Tuesday, 24 May 2022

So what's in a story? by Saviour Pirotta

The first brand-new-straight-off-the-bookseller's-shelf book I ever owned was Enid Blyton's The Happy House Children. I think I got it as a first holy communion present from an aunt. It came wrapped in second hand Christmas wrapping paper but I didn't mind. I grew up in an environment where there was plenty of sunshine but not much reading material. Anything with pages covered in print was a treasure as far as I was concerned, no matter what wrapping it came in. I must have read that book until the pages fell out and I had to tape them back in, and it started an obsession with Enid Blyton stories that lasted well into my teens.

I have no idea where my copy of The Happy House children disappeared to. One of my nephews or nieces must have borrowed it after I moved to England. I recently came across another copy at an antiques centre. The same frisson of excitement I had felt when I was seven years old ran through me when I spotted it. It was the same edition (, the same cover with Jane, and Benji frolicking with their dog on the front lawnin their lush front garden and the same title (the book was retitled more than once. I've seen editions called The Happy Home Children and The Children at Happy House). I bought it and took it home.

Well, dear reader, I made myself a mug of cocoa and went to bed early to have a good read. I have to admit I didn't remember much of the story, only a few details. Having read it again as an adult, I can understand why. There's virtually no plot. The conflict when it arises is very much of the domestic kind. The children get accused of lying, get colds, lose their toys. And that's about it. All the little dramas are resolved without much fuss or plot twist. Every chapter has a neat. happy ending.

So what made this book stay with me so long after I read it? It was the setting, the cosy, dreamy, world of post-war Britain that Enid Blyton created. To a boy growing up in a hot, Mediterranean country (think mis-en-scenes by Vittorio De Sica or early Fellini), this lush land of green lawns and thatched cottages felt as magical and out of reach as Narnia or Neverland. The kids there has streams at the bottom of the garden. They were allowed ice-cream even when they had a sore throat. Their cook grew geraniums on the windowsill, INDOORS.

It never occurred to me that this middle-class world of well-behaved pets and chintzy playrooms would be just as much a fantasy for the majority of British kids as it was for me. Call me naive, but it never occurred to me that there was another side of Britain I'd never read about in Enid Blyton books. Not until I moved to London in the 1980s. Working class kids do appear in Blyton books, of course (I'm thinking 'Ern in the Five Find-Outers books here), but they didn't stick in my mind. They didn't come across as real; they were more like characters in a pantomime, inviting you to boo them. I didn't hero worship Ern like I did George or Julian or Fatty.

I guess what I'm trying say in a roundabout way (because I can't really focus after a long day working and I have to post this tonight) is that what we write stays in kids' mind for a long time, even the bits we think of as mere scene setting or plot-pushers. It influences how they think, how they see the world, how they interact with fellow human beings. It's a great responsibility not to be taken lightly.

Saviour Pirotta's latest book, The Heart Scarab is out now. Follow him on twitter @spirotta and on instagram at saviour2858.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

The Beatryce Prophecy, written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Demon goat, Answelica, is an unlikely and fun hero in this story. The only human being who Answelica doesn’t repeatedly attack is a mysterious child, Beatryce, who is found by a monk one day, sleeping with the goat. Beatryce can’t remember who she is or where she comes from, but, very strangely for a girl in these quasi-medieval times, Beatryce can read and write. It becomes clear that she is part of an ambiguous prophecy concerning the fate of the king. Shaven-headed now, and dressed as a novice monk, Beatryce and her unlikely set of companions set off to meet her destiny.


As with all Kate DiCamillo stories, this one is utterly original, fresh, exciting, funny, and beautifully written. Beautifully illustrated throughout too, by Sophie Blackall. 


            The first Kate DiCamillo story I read was ‘Because of Winn-Dixie’ about the friendship between a girl and an unloved dog. The heart of loving friendship between child and beast returns here between Beatryce and Answelica. It’s a story about stories too, leaving the reader with plenty to ponder.


            For children at the upper end of primary school who are open to quirky new ideas, this is a treat. 


            Newly out in paperback.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Book buddying - knots and treasures - by Joan Haig

I've decided to return to my 'book buddies' mini reviews. I like gifting books in pairs. Sometimes I choose books that are wildly different to one another; at other times, I select books for their overlapping themes. As I book swap and buy secondhand books, not all are new releases. Every quarter I will be sharing a book buddy pair here.

These two books are beautiful. They are strikingly orange - perfect for summertime! The Armourer's House by Rosemary Sutcliff, originally published in 1951, invites readers into the Tudor world of nine-year-old Tamsyn who moves from the seaside to London, where unexpected adventure awaits. There's something enthralling about reading historical fiction that is itself tipping into a historical read. As with other Manderley Press titles, this one is expertly prefaced - here by Lara Maiklem, author of Mudlarking. The shoreside theme is a perfect match for Knots and How to Tie Them by Lucy Davidson, which does exactly what it says on the cover. More than this, it goes against the grain of marketing the art of knot tying chiefly to boys. Both books are tactile and filled with skills and story that will broaden young horizons.

The Armourer's House by Rosemary Sutcliff, illustrated by Isabel Greenberg
40 Knots and How to Tie Them by Lucy Davidson, illustrated by Maria Nilsson

Previous book buddies include...

The Race by Roy Peachey
Danny Chung does not do maths by Maisie Chan

Here are two impressive debuts aimed at untangling Chinese people and culture from their stereotypes. I'm not sure Danny Chung's family escapes the stereotyping, but Danny does - and his escapades are bright with wit, charm and (often delicious sounding) cultural detail. The Race is dual narrative, but the voice that dominates is Lili, a young girl already wearied by other people's inability to grasp her identity as British Chinese and adopted. While Chan and Peachey's writing, tone and narratives are nothing alike, both books are about competition, loyalty, classroom antics and grandmothers. They'll make young readers think outside boxes and will leave them smiling.

Jack's Well by Alan McClure
Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown
In some ways, these books are nothing like each other. (They are certainly like nothing else.) Jack's Well is honest, clever and original and is worthy company for this most unusual and moving novel by Scottish literary hero Mackay Brown. Both are about a boy. Both are about daydreams, fate and building existential narratives. And, as if mirroring the themes in form, both take you outside the main body; there are stories within the story. I'd gift these book buddies to curious teen readers who like a bit of swashbuckling alongside their soul searching.
The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow by Emily Ilett
The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell
The first two books I am buddying both speak the lyrical, rolling language of the sea. One is set in Scotland and the other in Papua New Guinea. These stories will take young readers on very different but equally ethereal and engaging adventures, while preparing them for (or helping them to) confront painful issues - namely, loss and coping with change. Both celebrate sisterhood. These book buddies are the literary equivelant of sea salt and buttery caramel - a winning combination.



I hope you've enjoyed my pairings. My next book buddy post will be in Autumn!

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

The difficulties of working with a goddess - by Lu Hersey

 Next month I have a new book coming out. 

So what, you might be thinking - big yawn, show us your cover and shut up about it. Writers have new books out all the time.

But of course I want to tell you about the book as well as showing you the cover. I mean, it's taken over seven years and more edits than you've had hot dinners to get here, and that takes a bit of explaining. 

One of my biggest difficulties was having a land goddess appear in the story, especially as she kept taking over. After all, Andraste is the goddess Boudicca invoked before battling the Romans, so she's really not to be messed with...and she was determined I got the story right before it was published.

Andraste, goddess and guardian of the land (image by Rhi Wynter, detail taken from the back cover)

But my (possibly more realistic) problems started when my publisher back in 2015 turned the idea for the book down, AND I KEPT WRITING IT ANYWAY. Yes, big mistake, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. My advice to my past self (and any other writer caught in this scenario) would be, even if you don't agree with your publisher and you think they're totally wrong about the commercial value of your work of genius, it's best to simply write something new they might want instead.

To be fair, they didn't realise that by the time the first section was presented to them, I'd written a whole draft already. The goddess was awake and ready for battle. 

Anyway, their feedback on the part they read was:

1. My main protagonist was a boy (he still is. He's called Arlo). They preferred female protagonists because they sell more books - and apparently boys don't read.

2. No one knows what a crop circle is and girls don't read about aliens (if they'd read past the first section, they'd have discovered there weren't - and still aren't - any aliens. But doubt they'd have liked the land goddess any better, tbh)

3. Teens aren't interested in ecological issues. (This predated Greta Thunberg, obvs)

I now fully acknowledge that sales and marketing have a valuable job to do, which is making sure what's published actually sells and makes the publisher a profit. OF COURSE I should have let go of the book and written something else immediately. But did I listen? Did I buffalo. 

I did try. After a while, I wrote new books and put Broken Ground on the back burner. In fact there are currently two of my books still going through the glacial submission process somewhere. But throughout all this, I still couldn't let the idea behind Broken Ground go. I kept coming back to it, again and again.

And now, zillions of edits and much generous feedback from writer friends later, Broken Ground finally gets to see the light of day next month - thanks to wonderful Debbie McGowan at Beaten Track publishers.  

Also, thanks to amazing designer Rhi Wynter, it has a stunning cover....

(AT LAST, you're thinking - FINALLY she's got to the cover reveal!)

That's it really. I'll be promoting Broken Ground a lot over the next couple of months, so you'll be tired of hearing about it soon enough. But if you like the idea of a book filled with scary magic, crop circles, blood sacrifice and a land goddess, it'll make me a very happy writer. 

(And even happier if you want to read it, obviously 💚).

Lu Hersey

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

In praise of writing friends - Tracy Darnton

My latest thriller - Ready or Not - was published this month with an in-person launch. 

This blog is a short one in praise of writing friends. (Spoiler alert* There will be Oscar-speech-style gushing).

We all know there are highs and lows with this author life. The last couple of years has been difficult for all of us. To have a team of cheerleading, sympathising, 'been there, done that, got the T shirt' friends behind you whether you're celebrating a book launch with fizz or weeping over a low point, is key. 

Fabulous, proud-looking editor behind me!

SCBWIs hanging by the cake stand

So here's a shoutout to my lovely agent, my crit groups, Write30 gang and MA buddies, the Teaspooners, Edge-of-the-Seat thriller writers, UKYA group, my SASSIES and SCBWI friends and, finally, all those without an acronym. 

Lovely agent  Jo Williamson 

You know who you are and I owe you all a cupcake. 

Tracy Darnton is the author of YA thrillers. Her latest book, Ready or Not, was immortalised in rather delicious cupcakes.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

John Truby's The Anatomy of Story - by Rowena House

With a month to go before the PhD deadline to complete a detailed outline for the work-in-progress, I got side-tracked by a storytelling craft guide I’d meant to read for ages, only to discover it is a goldmine of great plotting advice, and the timing of its arrival proved perfect.

John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story was recommended to me years ago by author friend Lucy Van Smit of The Hurting fame, and now her very successful A Writer's Journal for the Writers & Artists Yearbook. She said I’d like it and she was right. 

Among its many excellent features is a recommendation that rather than developing the main character arc from its beginning, better to plot backwards from the protagonist’s psychological self-revelation near the end.

Intuitively, I wanted this to be ‘right’, partly because I’ve conspicuously failed to make progress by starting the current seventeenth century witch trial work-in-progress with Chapter 1, and partly in homage to all the still-born mauscripts mouldering in an old laptop which also began at the beginning.

On the other hand, I’d just spent $325 and five weeks of my life delving into the pre-story of my protagonist’s life, working out an ‘origin wound’ that is poisoning his life when the story opens and causing his immoral behaviour.

Why, then, start again by plotting the main character arc backwards if I already have a beginning? Isn’t that redundant or procrastination?

The answer, I think, is a need to stress test all the plotting decisions made so far before the next big step of scene weaving (to use Truby’s term). To explain...

If you’ve been reading my recent ABBA posts, you’ll know that for most of this year I’ve been using template synopses to outline the WIP, including (at last) a full Story Grid for the protagonist’s A-plot, plus the detailed backstory of his wound and its implications, thrashed out during Jeff Lyons’ intensive Anatomy of a Premise Line online course.

Truby, then, is the third leg of this stool: a way to check my workings before moving on.

Truby and Lyons are a good fit even though they seem to start the story development process from opposite ends of the end-product – Lyons from before the action starts, Truby from near the finale. But they both rely on the same foundation: a psychological and emotional ‘weakness’ (Truby) or a ‘moral blind spot’ (Lyons) which restricts the protagonist’s personal growth at the outset and creates their need to overcome their flaw by the end.

Before I began this experiment with template synopses, I was suspicious of this sort of predetermined basis for all stories; if you’re a writer, no doubt you’ve come across it endlessly, too, as the ‘want’ versus the ‘need’. But I’d paid my money for Jeff’s course, and gave it a really good try, and found myself happily surprised. Not only did this 'healing-a-wound' method create a workable outline, one that got my A-plot the commercial thumbs up from Jeff, but it also unlocked the workings of Story Grid and now Truby, too.  

Proof that it’s helpful for subplots as well came this morning when I was reviewing my preliminary notes about Truby for this post, and suddenly found myself in the middle of the spontaneous creation of the best working outline of Beth's B-plot I’ve managed in two long years!

Yes, I had a ton of research about Beth under my belt. Yes, I had fixed her Story Grid internal and external genres. But Truby cut away years of agonising over her root motivation and how that could get her from the story's A to Z. Now I can see the wood for the trees.

So how does Truby’s system work? Natch, I can’t summarize the whole thing here, so I’ll describe a couple of its key features instead. 

Despite its subtitle, “22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller”, The Anatomy of Story is less prescriptive than, say, Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid and its outgrowths (all useful), as Truby applies his character-led plotting process to all stories, rather than being genre-specific.

Within his twenty two steps, Truby says seven form the core of all plots, including subplots; if these steps aren’t on the page, the reader will feel cheated.

The seven are: i) the protagonist’s psychological and moral weaknesses, which together determine their inner, long-term need; ii) their object of desire AKA their concrete, short-term story goal; iii) a strong and ‘necessary’ opponent (see below); iv) the plans drawn up by the protagonist and opponent to achieve their mutually exclusive desires; v) the climactic battle between protagonist and opponent; vi) for positive endings, a self-revelation where the protagonist (and the opponent in better stories) “strip away the façade” they have been hiding behind, and an acknowledge how they must change to thrive/survive; and vii) the new equilibrium in which they enact their new better selves for a happy, prescriptive ending. In cautionary tales like The Godfather, the protagonist fails to see themselves for who they truly are (and, in Michael Corleone’s case, ends up a monster).

For fans of story structure this is familiar stuff, as are many of the other fifteen steps (7+15=22). But that is by no means a criticism. This book is clear, thorough and persuasive.

For example, his advice on the opponent includes the following: “the single most important element of a great opponent is that he [sic] be necessary to the hero. This has a very specific structural meaning. The main opponent is the one person in the world best able to attack the great weakness of the hero.”

This definition caught me by surprise. Hitherto, I’d thought about opponents in plot terms: how they would stop the hero from getting what he wanted in some direct confrontation or by a devious route. But of course it doesn’t have to be that way!

She (my main opponent is female, thank you, Mr Truby) doesn’t have to attack Tom, the protagonist, head on. Other characters can do that, including those who will credibly spend time with him through the middle build. But by undermining his confidence early on, by exacerbating his emotional and psychological weaknesses, she could render him incapable of action over a long time period and across distances, paralyzing him with his own inner toxins. Ye-ha.

Even as I write this, part of my brain is saying, duh. Yeah? And seeing this technique at work in every movie on Netflix. But that’s the thing about passive and active knowledge: there’s a point at which you internalize it properly, and then apply it.

Reading Truby and applying his principles is like that overall. It's as if I've been given a fresh pair of eyes to check over my every planning decision. One last example...

This month I finally managed to complete the full Story Grid foolscap outline for the A-plot, thanks largely to the confidence boost received last month when Jeff Lyons signed off its underlying premise and short synopsis as commercially viable.

It turned out that having confidence in these foundational elements was key to unlocking the Story Grid’s worldview (revelation) internal genre, which in turn resolved many of the plotting issues with the external genre, now designated as historical crime.

Jeff Lyons’ Anatomy of a Premise Line also gave me a specific neurosis for Tom, worked through from his childhood to the story’s present. It is a highly exploitable neurosis, making him vulnerable to a wily opponent, and one that complicates his other main weakness, ignorance, which is the negative value provided by his internal Story Grid genre. So Tom’s opponents have two targets to attack – his neurosis and his ignorance – as well as his plan to disrupt, and their own strategies to achieve. It all adds up. Tom’s plot looks good to go.

With the subplot getting more focused, too, it’s possible I’ll even meet my mid-June deadline to have them both finished. Wouldn’t that be a turn up? Meanwhile, time for a dog walk in the May sunshine. Enjoy the longer days if you’re getting them where you are.

@HouseRowena on Twitter (story tweets and rants about the world)

Rowena House Author on Facebook (now a journal for the work-in-progress)

rowenahouse.wordpress.com (lots about The Goose Road)

Saturday, 14 May 2022

Writing what we need to write by Lynne Benton

 First, here are the answers to the Easter quiz in my April blog:

1What animal is most associated with Easter? Rabbit 2What did this animal carry in "Alice in Wonderland"? Pocket watch 3Who wrote "The Tale of Peter Rabbit"?  Beatrix Potter 4Can you name all three of his siblings? Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail 5What was the title of the book about rabbits by Richard Adams? Watership Down  6In which Disney film did the rabbit Thumper appear? Bambi 7What was the name of Warner Brothers cartoon rabbit? Bugs Bunny 8Who originally recorded the song "Run Rabbit Run"? Flanagan and Allen 9What meat is traditionally eaten at Easter? Lamb 10What do most children enjoy eating at Easter? Easter Eggs 11What is Simnel cake topped with? Marzipan 12What dried fruit is in Hot Cross Buns? Raisins  13Complete this saying:  "Don't put all your eggs in one ..."? Basket 14How is the date of Easter decided? It’s the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. 15What name is given to the Sunday before Easter Sunday? Palm Sunday  16In which ocean is Easter Island? Pacific 17Which famous jewellery firm is renowned for its jewel-encrusted eggs? Fabergé 18Which headware item is traditionally associated with Easter Parades? Bonnet 19Complete this line from an Easter hymn: T i a green h f a  There is a green hill far away 20Complete this line from a famous poem:  a h of g d  A host of golden daffodils.

So much for the light-hearted stuff.  I hope some of you found it interesting, or at least distracting from everything that is going on in the world at the moment.

And now for today’s blog, which is not going to be easy. Previous blogs this month, especially Dawn Finch’s on the 7th and Anne Rooney’s on the 9th, have expressed their thoughts so well about the current prospects for writers that it’s hard to know how to follow them.

As things are at the moment I can’t help feeling it’s almost self-indulgent to spend my time writing upbeat, optimistic fiction for children. Should I instead be writing something worthy, serious and thought-provoking for adults – something that could come to the attention of certain world leaders, and make them take notice and act to do the right thing for the world/mankind?  If I did, would it do any good?  I suppose if writing such things were my strength, and if I were really famous, it’s just about possible – though I doubt it.

And in any case, writers can only write what they want/need to write, and if it happens to be cheerful fiction for young children, well, that could be important too.  When I see footage on the news of all those children in Ukraine trying to escape from the bombs raining down on them and their homes, seeing things no child should ever have to see, shattering their security, I wonder how they can ever recover.  Maybe in time they will need something happy to read, to remind them of how life should be.  After all, maybe when they grow up they will be the ones responsible for helping to put the world right again.

Maybe all writers can help after all.

Website: lynnebenton.com

Latest book: Billy and the Queen (available from Amazon.co.uk)