Thursday, 9 April 2020

One plague or another... Anne Rooney

As Dawn said a few days ago, we all went into this lockdown with fine plans of writing new things. In my case, revamping an outline for a non-fiction book I'm keen to sell and doing some work on adult book that I'm not yet trying to sell as I don't have a clear vision of its shape. And improving my very poor German. Plus working on the few commissioned books that have not been put on hold. But aside from meeting deadlines, that's not what has happened. A good deal of gardening has happened. And a sudden desire to revive a novel I wrote some time ago and my then-agent couldn't sell because 'we don't want historical right now.' Historical in this case is the plague in Venice in 1576.

I found myself drawn back to the book with some enthusiasm for the first time in years. I know I can't be bothered with trawling it around publishers or agents again (I've parted company with my last agent) so it will rot in a drawer. I thought I might self-publish it as something to do. But then I got into an argument with a whole bunch of people on a publisher's website and now I'm not sure. They were denouncing the publication of a book set during a fictional pandemic as 'opportunistic' and 'profiteering' and 'making money out of people's misery'. Are they right? I don't think so. No one is being forced to buy this book set in a pandemic. Profiteering, surely, is making money by price-gouging essentials, such as soap or masks? If you don't want to read a story set in a pandemic, just don't. Personally, I am enjoying revisiting plague narratives now and recognising aspects of the lives described that were previously alien to my experience. Even revisiting a book I wrote myself, I am quite pleased to see that I correctly captured the feelings of self-isolation. (It's not really a book about plague, but plague is the backdrop and isolation and restricted movement are key aspects of it.)

If we believe that people want characters they can identify with rather than a homogenous white, straight, middle-class cast, don't we believe they also want situations they can identify with? And that might include living through a pandemic?

When I was first writing this novel I did worry that I was exploiting the misery of people long dead, and I lit a candle for the plague dead every time I visited Venice for research. But the thought that to publish it would be exploiting victims of the current pandemic had never occurred to me. What do you think? If someone publishes a book set in a plague/pandemic, is that reprehensible? And does it make a difference whether, as in the case of the dispute, the book is about a covid-like disease or something else? (The author of the disputed book wrote the book 15 years ago, so the disease is not a direct reference to covid-19.) Are you reading pandemic literature? I've been revisiting some and ordering some new dystopian fiction. I'm finding it helpful seeing this new aspect of life reflected in fiction. What about you?

Anne Rooney
Out now: How to be an Eco-Hero
Hachette, 2020

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

A different night, a different year by Keren David

Last year - changing my kitchen!

Tonight is the first night of the Jewish festival of Passover, an eight-day festival in which we celebrate freedom from slavery, the exodus from Egypt.  It is probably the peak day in Judaism for festival prep.
To recall the rush in which the Jews left Egypt, we do not eat leavened bread for the whole festival. Our houses should be clean of every last crumb.  In a usual year I’d have spent the last week cleaning the house, changing all my crockery and cutlery, pots and pan for special ones that live outside in a storage box the rest of the year. I’d have been buying special food, getting rid of kitchen staples such as pasta and flour, and cooking, cooking, cooking in order to host at my parents’ house a dinner/service called a Seder for at least seven people, possibly more.
And then the next day we would do it all over again.
This year -  unthinkably, impossibly -  it is rather different. My parents (ages 84 and 92) are self-isolated in their home, and are having to manage on their own (something which tears me apart just thinking about it). Shopping and preparing has been difficult. We will have our Seder, just the four of us and video link with my niece, my brother and my cousin. We are being less strict about some of the food rules. The special crockery etc is staying in its box.
But the core of Passover remains the same, and it is a highly ritualised form of story telling.  We tell the story of the exodus from Egypt (although with only one mention , in passing, of Moses, its main protagonist). We open the door in case the prophet Elijah has turned up (there is a glass of wine poured for him if he does). We are encouraged to think of ourselves as slaves. It is a time to think about the joys of the freedoms we have, and to set some of them aside for a short period to remind ourselves of the horror of slavery. In Judaism, I think, festivals often act as a vaccination -  an injection of history to keep our spiritual immune systems alive to the way our lives can be threatened and change at any time.
On March 14 – right before lockdown – my husband and I went to the theatre. It was the day after my birthday, we had expensive tickets, we drove to the West End rather than on public transport, we took hand sanitiser. Mad, I know. We saw Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt, which features a Seder night held in (I think 1905), a family of Viennese Jews. It’s a play about lack of foresight, lack of imagination, about people who think they can ignore history and shed their Jewishness, people who decades later are killed just for being Jewish.
My lockdown has not been quiet and full of leisure time. I’ve been working at my day job (features editor at the Jewish Chronicle) and working on my book (What We’re Scared Of, also very Jewish). So please forgive this very Jewish blog post. Every year at the Seder we ask ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ This year we will ask as well, why this year is so different, and pray that next year we will be saved to resume our lives of freedom.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The Podful Truth... by Dawn Finch

Like most people, I went into this lockdown with the best of intentions. Oh yes, I was going to finish that novel and start another. I was going to complete all that research I had roughed out in my notebooks. My whole house was going to be redecorated and cleaned, and oh all sorts of stuff. I was going to come out the other side of this with a spick and span house and a whole bunch writing done, and probably speaking another language. I've been working from home for years so this should just mean I have even more time away from meetings and stuff. That should be fine... right?

Well, that’s not exactly been how things have gone, and I’m pretty sure that’s not how things have gone for most of us. I very quickly found that the uncertainty and the Cold Dread and the lack of sleep would make a mess of all my plans. Stuff was cancelled (including publishing dates and events), meetings and conferences delayed or gone completely. Travel and visits to family, all gone with no idea when those plans can be remade. This was not "business as usual", this was something completely different and I didn't have the tools to deal with it.

A new way of thinking was needed and I decided to throw out the entire new “working from home” plan and to stop feeling guilty about it. I took a week to settle myself into this new way of living and instead of making grand plans, I made small ones. Lots of tiny achievable things like growing tomatoes, and baking a good sourdough, and finding out what that smell is in the larder. Stuff like that.

The first step of my plan was to reduce my watching of endless news reports and social media scrolling. I was finding that it was akin to picking a scab and my mental health was suffering. I limited that to a look at the news every morning to see if any rules had changed, and then a look at the website of the National Allotment Association in the evening (I'm the Secretary of our allotment association and I keep a careful eye on those guidelines too) Instead of wading through repeated news and depressingly rising numbers, I decided to continue my explorations of podcasts. 

Anyone who has also dipped their toes into the murky waters of podcast listening has probably discovered the same thing as me. There are some truly excellent podcasts out there, but there are also some absolutely awful ones. I mean, I know there is some poor quality tv in the world but even that looks classy next to some podcasts. Some podcasts are so poor they defy description and are so bad they are not even funny.

This virus has certainly thrown us all in the digital deep-end and I suspect a lot of us have quite fancied the idea of doing a podcast of our own but aren’t sure where to start. Many of us have stumbled across the appalling ones and that’s put us off even trying. There also seemed to be hundreds and hundreds of people offering conflicting advice. I thought I’d have a hunt around for something a bit more accesible, and a bit more reliable.  I have written in the past about MOOCs for authors and FutureLearn have a brilliant new online course for anyone thinking of starting podcasting.

It’s a free two-week course with lots of advice on things like writing narratives, potential pitfalls and the tech you might need. The thing I like about FutureLearn courses is that you will also have access to a forum of other people doing the same course. I think this is one of the most important things about these courses right now because it means you can all chat about something you have in common that isn’t… well…y’know… that other thing. The course officially started on April 6th, but has many start dates and you can start at any time and you have access to the course materials for four weeks.

Give it a go, and maybe see if there is something else on there that could keep you occupied and positive for a while. You can dip in, and drop out if it doesn’t suit you. No pressure, and if something dazzlingly creative occurs to you while you're doing something else... brilliant.

Dawn Finch is an author and librarian who is currently filling every windowsill with seedlings and not decorating.

Start Your Own Podcast course from FutureLearn - click link to register

Monday, 6 April 2020

Eleanor Doorly and Mary Treadgold, Carnegie Medal winners by Paul May

I'm trying to read all the winners of the Carnegie Medal in the order in which they were published, but even this harmless activity has fallen victim to the lockdown and I've had to skip the 1940 winner for now. I've also realised that there are quite a lot of books to read, and I may struggle to finish this project before my 100th birthday, so I'd better get on with it!

The first thing to say about The Radium Woman, the 1939 winner of the Carnegie Medal, is that I enjoyed it very much. The book is unusual in several ways. Firstly, it's not completely original, but is an abridgement and retelling for children by Eleanor Doorly of Eve Curie’s biography of her mother. As far as I can tell, with the current limited access to libraries, it is also an abridgement of a translation, although, given Doorly’s lifelong love of all things French and her ability to speak seven languages, it is possible that she made the translation herself. Finally, it is one of just four works of non-fiction to have won the prize—all of them before 1960.

It is not easy to make a biography like this readily accessible ‘to boys and girls of eleven and older’ as the Puffin blurb has it. As Eleanor Doorly says in her introduction 'complete biographies are necessarily lengthy and are often written in words familiar only to those of much experience and many years.' 

Wherever possible Doorly dramatises. She paints a series of vivid scenes with Marie at the centre of them. She adds dialogue, and uses extracts from letters to give Marie a voice, and she also has the beautiful, atmospheric woodcuts by Robert Gibbings to add a timeless quality to the story. The writing is very clear.  Here is Marie in the laboratory, and here, too, is the headmistress of a girls’ school making sure her readers get the message!

“Work! . . . Work! . . . Marie was feeling her own brain growing. Her hands were getting cleverer. Soon Professor Lippman trusted her with a piece of original research and she had won her opportunity to show her skill and the originality of her mind. Any day of six she could be seen, in her coarse science overall, standing before an oak table in the lofty science laboratory of the Sorbonne watching some delicate piece of apparatus or gazing at the steady boiling of some fascinating substance. Other similar workers were around her, men for the most part, utterly silent, doing a thing that was more absorbing than talk.”

Marcus Crouch says, in his survey of Carnegie winners, ‘There is in this a worthwhile lesson for children which is the more telling because it is implied in every action of Marie’s life but never stated in Miss Doorly’s book.’ I don’t think this is quite right, for I do hear the headmistress, Miss Doorly, quite frequently, not making explicit statements, it’s true, but possibly telling me an improving story in assembly. I think it is this, and perhaps a fondness for telling the reader a little too often how merry Marie's smile is, how lovely the view from her window and so on, that give the book its dated feel and explain why it is no longer in print.

Eleanor Doorly was a headmistress for many years, but she was many other things too. In WW2 she was recruited into the Special Operations Executive because of her fluency in Norwegian, and maybe it was to this that her lifelong friend, Winfred Fayerman cryptically alluded when she wrote in 1957 that ‘she did much known good in the world, and there is no doubt that she did more that is unknown.’ Miss Fayerman also says, ‘Eleanor Dooley was a strange character; she was warmly valued both by many people of distinction, and by the less gifted; but some folks disliked her as much as others liked her.’ An unusual tribute.

Eleanor Doorly

The Radium Woman was published in October 1939, the last Carnegie winner to be written before the war. The next winner, Visitors from London by Kitty Barne is, like its successor We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, a book both written and set during wartime. Sadly, I can’t read it at the moment as the British Library is closed for the duration (or should it be Duration?) and I can’t afford to buy one (it’s rare). So I’ll leave Kitty Barne’s book for another time.

The action in Mary Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah takes place on an invented Channel Island during the German occupation and is a book I first read, and remember liking, some years ago. Mary Treadgold was Heinemann’s first Children’s Editor and was forced to read a huge number of ‘pony book’ submissions, ‘the majority quite frightful – technically incompetent, at best derivative, at worst basely imitative.’ She decided she could do better herself and wrote We Couldn’t Leave Dinah in an air-raid shelter during the London blitz.

It’s only fair to say in advance that I was never especially interested in ‘pony books’ as a child, and that wasn't because I didn’t read ‘girls’ books'.  I was a big fan of the Mallory Towers series, and I used to like reading my sister’s Bunty comic, but ponies passed me by. On re-reading Dinah I found it curiously uneven and at times rather odd. The evocation of an island idyll in summer is terrific, but I didn’t find it easy to sympathise with these privileged, pony-obsessed middle-class children who return to the island from their boarding schools each summer, and are appalled by the idea that they might be forced to return to London and live with frightful relations in Belgravia and only be able ride in ‘the Row’.  

I just didn’t believe in the two central characters either, and maybe this is because Mary Treadgold is trying, and not quite succeeding, to imagine herself into the heads of children quite unlike herself. As she says: ‘The children themselves – Mick and Caroline – were quite simply the kind that at fourteen I would like to have been myself: extrovert, with clear-cut and developed values, plenty of courage, and good at games – I having been the kind of child who had and was none of these things.’

I find this interesting because when I came to Arthur Ransome’s books as a child I had no interest in sailing, and I didn’t attend a boarding school or have a cook and a maid, but I really believed in his characters, and cared about them. But then, Ransome’s children were based upon real children whom he knew well, and there’s not much doubt that John Walker is Ransome himself.

The plot of We Couldn’t Leave Dinah is slightly bonkers and relies like many other great stories on some remarkable coincidences. Some of the action sequences are genuinely gripping, but at other times the writing is very curious and overdone, as though the writer is determined to demonstrate superior tone. For example: ‘Caroline heard an unintelligible noise proceeding from her own throat and opened one eyelid with an effort. Even in this semi-comatose state the hazily-perceived rapture upon her brother’s usually phlegmatic countenance silenced upon her lips the righteous fury of the thus rudely awakened.’

This is a first novel, written in an air-raid shelter, and that probably helps to explain its uneven quality. Passages like the one quoted above slow the action just when you want to be getting on with it. At a first reading, reading for the story and keen to know what happened next, I was happy to skip this kind of stuff in my usual way. Reading it again, perhaps with too critical an eye, it is hard to ignore. 

Mary Treadgold, looking back nearly 17 years later, says: ‘As I remember it now it looks as if the whole of We Couldn’t Leave Dinah was a mixture of escape and wish-fulfillment, motivated by a robust and scornful competitive sense – and indeed I think there are worse reasons for writing a book, though many better.’ She says that she was ‘shaken at the book being awarded the Carnegie Medal,’ and goes on to say that if she were an editor reading it now she would  ‘find it an example of the way in which a popular book can be confused with one of a high level of achievement – and I would not feel hurt if it were remembered as such among all the other books that have been awarded the Medal. I used to wonder at the time, I remember, what quiet book, what book with a less obvious popular appeal was overlooked that year . . .’

Mary Treadgold went on to write many more books, many of them about ponies and many of them by all accounts better than We Couldn’t Leave Dinah. She worked at the BBC for twenty years, and her final book was published in 1981. Her remarks about We Couldn’t Leave Dinah are remarkably clear-sighted and generous, and you can’t help but warm to her.

Both The Radium Woman and We Couldn’t Leave Dinah are out of print, and have been for some time. Next month we have two books which remain in print, one of which I think is a timeless classic, and the other—well—for the first time in this exercise I struggled to finish it.

Paul May’s website

My main source for information about these Carnegie winners is Chosen for Children edited by Marcus Crouch and Alec Ellis and published by the Library Association in 1977. It makes an excellent companion to reading the books. The page from the prospectus of the King's High School Warwick comes from the school's Twitter feed which also contains the information about Eleanor Doorly's languages and war work.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

4 Narrative Video Games for Writers by Alex English

Here in Paris, we've been in Coronavirus lockdown for nearly three weeks, which should be the perfect opportunity to read lots of wonderful books. Unfortunately for me and many people I know, I've completely lost my reading mojo. Instead, I've been losing myself in the stories of video games.

There are heaps of brilliant narrative games around. Here are a few of my current favourites.

1. Thimbleweed Park is a nostalgic, pixelated murder-mystery that harks back to Monkey Island and many favourite games of my 1980s childhood. There are plenty of clever puzzles to work out and a whole lot of humour.

2. Firewatch is a spooky, Stranger Things-esque adventure game with a great script and stunning visuals. You play a fire lookout, stuck on your own in a national park and investigating peculiar occurrences. I haven't played to the end so I have no idea what's really going on here... but safe to say I'm hooked!

3. Night in the Woods is another character and story-focused adventure game. You play Mae, a college drop-out who has returned home to find things in Possum Springs are not quite what they used to be. The tone is melancholy and the soundtrack is beautiful.

4. Fallen London is my latest favourite. It's a free, online text-based adventure set in a grimy alternative Victorian London. The perfect place to lose yourself when you can't get out in the real world.

Alex English's new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Green Shoots - Ciaran Murtagh

I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a lot of doom and gloom about the place at the moment. You all know what's wrong with the world and probably have a list of people to blame alongside  a heap of specific personal daily crises to deal with before even considering knuckling down to write.

I have become teacher to a six year old, professional make up model to a three year old, financial emergency service to a twenty four year old and tee total at quite the wrong time.

But rather than rehearse the problems I thought it might be good to accentuate the positive, so here goes.

We know this feeling

As self employed creatives we've always been in a precarious position when it comes to employment and finance, it's odd to find the rest of the world joining us. However, we know what this feels like, we are used to this uncertainty. It's easy to get caught up in the hysteria of those experiencing this for the first time through no fault of their own and certainly not through choice. And yes, everything else that is going on adds to the stress of the situation more than usual, but take a deep breath, you of all people have got this.

What do you normally do when work dries up? You dig it out. You self start. You get your stall in order so that when everything is open for business you are ready to go.  What did you do the first time? You knew nobody, you had no contacts, you just had yourself and you got started. It's exhausting but you need to do it again.

Write something you love. 

I just wrote a sketch for Crackerjack. Is it going to pay me a fortune? No. Is it going to get my kid through maths? No. Is it the best use of my time? Probably not. But then again - in a time like this, what is? It's very easy to think that what we do, in the scheme of things, isn't really contributing much. I'm not on the front line, I'm not saving lives, I'm not looking for a cure, I'm not fixing the problem, I'm writing fart jokes and covering grown men in custard. Here's one I made earlier...

But - and this is crucial - it's what I do. It's what I'm good at. Not everybody is equipped to fix the global problem we face. The best thing anyone can do in this situation is what they do best and trust it will be enough. If everyone does their best, we'll get through this. Right now a fart gag might not be helping, but give it six months and we'll all be in need of a laugh.

Do what you can today to make tomorrow better.

There is still work out there. 

It's hard to find and even harder to get but it is out there. In particular the animation industry is responding to this crisis very well indeed. If you have ever written for animation then dust off the contact list and start emailing, if you haven't then spend some time investigating how you might. One thing this virus has taught us is how quickly things can dry up. Learn what you can from it.

Most live action scripting is being shelved, but animation is going great guns, try and skill up so that the next time this happens you've got places to turn. If you don't fancy scripting start thinking about an original idea. Or even try and turn that book idea that may be hard to get off the ground right now into an animation idea and start pitching -  people will want content, you can give it to them.

On the book front, educational publishers still seem to be generating work. Anecdotally I know this isn't true for every publisher, but I have been approached by a couple in recent weeks to consider pitching new ideas. Again, if you've ever done any educational work dust off those contacts, email those commissioning editors and see what you can dig out. As with everything, it's tough and it's competitive but you never know.

Good luck, stay safe and lets hope May brings sunshine and beer gardens and pubs that are open.

Friday, 3 April 2020



Margaret Peterson Haddix was born on April 9th 1964 in Ohio, United States. She is best known for the two children's series, Shadow Children and The Missing.

Haddix grew up on a farm halfway between two small towns: Washington Court House and Sabina. Her father was a farmer and her mother a nurse - but as far back as she could remember she wanted to be a writer. 

With her mother and little sister when she was six.

All her family loved to read and Margaret was no exception. 

Here with her favourite Christmas presents when she was ten.

Showing hogs at the county fair as a teenager.

Haddix went off to college and although she did major in Creative Writing she decided to hedge her bets and also majored in journalism. During college she worked on the school newspaper and had internships at several others. After graduating she moved to Indianapolis to work on a newspaper there.

She married her husband Doug who she'd met at college and who had also gone into journalism right after graduation. A complication arose when he got a job as city editor which meant he would be her boss. They decided this probably wasn't a good idea and that now would be a good time for Margaret to concentrate on her first love - fiction writing. She took part time jobs and they also decided to start a family.

She went through the usual agonising time of submitting to publishers and being rejected before having two book accepted at once. At the time her daughter was only eighteen months old and she was pregnant with her son.

Five facts about Margaret Peterson Haddix:

1. It took her four years to complete her first book.

2. Her father was a wonderful storyteller and encouraged her love of writing.

3. Many of her books have been named ALA Best Books for Young Adults.

4. In high school she played flute and piccolo for the marching band.

5. She's written more than 30 books for children and teenagers.

Now that her children have grown up Margaret and her husband live in Columbus, Ohio.