Sunday, 30 September 2012

Title Horror: Ruth Symes

Coming up with a title:

Some authors don't write a word until they’ve thought up a title for their work, whilst others spend weeks chewing their pen’s end and pulling tufts of hair out trying to come up with just the right one, only to have their publisher announce that they've thought of something much better.

My first children’s novel to be published (back in 1997) was a gritty urban school based story with an extremely elusive title. Whatever I suggested my publishers, Puffin, didn't like. At one point there was a class of thirty or so 10 year olds being read the manuscript and trying to come up with something suitable but my publisher didn't like any of those either.

The Master of SecretsFinally my then editor, the lovely Lucy Ogden, told me they'd decided my book would be called 'The Master of Secrets' and later I found there was also going to be a picture of my anti-hero, Gabriel Harp, on the cover rather than the story’s real hero, Raj.

Much as I loved working with Lucy I found the publisher’s title to be confusing for readers who assumed, quite naturally, that they were going to be reading a fantasy novel.

Do titles make a difference to book sales?

Yup: When 'Dancing Harriet' was about to be published by Chicken House my editor told me the feedback from Scholastic in the USA was that they would prefer it to be Harriet Dancing.
Dancing Harriet'Of course it's up to you... but the potential for thousands of copies...' she murmured.
Harriet Dancing the book became.

'Chip's Dad' was originally ‘Colin's Dad’ until the publisher asked for it to be changed (I really should have realised it was going to be aimed at the US - which is the only place it sells and asked for a larger royalty than the pittance the educational publisher - who seem to have now gone bankrupt - thought was fair).

Little Rex‘Little Rex’ started off as a crocodile with another name not just a title but a whole species change (I think – although crocs and dinosaurs must be related....) Then my publishers in the USA asked for the title to be Little Rex, Big Brother which was a brilliant idea because now I could have Little Rex and the Big Roar, Little Rex and the Big Mud Monster, Little Rex and the Big Egg even Little Rex's Big Day....

Adult BooksAnd finally my 2010 memoir written under the pseudonym of Megan Rix was originally 'The Puppy Mum' (my title) then ‘Puppies from Heaven’ (my agent’s title) before becoming ‘The Puppy that Came for Christmas’ (publisher’s choice). I liked this one – although with it’s pink cover the book does very often get mistaken for a children’s book rather than an adult one.

What title horror stories / experiences have you had?

Poster for ScareFEST 3And speaking of HORROR I wanted to let you know that I am going to be onstage around a cauldron talking about my Bella Donna books at SCAREFEST 3 on Saturday the 6th October at The Civic, Crosby from 1pm. Please come along if you can. It should be WILD. Tommy Donbavand, the writer of Scream Street, is hosting an interactive game show. There’s a budding author's workshop from 10-30-12, an exclusive staging of the 'Spook's Apprentice' and the 'Doom Rider' show from 4-5.30, and a 'Spook-Tacular Extra-GORE-Vanza' in the evening.

More info from the wonderful Tony Higginson at

PS Have just spent all weekend re-vamping my websites so if you have time to click by it’d be nice to see you at or

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Waiting for Stephen Spielberg by Tony Bradman

This year marks a very significant anniversary for me. In November 1987 I went freelance as a writer of children’s books, so I’ve now been making a living in our business for 25 years. At the time I was two months away from my 34th birthday, the father of three young children, and our family’s main breadwinner. I had wanted to be a writer since my early teens, and by that I meant one thing – I wanted to write books. I was already working as a journalist and a reviewer, and I knew I’d always be happy to carry on doing those things as part of my freelance career, but writing books was what really mattered to me.

    That quarter of a century has, of course, vanished in the blink of an eye, mostly because it’s been packed with all the events and incidents of work and family. But the world has certainly changed. I bought my first computer in October 1987, an Amstrad with one of those clattering daisy-wheel printers, the whole thing seeming like some kind of Blakes’ 7 version of a typewriter. I didn’t communicate by email, and wrote physical letters and printed out my manuscripts to send in the post. I didn’t have a mobile phone, either, just a big old clunky white plastic receiver connected to the BT landline network.

    Publishing itself was very different then. The great age of mergers was only just getting under way, and there were lots of small publishers and lists. There was a thriving library market for children’s books too, although anyone who remembers the 80s will know that libraries (and many other things!) were threatened by budget cuts then too. It was a time long before Harry Potter, when several editors told me that children’s fiction was an endangered species, and that in particular no one was interested in historical novels or fantasy. Picture books ruled, partly because of the rise of the co-edition market, but also because of Sebastian Walker and the brilliantly innovative company he created.

    The publishers I worked for were bought and sold, editors came and went, I switched agents, governments changed, recessions happened, and through it all I seemed to get by, even though in some respects our business has changed beyond recognition – it’s certainly a tougher, much less cosy world than the one I first encountered. I produced picture book texts, collections of poetry, fiction for 5-8s, edited anthologies, reviewed, and visited hundreds of schools. My kids grew up and left home and started having kids of their own, which was very useful (my grandchildren have given me ideas for quite a few books!).

    So what have I learned in my 25 years of being a freelance writer? That’s the question I asked myself when I sat down this morning to write my first ABBA blog post. Well, the main thing in the early years was that I should have been careful what I wished for. Making a living out of being a children’s writer turned out to be no picnic, and it never gets any easier. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a private income, a wealthy partner, or manage to write a bestseller early in your career, you’re always going to have periods of struggle. I’m proud of everything I’ve done, but I’ve often had to put aside a story I wanted to write in favour of a commission that would pay the bills. Getting the balance right between artistic satisfaction and making a living is always hard.

    I also learned the truth of the quote I had pinned up over my desk for years (I forget who said it) – ‘A professional is a man who can always do his job, even when he doesn’t feel like it.’ (Apologies for the sexism – but I’ve always assumed it to apply equally to female professionals!) I am a professional, and writing is what I do. So however grumpy I might get about low advances, slow contracts and the fact that I’m not getting a nationwide publicity tour to promote my new book and Stephen Spielberg still hasn’t called, I sit at my desk every day and do the best job I can for the best readers a writer could have – children.

    As I write, I’m three months away from my 59th birthday, so I’m not sure I’ll be writing 25 years from now. But I like the idea that I might still be getting to my desk in the morning, turning on my laptop (or whatever incredible piece of kit might be available) and staring at the screen until I work out what to write. And you never know, I might have produced that elusive bestseller by then...

Tony Bradman’s novel Viking Boy has just been published by Walker Books, and he has written a piece about it for the fabulous History Girls website - Tony also has his own website –

Friday, 28 September 2012

Putting on My Hard Hat - by Emma Barnes

I have no teaching qualifications. I'm not an educational expert. But simply through being a children’s writer (and in addition, a parent) I’ve been drawn into taking an interest in the latest raft of proposals about our children’s education.

It started with a phone call from my local radio station, BBC Radio Leeds. What did I think about children learning poetry by heart, they asked. Huh? Was my highly articulate reply. The truth was I didn’t have a worked out opinion, but learning poetry by heart is one of the proposals in the new Gove paper on primary education, and so (the radio station reckoned, not unreasonably) as a children’s writer, and one who regularly goes into schools, I really ought to have a view.

So, I read the proposals. I went on air. And I’ve been stunned by the conviction – almost vitriol – that seems to characterise the debate. Learning poetry was an essential art, inducting children into the rhythm of the language, giving them discipline and the lasting gift of verse that their grandparents enjoyed, one side thundered. Drilling kids in poetry was a regressive step, designed to humiliate them, and destroy their love of learning, thundered the other. The trouble is, as with most educational debates, it never seems to me as cut and dried as the opposing camps suggest. It could be a good idea. But a lot depends on the way it’s done.

Around the same time, the Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, was circulating a petition for children’s writers to sign, condemning the provisions on phonics in the same government document. (Read the petition here.) Once more, I felt uncomfortable. Rosen is one of the most articulate critics of Gove’s approach to education in general. own impression is that phonics can be helpful. I doubt that - as Rosen sometimes seems to imply – exposure to storytelling and being surrounded by books is enough to get kids reading. Not at first. I’ve watched my own child learn to read. I’ve talked to other parents. And I’ve talked to dyslexia tutors, who often advocate a structured approach.

Above all, as a writer, I’ve visited plenty of primary schools, and met the children who are struggling to read at a level appropriate to their age. That’s desperately sad.

It’s left me feeling that, as a children’s writer, I’m not confident to weigh in on reading methodologies. The important thing is not ideology, but what works. I’d like others to make that decision, based on the very best evidence out there. (Not an easy task I know.)

Where I DO have a strong conviction, and where I strongly agree with Michael Rosen’s petition, is on the importance of reading for pleasure. Once children have mastered the basics of reading – by whatever methodology – they need to enjoy it. Otherwise they won’t read. And they must, if they are to become truly literate, educated people, capable of understanding the world around them – the world that lies beyond their own narrow experience.

As many people, including Michael Rosen and the Society of Authors, have pointed out, it is scandalous that the government, which is so ready to impose targets and objectives generally, is prepared to give no more than lip-service to the idea of “reading for pleasure”. The government acknowledges the vast body of research supporting its importance. Every school should be encouraging it, they say. Yet none of the concrete measures needed to encourage it are in place.

What is needed? It’s simple really.
  1. Every school should have a library. Schools make space for computers – but books are far cheaper, and what children need if they are going to read is books.
  2. Every school should have a librarian. Somebody on the staff of every school should have the job of understanding which children’s books are out there, choosing the stock, and guiding the children to the books that might interest them. That also means they need the budget and the training. It shouldn’t depend on luck – that there is somebody on the teaching team that has that special interest – as it does at the moment. 
It would make such a huge difference. It really would. So, I say forget about the ideology. The arguments about whether six year olds should be reciting Longfellow, or following whichever brand of phonics.


It’s not rocket science. It’s something surely on which we can all agree.

Emma's web-site
Emma's latest book is Wolfie.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Je Ne Regrette Rien? Thoughts on Author Platforms - Lucy Coats

Two years ago I gave a talk called "How To Sell Your Book on the Internet".  It was, needless to say, about the "Author Platform" we writers are supposed to be standing on top of, dominating the world of books, and gave handy hints and tips about how to use things like Facebook, Twitter and blogging for the uninitiated writer.  I wasn't the only one talking about the subject.  Our very own Nicola Morgan has, until very recently, been giving brilliant advice about it on her Help I Need a Publisher blog (much better advice than mine, I can tell you!).

Last week I read a thought-provoking piece by Candy Gourlay on Notes from the Slushpile.  She asked this question:

If everyone's now got a platform, how are you going to stand out?  

I hope Candy will forgive me for using her excellent pictures to illustrate this point (on the 'picture is worth a thousand words' principle).

How it was....

How it is now....
The question I want to ask is:

How do you feel about those two pictures? 

I can tell you how I feel.  Kind of relieved actually.  What Candy said in her piece chimed with my own feelings. It meant that the misgivings I'd had recently about all this jockeying and jostling were not so stupid after all.  Don't get me wrong.  I love blogging here (and reading about the myriad facets of writing life from my fellow bloggers).  I love running the current series on mythological beasts and beings on my own Scribble City Central blog. I love chatting to people on Twitter, though I'm not so keen on Facebook these days.  But, quite honestly, all that stuff does crunch chunks out of my writing day if I let it, however much I protest to the contrary, and that's before I've even started trying to get through the mass of links and intriguing industry bits and bobs provided by others.

The sad fact is that we live in a time poor world where there just aren't enough hours in the day to process all the information flooding over us, however interesting it might be.  I'd like to read all the interesting blogs out there - but if I did that, I wouldn't have time for my own writing.  In the final analysis that writing IS the most important thing for me.  It's what puts the food on my plate, and clothes my family. So, I've taken another look at that Author Platform of mine, and am now only doing what I have to to keep it alive and kicking, and concentrating on what I know works.  The energy and hours I've saved are already paying dividends in productive writing output.

Je ne regrette rien - building my Author Platform has taught me a great deal.  But I'm no longer its faithful skivvy, slaving away at it for fear of being left behind. I've stopped running to catch up with myself. That, ladies and gentlemen of the ABBA community, is my New World Order - and it feels good!

Lucy's latest series Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books
Lucy's Website
Lucy's Scribble City Central Blog (A UK Top 10 Children's Literature Blog)
Join Lucy's Facebook Fanpage
Follow Lucy on Twitter

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

These Island Stories - John Dougherty

Do you remember the Opening Ceremony? It’s a measure of its impact that I don’t have to say which one, or what it opened. You know what I’m talking about. For days - perhaps weeks - afterwards, the country seemed like a warmer, friendly place.
I don't have permission to use any photos of the Opening Ceremony.  So here instead is a picture of some cake, courtesy of Michael at

Of course, not everyone felt this way. Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens on several occasions derided it as ‘a social worker’s history of Britain’, a phrase which I found revealing in its oddness. Does Mr Hitchens believe that social workers don’t have a right to history, or that their history is somehow inferior to other people’s? Does he think that a person who spends his or her working life looking after the needs of others is somehow less worthy than someone who spends his working life writing opinions for a newspaper with a less than glorious history of bending the truth, not to mention supporting parties with less than pleasant ideologies?

It’s the sort of question that is all too pertinent in these days of Gategate, the scandal of the Government’s Chief Whip apparently calling a police officer a “pleb”. The whole row has that sense of “some people are better than others, not because of who they really are but simply because of their station in life”, which unpleasantly echoes Hitchens’s ‘social worker’ jibe. I’m reminded, as the row unfolds, of how the Opening Ceremony made me feel.

You see, I’m not the only one to have reported unaccustomed feelings of patriotism after watching the Opening Ceremony; and I think I know why. On previous occasions on which I’ve been asked to feel patriotic, the feelings were supposed to be stirred by things that, well, don’t stir me. I quite like the Queen, I suppose, but I don’t feel the country would necessarily be a worse place to live if someone else were our Head of State instead. I never think, “I love being British because we have an army and some big ships!” or “gosh, isn’t it great that we once sent emotionally damaged ex-public schoolboys out all over the world to impose their values on whatever cultures they found there!"

But what Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce did, bless them, was to provide an alternative narrative of which I could feel proud. Free universal healthcare! Black people and white people having babies together and nobody even thinking it comment-worthy until that twerp Aidan Burley and, yes, the Daily Mail point it out! Creativity in writing and music and art! Children’s literature, for goodness‘ sake!

I suppose, really, that what it did for me - and this is hugely significant, considering that I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles - was to tell me: it’s okay to be British my way, whatever that means to me. If I want to prefer a social worker’s history over a right-wing pundit’s history, I can. It doesn’t make me a “pleb” who needs to ‘learn my place’.

So why am I mentioning this here, so long after it’s all over? Well, I just felt moved to point this out:

Literature, and perhaps particularly writings for children and teens, do this as well. Can you remember, during your childhood, reading something in a book and thinking, “But I do that, too!” or “That’s just how it feels!” or “So it’s not just me!”

I can. And the lesson of the Opening Ceremony is that that’s important. Enormously important. Children’s writers do many things, but one of the best things we do is to say to children: “You know - it’s okay to be you.”

John's website is at
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8 
He will be appearing at the Cheltenham Comedy Festival on November 17th 2012.

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

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Your Point of View: N M Browne

She began the book with her characteristic rush of early enthusiasm, which as usual barely lasted beyond the second chapter. She wrote at speed, spurred on by the inspiration of the Olympics and the testosterone-fuelled enthusiasm for ‘personal bests.’ Within the month she had surpassed her own ‘pb’ and completed a piece of writing so turgid and dull that she despaired of ever editing it to her satisfaction.
 She attempts a change in tense. She sits at her laptop and tries to inject life into the story of her poor protagonist. It is hard, harder than it should be. She thinks about all the other books that she has written and changes her heroine’s name. When that doesn’t work she writes a short story. The short story is quite good, at least compared with the novel, which is  still terrible. She walks to the shop and buys more coffee. She cleans the house. She discovers that the laundry basket is not actually bottomless. The book is duller than ever and as the summer fades to autumn she finds her spirits sinking lower than the barometer.
I make a decision and change my point of view. Not that radically, I still hate my book though at least  my prose perks up. I am still drinking a lot of coffee, but I am less morose and I have stopped whinging about my inability to work. I begin to see what might be done, how the blasted thing could be beaten - violently so that it is light as a meringue. Books are trickier than meringues and the lighter they are the more effort they take to get off the ground.  
 I was perhaps too optimistic too early. It was the tense. I was tense - obviously - not working always makes me tense, but the present tense was a little too tricksy for a romantic, frothy tale. It was too earnest and literary. I needed to find an easy natural voice, and I thought this first person past tense would work. Of course I underestimated the effort involved: simple is always hard. I was very tempted to cut my losses but you know how it is. 
You start something and you want to finish it. You pride yourself on being a professional, on doing what you set out to do. You consider turning your fluffy romance into a crime novel as it better fits your mood. 
You knew that the plot was never that strong and your protagonist never that likeable. You brewed more coffee and drank the whole six cup cafetiere’s worth. You wished you smoked, perhaps that would have worked: nothing else had. You considered locking yourself in a small room without internet access. Maybe past tense was better after all  and just maybe, you speculated, your protagonist was more believable in third person?
  It all depends on your point of view...

Saturday, 22 September 2012

I love parties, especially birthday parties. Thursday I visited one of my daughters on her birthday. My little grandson insisted we bought a banner, balloons and party poppers and Happy Birthday candles to stick on the birthday cake. All the things that make a birthday special. It made me think of the birthday parties we’ve had over the years. When the girls were very young I used to make the birthday cakes, but it was usually a chocolate hedgehog cake as this was the only one I could make successfully. All you had to do was cover a chocolate swiss roll with chocolate butter icing and add chocolate button spikes. Easy Peasy.
One year we even had a birthday party for the hamster! Everyone played games in the garden whilst the hamster rolled around in its plastic play ball, then we all sung Happy Birthday, my youngest daughter (the hamster's owner) blew out the candles on the cake and everyone had a piece. A great time was had by all, especially the hamster.

We had some party disasters, such as jellies that didn't set, broken candles, lopsided cakes (that was the days before I discovered the hedgehog recipe) but we partied on regardless. One inpronto Hallowe'en party meant we needed costumes quickly. We wrapped three toilet rolls around one daughter to make a mummy costume and cut head and arm holes in black bin bags for two of the others so they could be goblins. The toilet roll soon unravelled, trailing everywhere and the black bin bags split but it didn't spoil the fun.

I run writing workshops and often ask the students to write about either their best or worst birthday and there's usually some really interesting stories told. Do you have a favourite birthday memory - or a birthday disaster?

Karen King writes all sorts of books for children. Check out her website at

Friday, 21 September 2012

School libraries and librarians- essential for our children and society.

That is what we are all about, us writers!
  On Awfully Big Blog Adventure we talk about and write books so that children young and old can read them.  There is nothing more unhappy than a book without anyone to read it. We all know that children have to learn the skill that is reading so that they can discover the joy of losing themselves in a book, the delight of living new experiences through the characters in their favourite books.  
We writers like to think that all parents will encourage this by spending time reading to their children, many do and there are agencies like Bookstart and BookBug who deliver books into the hands of every new parent and child.  But as children grow up things change and we all know that life is not always the way we would like it to be, so we need our schools not only to help children learn the skill of reading but to find joy and delight in a broad range of books, to help them to become enthusiastic readers.
We have heard about how public libraries are under threat of closure or cuts in John Dougherty's excellent but depressing post A Death in the Library  but at a time like this we need to make sure we recognise how important our school libraries are, and encourage those excellent people the School Librarians.
 I visit a lot of schools and it is often an enthusiastic and hard working school librarian who will invite me to speak.  They understand how an author visiting a school and speaking passionately about what they write can infect students with their enthusiasm and on occasion can be the trigger that switches some children on to reading.  Finding the right book for the right child, the book that helps that child discover there is something in books for them, is something that can change lives. 
Books that deal with difficult subjects in a fictional setting can provide an opportunity to experience emotions, to dip into the dangerous side of life in a safe way. Teenagers need to push against authority and against the rules but reading and taking that journey with characters they believe in, can allow them an opportunity to see what might happen if they tried this in real life - raising questions they might never have asked themselves about the consequences of their actions. Books can be powerful in changing ideas and raising discussions that might never otherwise come about.
Going to borrow books from the public library works for some children but there will always be those who will never go to the library, but they all go to school.
With some of the Teen Title Reviewers
Authors at Teen Titles event
In Edinburgh some reading groups review teenage books for the excellent magazine Teen Titles  Have a look on the website (link below) and check out a copy. This would not succeed without the efforts of the school librarians.  Every year the lovely people at Teen Titles host a gathering and invite the young reviewers along to meet some of the YA authors who are in Edinburgh for the Book Festival . It is always great to meet these enthusiastic teenagers and their school librarians.  I was joined there this year by fellow authors Teresa Flavin, Kate Harrison, Jane McLoughlin and Elizabeth Wein, Roy Gill, Keith Gray and John Fardell. Have a look at a copy of Teen titles here  Teen Titles
 Book prizes, particularly those judged by teenagers, is another way school librarians keep them reading.  The excitement raised by these events keeps the students reading and introduces them to a wide variety of books, allowing them also the opportunity to  get involved and have a say.
Catalyst Book Awards
Red Book Awards


  The Kids Lit Quiz  brings together teams of young readers from schools up and down the country to compete in a book related quiz, with the winning teams playing in a national final and having the chance to travel, sometimes as far as New Zealand to play in the world final against teams from all over the world. Often at the KLQ there are teams of authors and teams of school librarians who play alongside the school teams. Everyone has a lot of fun, many win prizes of books, too. The school librarians encourage their school teams to read and answer questions, and to take part in the quiz.   
 School librarians are specialists who as shown above do so much to encourage our young people.  School libraries are essential and should be at the heart of the school, and school librarians must be valued for the great work they do, especially in these days of poor literacy.
Encourage a person to read and you give them the world. Our children deserve no less.
 Please leave a comment if you want to support school libraries and school librarians. Come along if you can, to make your voice heard or join the facebook pages below.
There will be a Mass Lobby for School libraries in London and in Edinburgh   
On Monday 29 October- Houses of Parliament, in London   
On  Saturday 27th October at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh
A quote from the facebook page for   -Mass Lobby for School Libraries
'For many children the only way they'll access a public library is if their parents take them. And if the parents don't have the time, don't see the value of books and libraries, cannot afford (or don't want to spend) the bus fare getting to the library, then their children will not have equal access. Add to that the "uncoolness" of going to the library and you can see why many teenagers last visited their public library when they were 5 years of age! 
 This isn't true of a school library. ALL students have equal access and if library lessons and reading for pleasure are part of the curriculum, then there's less stigma attached. It's easier to read if it's expected of you and everyone else is doing it!'
And quote from the  facebook page for  School Library Lobby Scotland
'We believe that access to quality school library provision, including a specialist school librarian, supports children and young people's learning and achievement across the curriculum. We encourage HM Inspectors to reflect on the impact of the school library during their inspection and encourage the Scottish Parliament and local authorities to recognise the importance of the school library in developing lifelong learning skills in our children and young people. 
Linda Strachan is the award winning author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage/ YA novels and a  writing handbook Writing For Children
Her latest novel is Don't Judge Me-  published by Strident October 2012

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Dog tails and champagne by Ann Evans

Inspiration for writing ideas comes from a whole variety of different sources and that's not just for fiction. When I'm not writing fiction, I'm busy writing articles for magazines, but keeping up a steady flow of non-fiction often taxes the old brain cells to seek out inspirational ideas that I can turn into saleable magazine articles.

The cute Ashleigh and Pudsey off Britain's Got Talent provided the inspiration to enquire with a certain canine magazine that I've written for for many years, to see whether they would like an article that informs dog owners what's entailed if they want to teach their dog these kinds of moves. This happily resulted in being commissioned to write the article.

Writing doggy features is probably my favourite form of non-fiction articles and over the years I've been so fortunate in meeting dogs that do amazing things, from detecting arms, drugs and explosives to iconic dogs renowned for rescuing; and those providing a tremendous quality of life to less able people – and then there are those who simply bring joy to their owners and those around them.

Very often non-fiction research will re-emerge in a fictional story too. About five years ago I went on a press trip to the Champagne region in France and had a fantastic three or four days visiting the Champagne houses, the cellars and the vineyards – not to mention trying out a big selection of different champagnes and some posh nosh to go with it. (I know it's a dirty job but someone had to do it!) Anyway, subsequent articles were written and published, and all those wonderful memories were filed away for possible future use.

That research was called on again fairly recently when I had the urge to write another romance. I'd written A Tropical Affair for My Weekly Pocket Libraries which was based on a tropical island, which I hadn't personally visited (shame); but when looking to follow this up and trying to think of a new story I was reminded of the wonderful setting of the champagne region. A rich, handsome champagne millionaire would make the perfect hero. As for the heroine, well why not a feature writer on a mission?  

The subsequent book Champagne Harvest came out at a People's Friend Pocket Novel (under my maiden namejust last week and reading through it, (even though I'd written it) it was great to hear my hero quoting phrases that various champagne growers had made on my visit. I was able to take the best bits of my research and create this lovely fictional world that was, in a way, very real.

I wonder how other writers weave real life events into their work, and does fiction and non-fiction sometimes work together to produce something new?

Doggy and champagne pics courtesy of Rob Tysall
Out of focus book cover pic by me!!

Please take a look at my website:

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Letting My Hair Down from the Ivory Tower - Cathy Butler

Like most children’s writers I have a day job. My job doesn’t take me away from children’s writing, though. On the contrary, as an academic who specializes in children’s literature I find myself looking at the world of children’s books all over again in the daylight hours – peering through the other end of the telescope, as it were. Next week, teaching resumes after the summer break, and I’ll be greeting almost a hundred students who have signed up for my course on “Children’s Fantasy Fiction Since 1900.”

The students I teach are sometimes surprised to find that children’s books can be studied at university at all. “Aren’t they too simple for that?” they ask.  “After all, even a child can read them!”

It’s a natural enough question – but they don’t ask twice. By the time they leave my course (gaunt, shuffling figures, trembly from too much late-night Derrida) they’ve learned that children’s literature can be just as challenging as the adult variety. There’s nothing simple about Peter and Wendy, or The Wind in the Willows, or Where the Wild Things Are, or The Owl Service, or Fire and Hemlock. These are all vastly sophisticated, not to say tricksy, texts, that can be interrogated with at least as much rigour as anything by Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan – and it’s a pleasure (if at times a mildly sadistic one) to watch this realization dawn.

But even books that are, on the face of it, simpler, demand a different kind of reading from what most students are used to. They’re accustomed to seeing themselves as part of an audience of literate adults and understanding their own reaction to a book as that of a (if not the) typical reader. With children’s books, they discover they’re not part of the target audience at all – or not straightforwardly so – and they have to find a way of dealing with that. They may, for example, imagine how a child might react to a book, and place that reaction alongside their own. But which takes priority? And what is “a child reader” like, considering that there are billions of children alive today, each one different from the rest? Should children’s books be discussed using the same criteria as adult ones, even if children and adults want and need different things? Do children’s books have a special responsibility to teach their readers, or is that just a hangover from a more didactic age?

None of these questions has an easy answer, but by the end of the year I hope my students will at least be able to find their way around the territory. I hope even more that they’ll leave with an enhanced love of, and respect for, the work that children’s writers do.

There’s nothing simple about it.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Meg, Mog, Buck and Chas (and many others)

"What was your favourite book when you were growing up?"
It’s a question I’m sure every author has been asked a thousand times, but my son was the one asking me this time, so I thought I should give it some serious thought for once.
I have a terrible memory. I can forget the name of a TV program I watched the previous week, and despite my adoration of books, I find it hard to remember many that really ‘did it for me’ as a youngster. However, a little trawling of the grey stuff managed to dredge up some wonderful memories, and I thought I’d share them on ABBA.
The earliest book I can remember reading for pleasure (as opposed to the Red Pirate and Blue Pirate books I was sent home from school with) was Meg and Mog by Helen Nichol and Jan Peinkowski. I have no idea why this book stayed in my head the way it did, but I was delighted when a friend bought it for my daughter to read when she was a little dot. When I asked her if she remembered it too, she squeed with delight and rushed up into the attack to see if it was still somewhere in her growing-up box (it’s not, so I might have to buy her a new copy despite the fact she’s fifteen now).
The first book I can remember having read to me was The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. I’m certain there must have been others, but this is the one that has most firmly lodged itself (although The Hungry Caterpillar was also waving frantically at me from somewhere deep in my pre-frontal cortex). When some family recently came to visit us from Scotland, I dug out this little gem to read to their children. Their reaction to it was a joy. It really is a timeless classic.

Darker things now. For some reason, the Moomins by Tove Jansson scared the crap out of me as a child. I’ve never revisited them to try and discover just what it was about the books that have left me so scarred, but I do remember being particularly unnerved by the Hattifatteners (even writing that down has brought back disturbed, and no doubt terribly suppressed, memories). Despite this fear, I have a feeling I read three of four books in the series, so my delight of being scared clearly outweighed my fear (something I’ve never forgotten as a writer).
Next on my list are two books that I read back-to-back when laid up sick in bed with the flu at the age of eleven (it was proper flu, not man flu). Call of the Wild by Jack London and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien are two of my most loved books. Maybe it was the fever I was running at the time, but these two stories are branded into my higgledy-piggledy RAM, and are as much a part of me as any book I’ve read since. London’s Buck has now also become a favourite of my youngest child. What goes around comes around, huh?
Last on my list is the book I think I loved more than any other in the years before I found my way into the Horror, Sci-Fi and General Fiction sections of my local library. A book about a boy living in the North East of England during WW2. Chas McGill is up there in my top ten list of characters and is the hero of The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. A wonderful, poignant book that still appeals to young and old today. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and do so.
Of course, whenever you try to put a list like this together, it’s inevitable that many great books will be left out. But for me, the above list represents the books that made the most lasting impression on me until I reached those torrid teens and discovered a whole new world of literature.