Thursday, 29 November 2012

On the way to the forum - Cathy Butler

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to Turkey, to take part in a forum on Young Adult Literature. When I got home, I thought of writing a post on the city where I had stayed – the marvellous palimpsest that is at once Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. I certainly saw many wonderful sights: Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque... but others have been there before me, and besides, I will need time to digest those memories, not least (oddly enough) because I forgot to take a camera. Probably it will be the little things that stay with me: the unexpected cats that roam the square between the mosques, a small child eating roasted chestnuts, the runic graffiti scratched into the marble of Hagia Sophia  by a bored Viking. Most haunting of all, the forest of floodlit pillars (many culled from abandoned pagan temples) that support the roof of the Basilica Cistern, next door to my hotel. Most of the pillars are plain and austere, but one is carved with tear drops: no one knows why, or where it came from. There’s a story in that, if one knew how to tell it.

But back to the Young Adult Literature Forum, which was attended not only by Turks but also by representatives from Germany, Sweden, Serbia, Spain and France. Some of these countries have long traditions of children’s literature; in others it is relatively new. Some have longstanding democratic traditions, while others have had oppressive or authoritarian governments. (There is, I note, a strong correlation between these circumstances.) It was interesting and salutary to find that the topic that excited most discussion was whether children’s literature should be used to instil moral “lessons” – a discussion that spilled over with seeming inevitability into one about censorship.

It’s easy to feel smug about such things. We like to think that in the anglophone world, at least, whatever those stern Victorians may have thought about using books as an instrument of instruction rather than of pleasure, we have learned better. Books should be interesting and fun, surely, rather than exercises in finger-wagging?

Well, maybe. Actually, while the language has changed, I suspect that many people still see children’s books as instruments of instruction, even if the instruction is in “emotional wisdom” rather than “moral lessons.” They still discuss characters and stories in terms of the ways they model behaviour for children, the examples they set. They still think of books as having a profound influence, beneficial or otherwise. Scratch a Guardian reader, find a top-hatted Victorian moralist.

Perhaps that is no bad thing. Books should be capable of making a difference to their readers – yes, and of teaching them too. It would be sad if they became simply a way of stimulating a pleasant aesthetic sensation, or of passing a tedious hour between games on the X-Box. That children’s books are talked of in apocalyptic terms, and that they attract moral censors worried about children being “corrupted," is a testament to their power.  We may disagree with the censors’ analysis, but their attention is an enormous back-handed compliment. 

Viva didacticism!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Kids Lit Quiz by Ann Evans

Quizmaster Wayne Mills at a New Zealand quiz
Earlier this week it was the Midlands regional final of the Kids Lit Quiz. As authors, if you have never attended one of the heats, then you're missing out on a brilliant and inspiring occasion.

This particular regional final took place in Coventry, my home city, so it was nice and close. And the UK final too is being staged in Coventry on 6th December, which is great for me, as previous years it's taken place in Oxford – and I think, before that, in London.

In case you aren't familiar with the event, it's a competition for school children aged 10 to 13 who  answer questions on books, characters, authors and everything literary. The whole idea was created by Australian Wayne Mills, a senior lecturer in children's literature at the University of Auckland, and it's been an annual event since 1991. As quizmaster in his recognisable top hat and his often wildly enthusiastic delivery of the questions, he sets an amazingly high standard with 100 questions in every heat, questions which regularly stump the adults in the audience yet produce amazing results from the literature-loving young competitors.

There are seven countries taking part in the Kids Lit Quiz at present, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, China and the USA. Hundreds of schools take part in knock-out heats with their teams of four. The overall winning team's prize is always an amazing trip of a lifetime to another part of the world. I believe the winners of this year's competition will be jetting off on a trip to South Africa. However, there are plenty of prizes of books, vouchers, money, certificates and trophies along the way. There are even cash spot prizes to the audience during the lively evenings.

At the regional finals there is always an author's team pitting their wits against the kids, just for fun. This year I was happy to take part along with the very knowledgeable David Calcutt, Bali Rai and David Lowe. And I was so chuffed to find that we came second behind Kenilworth School. Alas, no trophies or certificates for us though!

Quizmaster Wayne Mills guards his questions fiercely and never poses a question about a book that he hasn't read. And his choice of books covers all eras and authors. Amongst Monday's questions were ones on Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, to Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, characters from the Fantastic Four, the Holy Bible– and 96 others!

Due to his work promoting reading and literature amongst children Wayne Mills was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's New Year's Honours in 2011. And well deservedly as seeing so many youngsters so attentive, bright and excited as they battle for their place in the next heat is just brilliant to see, and I'm always astounded by how much they know and how well read they are.

The UK final takes place on 6th December at The Royal Court Hotel, Tamworth Road, Coventry, hope to see you there!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The best thing about being a writer

What's the best thing about being a writer? Apart from seeing your new book come out, that is?

We spend so much time closeted away in secluded isolation, locked into our own worlds like inmates of a virtual institution, that sometimes even seeing other real people seems slightly miraculous.

Going into schools, and meeting our readers, is even more like a dream come true, to find that the worlds we created have blossomed in other people's minds.

But every so often comes along an opportunity even better than this.

This time next week I will be in the Seychelles, with my wife, in the International School on Praslin.

students at the International School on Praslin, Seychelles
Students at the International School on Praslin, Seychelles
After a short period of acclimatisation, we will be running a two-week holiday workshop for children aged between 9 and 14.

I'll be teaching story-making and scriptwriting, and Helen will be conducting the music workshops.

The children, with our help, will devise the characters, theme, idea, story, for a half hour performance. They will write and rehearse the songs and, by the end of the fortnight will put on the show, which will possibly be filmed.

Our role is just to be facilitators; they are the creative geniuses who will come up with all the ideas, debate them, sift them, synthesise and develop them, eventually producing their own minor masterpiece.

Giant tortoise on Praslin
The school pays for the airfare, and we will be put up in hotels that are owned by one or two of the school governors. And maybe we'll find time to explore the beaches and meet some of the giant tortoises the island is famous for!

It's the second time I have worked in an International School. The last time was four years ago in São Paulo, Brazil.

That time, there were two, much bigger schools and they worked me really hard. But, while there, I was able to meet my Brazilian publisher and some fans. That was terrific.

I got the idea for applying to International Schools from Alan Gibbons, who quite often does such gigs.

They regularly employ writers, either as part of the term time curriculum or during holidays sessions, to conduct workshops with the children.

For them, having real writers come all the way from the United Kingdom to their spot of the world is in itself exotic. You will be treated like Queens and Kings!

If you fancy such a trip yourself, to a remote part of the world, or even somewhere closer to home, the best place to start is to search online for international schools in an area which you would like to visit, and write to them.

There is no real clearinghouse or centralised network for them, although many teachers who work in such places spend their lives moving from one exotic city to another.

The rather interesting shaped fruit of the coco de mer plants!
So, if you can't think of any other way you're ever going to get to a destination where there are white sundrenched beaches fringed with palms and dotted with turtles, coral reefs in bright blue sea that is 27°C, and is listed as a World Heritage Site because of its massive coco de mer plants (right) and black parrots, you can do worse than to start searching for international schools now.

Especially as we're approaching the middle of another cold, dark winter!

Monday, 26 November 2012

Awfully sorry...

... but there is no blog today due to illness. So why not seize the day and nip over to Abba Reviews (click to the left), where you will find a truly magnificent range of reviews. They're mainly of children's books, but there are also some adult titles there, such as John Dougherty's recent review of Michelle Paver's chilling (and chilly) ghost story, Dark Matter. Yes, it's the perfect opportunity to get some ideas for Christmas presents in the comfort of your own home (or shed, or attic, or office...) Off you go now, and you don't even need to wrap up warm!

Sue Purkiss

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Where did that walrus come from? - Anne Rooney

 Stories don't always do what you think they're going to do. At least, they don't always do what I think they're going to do.

Some writers construct detailed plans before they start writing, and they know exactly what's going to happen. It might change a bit as it goes along - maybe the superhero's cape turns out to be blue instead of green or something - but the essentials are mapped out and obedient. I doubt those writers ever find themselves stuck in a corner with a walrus in a tiara. And I can tell you, a walrus takes up a lot of space in a corner and it's not very comfortable here. If that walrus would just budge over a bit and give me space to write...

I met a nice editor at the London Book Fair (*waves to nice editor*). She asked me to write for her list. She wanted a story for 7-9-year-old girls.
 "I'm not writing about fairies," I said in my best Stroppy Author voice. "Or ponies, kittens, puppies or unicorns, and probably not mermaids either."
"OK," said the patient editor. "Whatever you like. But remember it's for girls. And not too scary."
 She added that last bit because she knew I'd spent the last twelve months cloistered with vampires.

Knowing what you aren't going to write is not quite as useful as knowing what you are going to write, but it seemed better than nothing. Typy typy, all going well... Until the second character to turn up  was a very stroppy Jamaican er, fairy.
"I don't believe in fairies," I said. "Out."
"I don't believe in authors. So?"

I tried to get rid of her, but she was having none of it. I put in a fairy-hating character to drive her out. She turned the fairy-hating character into a walrus. And that's where I am - bullied into a corner with a walrus in a tiara (that's from the fairy, too) by a stroppy fairy.

It's not that unusual. I mean, people get bullied in the workplace all the time. There are probably zoo keepers all over the place who are cornered by walrus and the like. And there are laws to protect us from workplace bullying, aren't there? Perhaps there is even a helpline. Anyone know the number? Because this walrus is getting a bit heavy.

Anne Rooney
aka Stroppy Author
Vampire Dawn

Friday, 23 November 2012

Books in the future by Keren David



One over-flowing bookshelf..
My house is full of books. Seven bookcases, over-stuffed and spilling over. Bags of paperbacks waiting to go to the charity shop.

 In the attic there are three packing cases full of books that went into storage in 1999 when we moved to Amsterdam, and haven’t been unpacked since we returned. They’ve been joined by other boxes of books that we don’t want to throw out, but had to be moved when we tried to impose order. Sometimes I feel as though the books are breeding, multiplying silently, taking over the house by stealth.

I doubt my children will have a house like this. Their books will live in e-readers and tablets. Reading will be more private, more portable. Their homes will be a lot tidier, and moving will be considerably easier.

Choosing books will be different too. They'll have fewer opportunities to browse in shops and libraries. Instead, expertise and criticism will move online.  If the kindle charts are anything to go by, then books will be sold for pennies, with authors hoping to make money by selling in bulk.

Some of these things worry and frighten me -  as a writer.  I hate the idea of books ceasing to exist as physical entities. Yet, as the owner of an e-reader, I prefer having books that I can find and carry around. I think my house would be a nicer place to live in without toppling piles of books in every room.

And I’m excited by the possibilities that e-books can bring. I love the idea of adding music, film, information, interviews and other extras to my books. I’m intrigued by the idea that a  basic book might sell for £1, but the enhanced version would be sold (perhaps to existing fans) for a higher price.

Lydia Syson’s excellent debut, A World Between Us, published by HotKey is the first example I’ve seen of the books  that I dream of. It’s an epic romance set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. (I should declare an interest here, Lydia and I belong to the same writing group and I consider myself a proud auntie to her love-crossed characters, Felix, Nat and George)
The paperback is a thing of beauty, with its 30s poster style cover. But the enhanced ebook is really special. It contains fascinating background information about the rise of the Blackshirts in London, the International volunteers who fought in Spain,interviews with Lydia,  historians and (very movingly) a veteran.  It’s interesting, educational and it offers  much more than is possible in a conventional book. It's a format that fits historical books perfectly, but could be applied to many others.
Try it, think about how the concept could be used for the books you write, and the books you love, and some of your fears about the future might just fade away.


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Freedom - Josh Lacey

Last week, Lily Hyde wrote beautifully here about the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow, which led her swiftly to a discussion of the infinite diversions offered by the internet.

Of course the internet is fabulously valuable for writers. If you want to write a novel about the Fourth Crusade, you can discover apt details about weaponry and costumes within moments. If you want to send your character to Tasmania, there's no need to fork out for a plane ticket; you can just spend a few minutes on Youtube and you'll pick up enough local information to fill a chapter.

Then there are emails to answer, blogs to write, facebook pages to update, newspapers to read, movies to watch - not to mention the constant stream of observations and witticisms demanded by twitter.

But there is an alternative.

It's called Freedom. It costs 10 dollars, but you can download it and use it for free for 90 days.

Freedom is a little program which does one simple thing: it turns off your internet.

You give it a time. Twenty minutes, perhaps, if you want to do a short burst of concentrated writing and then look up the weather forecast. Or eight hours if you're determined to cut yourself off for the entire day.

Then you're divorced from the internet.

It's just you and your computer.

Perhaps you use Freedom already. Many writers do. I saw it thanked in the acknowledgements of Zadie Smith's new novel, for instance.

Or perhaps you don't need it.

Perhaps you write in a hut on a mountantop.

Perhaps you write with a typewriter. Or a pen and paper.

Perhaps you have willpower of steel and never feel a twinge of distractability.

But if you're feeling a terrible addiction to the internet - if you're reading this, for instance, when you should be writing - then I can recommend Freedom.

Josh Lacey 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Memory and Character by Lynda Waterhouse

Last week I met up with an old friend. It had been at least fifteen years since we had last seen each other but soon we were talking endlessly about characters and writers that we loved such as Barbara Pym, Dorothy Whipple, Margery Sharp, Laurie Graham, Alexander Baron and David Mitchell. It was a real pleasure to talk about stories that I love and to give and to be given recommendations of what to read next. We talked about our own lives in between but fiction was the touchstone that set us alight. I left the café feeling elated by the conversation.  
I have always created imaginary characters. Night after night as a child I would take a battered tennis racket and ball out into the back alley under the pretext of playing out but really as I bounced the ball I was making up stories. Nowadays I stomp along the South Bank. Ideas come to me when I am moving about. My imagination likes to play games with me, letting me slog away fruitlessly for hours at a desk and then hurling an idea at me as I'm stepping on a train.
For my latest story, ‘Magic Moments and the Dull Bits in Between’, I found one of my characters reliving one of my childhood memories. I am a child of seven sitting in the empty room above my Aunty Lily’s baker’s shop. I am kneeling on the cold hard lino watching a group of sparrows eating breadcrumbs in the back yard. At the time I knew that I would never forget that moment. Virginia Woolf in ‘Moments of Being’ described it as follows:
‘We are the words; we are the music, we are the thing itself.’
The reality of being a writer trying to sell ideas and earn a living requires hard slog, a rhino hide and the crazy optimism that I always feel when I begin writing; the cockamamie belief that I can become an overnight sensation after years in the business.

Maybe the overnight success bit is a tad overoptimistic but my intention is always to create a bunch of characters and a story that will linger in a reader’s imagination long after they have finished the novel. I hope that my carefully chosen words and images will transfer to the reader’s imagination where they will settle into a satisfying memory. That by sharing my words I am sharing a bit of myself.
 I want my characters to be talked about between friends in a café. I want them to matter to people.
What do you want?

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

What's Next in Teen and Young Adult Fiction

Over the past few years, teen and young adult readers have been inundated with books featuring vampires, zombies and werewolves, and paranormal, dark romance and dystopian series. Twilight and The Hunger Games were money-making, money-spinning phenomena. Many publishers are still on the look-out for the next big phenomenon in those genres, as I’ve heard first-hand. Bookshops are still overflowing with paranormal dark romance and dystopian series, leaving very little room for contemporary teen and young adult fiction, for the real stuff that many teens also like to read.

Result: Readers’ choices have dwindled.

Publishing Perspectives is an online magazine featuring international publishing news and opinion. It’s interesting if you want to get a global flavour on what’s happening in publishing, including the children’s, teen and young adult fiction markets. (If you want to check it out, here’s the link: On November 28th they are holding a conference which will discuss: What’s Next for YA and Teen Publishing, in New York. The speakers will be drawn from publishing houses, writers, booksellers, and include editors from Simon and Schuster, Scholastic, St. Martin’s Press, Oetinger Verlag and the books editor at the Huffington Post. If it was being held in the UK I would definitely go...

So what is next for YA and teen publishing?

Well, apparently it’s realism.

Hurrah! *jumping for joy* (I was seriously considering delving into the realms of epic fantasy and re-working a long series that I wrote many years ago when I finish the current WIP)

Although people and creatures of the night and the fractured future are by no means on their way out, an increased demand for realism in teen and young adult fiction has been identified. Writers such as John Green have become increasingly popular. Lots of market research has been carried out and it seems that teenagers and young adults do like variety in their reading.

I love werewolves, fantasy and dystopian fiction. I read and enjoyed The Hunger Games. I also read Looking for Alaska by John Green, and loved it, and I read thrillers and lots of other genres. Just because I like one genre doesn’t mean that I’ll read it to the exclusion of all else. I’ve been reading everything from fantasy epics to crime thrillers since I was very young. It’s all about choice – and, yes, even teenagers and young adults need choices.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Day of the Dead by Karen King

One of the things I love about travelling is learning about the different customs various countries have. I usually come back with lots of ideas for stories, which unfortunately I rarely get time to write up.

I got married recently and we went on honeymoon to Mexico at the end of October. I was surprised to be see the above 'skeletons' in Cancun airport and couldn't resist taking a photo. Then I found that 'dressed up' skeletons were everywhere. Like these statues sitting outside a shop in Fifth Avenue.

There were even chocolate and candy skulls for sale. And 'warriors' walking around, decorated like this to represent 'life and death'. As you can see, half of him is decorated as a skeleton. He was very friendly though and happy to have his photo taken with me.

Then I discovered the reason why. It was just before the festival 'The Day of the Dead', which occurs on November 1st and 2nd. Mexicans believe that this is time the dead return to Earth to visit their families. According to legend, the souls of children visit on Nov 1st and everyone else on Nov 2nd. There are lots of celebrations  and graves are cleaned and decorated, with offerings left for the visiting ancestors - toys for children and bottles of alcohol for adults! This might seem a little macabre but Mexicans believe that death is transition from one life to another in a different level, and at this time of year the dead and living can both communicate with each other. How fascinating if this could really happen, I can feel a story brewing already.

If you could meet anyone from the past for one day, who would it be and what would you say to them?

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

Saturday, 17 November 2012

So You Want to Write - Joan Lennon

Having been born in Canada I feel quite proprietorial towards anything Glenn Gould - and here he is, giving excellent advice on writing a fugue which is also absolutely applicable to writing, well, anything!

So you want to write a fugue.
You got the urge to write a fugue.
You got the nerve to write a fugue.
So go ahead, so go ahead and write a fugue.
Go ahead and write a fugue that we can sing.

Pay no heed, Pay no mind.
Pay no heed to what we tell you,
Pay no mind to what we tell you.
Cast away all that you were told
And the theory that you read.
As we said come and write one,
Oh do come and write one,
Write a fugue that we can sing.

Now the only way to write one

Is to plunge right in and write one.
Just forget the rules and write one,
Just ignore the rules and try.

And the fun of it will get you.

And the joy of it will fetch you.
Its a pleasure that is bound to satisfy.
When you decide that John Sebastian must have been a very personable guy.

Never be clever

for the sake of being clever,
for the sake of showing off.

For a canon in inversion is a dangerous diversion,

And a bit of augmentation is a serious temptation,
While a stretto diminution is an obvious allusion.

And when you finish writing it

I think you will find a great joy in it.

 Hope so...

Nothing ventured, nothing gained they say
But still it is rather hard to start.

Well let us try right now.

Now we are going to write a fugue.
We're going to write a good one.
We're going to write a fugue ... right now.

The man has spoken!

Visit Joan's website
Visit Joan's blog.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Marvels, mystery and the chilling world of the Nursery Rhyme – Dianne Hofmeyr

‘Marvels mix with the day-to-day and banality meets mystery in the nursery rhyme’ says Marina Warner, short story writer, historian and mythographer, known for her books on feminism and myth.

A few years ago I wrote a book on modern printmaking for GCSE level. I’m not about to go into a detailed description of the etching process, but one of the artists I discussed was Paula Rego. Anyone who has been to the Sainsbury Wing Restaurant at the National Gallery will know her huge mural, Crivelli’s Garden. Of her work, she says ‘I paint to give fear a face.’ And in her series on Nursery Rhyme she has introduced a dreamlike quality that manipulates scale and stirs up disturbing feelings and a certain potency in perfectly innocent scenes.
Take her etching of Hey Diddle Diddle with its carnival like gaiety… the little girl skipping, the dog laughing, the cow floating dreamily against a starry sky. But look again. The sharp points of the moon direct us back to the girl and we see she is skipping backwards towards the edge of a cliff that drops into space. And now the tall, muscular, grimacing cat takes on a more menacing role as he purposefully steps forward and the dog’s laughter seems more hysterical and the cow seems to have a knowing ‘I told you so’ smile while the dish is faceless as she scuttles off to hide.
And what about Baa Baa Black Sheep? Was there ever anything more menacing than this girl in the arms of the powerful ram? And is she waving to the curious boy down the lane or calling for help?

And in Three Blind Mice, the unseen moonlight catches the blade of the carving knife and focuses on the woman’s arm, face and blouse and also on the blank eyes of the mice. It’s as if Rego has drawn invisible lines between them. Yes… we know who blinded the mice.
In another example, from a series called The Pendle Witches (not part of the Nursery Rhyme series) Rego has illustrated a poem by Blake Morrison of the witches put on trial during the rule of King James I. The woman is sitting awkwardly in a tub in an etching entitled The Flood. The swirling water, the sharp stabs of rain, the flotsam and jetsam give a sense of doom yet the woman makes no attempt to save herself and seems to have withdrawn from the chaos around her. And what if she drowns? When we look closer at the water there’s a sense of nightmarish disaster looming from beneath it.
Rock a bye baby… what could be more innocent? But not in the hands of Paula Rego. The fragile sleeping baby is in a boxlike cradle (symbol for a coffin?) and against the background of stars (or is that snow?) one can see they are really high up in a prickly fir tree. There's almost the sense that the branches exactly under the cradle are too weak. The baby is too close to the edge. With a slightest shift the cradle will go over into the abyss. Although the woman in under-dressed we sense the icy coldness of the night. She’s looking over her shoulder as she grips the cradle. Is she looking to see if someone has seen her? Or is her expression one of utter desperation? Whatever it is, we know what she’s contemplating.

Read those nursery rhymes with care! 

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Life as a writer - why (oh why) do we do it?

Disappointed writer

 I put this question to myself once every three months or so - usually when things aren't going too well. Why, why, why do I do it? Write, I mean - and all the stuff that goes with it.

I guess it has to be for love or something similar. It's certainly not for money. I've no wish to be a millionaire, though something in the way of royalties and PLR is always welcome. I suppose there's habit in there too. I write because it's what I do. To be honest, I think it's a kind of addiction. If I don't write for more than a few days, I feel dissatisfied and grumpy (just ask my family... though they might claim that I'm sometimes like that when I'm writing, too).

What part of writing, then, am I addicted to? I suppose it's those rare 'first draft' moments when everything goes well - when your characters take hold and run away with the plot and you're left struggling to keep up. For me, it's particuklarly those times when I feel fully tuned in to the thoughts and words (especially the words) of my characters, and I'm evaesdopping on their conversation, racing to get down every word they say. I think that's why I need silence when I write - I can't even stand good music in the background - because anything else distracts me from the voices in my head.

And that joy when you wake in a morning and realise that your brain has solved a knotty plot problem while you slept (though I realise this phenomenon isn't confined to writers). It's always a thrill, to be reminded that your conscious mind play a relatively minor part in what you create, and to realise that the brain has its own concerns you never even dreamt of.

Jumping ahead a few months (or years) - another wonderful thing is those times when your readers, especially children and young adults, tell you that they have read and enjoyed your books. And perhaps even better, when they ask you searching questions that make you realise that they have truly engaged with your characters and themes, perhaps in ways you never anticipated.

But there are also times when the whole process is so discouraging that you wonder why you go on. I'm in one now, in some respects. A project for young readers that I'm involved in is... not so much in peril as changing course, and my role in it may end up being rather different from what I expected. It's disappointing and frustrating, especially as I have no idea when the project will come to fruition. And I feel somewhat flattened - maybe I shouldn't, but I do. It's so easy, as writer, to lose confidence in your abilities. A bad review can run over you like a steamroller, in a way that you would never have expected. Being told by an editor: 'No, that's not what I want...' can take you back to being an eight-year-old at school, being sent away to do your homework all over again.

And, of course, in the early stages of a writer's career (and sometimes in the later stages, too), there are the inevitable knockbacks from agents, publishers, etc. There's the agent who gets all excited by your work and leads you to think she's about to take you on, but then changes her mind.  Even once you're published, there are (or can be, unless you're very lucky), those miserable afternoons sitting at a table in a bookshop, while no one stops to buy. There are the publishers who sign you up and then go out of business - or who decide that your books are not selling in Harry Potter quantities so they are going to pull the plug on you. It's all too depressing to think about.

Etc, etc, etc. Yes, I know that life itself can be a depressing business. And I know that there are (there really are) much more important things in life than publishing contracts. I really do know that! But it doesn't always help as much as perhaps it should.

What I will say, though, is that if you can keep writing when all around you is disappointment and despair, then you may just have it in you to be a writer. Whatever the 'it' is - I'm not quite sure. I suspect it's a kind of madness, but I wouldn't be without it. What's more, I'm very thankful to all those writers of wonderful books who have kept going in the face of discouragement and produced work, maybe, that would never have surfaced otherwise.

So let's take heart and struggle on in our communal craziness. Knowing you are not alone always helps - and I must say that reading this blog is one of the main things that assures me I am not alone and helps me to keep going.

I recently wrote a travesty of Rudyard Kipling's 'If' along these lines, if you'd care to take a peep here.

Best wishes - and don't let anything (or anyone) stop you writing.

Author of Coping with Chloe (age 11+ approx).
My Facebook author page
My website

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Mayakovsky's room - Lily Hyde

Like Andrew Strong in his great post yesterday, I thought I knew what I would write for this post. It was going to be about a very unusual literary house museum I recently visited: the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s in Moscow.

Then, stricken with doubt about what I wanted to say and how to say it, I decided to do some extra research on Mayakovsky.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet I was sidetracked into comparing translations of ‘The Cloud In Trousers’ (or should it be ‘A cloud…’? Or just get rid of the article altogether…?); got distracted by glorious Bolshevik agitprop posters and wondering what seeing landowners impaled on bayonets illustrated on their toffee wrappers did to a generation of impressionable young minds; found Mayakovsky for the psychedelic seventies on YouTube and of course had to watch it again, and then I turned up the utterly wonderful and lunatic Velimir Khlebnikov and zaum – and that was it, I was gone for the rest of the day. Now it’s midnight and the post still isn’t written, let alone that novel chapter I was supposed to be revising.

Oh cursed Internet! I could cry. Why haven’t I got that app that turns it off for me? Why haven’t I got enough willpower not to need an app? Why am I writer with a writer’s squirrelly mind, that can’t stop searching out and storing away all these nuts of information for my imagination to greedily feed on? Now my mind is as surreally cluttered and skewed as the Mayakovsky museum, full of way too much unbelievably interesting information, mostly in a foreign language, and policed by ineffective and grumpy old ladies who have to be charmed into maybe possibly finding the guidebook.

Ideological sweet wrappers designed by Mayakovsky
At the heart of the Mayakovsky museum is a closed door, and behind it is a quite different space. It is small, neat, spartan, almost characterless. The air in here is very still. There’s a desk, a chair, a bed. A few carefully chosen books and a single unframed photograph. 

(Everything in this room is original, exactly as it was in 1930, one of those grumpy old ladies says in a reverential voice. Except the carpet. It had blood all over it and had to be thrown away.)

Mayakovsky's room
At the heart of all the wonderful terrifying squirrelly chaos of ideas and half-digested facts, blind alleys and blinding inspirations, YouTube videos and other people’s stories that fill a writer’s mind, there’s the closed room where the writer actually writes. I think it’s like this; very still, small and neat, quite bare, a bit lonely. You can’t tell if the stillness is breathless anticipation, or the shocked aftermath of a disaster.

Jane Austen writing on her ‘small sheets of paper’ in the corner of the dining room, daily life babbling on all around her – she’s in that room. Keats scribbling in Rome, the tuberculosis doctor at the door – he’s in that room. That woman in the crowded coffee shop this morning, intent on her laptop – she’s in that room. 

(In 1930 Mayakovsky shot himself in this room. His books were out of print; impatient students had booed him off stage; he’d been accused of Trotskyism, that inevitably fatal Soviet disease.

He stopped writing. The door opened. The chaos came in and the carpet was ruined.)

 There might be index cards and post-it notes and unpaid bills and souvenirs and talismans and coffee cups and newspaper clippings all over the writing desk. Children clamouring at the knee and cats walking over the keyboard. Poverty and fear of critical failure prowling at the window. The Internet, with all those bookmarked pages that are so very interesting, just a click away (still haven’t got that app) –

But in the moment of actually writing, I am in that room.

Not contemplating blowing my brains out, no. It was an effort to get in here, shut out all the delicious distractions and the horrible fears of failure. But now the door is closed. This is the space for creating that special secret lonely thing, alchemised, distilled from a hoard of lovely terrifying chaos: words on the page.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

On Certainty - Andrew Strong

Most of the time, when I'm starting to think of what to write for this blog, I begin by confidently choosing a topic, then plunge in. I start writing, and before long, often within the first paragraph, I have the overwhelming sense that I have no authority whatsoever to speak on the subject I've chosen, that I'm deluded to imagine that anybody would want to read my thoughts, take them seriously, and even if they get that far, learn anything.

However, by the second paragraph, I've usually restored my self-confidence.  I've come to terms with my inadequacy by considering that if only adequate people wrote anything, then the world presented in the written word would appear even more frightening to those who, like me, don’t think they've really got that much to say, or who don’t know what they’re doing.  The world is already too full of people declaring their certainties or their conclusions.  I rarely have either, so if I can give comfort to those who share my failings, then I’ll have achieved something.

What I'm trying to get at here is this: uncertainty, doubt, confusion are rather splendid things, and should be nurtured. How to cultivate them, though, is a different matter, as I don’t think it’s a good thing for absolutely everyone. I don’t really want a surgeon to have such uncertainty, especially if it came to the matter of which of my legs he needed to remove.  (My legs are both perfectly fine, so there isn't really any serious matter at stake here.)  And I want mechanics, engineers, carpenters, electricians, and airline pilots to embrace certainty, especially when they are in my service.  Although, thinking again, I’d rather not.  I’d like to think these people are cautious, would make sure what they thought was correct, double checked and so on.  A little more self-doubt could save lives. 

But when it comes to matters of less urgency, I find I simultaneously loathe and admire people who are too certain.  These are often politicians, or they are selling something.  Politicians, like William Hague, for example, who made up his mind about what he believed long before he was eighteen, presenting his self-assured young self at a Tory Party conference, and he hasn't changed his mind since. A smug adolescent is determining British foreign policy.  Most teenagers think they know it all, but few of them get to run the world.

There is a wonderful scene at the very beginning of Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda, in which a Rupert Murdoch figure addresses the audience.  He says something like this: 'I have over a ten thousand books in my library, but I don’t need to read any of them. I have already made up my mind.'  I remember laughing and feeling chilled to the marrow at the same time.  I was young when I saw that play, and felt I had to read at least all of the Penguin Classics and have a go at Wittgenstein before I was anywhere near to being educated enough to have a view on anything at all. 

Those of us who concur with Keats’ notion of ‘negative capability’, who are able to suspend judgement, who resist the need to draw conclusions, we are cast aside in the stampede towards the glittering prizes.  People who have made up their minds rule the world, and I am completely unable to make up mine.  It may be I'm timid, that I never like putting all my eggs in one basket, or it could be that I'm a ditherer, a moral coward.

And here is a paradox, for if we are to write fiction well shouldn't we be able to circle around an argument, see things from more than one point of view, to take the role of the omniscient narrator and claim an infinite perspective, rather than just trumpeting our own self-satisfied certainty?  But if we can never make up our minds, then nothing will ever get written.  It’s almost crippling. 

E M Foster wrote: 'How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?' And I sort of know what he meant.  I've finished my blog.  I can see what I've said. 

But I've still no idea what I think.

Monday, 12 November 2012

This is Not a Book Review - Elen Caldecott

Today I thought I would look at one specific book and see if I can share what I've learned from it. This isn't a review, or a critical reading, this is an author looking at a book I admire to see the nuts and bolts of its construction. WARNING: If you have not read Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce and would like to do so one day without being encumbered with a sackful of spoilers, STOP READING NOW.

Everyone else, here's what I've learned from the book, in visual form:

Each of those post-it notes represents a moment where I said 'ooh, that's clever.' Shows why it wins prizes!
The idea for this post owes a lot to Stroppy Author's Book Vivisection (which I'd love to see more of.) But, it also owes as much to the current MA students in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University who shared their thoughts about the book with me during a recent seminar.

I can't share every single post-it note, so instead, I have decided to share my top five post-it note revelations (TFPINR from here on in).

TFPINR No. 5 - Prologue Pro
Online writing advice would have you believe that prologues are the work of the devil and his literary minion, Beelzebook. Received wisdom has it that they shamelessly trick the reader into swallowing a boring Chapter 1. In Cosmic, Cottrell Boyce has the briefest of prologues. It is a media clip announcing a missing space rocket. It tells you that you're in a world a lot like ours, but with one crucial difference - manned space programmes are active. Immediately following this, there's the traditional Chapter 1, which begins 'i am not exactly in the lake district'. The hook for Chapter 1 is more interesting than the prologue, not less.

TFPINR No. 4 - First-Person Present and Correct.
I have a confession. I don't much like first-person present. As a teen reader I always wondered 'who are you talking to? And why?'. Cottrell Boyce neatly deals with this question, wraps it up and puts it to bed. The MC, Liam, is recording his last words on his mobile phone. He's lost in space, you see. He hopes some friendly alien race will one day send the recording home to his mum and dad, with Liam's love.
The narrative then moves regularly into first-person past by using flashbacks. The transitions into these flashbacks are superbly handled. My favourite goes (to paraphrase): 'I can see Earth. All my stuff is on Earth. Including my house and everything in it. Like my Viking Playmobile. Except I gave it away when I was big enough to grow facial hair. I didn't notice the facial hair. Everyone else did, on my Year 6 leavers' trip. The trip was...cue anecdote about leavers' trip.' Seamless.

TFPINR No. 3 - Themes Legit
There's a masterly orchestration to the way that symbols are handled. They are the wing-men to the major theme, always there to get his back. A distilled statement of the theme might be (with thanks to the MA Group!) 'No matter how far you go, your dad (God?!) will always bring you back.' The symbols are a scaffold to support this theme: circles; gravity; space; playing; Waterloo and Dads. They all pop up at the right moment to explore different facets of the theme.

TFPINR No. 2 - Engage Disbelief Suspension
The idea of the book is ridiculous: a group of children get themselves lost in space and manage to find their way home again. Completely implausible. However, the main action (told in flashback during the second act), is foreshadowed by three separate events. These events rely on the same type of misunderstanding, without being so similar to be repetitious. Another regularly utilised concept is the game imagery that plants the idea of skills 'levelling-up'. Liam collects the skills to be an adult, so of course he has to put them to use.
Also, everytime that something truly ridiculous happens - for example, the point where the children are told they will go to space alone - Cottrell Boyce uses a bait-and-switch, stating the ridiculous then talking about something completely different at length.

TFPINR No. 1 - Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh
At number one in the TFPINR chart is the humour. In these 300-odd pages, there are examples of all the following types of jokes: puns and wordplay; visual humour; juxtaposition; physical comedy; irony; comic characters; observational comedy; hyperbole and litotes; parody (a difficult one to use in books for young readers, but in this case skillfully foreshadowed); sarcasm; situational comedy and one-liners. Blimes. That's one funny book.

There are loads more post-its. But this is already the most wordy blog post I've ever written.
One often hears writers advise novice writers to read. I would expand on that and say read like a writer. Tear apart books you admire and work out how they do the things they do. Get the post-its out and sticker like it was a skinny stick-insect stuck in glue.
Elen's Facebook Page
Twitter: @elencaldecott 

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Finding Time To Write - Tamsyn Murray

You know how it is - the dog needs walking, emails are beckoning and the kids insist on being fed. The last thing you have time for is writing. But your story is looking for a way out, like a velociraptor testing the fences, and keeping it locked inside makes you cranky. How do you find a way to balance the unreasonable demands of real life with the need to set your story free?

For me, it was all about priorities. When I was writing my first book, I got up at five-thirty every morning to write before work, and sat down at my computer almost as soon as I got home. I didn't cook, I didn't watch TV and I certainly didn't do housework. I was completely selfish. Ian Rankin's wife has recently said that he almost reverts to his student days when he's working on a novel and I can understand why. The problem is that most of us can't be that self-indulgent; babies get really cranky if you ignore them, I've found.

My baby is one year old today. In the past year, I've suffered from the kind of sleep-deprivation that torture specialists can only dream of. I've had zero time to write. And yet, I've still produced five books. My secret once again was prioritising - instead of slumping in front of the TV at the end of the day, I spent every non-baby filled moment writing. I did my best to ignore the dirty dishes. Slowly, the stories reached their endings, because it was important to me that they did.

So the next time you think you don't have time to write, remind yourself that writing is important to you and snatch back as much time as you can to devote to it. Reality will always be there waiting once you've finished.  And if you're really lucky, someone else will have walked the dog.

Friday, 9 November 2012

An open letter to my story - from Liz Kessler

Dear Story,

We first got together a few months ago, in a flurry of excitement. I remember the day well. The first signs of daylight had barely begun to creep through the window when you came into my mind. I grabbed a notebook and began to write. I think we both thought this was the start of something good.

Those heady early days

And then, with no warning, I wasn’t around any more. I didn’t explain – I just left you hanging there. I hadn’t told you at the time, but I think you suspected. So, yes, I'll admit it. There was another story in my life. You see, we weren’t through yet, and I couldn’t begin something with you until I had properly finished with the other one. I thought you’d understand, but how could you when I hadn’t explained?

Even so, when I came back to you a few weeks later, you were there for me. We hung out together for a blissful week. I wrote every day. We were happy. 

And then I let other things get in the way – again. It wasn’t your fault, it was mine. It was a busy summer and I neglected you. I’m sorry. And in between everything else, the other stories still hadn’t let go. ‘Please can you just edit me one more time?’ begged the story I had left for you. Always insisting it would be the last time – but it never was, was it? 

A page of demanding editing notes

And even the story before that was still there, still wanting things from me. ‘Please tell the world about me. Write a blog, visit some bookshops, come to a book festival with me.’ 

A trip to Bath Festival with the 'other' book
It's true. I still loved those stories. I still do - but it's different now. I'm ready to let them go and give you all my attention. I’ve told them that we're done and that they have to manage on their own for a while, because I want to spend time with you. But I can feel your uncertainty, and I don’t blame you. We’ve been here before. I’ve told you that you're the one, and then I’ve gone off with others. I understand your reticence about trusting me. So I’m making this public commitment to you, and I hope you know I mean it.

I promise that from now on, we’ll spend much more time together. Every day if possible - although I might get nagged into switching off my computer at the weekends, so if you don’t see me for a day or two here and there, please don’t think I’ve abandoned you. You will always be on my mind – you have been for weeks, actually. I just haven’t told you that. But you’re in my thoughts a lot. And from now on, it’s all going to change. We’ll sit down together every day and I’ll give you my full attention, I promise. I’ll buy you magazines and rip out pictures for you. 

Cutting and Sticking - one of the best parts of the planning stage

I’ll get really big pieces of paper and write words all over them – words that I hope you’ll like. I'll even use lots of different colours when I do this. 

Colour coded brainstorming = another excuse to spend an afternoon in a stationery shop
I’ll find the perfect gift for you, an object that reminds me of you, and I'll keep it nearby whenever I think about you.

Objects from previous books. They rarely leave my side (or my computer's side) once I've started writing
But most of all, we'll have some 'you and me' time. Lots of it. Just us. I'll give you as much time as you want and need. I won't let anything or anyone stop that from happening.

So that is my promise. And if I do all this, could I ask one thing of you?

Please could you open up and tell me all your secrets?

Your loving and humble

Author xx

Follow Liz on Twitter
Join Liz's Facebook page
Check out Liz's Website