canada’s roads are big, what are its cities going to be like?

My husband is an architect. He’s been going on about a book on Toronto published by Phaidon Press. I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve been Google-imaging Toronto and find myself unmoved by what I’ve found. Every photo is the same – skyscrapers/stretch of water/tower at dawn; skyscrapers/stretch of water/tower during daylight hours; skyscrapers/stretch of water/tower lit up at night. A lot of skyscrapers.  There may be more to Toronto, but I haven’t seen it yet, and one thing’s for sure - I don’t want to spend weeks within sniffing distance of a truly wild wilderness full of bears, beavers and moose only to never see it because my time was spent in the sorts of cities that impress architects and the editors at Phaidon Press. 

What I want, wherever we go - city or wilderness alike - is to get a feel for Canada. That’s what drives me now, researching on the internet. But I haven’t even scraped the surface yet. I go down to my local Waterstones. What makes Canada different to America? Does it have a culture and identity that is specifically its own? These are things I want to know, but the shelves are almost bare of books on Canada.  There are ones on China, America, Russia, India, Africa, the Arctic, the Antarctic – all the other major countries in the world.  But where are the travellers’ tales on Canada? Has anybody written them?  If so, why aren’t they here?   What’s Waterstones got against Canada, I ask myself.

I comb the other bookshops in my town, but all I can find is the Rough Guide I’ve already bought, and Richard Ford’s novel. Yes, back to that again.  

I’m now sitting in bed with a bowl of ice cream. My husband has taken charge of the Rough Guide, and I’m engaged in a delicate balancing act between my laptop and the Richard Ford novel. The fly-leaf describes it as a ‘visionary novel of vast landscapes, complex identities and fragile humanity, which questions the fine line between the normal and the extraordinary and the moments that haunt our settled view of the world.’  This sounds a bit extravagant, but my appetite’s whetted all the same. The fly-leaf also describes Canada [the country, not the book] as: ‘a landscape of rescue and abandonment; a new world of secrets and upheavals.’ I begin to get excited. Things are nosing in the direction I’ve been waiting for. Never mind the novel - this could just be what I want from Canada itself.

If you have knowledge or experience of this second largest country in the world, do let me know. I’d love to hear from you. And if this post turns into a Canada blog [as I suspect it might] look out for it on my website, where I’ll share my adventures with you, and my discoveries too - including what I make of Richard Ford’s book.  

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

One Girl And Her Dog: Top Dog Stories in Children's Fiction - by Emma Barnes

Some themes crop up over and over in children’s literature. My new book takes lift-off from one of them: the powerful bond that exists between girl (or boy) and their pet dog.

Why are dogs so important to children? Although they plead to have them, in practise most parents know it will be they who do most of the work, while dogs often work out where their walks and sustenance are coming from, and relegate the junior members to mere puppy rank. Yet despite that, from Lassie to Eva Ibbotson’s last novel, there remains something special about the relationship between child and hound.

In my new book, Wolfie, Lucie has always wanted a dog, and her wish is finally granted when her Uncle turns up with a large, toothy, furry “dog”. But is it a dog? Lucie is not sure, although the grown-ups (never good at seeing what is under their noses) mock her claim that the new pet is actually a wolf...

Wolfie is a more dangerous proposition than the average domestic dog. And that’s even before you take into account the fact that she can talk. But in the end, dogs and wolves are both pack animals, and it is the strong attachments they form to their group, and the uncomplicated nature of their affections, that makes them such precious companions, real or imagined, to children.

Some Different Kinds of Books About Dogs 

1) Dog as Friend

For a lonely, often an only, child a dog becomes an essential companion. Perhaps the most famous example (note my pun here!) is George of the Famous Five. A spiky, difficult girl who wants to be a boy, and feels misunderstood by her parents, George is deeply attached to her dog, Timmy. Indeed it is her determination to constantly defend Timmy which sparks off many of her adventures.

My Sam in Sam and the Griswalds is a timid and lacking in confidence – quite unlike George. But acquiring a dog, Biter, is a crucial ingredient in pepping up Sam’s life. And the support of a dog can be important even in adolescence: as in the wonderfully funny but poignant Feeling Sorry for Celia, where Elizabeth has a better relationship with her collie than her own parents.

2) Dog as Ally

Dogs can be equally important to children who, while they have siblings (maybe lots of siblings) are seeking refuge from the rivalry that often brings. Helen Cresswell’s Ordinary Jack has a closer, less demanding relationship with his mongrel dog, Zero, than with his overly talented siblings. OK, so Zero is far from bright, inclined to wee on the floor when nervous and scared of almost everything. But he makes Jack, the only ordinary member of the Bagthorpe tribe, feel tonnes better about himself.

For Peter Hatcher, narrator of Judy Blume’s classic Fudge books, having a dog is offered as compensation for having to put up with endlessly demanding, troublesome younger brother, Fudge.
3) The Dog Weepy 

My primary school reading book was not usually of much interest to me – but then I read Bedgellert. This was the tale of the hound, Gellert, who saved Prince Llewellyn’s baby son from a wolf attack. But his master, returning home, thought that Gellert had killed the baby – and slew the dog, only to realise his mistake when he found the child unharmed.

This story absolutely devastated me. My heartbreak was only matched a few years later with the death of the boy Stephen’s hound, Amile, in Barbara Leonie Picard’s medieval novel, One is One. It’s a wonderful story and still in print – recommended to all with an interest in dogs, monasteries or painting.

Somehow, terrible to say, it’s always worse when an animal dies. Even today, as I watch the (definitely not for children) series Game of Thrones, it’s not the growing pile of human corpses that upsets me: it’s what happens to the dog (ok, it's a dire-wolf - same thing).

4) The Naughty Dog 

Being animals, dogs cannot be blamed for being naughty – and so children can revel in all the things that a bad dog can get up to (and which they might fancy themselves). Dogs run away, dig up flower beds, chase cats, jump fences, trip up the postman, steal food, and generally cause all kinds of enjoyable domestic chaos. I especially like Rose Impey’s Houdini Dog books, where the two sisters remind me of myself and my sister. We badly wanted a dog, and (as in Impey’s book) we decided that a protracted nagging campaign was the best way to get one. When we finally got one - a beautiful, stupid, but very good-natured Samoyed –  like Houdini dog he was given to occasional escapes, and led us a merry dance finding him again.

My favourite naughty dog of all is probably “the dog” (unnamed) in Adrian Mole. He is sick, he eats model ships, he throws up, he jumps on policemen, he runs away to Grandma’s, he licks his stitches, he is scared of alsations, he gets concrete stuck in his paws – he is thoroughly delightful. Who wouldn't fall for a dog like that?

Long may canines rule in children's fiction: may their barks never grow faint!

Check out Emma Barnes's web-site
Wolfie is published in August 2012 and Emma will be talking about it at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Phads, Phibs & Phonnix - John Dougherty

Writers! Success is out there! It's waiting for you, you deserve it, and you can have it! All you have to do is visualise your own success. Imagine yourself writing that bestselling novel; reading those glowing broadsheet reviews of your book; receiving that award for Writer of the Year - and by that simple act of visualization, you are beginning to make it all happen!

Self-help manuals are full of this sort of claim, but does it work?

Actually, visualization has been studied experimentally, and the results are surprising - it really does make a difference. Researchers observed two groups of students preparing for an examination: the control group was asked to prepare as normal, but the experimental group was asked to incorporate this sort of visualization into their routine.

And the result? The group that visualized high grades for themselves studied less than the control group and got lower marks. Not only did visualization not work, it had a detrimental effect on behaviour which led to a negative outcome.*

The thing is, something may sound appealing and promise to make your life easier, but this doesn't necessarily make it true.

This is a lesson many of us need to learn, not least those in charge of our crumbling library services. Brent council, for instance - doubtless visualising hordes of library users happily getting on buses - argued that closing half their libraries wouldn't make any difference to usage, and ended up sending out pleading emails.

Or Gloucestershire County Council, about whose casual relationship with the truth I've written before, and who have been assuring all the volunteer groups they're bullying into taking over their libraries that everything is hunky-dory.

- Um... what about PLR, campaigners asked (this, in case you don't know, is the system whereby authors are given a small payment per loan of their books from a public library).

- Oh, it's fine, said the council.

- What does the PLR registrar say? asked the campaigners.

- Oh, it's fine! said the council, visualising madly.

Well, it's not. It turns out that Gloucestershire County Council has never even sought advice from the PLR registrar, and when a campaigner did she found that the volunteer-run "libraries" GCC have already begun to create are not covered by the PLR scheme. Which means, I suppose, that they are or will be engaging in council-approved acts of piracy.

Michael RosenAnd this sort of evidence-free policy-making doesn't just go on at local level. The inestimable Michael Rosen - whose blog I encourage you to read every day, just as soon as you've read this one - has been writing at some length about the apparent lack of any evidence for the expensive educational changes Michael Gove** has been pushing through. And yet, in spite of all the evidence about what does make a difference, and the evidence that it's not what Gove is spending millions of pounds of our money on, nothing changes. The powers that be go on sticking their fingers in their ears, singing la la la, and visualising like mad.

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

His most recent 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

*L.B. Pham & S.E. Taylor (1999), reported in Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, pp 250-60. I read about this in 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman - a very interesting book about which I will probably blog more some other time.

**The best Tweet I've ever seen: There's no I in team. I only wish there was no Gove in government.