Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Population, Protests and Pumpkins

Exactly one year ago today little Ruaridh FIndlay Thompson's birth was heralded on the front page of the Scotsman as 'Edinburgh's one in 7 billion'
 It had been calculated that it was the day the 7 billionth child was born on planet Earth. 

Today, on his first birthday, Ruaridh will be getting lots of lovely presents and among the toys will be books.  He already has a good library,(shared with his 3yr old sister) of board books and flap books, audio books and beautifully illustrated picture books.

Ruaridh likes to make Brrrumh! noises to the cars in his books, he loves the tactile 'This is not my...'  series of books where each page has shiny, soft or bumpy aspects to each page, soft ears on a monkey or bumpy ridges on a tractor's engine. In fact he likes these so much that he touches the images on other picture books to see if they will feel different to the smooth surface of the printed book.

One of the great things about writing for children is that we have a new audience being born every day.   That means favourite books have another chance to delight a new audience, and  for the children there are also so many wonderful  books to discover.   If you are interested in Picture Books have a look at Picturebook Den another collaborative blog by members of the SAS (Scattered Authors Society).

Another place Ruaridh likes to go with his little sister is their local library, to listen to stories and borrow books.  When he goes to school it would be great to think that this encouragement to read a wide variety of books, that he is getting from home, will be reinforced in school by the school having a good and well stocked library and a librarian. 
Particularly when he gets to senior school, when a lot of children are no longer going to the library with their parents and reading can sometimes be thought of as something you HAVE to do at school, rather than a pleasure.
This is where school librarians come into their own.

Lobby for School Libraries - Scotland
Last weekend I attended the Lobby for School Libraries- Scotland,  at the Scottish Parliament.
I blogged about this a few weeks ago on ABBA .
Scottish authors Julie Bertagna, Jonathan Meres, Keith Gray, Debi Gliori, Anne Marie Allan and Sally J Collins  were there to support the lobby, many others  including Theresa Breslin (who sent a message from Russia) sent messages of support for libraries and librarians. In England there was great support from authors and librarians for the lobby in London on Monday.

In discussions about schools and librarians someone said they felt that English teachers in high schools do not read much or any young adult or teenage books, themselves. Obviously some teachers do and are great champions of books, but in my experience it is usually the school librarian, the person with all that enthusiasm, knowledge and willingness and time to engage with the children outside the classroom and exam pressures, who will manage to find the right book for the right child. 
Linda Strachan, Iain Gray MSP and Duncan Wright -School Librarian of the Year 2010
But that is not possible if they have no budget to buy new books or organise author visits or pupil participation in book related events.  If school budgets are cut or the money for books, libraries and librarians is not ring-fenced - in some schools libraries and librarians will not be considered a priority-
 which eems strange in a time when literacy problems seem to abound and engagement with books for sheer enjoyment is a sure way to encourage reluctant readers. 


Hopefully by the time little Ruaridh gets to senior school this will not be a problem!  For today he is blissfully unaware of all this and will no doubt have a lovely time with his little sister, enjoying his 1st birthday and his pumpkin birthday cake!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

How not to be popular: N M Browne

Unless you've been doing a 'Sleeping Beauty' for the last ten years you probably know that the web is awash with writing advice. Some of it is brilliant and some of it will make you want to murder the writer as energetically as I destroy my inner critic. One of the perennials is 'your characters ought to be likeable.' I really wonder about this one, but I fear it is becoming true as more editors pick up this kind of nonsense along with other prescriptive notions of what a book should be. I don't think it is true but it  leaves me in a bit of a quandry - how do you write likeable characters?
Like many writers I was not the most popular girl in the school, the one with the perfect teeth, the flicky hair and the knack of somehow setting the social agenda. I despised David Cassidy and Donny Osmand and had a healthy dislike of The Bay City Rollers, I could go on, but  let's just say I didn't get it and was too stupid to refrain from saying so. Not wise. I'll skim over my other social faux pas and summarise: I possess none of the attributes of the popular girl. Time has taught me to keep my mouth shut, but it is not a lesson I have fully absorbed even now. This is relevant to writing because I find it very hard to construct credible 'popular girls.' I am comfortable with loners, weirdos, girls who become foxes or boys, boys who become wolves or bears, but a straight forward popular girl has thus far eluded me. I can't cheat either. I can't make a character seem popular by obliging everyone else in the book to like her: characters who wander into my books tend to have borrowed some of my more undesirable traits and are often judgmental and outspoken. I can't shut them up, only write them out of the story which limits my cast options. I am really interested in how other writers do this.
 For most personality traits it is easy enough to find something in yourself and magnify it or produce the desired effect by observation, but likability is tough. I loathed Bella of 'Twilight' fame and look how popular she turned out to be ( David Cassidy didn't do badly back in the day either) and of course my favourite Harry Potter character is Hermione because she's an annoying goody good swot with whom I feel some distant affinity. I did try to write a likeable young woman in my last book. My daughter, who though she has escaped my worst characteristics has not escaped my tendency towards inconvenient honesty, pointed out that my heroine just wasn't that nice or likeable or indeed worth spending a whole book with. (Thanks, love!) I have put this book on hold for a time and decided to write one about monsters instead as I have more of a handle on them. If you have any compassion, you nice people out there, please drop me a few hints!

Monday, 29 October 2012

I'm not being funny... by John Dougherty

Firstly - sorry for the late arrival of this post! We usually like to get our blog entries up first thing, but sometimes life gets in the way.

Now - about not being funny:

Funny is what I do. I'm one of those irritating people who has a witty quip for almost every occasion, even when something a bit more thoughtful might be more helpful. I love it when someone reviews one of my books with the words "I laughed as much as my kids did". I don't, generally, find being funny all that difficult.

Except, of course, when that's what's expected of me.

An editor at an educational publisher recently asked me to write a funny book. Most of our books have an element of humour, she told me, but we want this series to be really laugh-out-loud funny. Send me some ideas.

Could I think of anything? Like heck I could. I racked my brains, I thumbscrewed them, I jammed them into the iron maiden... all I got was instantly rejectable ideas. Being funny is like being in love - as soon as you start focusing on the state itself, or trying to analyse it, you're no longer doing it; you're doing something else instead. Indeed, a potentially funny idea loses all its potential to amuse as soon as you start trying to make it actually funny.

Well, I came up with some ideas in the end; and of course I came up with them by forgetting about thinking up funny ideas and doing something else instead, for several days in a row. And one by one I jotted them down, making sure not to worry about whether they were any good. And then I rather apologetically sent them off unfiltered, and got a reply back that began: "Wow, you’ve given us loads of great ideas here!"

Rob Brydon once said something to the effect of, "People say, Oh, my mate's really funny, you should have him on your panel game. But the question is not Can you be funny down the pub? but  Can you be funny at 7.30 every Tuesday evening for at least half an hour?"

There's a lesson in there. And for me, it's: When you appear at the Cheltenham Comedy Festival, make sure to have some funny things to say prepared in advance. 

Oh, and: Don't worry about trying to be funny. Just write. If you're funny, it'll show.

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

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Best Book Ever Written.......... Miriam Halahmy

This autumn I was invited to the Havant LitFest, Hampshire, to run a workshop for teenagers and to give a talk about my Y.A. novels, Hidden and Illegal, which are set on Hayling Island, near the festival venue and opposite the Isle of Wight. Once I had agreed the organisers then asked if I would like to be on a panel the night before where I would have to champion the best book ever written.
So – what to choose? The Bible? – a bit obvious. Crime and Punishment? Yes, but even Dostoyevsky muttered to his wife that he had rushed it and should have done a good edit. Ultimately I had to choose a book and it had to be one I could talk about enthusiastically. I chose A Town Like Alice, by Neville Shute.

Here are my reasons :-

Langstone Mill - Neville Shute wrote here during the war.
  •  Neville Shute wrote for a period of time in the Old Mill, at the top of Hayling Island, five minutes from the venue for the LitFest. One of the books he completed there was Pied Piper, a very unusual war story. Shute is a much loved local literary figure so I had a local connection.
  •  Shute wrote 23 novels but Alice is the only book based on a true story.
  • The true story is the remarkable account told to Shute by a young woman who had been a prisoner of the Japanese along with a group of around 80 Dutch women and children during the occupation of Sumatra. Their story is particularly unusual because the Japanese never settled them into a camp. They simply made them walk round the island for two and a half years until less than 30 were left alive.
  •   The main character, a young woman called Jean, says in the novel, “People who spent the war in prison camps have written a lot of books about what a bad time they had. They don’t know what it was like not being in a camp.” The entire novel pivots around this heart-breaking statement.
  •  I don’t want to spoil the book for you so I won’t say any more about this part of the story.
  • However, if Shute’s great novel had only dealt with the war story then it would not be my choice for the greatest novel ever. But the war story is only the first half of the book. The second half of the book is set in the remotest part of the Australian Outback. This is a wonderful and fascinating contrast. The book was written in the late 1940s and Shute knew the country very well. At that time Australia was a very different country to the modern high tech place it is today. Shute gives us a wonderful picture of life in the Outback and shows how the Australians established their towns – a town like Alice. He really makes the reader want to leap on a plane and go there.
  •   By bringing alive two such contrasting settings and placing at the heart of his novel a wonderful love story, Shute has written a classic and a book which I have enjoyed re-reading again and again.

It was therefore easy for me to stand up and champion my book but I have to say, all the other books were brilliant and so well presented that it made for a marvellous, stimulating booky evening.

From left to right : Sarah Butterfield, me, David Willetts, Lynn Pick, Mark Waldron, Naomi Foyle
Here are the other books :

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Larson – presented by Sarah Butterfield, professional artist.
A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume – presented by David Willetts, MP for Havant and husband of Sara Butterfield.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giona – presented by Lynne Pick, local resident and artist.
Biggles Takes it Rough, by W.E. Johns – presented by Mark Waldron, Editor of The News, Portsmouth. Mark stated that his first Biggles book started him on the road to becoming a serious and committed reader but without his local library he wouldn't have had access to books at all. For the Dickens centenary celebrations in Portsmouth this year he read the entire works in 14 months – so he has come a long way from good old Biggles and all because of the library.
Queen of Heaven and Earth by Wolkstein and Kramer – presented by Naomi Foyle, poet and author.

Sarah Butterfield won – which was wonderful ( although we all thought Biggles was looking like the front runner)
The audience loved the whole process, which included questions and comments to the panel and a voting system – marbles in jars. ( The better half reckons I came second...but who knows!)

It was an inspiring way to spend an evening on books – many of which were lovingly falling to pieces and a reminder that if we had all stood there with our Kindles it just wouldn't have smelt and looked and felt the same.

What would you have chosen as the best book ever written?

Friday, 26 October 2012

It's a tough job, being a writer...

Earlier this week I went along to the offices of The Guardian for the presentation of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. By now everybody knows that this year’s winner is Frank Cottrell Boyce for his wonderful book The Unforgotten Coat, a poignant, warm and funny story about immigration, deportation and our common humanity. Frank is a great writer for children – his stories engage with their concerns, and they achieve great depth with a lightness of touch that leaves most of his fellow writers filled with envy. The book is beautifully produced by his publisher Walker, too, but then that’s what I would expect from a publisher with their track record in design.

It was a gathering of the great and good of children’s books (and me!), and I met several people I’ve known for years. Lives were caught up on and gossip exchanged, but I was struck by how gloomy several of the people I spoke to seemed to feel about our business at the moment. The recession, budget cuts, the rise of e-books and the decline of high street bookselling, new authors struggling to get published, older authors struggling to get school visits, publishers worried about the future for their imprints. It wasn’t quite like listening to a group of Jeremiahs predicting the Apocalypse, but it was close. Now it’s been announced that the two mega-corporations that own Penguin and Random House are in ‘merger talks’. More gloom – if such an entity did come into existence (on current figures it would control up to 25% of the UK publishing market), surely it would mean fewer opportunities for writers...

But am I downhearted? No, I’m not. As a judge on the Guardian award this year I was struck by just how many wonderful books had been submitted – and they represented a tiny proportion of the total number of books published. Yes, things might be tough, but as my fellow judge Cressida Cowell said, we must be doing something right in our business if we can produce great books like Frank’s and all the others. Yes, things are changing, but if writers keep producing stories like Frank’s, some entity in some form will want to ‘publish’ them, and people will pay good money for them too. And yes, Penguin and Random House might merge, but that could well be a good thing – we need some players in our industry with the power to take on the new media behemoths of our time, the Apples and Googles and Facebooks.

Life has never been easy for writers, or for publishers, and change is always difficult. Someone told me a while ago that the symbol for ‘change’ in Chinese script is the same as that for ‘opportunity.’ I don’t know if it’s true, but if I can find it I’m going to copy it out on a Post-It note and stick it up over my desk. It’s a tough job, being a writer – but I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

Getting it covered - the book, that is

I'm covering for Karen King, who should have been writing this post. Instead, she's getting married. That seems like a much more important thing to do. Congratulations Karen!

So this is a cover version of a blog post. To make sure I've got everything covered, I'm going to talk about covers.

Book covers.

It's a little-known fact, but every now and then people ask me to design a book cover for them. Here is the most recent one:

Most of them are books for grown-ups. But earlier this year I did one for young adult girls. Here it is:

I really enjoy designing book covers. Surfing Through Minefields is a realistic story (no vampires) about a young girl who moves to an old coalmining area and gets into a spot of trouble.

You could say that there's trouble at t'pit, but I won't because that's corny.

Bel was very specific about what she wanted. There had to be a dog, the girl, and a coal mine.

Oh yes, and she had to have a skateboard, hence the title.

How do you aim a book at a particular kind of reader? How do you attract their attention and make them pick it up?

My approach was to think: if I put a really cool girl on the cover, then it looks like the book is aimed at that type of reader.

I made her sassy and confident, too: she's got attitude. Just, I hope, like a lot of girls aged 11 to 13 like to think they are.

Bel said she was really pleased with it anyway.

How did I do it? Sorry, that's a trade secret. I'll have to keep it under cover.

There was a print version and an e-book version. For the print version I had to design the spine and the back cover as well.

I also copy edited the blurb for her and the publisher.

Doing something like this makes me think a lot more about writing the content of my own books, and how they are aimed at particular kinds of readers.

But I wouldn't design covers for my own books. It's hard enough writing them.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Magwitch and Michael Morpurgo: Sue Purkiss

At the weekend, Michael Morpurgo was on Saturday Live on Radio 4 talking about his new book, A Medal For Leroy. The novel, said Sian Williams, deals with 'war, injustice, and families leading secret lives', and Morpurgo went on to explain some of the real life stories which fed into the book.

Part of the inspiration came from the story of Lieutenant Walter Tull, an outstanding soldier who was promoted to Lieutenant during the First World War. The reason this is especially noteworthy is that Walter Tull was black: his father was from Barbados, his mother from Kent. According to regulations, it was not permitted for anyone of mixed race to be promoted - but Tull was such a good soldier that he blew that particular rule right out of the water.

So far, so interesting. But it was the unfairness of what happened next that particularly aroused Morpurgo's indignation. Tull was recommended for the Military Cross - but for unknown reasons, he never received it. Then, many years later, the Imperial War Museum wanted to put up a statue of him, but was refused permission by the local council. Morpurgo, outraged by these injustices, wanted to write about Tull's story in some way. Others had already done so; there is a television play by Kwame Kwei-Armah and a Barrington Stoke book by Michaela Morgan, entitled Respect! (2005) So a straight re-telling wasn't what was needed; nevertheless, the story of Walter needled away and demanded to be explored. I haven't read A Medal For Leroy, so I don't know exactly how he uses it - but I suspect that he used the medium of fiction to right a wrong - to see that in a sense, Tull did finally receive his medal.

One of the characters in the book is a boy growing up without a father in post-war London - as Michael Morpurgo did: and he went on to tell an extraordinary story about his own family. When Michael's father, Tony Bridge, came home after the war, he found that his wife had fallen in love with another man. He did not know his two young sons, and they didn't know him, so he generously decided to set his wife free. After the divorce, he left for Canada where he became an actor, saying that if and when his sons wanted to find him, he would make himself available to them. Divorce was rather shocking at that time: the two boys were brought up by their stepfather and took his name, and their real father was hardly spoken of.

Fast forward to an eighteen year old Michael, sitting watching the 1962 film of Great Expectations with his mother beside him on the sofa. The film reaches the terrifying moment when Magwitch, the convict, leaps out at Pip from behind a gravestone. At which point Michael's mother declares dramatically - and accurately: "Oh my God, that's your father!"

Again, without having read the book, I don't know exactly how he uses this incident, or how closely the character of the boy in the book is modelled on himself. It's an interesting business, this of how you create character. Someone has said that every character is an aspect of the writer him or herself (I can't remember who said it - I hope someone will remind me!) - presumably the basis of this is that you can never truly know another person, so you are your only resource - even if you don't realise this. Some writers will stoutly assert that they never base their characters on real people - "We're FICTION writers - we make it all up!"

I'm not sure about this. My first book was called Spook School, so you can probably imagine what it's about and what kind of story it is. Possibly my favourite character was a chain rattling, head-removing bully of a ghostly teacher called Sir Rupert - here he is, on the cover. I thought I'd made him up. Then one day I was in a school reading out a passage where he shouts at a class - and suddenly, I absolutely recognised his voice. He was none other than Sid, my old biology teacher, scourge of Ilkeston Grammar School.. He wasn't really one for the caring, sympathetic approach; if your notes weren't up to scratch, he simply scrawled a big red R over them, which meant, he told us with evil alliterative relish, ROTTEN RUBBISH - REPEAT! So I hadn't made Sir Rupert up after all - I'd just turned Sid into a ghost, popped him into a Tudor costume, and given him a few nifty little tricks to enable him to be even meaner and nastier to the unfortunates in his charge. (Spookily enough, Lynne Chapman's depiction of Sir Rupert bears an uncanny resemblance to Sid.)

Sometimes, of course, you know that, to a degree, a character is based on a real person - and this brings with it its own difficulties. The book I'm writing at present has a character who is in some sense based on my father. Note the way I hedge this notion round with qualifications. Harry Pilgrim goes through many of the experiences of the young Bob Course. He is taken prisoner before Dunkirk and spends the rest of the war in captivity; he does some things that Bob did, like making hooch out of potatoes and working in a forest and on farms. His background is the same, and he looks very similar. But Harry is not Bob. How could he be? I can guess at how Bob may have reacted to some of the situations I put Harry into, but I don't know if I've guessed right - and it doesn't actually matter whether I have or not: provided that what Harry does is true to Harry. (I only hope it is!)

Is it easier to base a character on a real person? I don't know. It's easy to use the face and figure and mannerisms of someone you've seen but don't know; then you have a cloak of verisimilitude to clothe whatever you want. But to write about someone you know - that's really not so easy. Maybe it's a way to find out that you know that person far less well than you thought you did - which may be all sorts of things: instructive, disturbing, intriguing.

I shall certainly be interested to find out what Michael Morpurgo has made out of his source material. Perhaps, in the end, what we all do is a little bit as Yeats describes in  his sad but beautiful late poem, The Circus Animals' Desertion:

                    ...Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

I'd question the description of the heart as a 'foul rag-and-bone shop' - he must have written that on a very bad day - but I know what he means. Would that I could express a thought - any thought - even a tiny fraction as well!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A Pomzkizillious Place for Inspiration by Ann Evans

Last month I went to the Maltese island of Gozo in the Med. It wasn't just a holiday, it was a writers' retreat organised by one of the members of The Society of Women Writers and Journalists (SWWJ) of which I've been a member for years, probably even longer than being with the SAS.

I went with a writing friend but apart from my pal Maxine, I didn't know any of the other people they were just familiar names that appeared in our round-robin emails and the Society's quarterly journal The Woman Writer.

There was no need to feel nervous however, from the moment we all met up there was that lovely camaraderie and easy conversation that always seems in abundance when any group of writers get together. And this was a special get-together on the beautiful – and tiny island of Gozo which measures just 9 by 5 miles.

The retreat was organised by SWWJ member Jennifer Pulling and apart from Maxine and I there were three other ladies and another who came over just for the day from her home on Malta. A cosy little band of writers, keen to explore, take in the legends and folklore and bask under that hot Mediterranean sun.

Personally, I went with the hopes of finding inspiration to write another romantic novel. My two previous romances have been set (a) on a tropical island and (b) in France. I thought that Gozo would be the perfect location for a love story to blossom.

Gozo has certainly proved magical and inspirational for other writers, not least Victorian author and poet Edward Lear who was so impressed by the island that he had to make up his own words to describe its magnificence – pomzkizillious and gromphiberous, no less. Although legend and myth go much further back in time as Ramla Bay on Gozo is supposedly where the nymph Calypso kept Ulysses a prisoner for seven years.

I can certainly think of worse places to be held captive as the rugged coastline around the tiny island is so magnificent with its incredible caves and rock formations while the little towns and villages remain unspoilt by modernisation. As for the churches, their dramatic appearance especially at sunset can take your breath away. Explore more deeply and you'll uncover secrets and discover the stunning craftsmanship of the Gozitan people.

I found it amazing as to how such a tiny island could have so many ancient archaeological sites, perhaps the most incredible being the Ggantija Temples thought to be older than the Egyptian pyramids. Sadly I soon realised that this tiny golden speck in the Mediterranean has too many wonders to see in just a week. I'll have to go back some day.

But did I feel the inspiration for a romance novel as I'd hoped? Sadly no, I was too busy taking in the sights, enjoying the weather, swimming in that clear blue sea and partaking of the culinary fayre! But all the memories are stored in my head and captured on photos and probably just need time to readjust and muse and go through all the subconscious processes that we unknowingly do before a story can begin to form. Although I did come home with article ideas. One being the amazing Gozo salt harvested from the salt pans that were just along the coast from where we stayed.

Oblong pans chiselled from the rock to collect sea water
It may look like snow but it's actually salt.
I stopped to talk to locals Alfred Attard and his wife Mary who are following in generations of their family's footsteps in harvesting the salt from the salt pans. Speaking in broken English they invited me into their cave which had been chiselled from the cliff to form a storage shed for the harvested salt and told me something of how the salt pans were created.
Alfred and Mary Attard, Salt Pans, Gozo.

I always think that if something stops me in my tracks because I find it interesting, it might also interest a magazine and its readers. I hope so anyway. It might not be the romantic novel I was hoping to be inspired to write, although... I wonder if Alfred and Mary found love among these surreal surroundings in their youth... perhaps there's another story beginning to germinate after all.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Through a Glass Darkly, and Loving It - Cathy Butler

I sometimes think I’m a bit of a wreck, physically. First, I’m slightly deaf, which means I annoy people by asking them to repeat themselves, especially when there’s any background noise. Then, I have prosopagnosia, or face blindness, and so have difficulty recognizing people from their faces alone. I generally rely on hair styles, context, clothes and voice recognition to get by – although when I meet people in unexpected situations these aids aren’t always available and the results can be embarrassing. (My nadir came when I failed to recognize my own daughter, who was helping out at a local cafe.) Oh, and I almost forgot, my memory isn’t too reliable either. At least, it has a habit of squishing people, places and events together, consolidating all my separate memories into one manageable reminiscence. Some might say that a person as decrepit as I am has no business writing at all, especially for children.

On the other hand, for a writer there are advantages to looking at the world as reflected in a funhouse mirror. You see things that no one else has seen, at least from that angle. Witness the novelist Henry Green: he too was rather deaf, and it was a deficit he treasured because he found that the sentences he misheard were frequently more interesting than what people had actually said - as in this example from a 1958 Paris Review interview:

INTERVIEWER: I've heard it remarked that your work is “too sophisticated” for American readers, in that it offers no scenes of violence—and “too subtle,” in that its message is somewhat veiled. What do you say?

GREEN: Unlike the wilds of Texas, there is very little violence over here. A bit of child killing, of course, but no straight shootin'. After fifty, one ceases to digest; as someone once said: “I just ferment my food now.” Most of us walk crabwise to meals and everything else. The oblique approach in middle age is the safest thing. The unusual at this period is to get anywhere at all—God damn!

INTERVIEWER: And how about “subtle”?

GREEN: I don't follow. Suttee, as I understand it, is the suicide—now forbidden—of a Hindu wife on her husband's flaming pyre. I don't want my wife to do that when my time comes—and with great respect, as I know her, she won't . . .

INTERVIEWER: I'm sorry, you misheard me; I said, “subtle”—that the message was too subtle.

 subtle. How dull!

Green was being mischievous, of course, but slight deafness (while tedious for everyone else) does indeed offer such solipsistic pleasures, a way of swerving one’s mind off the beaten track of polite conversation and into the pathless wilderness of imagination. All writers need a way of doing that: no mishearings, no mondegreens.

I've yet to find as productive a use for my prosopagnosia, but it's sometimes pleasant to let familiar faces pass before me in a nameless parade, especially if their owners aren't present to be offended. It’s as if the usual compulsion to attach words to things were temporarily suspended and one had entered a state of preverbal infancy, a holiday from language itself. The other night, for example, I watched Stand Up to Cancer, a fundraising telethon featuring many such unnamed celebrities, and thoroughly enjoyed the downtime. Mind you, even that experience was interrupted by the occasional pyrotechnic display of firing neurons as a name crackled into life – for example when that ordinary-looking bloke sitting behind Derren Brown suddenly revealed himself as Martin Freeman by dint of opening his mouth. (I still, however, mistook Christian Jessen for Daniel Craig

As for memory and its tricks – well, that’s a subject for another post, I think, for its devious ways are both creative and legion. I only hope I remember to write it.

Meanwhile, I feel a little sorry for those people with twenty-twenty vision and photographic memories. They miss so much.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Wait for it...

Well might you ask Ralph Waldo. Emerson, as a writer, would have known a thing or two about waiting because in this game you do an awful lot of it. It doesn’t matter whether you are starting out on your writing career, or if you’re a seasoned campaigner. It’s a waiting game.
Sometimes you’re waiting for the idea that has started to take shape in the fug-filled miasma of thoughts known as ‘creativity’ to really kick on and reveal itself for the genius it is. Sometimes you’re waiting for the knotty plot point you’ve been beating yourself up over to resolve itself (so you can get on with turning your genius idea into the masterpiece you know it’s destined to be). Sometimes you’re waiting for your muse to grab you by the throat, shake you about, and tell you that now is the time to unleash your potential and write up a storm.
These are things that, as writers, we can have some influence over. Most of the time it’s best not to wait for any of the above, but to simply get on with it and see what happens. That’s what I do, anyway.
It’s the other waiting that is more difficult to take. Waiting on others.
Waiting for an agent to come back to you with news about whether they want to represent you. Waiting for news from said agent, who is now representing you, about whether the publisher is going to make a bid for your work. Waiting for the publisher to get back to the agent about the revised bid. Waiting for your publisher to come back to you with their thoughts. Waiting for edits. Waiting for more edits. Waiting for contract monies due. Waiting for royalties. Waiting, waiting, waiting. It’s like being a kid again; when Christmas took at least two, maybe three, years to come round again.
This is the waiting that you have little or no control over; it’s the waiting that eats away at you and makes you want to scream in frustration (or write a blog article about it). As writers, we often feel alone. With solitude (even with the best support network) comes self-doubt and misgivings about your work and your abilities. And the glacial speed at which the publishing world seems to operate can be incredibly frustrating (and damaging) at these times. Queries go unanswered, edits take longer than agreed, cover illustrations are delayed, and publication dates are put back. Your writing life can go ‘on hold’ and there’s nothing you can do but wait until you’re finally put through to the helpdesk in Mumbai.
Maybe, with digital publishing, this is all about to change forever. Then again, maybe not.
I tell everyone that the most important thing you need to have as a writer is a thick hide. Maybe you also need a pool of infinite patience or a watch that doesn’t keep very good time.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Dancing with the dead - Anne Rooney

I'm off to London in a few minutes to look for a brothel and some dead bodies. No, not a new career in either debauchery or police work, but research for a new book. It's set in 1878, just after the sinking of the Princess Alice in which 700 people drowned in the Thames. That's nearly half as many as died in the Titanic, but had you heard of it?

My characters include a baby-farmer, so I went to the Museum of Childhood on Tuesday and looked at the bottles and 'pap boats' used to feed babies who were not breastfed. A third of all bottle-fed babies died, because no one knew to sterilise bottles.

One of my characters is an old man who has Parkinson's. Luckily for him, he owns his hovel, so he can live with his widowed sister-in-law. If he didn't have the hovel (and the sister-in-law) he'd be moved to the workhouse where he would die very rapidly. For a good account of a workhouse, see Meg Rosoff's The Bride's Farewell. Yes, they really were that bad.

I've been using Booth's Poverty Map and a brilliant online map of London from 1878. The poverty map colour-codes all London housing by levels of affluence or poverty. My characters live in the black (criminal) and dark blue (desperately poor) areas of Bankside and Whitechapel. I went to look at the baby-farmer's house, but the Whitechapel Gallery has been built on top of it. This building alongside in Angel Alley was probably there at the time.

It's good to see where characters live and walk, even if it has changed. Covent Garden is very different now, but the church of St Paul's is still in the same place, and is still the backdrop for puppet shows and other street entertainers. It's not hard to imagine back 150 years to a different type of entertainer and populate it with street-sellers and other characters from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor - four volumes of contemporary interviews with such characters as 'the blind seller of bootlaces' and 'the bone grubber' and 'the street buyer of umbrellas and parasols'.

1878 is late enough for there to be photographs, and I'm off to the Museum of London to look at some of them. But photographs were posed then. I like to look for other things that show, less self-consciously, how things looked. The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green has a large collection of ornate Victorian doll houses, some of them exact replicas of real houses. I will use one of those for the layout and decor of a grand house. This little clockwork man rowing a boat on the river probably represents pretty accurately how such a man would look.

The story is still unfolding in my mind at the moment, but all the research helps it to do that. Research is not just about getting the details right - it often directs the story as some discoveries are just too good not to use. Such as the name of my baby farmer, Selina Wadge. She was real. She was convicted for baby-killing. She's going to be involved in some quite shady business.

 RIght, off for a happy day of research, ending with drinking in the Anchor, the pub on Bankside where the dead bodies are deposited for identification. Hope there won't be too many there tonight.

Stroppy Author is Anne Rooney
Latest books: Vampire Dawn series, Ransom Publishing, 2012

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Listening to Children by Keren David

 Do we listen enough to children?  Adults are always talking about young people - how they should be educated, which books they should read - but rarely stop to listen to their views and opinions.

 Sometimes this is desperately serious, and horrific abuse takes place unchecked because no one pays attention to the victims. But often it’s an oversight, a lack of interest in children’s firsthand experience. What do five year olds think of the phonics method of learning to read? Has anyone thought to ask?

It’s sad, because extraordinary things can happen when children are encouraged to write about their lives.  Take two girls, Malala and Martha, two of the highest profile bloggers in the world.

Malala Yousafzai was flown to the UK this week after being shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out in support of girls’ education. Malala, 14 started blogging for the BBC Urdu service when she was 11 years old.  She wrote anonymously at first, describing life under Taliban rule in her home region in northwest Pakistan.  Her writing is clear, descriptive, engaging and fearless. Later she put aside her anonymity to campaign for girls’ education .  

 Her father backed her, despite the risk. He told the BBC " I think that not talking was a greater risk than that because then ultimately we would have given in to the slavery and the subjugation of ruthless terrorism and extremism.”

Martha Payne was nine years old when she started writing her blog, Never Seconds, a record of her lunches at school in Scotland. Who could have predicted what an impact she would have? Martha’s blog readership grew as she started posting school dinners from around the world. Then local council officials tried to ban her blog. Their heavy-handed censorship had a fantastic outcome. Martha got thousands of new supporters, she used the extra attention to raise money for a charity Mary’s Meals, which provides food for schoolchildren in Africa, the council backtracked and Martha raised more than £115,000 to build a school kitchen in Malawi. Last week Martha visited the school and met the children,whose lives will be changed with a nutritious meal in the middle of the day. Heraccount of her trip was excellent journalism – descriptive, clear, full of telling anecdotes. Martha's story is now going to be a children's book, and I hope it will inspire other schoolchildren to start documenting their lives.

The referendum on Scottish independence will give 16 and 17 year olds a say in our political process for the first time. Some people have said that this is a mistake, that teenagers are not mature enough to wield political power. I disagree. We have underestimated children for too long. They are affected by political decisions, they are ready and able at 16 to judge the politicians.

I hope Martha and Malala will inspire other children to start blogs, write books, make themselves heard. But not every child will be a writer. They still deserve a hearing.  We adults need to listen, believe them and act on what they have to say.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

How to write an adventure story - Josh Lacey

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Cheltenham for the book festival. On a clear stretch of track between Stroud and Gloucester, brakes squealed and the train shuddered to a halt. The door of our carriage swung open and a man appeared, carrying a pistol in one hand, a rope in the other. He pointed his pistol at my forehead and said,

Actually, that's not true. I did go to the Cheltenham Literary Festival, but the most dramatic thing that happened was getting slightly lost on the way from my hotel to a restaurant. I did, however, spend a whole day talking and thinking about adventure stories.

In the morning, I ran a creative writing workshop with fifteen talented and imaginative young writers. I advised them on how to write a great adventure story; we talked about creating fascinating characters and putting them in dramatic situations; and then they hunched over their desks and started inventing their own adventures.

In the afternoon, I took part in a panel discussion with two fellow writers of adventure stories, Andy Briggs and Anthony McGowan.

Both of them have taken classic adventure stories and revitalised them for a new generation. Andy has written a series of novels about a contemporary Tarzan, while Anthony has found a very clever way of reviving Williard Price's novels, which I loved as a child. Price's heroes were Hal and Roger Hunt, teenage brothers who travelled the world hunting down animals; in Leopard Adventure, Anthony picks up the story of Hal and Roger's children, Amazon and Frazer, who are eco-warriors, intent on saving endangered animals who are under threat in exotic, dangerous locations around the world.

I was talking about my own Grk books and my new novel, The Sultan's Tigers, the story of a boy and his uncle tracking down a lost treasure in India.

The event was chaired by Daniel Hahn, who began by asking us: What makes a good adventure story? What are the ingredients of a great adventure novel?

I was about to list all the obvious ingredients of a great adventure story - an appealing hero, a dastardly villain, a plot that holds you with its twists and turns, a series of exotic locations, and perhaps some love interest too - when I thought of one of my favourite adventure stories, a novel which lacks almost all of the above ingredients. And yet Robinson Crusoe is undoubtedly one of the best adventure stories ever written.

So what is the perfect definition of an adventure story? Sitting with Daniel, Anthony and Andy, I didn't have access to Wikipedia, but if I had, I would have found a short entry on adventure which includes this lovely quote from Helen Keller: "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

Ah, yes. Of course. How I wish I could have answered Daniel's question with a one-liner like that. It expresses the heart of the matter so perfectly. An adventure needn't involve brutal baddies, poisonous snakes, foaming rapids, vertiginous mountain trails or any other such perils; we can be adventurous simply in the way that we approach life.

It's not the plot or the situation that matters; it's the attitude of the person at the heart of them.

Those fictional adventurers whose characters and exploits I love best - Robinson Crusoe, Jim Hawkins, Richard Hannay, Rudolf Rassendyll, etc, etc - are united by their love of adventure, their eagerness to cast aside caution and throw themselves into the world.

My own Tom Trelawney, hero of The Sultan's Tigers, is no different. For him, "life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

Josh Lacey

Josh's new novel, The Sultan's Tigers, is published by Andersen.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Reading for Pleasure by Lynda Waterhouse

I write in the hope that someone will read and enjoy my work. .
I read for lots of reasons: research, acquisition of knowledge, to bake a perfect cake but most of all dear reader I do it for sheer unadulterated pleasure.
 The path of a reader is not a runway but more a hack through a forest, with individual twists and turns, entanglements and moments of surprise.  (Holden, 2004)
I found this quote is at the beginning of Christina Clark and Kate Rumbold’s 2006 research for The National Literacy Trust on Reading for Pleasure. It got me musing.
A few years ago Frugal Husband had found that he had lost some of the pleasure of reading. He dutifully joined a friend’s new book group where he encountered The Wall by Marlen Haushofer.
This novel inspired him to form a breakaway group called Post-apocalyptic Book Group. He wanted to read more. They wracked their brains, asked friends, did some research to select:
Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban, The Last Man - Mary Shelley, Night Work - Thomas Glavinic, Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood, A Canticle for Liebowitz - Walter M Miller, Dr Bloodmoney - Philip K Dick and The Road - Cormac McCarthy.

These novels inspired them to Dystopic Book Group where after a similar selection process they read: Bend Sinister - Vladimir Nabakov, Benefits - Zoe Fairbairns, 1984 - George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury, Brave New World - Aldous Huxley, All Quiet on the Orient Express - Magnus Mills, The Scheme for Full Employment - Magnus Mills
Revolutionary and Imperial books followed on.
He is currently on Monster Book Group which includes:
Dracula - Bram Stoker, Frankenstein - Mary Shelley, The Island of Dr Moreau - HG Wells, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break - Steven Sherill, Kraken Wakes - John Wyndham, Moby Dick - Herman Melville, Kornwolf - Tristan Egolf, The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova.
And where do we find these magical forests to inspire us? They used to be called libraries. There may still be one near you where you can find these treasures or continue your own journey along the reading path

Monday, 15 October 2012

Writing with the Seasons - Savita Kalhan

I used to always start a new book in the autumn, when nights became longer, trees began to bunker down for winter, and the chill air meant the blanket draped over the back of my writing chair would soon be in use again. While summer died a quick death, one of the ideas percolating on the back burner would burst into life and solidify into a story. I would write solidly every day, sparing little time for my allotment, (well, apart from the big dig and manure spreading!), and it was probably my way of dealing with any Seasonal Affected Disorder because there was simply no time to be SAD. The first draft would be finished early in the New Year with the snow falling all around me, and by the time the yellow daffodils trumpeted the imminent arrival of spring, rereads and edits would be well underway. That was my routine, tried and trusted.

I’m not sure when that changed, but it has, at least for this year. I began writing my current WIP in early summer. With the long school holiday, our holiday away, the allotment bursting with life and craving a lot of attention, the WIP did suffer a bit. It is now autumn and I’m two thirds of the way through the manuscript. Already one of the ideas that has been simmering on that back-burner is begging to jump onto paper, but I will have to make it wait. It is tempting to write just a couple of chapters, let the characters begin to speak, see how the story might work. But I’m resisting the temptation until the current WIP is finished. Or should I resist? Perhaps I should just dip my toes in the story.

It has been a very odd year for me and I don’t think writing ‘out of season’ has helped. Now I feel the pressure (completely self-inflicted of course) to finish this WIP as soon as possible, so that autumn isn’t too far out of the door before I begin the next story.

Do the changing seasons affect anyone else’s writing habits, or am I the only odd one?

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Top Ten Tips for Manuscript Revision (How to Deal with Rejection)

There is no writer alive who has never received a rejection slip. Or, probably, dead for that matter.

This is the test of fire; one you have to undergo time and time again. Because for every “Yes! We'd love to publish your book and give you a squillion pounds advance!" There are 100, or possibly 1,000 “Thank you for sending us your manuscript, but I am afraid it does not suit our requirements. We wish you the best of luck elsewhere".

There are several possible reactions to receiving a rejection letter:


Retiring to a monastery:

Falling into despair:

Taking the same manuscript around every agent and publisher in the world:

Looking again at the manuscript:

By the way, this is a page from the edited manuscript of George Orwell's 1984. Now there's a book I wish I had written.

Of the above options, my personal recommendation is for the fifth. I have tried two of the other four, but I'm not telling you which ones.

This is because, as everyone knows, persistence is the handmaiden of luck, which is the catalyst for success.

But being able to appraise and revise your own work objectively is a skill, and probably the most difficult part of writing.

Even more difficult than appearing on chat shows.

So here are my top ten tips for revising a novel. (And by the way, I am talking mostly about novels for young adults.)

1. Go through it and look to see if your viewpoint is consistent. If we are not following the action through one particular character's point of view, there must be a very good reason why. If you dart into another character's head or perspective, or find that you are giving your own description of a scene, during the same scene, steer it back to the primary viewpoint.

2. Are we as close as possible to the feelings of the character? Are their feelings reported and described, or evoked and given? This is the difference between "She felt a jolt of shock" and her shouting: "How dare she?" Don't distance the reader from the action and emotion; maximise the effect you are after.

3. Put it through a cliché strainer. Hang the manuscript up in a net so that everything falls through the holes except the clichés. We all write clichés; they're a kind of shorthand put in at the first draft when you want to get on with the plot. Then, we don't always notice them later. Here's a list of some cliches I strained out of a recent novel:
‘makes a beeline for’ p8, ‘spot it a mile away’ p21, ‘stand out a mile’ p98, ‘head is reeling’ p22, ‘mouth falls open’ p22, ‘cold as ice’ p25, ‘knows it like the back of her hand’ p34, ‘coast is clear’ p109, ‘dead to the world’ p41.

What do you replace them with? Inspired images!

4. Apply a similar filter for speech words. Really, the modern reader doesn't want to be held up in their appreciation of the plot by a variety of inappropriate speech verbs. Here is another list of mine, that you won't find in the latest draft of a novel:
‘trilled’ p9, ‘croaks’ p24 & p42, ‘breathes’ p45, p52, p88, p90 & p114, ‘laughs’ p46 & p89, ‘gushes’ p50, ‘giggles’ p71, ‘grins’ p76, p79 & p151, ‘weeps’ p82, ‘growls’ p88, ‘muses’ p94, ‘wheedles’ p111, ‘blurts’ p169 and ‘starts’ on p173.

5. Check the pacing. If it feels like it's dragging, or you feel a bit bored at any point when you're reading it, cut it down. Be ruthless. Sometimes you find you have rushed where you should have taken your time to paint the scene a little. Throw in some nice imagery. Evoke that sense of place or person using all of the senses.

6. Check the transitions. These are how a chapter ends and the next chapter begins. Each chapter should end with a cliffhanger of some sort to keep your reader up until four in the morning because they can't bear to put it down. In some way there should be a link with the beginning of the next chapter, but vary what kind of link it is. This could be a word echoed, or an image subverted. It could be similar in mood or theme, or violently contrasting. After a period of high tension, you probably want a light moment of humour, or take the opportunity to insert some vital information.

7. Add emotion. Scare me. Shock me. Make me fall on the floor laughing. If there is any dramatic moment, make sure you have made the most of it. If there is any interesting concept, make sure you have explored it. But always do it from the point of view of your characters.

7. When you've done everything you can yourself, pay an editorial critique service to do a professional job. It may cost £300 or so, but the business that does not invest in itself will lose out to one that does. And you are a business. You are serious about your success. Think you want to spend the money on a nice weekend at a writers' retreat? Or a glitzy conference where you rub shoulders with the famous? Fine, but do this first. You will learn far more from the detailed, specific, personal attention that you will get. Even if you disagree with it. And, you probably won't.  Choose the service based on recommendation from other writers.

8. Rewrite the beginning, then the end, then the beginning again, then the end again. Make sure that you match up the themes that you establish at the beginning at the end. Use similar imagery, for example. Make sure the opening is as arresting, direct, and suspenseful as possible.

I have learnt a lot by reading the opening three pages of bestsellers, and analysing how they achieve their effects.

9. Print it out. Read it out loud. Reading it out loud will show up things you won't notice otherwise. Apply the spelling filter and the grammar filter at the same time. Don't rely on spell checks, do it properly yourself.

10. Give it to someone else again to read. One more eye never hurts.

This is just my top 10. This list is by no means exhaustive although it might be exhausting. The perfect manuscript is an elusive creature that requires much patient nurturing to tame and train.

Of course, you will always think you did all of these things before you sent it away in the first place. The fact that you found loads of things to change means, quite simply, that you were wrong. And the reason is: you needed some time to get a fresh perspective.

Conspicuous in its absence on my list is:

11. Take seriously any hints or advice contained in the rejection letter (if you were lucky enough not to get a standard letter).

This kind of goes without saying. But then again, I find that these letters are often written in haste, or perhaps not by someone who is particularly qualified, or contain only a general impression, not anything that is necessarily useful. Sometimes the reason given for the rejection is just an excuse thrown in and the real reason is totally different. In other words, it's not a technical response.

If, after all the above, your next draft is still rejected, then at least you will know that it's simply because the agent or editor concerned does not go for this particular type of work, or their list is already full for this category. It's not that it's not perfect!

Here is an extract from one rejection letter I had recently which illustrates just this approach:

“Should you write a comedy or another piece that has a little more light in the darkness, we'd be happy to consider it. You can clearly write."

Good luck. And by the way, if you want to compare the edited with the original version of 1984 have a look here.

May Big Brother always ignore you and your manuscript avoid Room 101.