Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Logic of Magic - C.J. Busby

I have always loved the idea of magic, ever since I was read my first fairy tales. It didn't matter whether they were twinkly ones with fairy godmothers and wonderful pink ball-gown confections, Ladybird books with powdered Regency princes, or the dark, tangled, thrilling tales in Andrew Lang's collections, illustrated, preferably, by Arthur Rackham.  All of them had magic, and so all of them had something that fed my strong desire for the unknown, the extraordinary.

As I got older, I graduated to C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones - wonderful, glorious books that made it seem entirely plausible that there was magic in the real world, or at least held out the chance of slipping into other worlds where magic existed. As an adult, I veered away from fantasy (mainly because most adult fantasy conforms too closely to the model lampooned so hilariously by Diana Wynne Jones in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland) but I never really lost the sense that magic was out there, just out of reach, visible in the corner of your eye.

So, when I started write my own books for children, I knew they'd have magic in them. The question was, what kind? What would be the logic of the magic I wrote? Fairy-tale magic is mostly based on cauldrons, spells, witches and waving wands, although there are some strange and wonderful ways that magic works, too - feather cloaks that turn their wearers into swans; geese that lay golden eggs; combs that, thrown behind you, turn into mountain ranges. My first and best guide to magic in older fiction, though, was Diana Wynne Jones.  

In Jones's Chrestomanci series, there are witches, warlocks and potions, ingredients like newt's eyes, snake's tongues and dragon's blood, and spells that are made by grinding, heating and muttering, as in all the best fairy tales. But she also has more powerful and exciting magic, magic that happens when someone with the right sort of power simply tells the world to be different - and it is. This is the magic that belongs specifically to enchanters, and when you realise that someone in a Diana Wynne Jones book has it (and you nearly always find at least one) you know you are in for some seriously delightful mayhem.
There's another, very different, magical logic at work in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus books. Here, magicians lord it over the non-magical commoners, but their dark secret is that none of their magic is really done by themselves. Wizards' only power is the ability to raise afrits, imps, djinni and demons from the 'other place', and all their apparently wonderful spells are carried out by the sweat and toil of these enslaved and invisible beings. It allows Stroud to have a lot of fun with the quarrelsome, vain and power-hungry magicians of his alternative London, while also giving us possibly the best fictional depiction of a djinni ever - Bartimaeus himself.

Perhaps the most technically minded inventor of magic for children is J.K. Rowling. I thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter books (despite being slightly bemused at how much attention they received) but I find magic in her books to be very 'National Curriculum': once spotted at 11, you just have to learn how to do it the right way, and pass exams, and then you are a proper witch or wizard. Despite the constant reiteration that some wizards are more powerful than others, we never really see much evidence of this. Hermione Granger is said to be 'the best witch of her generation', but we get no sense of any raw power that is simply part of her very being - instead, we get the impression that she's just very precise and has a good memory. The witch as swot, rather than enchanter.

 So when I wrote 'Frogspell', which is set in the mythical time of King Arthur, I decided to go with the cauldrons, spells and potions of fairy-tale and legend, but I also wanted a sense that magic was something not just anyone could do - there had to be a special part of you, a power you had that others didn't. As the stories progress, my novice wizard, Max Pendragon, discovers more and more about the logic of magic, learns to tell one person's magic apart from another's, and finally realises that he doesn't need potions or spells, he can (like his hero, Merlin) do spells with his mind. Max, in fact, is an enchanter, of sorts - and it's a power that is crucial, in the end, to his defeat of the icy sorceress, Morgana le Fay.

In the process of writing the whole series, I found myself discovering and exploring more and more about how magic in this world worked, and I realised something else that gave me a huge thrill. Writing is a little like doing magic. Finally, I am a kind of enchanter!

C.J. Busby is the author of the Spell Series (

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Holiday reading, by Sue Purkiss

This week I've been staying with my son and his family in Brussels, One of the very many nice things about doing this is that I get the opportunity to read lots of new books. It starts on the journey over there. I travel from Bristol to London by train or bus, and then usually on the Eurostar, so there's plenty of time to read, and my Kindle allows me to take a good supply of books along with me. This time I finished the second book of The Flaxfield Quartet by Toby Forward, which is a fantasy about wizards (but not at all like Harry Potter). It's very good, and I'll be reviewing it soon over on Abba Reviews. Then I began The Storm Bottle, an unusual adventure story set in Bermuda, by fellow SAS author Nick Green, who knows so much about dolphins that I suspect he may have been one in another life. I'll finish that later today on the journey back.

Then I have a treat in store - Mary Hoffman's David, which is about the model for Michelangelo's famous statue. Mary Hoffman is another SAS person, and I first heard about this book when she talked about it at an SAS conference, just before it was published a few years ago. I've been meaning to read it ever since, and now the right moment has arrived: yesterday, I went to an exhibition in Brussels about Leonardo da Vinci, with my son and eldest grandson, Oskar. There were models of many of Leonardo's inventions - here's Oskar trying one out - and a film about his life and about the re-creation of some of his designs: notably an early parachute which an English adventurer with a gleam in his eye decided to try out - and survived to tell the tale! Anyway, there were hints of a not-very-friendly rivalry between Leonardo and the much younger Michelangelo, so I'm hoping Mary might have something to say about that. Even if she doesn't, I just want a pass into the world of fifteenth century Italy, and I know her book will give me that. 

Richard and Joanna are great readers, so there are usually lots unfamiliar books for me to read here - though nowadays Richard mostly uses his Kindle: apart from the convenience, it's much cheaper to buy English books in Belgium that way. Still, I was able to read Ian Rankin's latest, Standing In Another Man's Grave, in which crotchety detective Rebus makes a welcome return from retirement, and also a book called Train Dreamsby an American writer called Denis Johnson. I'd never come across this author before. The book, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, is very short (only 116 small pages), but it packs quite a punch without wasting a word. It's about an ordinary man, Robert Grainier, living in rural America in the first half of the 20th century, and it reveals how the extraordinary can be found inside the apparently ordinary: Robert is an unassuming, kindly man who endures some terrible things, and just keeps on. Despite being so short, it somehow manages to have an epic sweep.

Joanna is Polish, and she lent me a book of poetry by a poet called Wislawa Szymborska, called Tutaj/Here. The poet was 85 when this book was published, but her quiet, ironic, amused voice is ageless. I particularly liked a poem called Thoughts That Visit Me on a Busy Street, which ponders the possibility that Nature recycles faces: 

These passersby might be Archimedes in jeans
Catherine the Great draped in resale,
some pharoah with briefcase and glasses.

Then there are the books I read with my grandchildren. Oskar has been 'doing' Julia Donaldson at school, so we read several of hers, and also a book I'd taken over for him - Vivian French's Hedgehogs Don't Eat Hamburgers, which is a rhythmic, funny delight. Casper is only sixteen months old, but he already has his favourites: Rod Campbell's flap book, Dear Zoo, an Usborne nursery rhyme book which plays the tunes, and two French board books which he knows will play sounds if he presses a finger in the right spot. I took him a book by Jack Tickle called The Very Silly Sheep, which has brilliantly engineered pop-up animals. Casper loves it, as you can see, but I'm not sure how long it will survive intact!

This is my last post for the time being; I decided it was time to stand aside for a while. You'll see some exciting new blogsters joining us over the next month, namely Damian Harvey, Lari Don, Saviour Pirotta and Anna Wilson. I'll continue to review over on ABBA Reviews, and to post on The History Girls. Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you over there!

Friday, 29 March 2013

Back To School - by Emma Barnes

7th March 2013 was World Book Day. As usual, the requests came in: “Would you like to visit our school for Book Week...the children would love to meet a real, live author”. This year I visited primaries in Sheffield, Leeds, North Yorkshire and Edinburgh and, now that all the rushing about is over, I’ve time to reflect a bit about what authors can bring to schools.

When I visit a school, part of it is “the talk” – often to an assembly group. In this session I’m trying to do a few things: share my excitement about books and reading, get across that reading is not a “worthy” activity but something that can take you into new worlds and generate real, edge-of –the-seat excitement; and convey that my job is fundamentally about STORY – creating narratives that people want to read, and where all the time they are demanding “what happens next?”

 It’s important for primary children to realise that this is an entirely different skill to handwriting, spelling or punctuation (which they may be bad at, and heartily dislike.) It’s not necessarily got much to do with adverbs, “openers”, “connectives” or “wow words” either. These are just parts of the tool-kit, that can be brought out when required. The aim is to create the world – the characters within it – and their story.

As well as talking to the children, I do workshops. I spend a lot of time preparing these, and asking myself the question – what extra thing can I, as a writer, bring to the children? What can I provide, that a teacher, however well-trained and inspired, might not?

....What if your mother was a witch?
Illustrator: Emma Chichester Clark
Increasingly, I focus on story. A lot of the writing that children do in class is not based around creating stories – yet for me, that is the key part of being a writer. And it’s hard, incredibly hard, to come up with a gripping story – one that holds attention, suspends disbelief and both surprises and satisfies.

Imagine Jessica's problem....

So most of my workshops are about finding different ways into a story. Whether it’s about inventing a surprising character (a mermaid who can’t swim, a dragon that can’t breathe fire), looking at a place you know and searching out the things that happen there, or thinking about a “What If...” situation...What if your mother was a witch? (Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher). What if your new dog turned out to be a wolf? (Wolfie).

Some of the most fun I’ve had in schools recently has been creating stories in groups. I start the ball rolling...”What is your character’s name?” “How old are they?” And in a surprisingly short time we will develop a story...sometimes an amazing story, in which I will be astonished by the creativity and imagination all around me. “I think I’ll steal this one for my next book” I tell them (actually quite tempted!)

Best of all are the comments from teachers, about the children who have taken their stories home, or gone on working at them at playtime or in class. Sometimes I’m sent copies of the finished versions!

Emma Barnes's web-site
Emma's latest book is Wolfie - available from Amazon
 Wolfie: "funny, clever and satisfying" - Book of the Week, Books for Keeps

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Retelling Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Maxine Linnell

If you’d asked me what I’d expect to be working on five years ago, I definitely wouldn’t have said ‘I’ll be retelling Tess of the d’Urbervilles for children.’  I might have shuddered at the very idea of compressing a book I loved so much into 6,500 words. I’d have thought of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, and worse, Bowdler! 

But I’m in good company. Michael Rosen retold Romeo and Juliet, and recently Philip Pullman published his version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I knew the publishers of the Real Reads series from another connection, and sitting in their garden one day I gulped and said ‘I’d like to do one of those’ - and then wondered what I’d let myself in for. 

When I looked at the books I began to see the point, and the skilful way these little books lead readers from the shallows into deeper, perhaps more satisfying waters. Gill Tavner, who tackled Dickens, Jane Austen and more greats for Real Reads, puts it this way: 

‘I have long thought that there must be a way of making the qualities of ‘classics’ accessible to most readers, but I was unconvinced that abridging was the answer. As a mother of two young children, I have endured the pain of reading abridged fairy tales and Disney films. These often machine-gun the reader with a list of events. Rarely do they offer the reader an opportunity to develop interest in or appreciation of varied vocabulary, style or themes. Do abridged versions need to be like this? Surely there is a way to make an abridged version an enjoyable and enriching rather than simply informative reading experience? Surely this is an important distinction if we aim to nurture keen, confident readers?

The format for Real Reads includes a list of the main characters, questions to follow up the story, a list of follow-up books, films and websites, the historical context of the book and some thoughts about what readers might find if they braved the whole thing. There are also some lovely illustrations. The books were originally intended for children aged about 8-11, but they sell well to readers of English as a Second Language, and to adults who want a way into difficult books - I’ve just ordered a copy of the Ramayana, for example, as I just can’t get into reading the whole thing. 

I was lucky - I got to choose my writer and which books I’d like to do. Tess of the d’Urbervilles was the first, and perhaps the easiest. I had to retell the story in a way which makes it come alive, and with something of Hardy’s style. My usual writing voice is about as far away from Hardy’s as you could get, so it was quite a challenge. 

But I learned a lot from the process. First, I learned to step a long way back from the story, not to immerse myself in it. What were the key themes, the journeys of the characters? What was essential? What made it live? Those are important questions to ask of any book. 

Then I realised that I couldn’t go through chapter by chapter summing them up as I went. That would end up as a list of events, not a story. I had to put the book aside and tell Tess’s story from her humble beginnings to her tragic arrest for murder. And I had to think of Hardy’s feelings about Tess. He used a sub-title for the book - ‘A Pure Woman’. He clearly didn’t think Tess is to blame for what happens to her, but blamed a society with double standards. Angel Clare, who becomes Tess’s husband, has had an affair, but he leaves Tess when she admits to the same. 

There were some tricky issues too - like the scene where Alec d’Urberville rapes Tess in the forest. How could I write that essential scene for a children’s book? Hardy isn’t explicit, but he’s clear enough. I watched all the films and TV series for some help - but the directors fudged the issue, or came down on one side or the other. Here’s how I did it:

'Alec got lost in the wood. Tess was exhausted, and he helped her to lie down on the ground and covered her with his coat, while he went off to find his bearings.
When he came back, she was asleep. Alec could just make out her face in the dark. He knelt beside her, his cheek next to hers. He could still see a tear on her face.
As her people would say, it was to be. This was the last they would see of the Tess who left home to try her fortune. 
A chasm was to divide her from that former self.'
The last sentence is direct from Hardy’s book. The scene’s very close to his own.
The Mayor of Casterbridge was the most difficult of the Hardy novels to retell - it’s so rich in plot, so much happens, that I felt I had to butcher some of the story to get it into the word count. But I learned so much about editing, about looking at a book from a long way back, and from very close up, from the work I did on Hardy’s books. I still love the originals. But I’m quite proud of what I’ve done with them.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Required reading - Lily Hyde

There’s only one book to get me through the present icy weather, and that’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter.

There something to be said for escapist books full of sunshine and palm trees and cocktails for cold times. But I find burying myself in the blizzards and hardship endured by the indomitable Ingalls family in their 1880s Dakota frontier town both puts our present disastrous weather into perspective and does that most comforting thing – makes it into a childhood story.

I’ve been a huge fan of the Little House on the Prairie books since I was about seven and my aunt gave me the first one – I promptly wrote her a letter asking if she could give me the next six forthwith. I loved rebellious Laura, the sense of independence and adventure, and also all the practical and at the same time (to me) exotic details, about how to build a log house or collect maple syrup or trap gophers (I still don’t really know what a gopher is; as a child I somehow got the idea that it was a sort of big furry spider). I loved the close-knit family, Pa’s fiddle music, their poor but deliriously happy Christmases.

So rereading The Long Winter is a nostalgic trip back into the comfort of childhood, when all I did was sit curled up with a book, living other people’s adventures in my head and dreaming up my own. I’m still struck by the adventurousness, and by the reassuringly calm heroics of Ma and Pa Ingalls keeping the family together. I’m more appalled by the hardship now; and suspect that in truth they survived seven months of awful claustrophobia and boredom on top of hunger and weakness and cold with a lot more than just one temper tantrum from Laura... And I find the story of Almanzo’s brave trip into a blizzard to find corn to feed the starving townspeople (when in fact he has a load of his own corn squirreled away in town that he’s saving to plant in spring) a lot more morally interesting as an adult.

In the years since, I’ve read many more winter books, and lived through quite a few seven-month Ukrainian winters of my own. Now, even while I’m commiserating with my poor parents up in the north-west, I’m worrying about Ukrainian and Russian friends stuck with record snow-drifts this year. But The Long Winter is still my paradigm of wintry hardship endured and overcome.

(Although if we really have a whole month of this coming up, I may have to turn to The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of Scott’s last trip to the Antarctic. Several hours thawing out a sleeping bag just enough to actually be able to get inside it, every night, for weeks... Now that puts our weather into perspective.)

What books are getting you through the cold?

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Book Inside - Andrew Strong

I’ve just finished a book that’s taken me six years to complete.  The idea was a simple one, but it grew out of control.  It got messy and took over my life.  I spent six years trying to find its shape.  Six years looking for characters, their voices, their motives.  I did other things too.  My children went through high school.  I got progressively worse at my day job.  I shall not talk about that here.

I loved my book so much I didn’t want to finish it. It was always going so well.  People would ask me when it was coming out and I’d say, well, I don’t know, we’ll see, the market is tough at the moment.  But a couple of months ago, or thereabouts, I realised it was reaching its end.  I always knew what was going to happen in the final chapters, so it was quite exciting to actually get there.  Not so exciting to realise it was almost 120,000 words long.  There are examples of longer works for younger people.  Who was counting?

I read it through.  It seemed magnificent.  It also seemed long.  Ah well.

I sent it to my agent.  She liked it, was very encouraging, but asked me to cut it down. I got out the scalpel. I redrafted. I sent it back. She asked me to cut more. I was happy to do so. I took out the carving knife. I went through it again and again.  I sent it back.  She asked me to cut more.  I took out the chainsaw.

(Health and Safety advice: always use protective clothing when using a chainsaw. They are dangerous.  Especially inside the house. Don’t use a chainsaw close to furniture. Or pets. Or people.)

The book, along with my kitchen table, and a chest of drawers, was cut it in half.  All those years of espresso fuelled mania cut away.  All those deliriously beautifully crafted chapters gone. 

Most of them in which next to nothing happens. 

I loved the book so much I had taken every plotline too far, every digression along a meandering path to nowhere.  It was like a maze of very decorative topiary. Plenty to look at along the way, but you haven’t a clue where you’re going.

But by cutting and cutting and cutting I found my way through the maze.  I found the book that was in there.  The book inside.

I should have been able to find it in the first draft, but I couldn’t.  I was far too immersed in it. I was lost in the dream of my own book.  It became a parallel reality.  The ejected chapter that takes place on a Normandy beach - was that real? Didn’t it actually happen?  I wasn’t just cutting away words; I was cutting memories.

It’s like discarding the keepsakes of an infant's years: locks of hair, milk teeth, silly drawings, the ‘I LOV U DADDY’ post it notes.  They mean a lot to me, but I don’t think the rest of the world would be interested. 

But without them my book wouldn’t have grown, wouldn’t have enjoyed the normal, stable upbringing it needed. 

Even now I know it might not get published.  I’ve sent it out into the world, my darling little book, so trim and tailored. I hope it doesn’t come back in a few weeks asking for a room. 

Monday, 25 March 2013

Frosty Wind Made Moan

I think it's safe to say most of us have had it up to here with snow. Once a year is nice, twice a year is bearable but this never-ending snow is too Narnia for words. How do people in places like Norway cope with perpetual snow?

The thing I'm struggling with the most is writing about somewhere hot while I can barely feel my toes. I have a story set in Morocco to write, it never snows there. But somehow, I am supposed to imagine the souks of Marrakech when I feel like I'm living in a snowglobe.

I guess our ability to do this - imagine our characters in places or situations we're not in ourselves - is part of the skill of being a writer. I've never been dead but I could imagine well enough what it would be like for my characters to be ghosts. There's no such place as The Church of the Dearly Departed (the spiritualist church in the Afterlife books) but I visualised it readily enough when I wrote about it. So it seems that I should be able to channel Marrakech when it's freezing cold outside. But it's a real struggle. Is anyone else finding this or is it just me? Are we going to be faced by a new genre of YA next year - Weatherian, where the planet has been turned into a snow-swept wasteland and snowmen are the ruling elite. Hey, it could catch on...

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Remembering what counts - Liz Kessler

Have you ever noticed how much of this job, which we think is all about words, is in fact about numbers?

We preoccupy ourselves with questions that involve counting. How many words have you written today? How much was your last advance? How many books have you sold? How many people follow you on twitter, ‘like’ your new facebook author page, commented on your latest blog post? How many people came to your book signing? And how all of this is…

…well, meaningless.

Because one day, in the midst of all of these words and numbers, something happens out of the blue that changes the game. For example, something like your partner waking up one morning with a bad headache and memory loss, that leads to a chat with the on-call doctor, that leads to the GP sending them for tests, that leads to some scary discoveries, that leads to weeks of worrying, that leads to a day that suddenly feels very real when it smacks you in the face.

Then there are more numbers. First the hours of waiting while they are in surgery. All seven of them. And in each one, the fears grow bigger and bigger until you find yourself contemplating the worst thoughts you can imagine and you force them away because they will swallow you up if you let them in.

And then the waiting is over and your partner is OK. And together, you begin the slow, careful journey of recovery. Again with the numbers. Day one, day two, day three…better with each one.

So, just supposing this is what happens, and supposing during your hospital visits, you see and talk with people whose lives are very seriously in question, sit in waiting rooms with their families, all of you moving through these days as if in a parallel universe where you are still part of the world you know, but separated from it by an invisible line the width of a hair…

…then what? Do you really still care about those numbers? Does your ego still make the same demands? Or do you find yourself waking up to new truths, new realities, new priorities?

How can you care about the old things any more? And if you don’t care, how can you do your job?

A week later, there are numbers again. The twenty-three staples being removed from the back of your partner's head. The cards and flowers and messages from friends and family that are everywhere. Actually, you don’t count these, but the fact that you are surrounded by them is like having a blanket made out of love around you.

And that is when you find your answer. It is about love. Everything is about love, and if it isn’t then it no longer matters. Even work. As Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet (and thank you to Jen Alexander for reminding me of this)…

“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”

And that was my problem. I realised that I had lost some of my love for my work. Over the last few years, I think I had become too concerned with trying to please other people (publishers, readers, bloggers, reviewers etc etc) and lost sight of what it meant to me and why I was doing it. I did care about the advances. I did check my Amazon rankings when a new book came out. I was obsessed with my daily word count. I had forgotten why I was driven to write in the first place. I was too busy thinking of it as a job that I wanted to be successful at, and had forgotten that it is a passion that comes from my heart. And the last few months have made me refocus on what really counts on every level.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my publisher and will always want to do my best for them. I adore all the bloggers and reviewers I've met and absolutely love it when they like my books. And my readers and the interaction I have with them are without question one of the best parts of my job.

But second-guessing what I might need to do to please all of these people mustn’t ever be the starting point of writing a book. If I am extremely lucky, it will be a by-product of what happens when I write, but the important thing to remember is that writing, for me, is not about asking my readers what they want to read, or asking my publisher what they think will sell, or a bookshop what they'd like to stock, or bloggers what they think is 'on trend'.

It’s about asking myself what do I care about, what do I have to say, what do I want to share with the world? What gets me up early in the mornings, excited and raring to go? What makes me finish work each evening looking forward to spending time with my characters again the next day?

And if people want to hear what I have to say, fantastic. But if they don’t, I can live with it. Because these questions will lead me back to working with love. And right now, I can’t help believing that love, in its many forms and expressions, is all that really matters.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

How I Use the 5 W's and H - Lynne Garner

It doesn’t matter if you're writing a 70,000-word novel or a 600-word picture book creating an interesting story is simply a task of asking yourself questions. Perhaps the most helpful source for what to ask yourself was penned by Rudyard Kipling (30th December 1865 – 18th January 1936),

“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”

The four lines above have helped me on many an occasion. What follows is how I use the above to help me construct a picture book story.

The 'who' is obviously your main character or characters. As a picture book writer this can be animal, human, robot, alien, fairy, wizard, monster, I could go on. Basically almost anything you like. However many an editor will tell you to keep away from talking inanimate objects. Yet Disney still manage to create characters from cars, toys, garden gnomes etc. that children love, so perhaps you can to.  

The 'what' can be what happens in your story or it can be what your theme is. For example the theme for my picture book A Book For Bramble is loneliness, missing a friend and how my character Teasel deals with this loneliness. Although it didn't start out as that. It started with me wondering what hedgehogs dream about when they hibernate. But many authors will tell you the first idea they have will evolve and change as they work on the story.  

'Why' is linked into the 'what.' So ask yourself what happens and why. For example in my book The Best Jumper the 'what' is Spindle the mouse has a jumper that appears to be shrinking. However the 'why' it is shrinking is because he is growing. 

In picture books this is perhaps one of the less important questions. Many of the picture books I've read can be set in any time period. A book about fairies inhabiting a different world could be now or 100 years ago, there is no real relation to ‘our’ time.

Many picture books are set within their own world. For example my book Dog Did It is a mythical world populated by trolls. My book A Book For Bramble could be almost anywhere in the world where a mouse lives in a hole under a hedge. As the author I saw Teasel and his family living in the English countryside. However he would be just at home in any European country or even in some parts of the US.

This is quite a big question. However I normally use it to answer the question of how my character overcomes the problem/issue I've given them. If you're a reader of picture books you'll notice the how to overcome the problem doesn't always work first time. Often the character has to have three attempts to resolve the problem/issue before they succeed. 

So what ever you're writing if you're stuck for an idea (plot or character) then why not give the 5 W's and H a go.  It works for me, it may work for you.

Lynne Garner

Friday, 22 March 2013

How to improve your working habits - by Nicola Morgan

Note 1: No shed necessary. That's a promise!
Note 2: Those who came to the SAS Conference in Peterborough this year know all about this and know that it's called Stimulus Generalisation

Working well shouldn’t be difficult. Make a list of things to do; tell yourself that you will do a, b and c before lunch; apply posterior to chair; do a, b and c. But most of us know what actually happens: in the absence of a boss to enforce when and where we produce a piece of work, bad habits come into play and we (I) play Spider Solitaire, go on Twitter, answer social emails, pay bills, make more coffee, dust behind the fridge…

That was me, until May 2011. Years of self-employment and working from home had created appallingly chaotic working habits. I got the work done – never missed a deadline yet – but it felt unhappily ill-disciplined, ineffective, pathetic. Social, domestic and work tasks were mixed up; the hours spent at my desk were too long and ineffective; real writing seemed to come last, if at all. Work-life not so much balance as collapsed in a heap of tangled intentions.

In May that changed. Now, if I say “shed”, you’ll roll your eyes and want to switch off, but I promise this is not about getting a writing shed. It’s about stimulus generalisation, as I now realise, thanks to my clinical psychologist friend who nodded wisely when I told her how my working habits changed instantly, the day I got a shed. Stimulus generalisation is something psychologists harness when dealing with addictions and negative habits, she said. Hmmm, sounds like me. Does it sound like you?

I’ll briefly explain the relevant aspects of stimulus generalisation but then, more importantly, unpick the elements of what I accidentally did, in order to make suggestions that anyone can use to alter poor working habits, including internet addiction. (Disclosure: I’m not a trained psychologist, though some of my work involves a degree of understanding of how our brains work; I’m just making sense of what happened to me and what might help others.)

Stimulus generalisation is akin to a Pavlovian response, although reflexes are not necessarily involved. Behaviour (leading to habits) is conditioned subconsciously by stimuli around us. So, if you tend to have a glass of wine while cooking the evening meal, cooking the evening meal becomes part of the set of triggers to have a glass of wine. Aspects of cooking the evening meal are the general stimuli around you: the clock saying 7pm, the light falling, the sound of a partner coming home, your own body clock, the smells in the kitchen, all the cues to anticipation of a relaxing evening. Together, these stimuli subconsciously reinforce a habit; and breaking the habit will be very hard if you don’t break the stimuli. In theory, you could just say, “I won’t have a glass of wine,” but the stimuli play heavily on your desires and behaviours and you are pretty likely to have that glass of wine. Thus speaks the voice of experience.

So, let’s unpick what happened with my shed. Effectively, I had suddenly changed almost all the stimuli around me, in one go. This made my existing desire to change working habits much easier; it enabled an immediate fresh slate, allowing new stimuli to create new habits. In the same way, an addict is encouraged, as part of therapy, to remove all physical aspects of the situations in which previously he took the addictive substance. Move house; throw away posters, furniture, possessions; avoid the friends who accompanied the addictive behaviour; take up new activities; change as much about your life and environs as possible. Every repeated stimulus has a hold on the person, each one like a strand within a rope.

Let’s move away from the specific shed example and generalise the conditions which may make new behaviours possible, conditions which any of us could replicate if we wanted to break undesired working habits.

1. Desire to change. We need to know what we want to change, and to want it strongly enough that we will make effort and think positively about the outcome. Part of this may involve feeling sufficiently negative about the current situation.

2. Planning ahead. Making detailed advance decisions about the changes, and setting a date on which the changes will start, help prime the mind to activate those changes.

3. Investment. It makes sense that if we have invested time, money and/or effort in the changes, this will help motivation.

4. Rising anticipation. If we have to wait eagerly for the start date, this is likely to help.

5. Support from others. Support from partner, family or friends, and their own investment in your success, are likely to have a positive effect.

6. Out with the old and in with the new. The tendency of the brain towards stimulus generalisation means that the more physical surroundings you can change, the better. You may not be able to afford a whole new room, or to replace all the furniture in it, but the more you can alter the physical surroundings, the better.

7. The use of all the senses. Our brains learn best when several senses are used. 

8. Blitzing it. I suspect that doing it all at once makes a greater impact.

Based on those principles, there follow some specific suggestions to help change working habits. Some are small and may seem trivial but your brain will notice more than you think. Some of the larger things won’t be practical for everyone and I’m not suggesting anyone does them all: pick a few that suit your situation; plan when to instigate the new regime; then do them all at once. Remember: once you have selected your new stimuli, make sure you apply them to your working hours, not your social or domestic hours. The point is to use a specific setting to teach your brain that it is supposed to be working, not doing social or domestic tasks. Or playing Spider Solitaire… The new environment will perform the role of a boss.


o Move your work-space to a different room.

o Rearrange the furniture in your work-space, including the position of your desk and your view.

o Redecorate with new colours, changing as much as possible.

o Choose new furniture, particularly chair and desk and whatever is in your range of sight while working.

o Create a time-table for arriving and leaving work; leave your office door open if just taking a break, but close it (lock it?) when your working day ends. Make sure you take everything you will need during the evening, just as if you worked away from home; use a briefcase?!

o Have a separate in-tray for domestic/social tasks, and only deal with them outside working hours.

o Even something small can help, such as using a specific mug during working hours, or a particular pen or notebook for “real” writing.

o Anything separate for “work” use will help: stationery, clothes, shelves, diary, etc. Make use of the visual element: eg if you use blue files for work docs, have only the blue files in front of you during work hours or in your work space.

o Use all the senses. The suggestions above are all about what you can see but consider the following: you might play music when working (or when not working); you might harness the sense of smell by lighting a scented candle when doing writing work, or enjoy the smell and taste of real coffee; and yes, you have my permission to eat chocolate to herald the start of a writing session… Anything that you can commit to doing every time you start what is supposed to be a proper working (or writing) session.

The more we can change, the more coherently we plan the changes and the more simultaneously we effect them all, the easier it is for our brain to break old habits and allow new behaviours.

But you’ve got to want to, as much as I wanted that shed, and you’ve got to keep wanting it. Old habits not only die hard, they can return. Be vigilant!

By the way, a new edition of my book, BLAME MY BRAIN - The Teenage Brain Revealed, is available from May, also with an ebook version.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Reading To Dogs by Ruth Symes / Megan Rix

My golden retriever, Traffy, has been a therapy dog for the last three years and has been irregularly visiting our local school for children with multiple sensory impairments as well as a home for people with Alzheimer's. It wasn't supposed to be irregular it was supposed to be regular but last year Traffy got very sick and had to have a benign tumour, the size of a newborn baby, removed from her abdomen. She'd had the same problem three years before but the cause of the problem wasn't diagnosed then, which it now has been and so hopefully there'll be no more tumours and she's back to being her healthy, full of energy, lovely self. The first time she had the problem I was told that she should be put down as there was no hope of her getting better (there'd been complications after the operation) but I said no give her more time and she recovered and once she was fully better she became a therapy dog.

And now she's going to be going into a school as a reading dog which I'm very excited about and hope she will enjoy, which I think she will as she loves children. There's quite a few charities that provide dogs to help children read in schools and I think it's a very good idea. When I told friends about it one of them said they hated reading aloud at school and would have done anything to avoid it.

'But I'd have loved to have read to a dog...'

I would have done too. In preparation for next week's first visit  I now have a special mat for her to sit on with letters on it - so she'll get used to knowing why we're at the school and I have been practising reading to my dogs on it. (It's only Traffy who's going but my other goldie, Bella, likes sitting on the mat too.) They react to being read to differently but both are happy to sit on the mat and have a cuddle. Traffy watches my face all the time I'm  reading but Bella looks at each of the pictures as I point at them. Tray's also now got a special book with lots of photos and text about the things she likes to do to take with her.

We're going in with our area reading advisor and I think there's going to be some group activity as well as individual reading. I'm a tiny bit worried that they'll want long sessions and over-tire her - although so far when we've visited places if she's had enough she goes to the door and gives me a pointed look to tell me it's time to go. I'm only planning to visit once a month at first.

I think lots of schools would like visits. This morning a  teacher friend told me how they'd really like a therapy dog in their school for a boy who's having huge problems making friends and very poor social skills.

'A therapy dog could help...' she said wistfully.

Maybe. I think probably. In my opinion dogs usually do help.

Anyway, will let you know how it goes. I'd love to hear if you've had any experience with therapy or reading dogs.

Ruth writes both as Ruth Symes and Megan Rix.
Ruth Symes' website is
Megan Rix's is
and her dog Bella tweets at puppy girl_bella.

Megan's latest book 'The Victory Dogs' is published by 
Puffin on 4 April. It's set during the Blitz and is about two
puppies born on the London Underground.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Caught Knapping - Joan Lennon

The older I get, the more I try to learn the art of leaving stuff to one side.  It’s a life skill, all right.  And it’s hard.  And it’s easy to get wrong.  Bruising of various shades of tenderness can ensue.  Just like when knapping.

"Knapping is the shaping of flint, chert, obsidian or other conchoidal fracturing stone through the process of lithic reduction." *

On the way to making a really excellent axe, the knapper has to delete a lot of material.  Skilful bashing produces flakes of varying sizes, from quite substantial, useful for cutting meat or hide, down to those small and slender enough to make into needles and bores.  But, inevitably, there will also be flakes that are useless.  We find them centuries later, cast away in middens and slag heaps.  (Though we can deduce from them that knapping activities took place in the vicinity so, given time and the invention of archaeology, eventually they do have a use.)

As it is with life, and with knapping, so it is, I’m finding more and more, with editing.  The last two books I wrote both stalled near the finish line, for the simple reason that there were things in them that didn’t belong.  Just dancing around making elegant joining-up bits wasn’t enough.  I had to get out my hammer and get lithic-ly reductive.  The potentially-excellent axe was in there – you just couldn’t see it for all the extraneous flint.

Why is editing so hard?  I don't meant technically hard, so much as knocking off bits of your own flesh hard.  (Not that that's something I do all that much, but you know what I mean.)  Is it arrogance?  Short-sightedness?  Being just plain bloody-minded?  

Whatever the reason, here's to getting better at bashing -

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

* Thank you, Wikipedia.  Phrases like "conchoidal fracturing" and “the process of lithic reduction” just don’t get used as much as they should, I feel.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

A Beary Eventful Adventure - Lucy Coats

I've had a book birthday this week - Bear's Best Friend is born and out in the world now, and garnering some nice reviews and media attention, (which is a thing that always makes authors happy). The ever-wonderful Armadillo Magazine have done an interview with me, which you can read HERE - there's a signed copy of the book to win there too, so it's well worth having a look!

Of course, a book birthday also means that the Publicity Event Train sets out on its journey round the country. Normally, I talk to schools and festivals about Greek myths. I've been giving my Journey Into Greek Myth talk for many years. I know my stuff, and it's a well-honed, well-oiled machine by now. But Bear's Best Friend is a picture book. I've been out of the picture book loop for a long time, so as well as giving birth to a book, I've also had to give birth to a brand new event to go with it. Luckily this time, I don't have to do it alone. For the first time ever I'm part of a double act, since my wonderful illustrator, Sarah Dyer is an integral part of this new creation.

As a writer, working with an illustrator is, for me, a bit like magic. There are my words, spilled out of my head and onto paper in black and white rows, and then there they are, magically translated into pictures through the amazing lens of an artist’s imagination. It's a process that never ceases to amaze me. But doing a joint gig? How was that going to work? Who would go first? How would we structure the event? It was a step into the unknown for both of us.

We talked a lot on the phone. We emailed each other ideas. What emerged was an interactive event based around our Bear's (slightly strange) hobby of topiary, with parts for both of us to play, including props of bear ears/hats, leaves, a foolproof way to draw a teddy, and, of course, many many bears. But would it work in practice?

On Saturday, we set off to find out, and I'm glad to report that the answer is - it did, brilliantly! Sarah and I have just finished our first ever joint session at the fabulous Seven Stories in Newcastle (which I wrote about here a couple of months ago). Public events can be tricky to handle, but not only did we manage to get through storytelling, animal noises and chatting about best friends (my bit), but also an incredible amount of top-notch creative stuff (Sarah's bit). By the end, the whole place was a sea of Beary pictures, some of which were pretty impressive, given that the average age of the artists was 3 1/2. (I'm sorry I can't show them to you here due to a slight technical hitch on the photography front).

Now that we've cracked the whole joint event thing, I'm looking forward to doing a lot more with Sarah. We'll be at the Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop on Tuesday 28th May and at the Discover Story Centre on 1st June, so do come and see us in action if you're nearby and have small kids. I can't speak for Sarah, but personally I can't wait to put on my fluffy bear ears again!

Lucy and Sarah's new picture book, Bear's Best Friend, is published by Bloomsbury "A charming story about the magic of friendship which may bring a tear to your eye" Parents in Touch "The language is a joy…thoughtful and enjoyable" Armadillo Magazine. Her latest series for 7-9s, Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books.