Saturday, 6 February 2016

My literary hero - by Cecilia Busby

Every week in the Saturday Review, the Guardian runs a feature called 'My Hero', where they invite a literary figure to write about someone who inspired them or whom they particularly admire. Recently, Lady Antonia Fraser chose George Wiedenfeld, who gave her her first job after chatting to her mother at a posh dinner party - such were (are?) the routes to employment of the well-connected...

I have occasionally wondered what figure I would choose, in the way you sometimes mull over what music you'd choose for Desert Island Discs (or is that just me?). Anyway, thinking about it recently, I decided that one very strong contender for my hero would have to be Christopher Marlowe.

I have loved Marlowe since I was about fourteen and discovered my dad's battered copy of Marlowe's Complete Works, which included as an Appendix the Baines Note, the document that, lodged with the authorities a few weeks before Marlowe's death, roundly condemns him for various heresies and treasons and may have been the reason he was killed at Deptford in 1593. Historians have cast some doubt on the veracity of Baines' testimony, but as far as I was concerned at fourteen, this was from the mouth of the man himself, and I found the Marlowe portrayed in Baine's report of his wild and no doubt drunken ravings irresistibly cool. Like a good Marxist 300 years before his time, he claimed 'that the first beginnings of religion was only to keep men in awe', as well as various other blasphemies, and amusingly claimed 'that if he were put to write a new religion, he would undertake both a more excellent and admirable method and that all the new testament is filthily written'.

As well as the denigration of religion, he denied the power of the crown, arguing that 'he had as good a right to coin as the Queen of England, and that he was acquainted with one Poole, a prisoner in Newgate, who hath great skill in mixture of metals, and having learned some things of him he meant through the help of a cunning stamp-maker to coin French crowns, pistolets and English shillings.'

This made me laugh. It was so obviously the kind of thing you say when rather inebriated, making grand and ridiculous plans with your mates to make your fortune without (crucial, this) having to actually do any real work. Add the atheism, the hints of homosexuality, the low-life brawls that saw him arrested and chucked in Newgate, and his shady role as a spy for Francis Walsingham, and you have the perfect reprobate, guaranteed to appeal to a teenager. And just look at that bad-ass, truculent stare in the portrait he had painted when he graduated from Cambridge at the age of 21. When I heard that he was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, and that he'd got to Cambridge on a scholarship on the condition he joined the church, but had proceeded to become a spy and a drunken playwright instead, my admiration was complete. And then there was the tragedy of his death. So young! Such a waste! Stabbed to death in Deptford, supposedly in an argument over the bill, and buried before he was thirty.

But it wasn't just his character I fell in love with, and he'd be a pretty poor literary hero if it was. My love for Marlowe was first and foremost for his words, and I was reminded of this when I randomly picked up my daughter's 'Oxford Book of English Verse' and came across excerpts from his Hero and Leander. I was instantly transported to my teenage years, rolling the wonderful sounds of Marlowe's verse around my mind. There is such resonance in his verse, such fantastic rhythms. There is nobody like him. Listen to this, from Tamberlaine, the first of his plays I read, and one that absolutely floored me:

If all the pens that ever poets held,
Had fed the feelings of their master's thoughts,
And every sweetnes that suspir'd their hearts,
Their minds, and muses on admired themes:
If all the heavenly Quintessence they still
From their immortall flowers of Poesy,
Wherein, as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit,
If these had made one Poems' period
And all combin'd in Beauty's worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads,
One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest.

There are so many other quotes I could fill this with - but you can find them for yourself (and probably have your own favourites). I will just finish, though, with a recommendation. Ros Barber recently wrote a marvellous book based on the idea that Marlowe didn't die in Deptford, and that he went on to write the plays and poems assumed to be by Shakespeare. You don't have to agree with her to enjoy the detective story she lays out, and even more to appreciate the wonderful sonnets she writes in the voice of Marlowe post-death. It's called The Marlowe Papers, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize as well as winning the Desmond Elliot prize.

So there you are - my literary hero. Who's yours?

Cecilia Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)

Friday, 5 February 2016

National Storytelling Week and Speaking up for Libraries Savita Kalhan

This week, from 30th January until 6th February, is National Storytelling week. It was founded by the Society of Storytelling and has been running for the sixteen years now. Its aim is to promote the centuries old tradition of storytelling in communities across the UK.

Storytelling is an art that began before people could write. It's where myths and legends, folklore and fairy tales find their roots in every civilisation across the world. Then came the written word, books and translations of stories from other parts of the world, some of which became incorporated into the cultures and history of other lands and made their own.

As writers we make up stories. We think them up, write them, rewrite them, polish them, and then have them read, and eventually they may even get published. It's a long hard road. The oral storytelling tradition is very different. A story I make up on the spot to tell my child or nephews and nieces is spontaneous. Stories will inevitably adapt and change to fit the audience, and the ability of storytellers to do that with ease and assurance is an art.

Moving on from the spoken word to the written word and books, which I believe everyone should have access to, where best to have free and easy access to the written word but in your local library? Tomorrow, the 6th of February, is National Libraries Day. Like many writers have also said, I too would not be a writer if there had not been a local library in my town. The library offered books that I could borrow for free, there was advice and guidance on books from qualified librarians, there was somewhere to sit and do my homework, and it offered me a safe haven too.

Anne Cleeves, writer of TV series Vera and Shetland, has been named National Libraries Day ambassador. She says of libraries that, “They’re magic places. And we need them for democracy – there should be equal access to books, information and facts for everybody.”

Children’s authors have spoken up. Cathy Cassidy has said, "Without libraries, I would never have had access to books as a child, would never had stood a chance of following my dreams. Now our public libraries are being closed all around us; it’s a national scandal, and we must stand together against these closures, for the sake of our children and the future of our country."

 Philip Ardagh has called on book lovers to, "speak up for libraries before there’s nothing left to shout about."

John Dougherty says, "If we want a society that is literate, cultured, educated and compassionate, then a well-funded, professionally-staffed public library service is not a luxury. It is a necessity. And the destruction of service that our government is allowing is quite simply immoral."

Almost four hundred and fifty libraries have closed since 2010. Lots more are facing closure. Under various new proposals, some libraries, the ones that have not already been shut down or are facing the axe, will only be able to offer very limited services, limited opening hours, and some 'will not allow any under 16 years old in unless they are accompanied by an adult'!

I know for a fact lots of libraries are full of kids after school, including my local library, Finchley Church End. Kids are doing their homework, studying, or reading books. Some of them come to my teen reading group on a Monday. The only parents that are accompanying children are the parents of young children, not teenagers. This is set to change in many libraries.

Follow this link to read about what Biblioteca, the company who have thought up 'Open+', a plan devised to apparently keep more libraries open. Libraries will much more high tech with gates and security cameras, entry by card and pin, no staff (or minimal staff and volunteers...) and teenagers will have no access to a library unless they are accompanied by an adult, and that is just SO WRONG! Did I shout that loud enough? Read more about the Open+ plan HERE.

There has to be a better way.

We all appreciate the value of libraries, how important they are, why they're important, and what they've meant to us. I've blogged about what they've meant to me many times, and I will continue to add my voice to those campaigning for libraries. So if you haven't already signed the petition, please sign it by following the link here -

There is a Speak up for Libraries lobby on Parliament on 9th February if you're in London. Follow this link for more details -

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Thursday, 4 February 2016

What is a 'concept document'? – And how to write one – by David Thorpe

I just wrote a fight scene in a novel I'm engaged on for older children. Three against three. I had to choreograph it, visualising the space, what was in it, and where everyone was at any given time. Interleave moments of action that would, if watched, be simultaneous. Lay in lines of witty dialogue. Pace it.

The fight lasts maybe three pages. It took a morning to draft.

Over the last several weeks I've been writing something that, by contrast, is just one page long. But it's one of the toughest pieces of writing I've ever attempted. It is not from a novel but based on one of my novels. It is what's called a 'concept doc'.

Its purpose? To attract the attention of a production company or executives that dramatise books for television.

One page. The pithier the better.

Structurally, a concept document is broken down into four sections, following the title and the number of episodes/length:

First: the hook. This is really challenging to get right. It must encapsulate the essence of the idea while enticing the reader on.

Here is a brilliant example of a hook, for The Collection, a new original VoD tv drama series set in a Parisian fashion house after WWII, made by some of the people who brought you the BBC's War and Peace. It's from the keyboard of its writer, Oliver Goldstick:

"It's not so much about what they're wearing as what they're covering up".

Terrific, huh?

This is followed by a short summary of the core concept. What manner of beast is this thing? Not just the genre and audience but the central characters and setting, and narrative thrust, so we know what to expect if watching it.

If it's based on a published book, say something about how it was received.

Third is a plot summary. Mine has three paragraphs. To sum up seven hours of drama. That really focuses your mind.

It's not just about leaving out all those lovely subplots and deciding what is peripheral but conveying the story elements, the broad sweep, the flavour of the key characters' motivations, and the emotional mood swings, so that it is convincing and without non-sequiturs.

Finally, a note on style and format. This is where you say what it's like (e.g. 'Sherlock Holmes meets Star Wars' – say, that's not a bad idea), and why audiences around the world will stop everything they're doing to watch it when it's on. What are its vital selling points that distinguish it from anything else on the screens, while being not so different that it's too risky to undertake?

Every word in the concept doc must fight for its right to be where it is, keeping also in mind it is likely to be scanned by someone with the attention span of a lepidoptera. So you also have to minimise cognitive dissonance in your attempt to summarise the plot while intimating its depth and distinctive qualities.

But the trickiest part of writing it is being able to step back and see it afresh, again and again – a vital discipline to pick up for a writer.

Even if you've no intention of selling your book as a tv series (or film), doing this with one of your own books could be a useful exercise, because it really helps you to fine-tune its uniqueness, the central dramatic attraction, and what should make your book compulsive reading.

  • If you undertake this exercise while or even prior to writing the book, you may find it helpful for focusing on what the story is really about.
  • If you have completed your book, then it is could be useful for constructing your cover letter to an editor or agent. 

I was fortunate in writing my concept doc in being able to bounce it back and forth with my son, Dion, who's in the business and loves the book, and who is ambitious to see it on the screen. His feedback was invaluable, as was that (as always) of my wife, Helen.

I think we went through about 35 drafts. So far. I think it's taken half as long as it took to write the novel. I think we're nearly there. But then every time I say that we think of an improvement.

You see, you only get one chance at pitching to an agent or producer, and everything hinges on it. There are a zillion ideas out there, and a million people pitching them. That's why it's so crucial to get it – pitch perfect (sorry, couldn't resist).

If you'd like to take a look at it, get in touch.

Now, back to my fight scene.

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

BURIED ALIVE - by Sharon Tregenza

When I saw a news article about a man in Florida who was buried alive in a sink hole - it resurrected a childhood fear.

Florida, sink hole.

I was born and raised in West Cornwall, where talk of collapsing mine shafts was commonplace. For a time my ten-year old self was haunted by the possibility of the earth opening up beneath me. I would lie awake imagining the ground under our house was honeycombed with caves and tunnels - a rocky swiss cheese waiting to crumble and swallow me alive. On walks I'd cast nervous glances at my feet.
Cornwall, mine collapse.

Cornwall, mine collapse.

When the tin mines closed, in most cases, they were simply capped with timbers from the mine. These timbers eventually rot, so the shafts collapse. It's estimated that there are more than 15,000 mine shafts in Cornwall some 200 years old and many not shown on any map.

Only last year my daughter and I were prevented from visiting my father in Truro Hospital when a hole opened up on the A30 at Scorrier. For a while the whole area was cordoned off. 

A30 - Mine shaft collapses January 2015

The local newspapers had fun with this one though. The headlines the next day read: "Police look into A30 hole on National Pothole Day" and it didn't take long for the comedians to come up with this solution and post it on social media:

I put this childhood fear into a book. It begins with a catastrophic mine collapse. After my editor's comment that the mother's horrible death was perhaps "a little much" for the age group, I rescued her and placed her in a coma for the rest of the story.

Two children are trapped underground in a labyrinth of tunnels and old mine workings. I added an Aztec sacrificial knife with a blood lust, an adorable rat, a holy well and called it "The Jewelled Jaguar".  That's what I call using your fears to advantage.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

ALL THE LIGHT – Dianne Hofmeyr

I’ve never missed my slot in the ABBA rota ever since I joined more than how many years ago? But I I was almost about to do exactly that today. SORRY! I’m at the other end of the world and maybe the slightly oppressive thundery heat and the steady beat of the waves thumping to shore have put me in a somnambulistic trance.

I was intending to write about a book I’ve just read called All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Most of you have probably read it. I don’t think I’ve recently come across a book with such a depth and wealth of information but with none of the interruption of an author’s voice. I was totally entranced by his ability to write about diamonds and shells and wireless transmitters – my husband can still recall his crystal set from his boyhood (no he's not 100). With digital access to world news most of us have forgotten transmitters and what they meant to people in WW2. Amazing that messages were flying through the ether informing people of the human side of deaths and births and who had reached which place safely, as well as battle co-ordinates of the enemy.

I found everything in the story unfolding with such naturalness… like air being breathed in and out. From the beautiful wooden lay-out of the city of Paris and of St Malo made for the blind Marie-Laure by her father, to the orphans in Germany picking up broadcasts for children that filtered in from France, to the incredible diamond at the core of the story and even the whelks and sea snails living their own secret lives in the dankness of a gated sea-wall cave.

The story has the word light in its title but the writing itself gives off a kind of mesmerizing light even through the barbarism of war. It’s the first book that I’ve ever read that I will pick up and immediately read for a second time just for the joy of Doerr’s deftness at not making me feel manipulated.

So now with great speed and not perhaps enough depth on the book and not even touching on the marvellous character of the boy Werner, or Madam Marec or even great uncle Etienne and certainly no time for checking my grammar… I’m sending this out still on the 2nd of the 2nd month of 2016 but mightily late.

Perhaps I will be forgiven if you see the walk I did today along the Robberg Peninsula… all the time wondering how the blind girl, Marie-Laure would interpret the sounds and smells and air around her.

twitter @dihofmeyr

Monday, 1 February 2016

THE THIRD HAT by Penny Dolan

Some years ago, visiting to a local village school, we got to that point in the session when children ask questions.
“'Scuse me,” a girl asked, fourth question in, and gesturing towards me, “But is that, like, a uniform?” 
Her face told me she was both interested and puzzled, In other words, this was a true question.So I looked down. I was wearing my usual “kit”: black top, skirt, tights and boots, brightened by a variety of silver necklaces, bracelets and several ornate rings.
“It’s just what I usually wear,” I said, gently adding. “Why do you ask?
She looked a bit embarrassed. “Well, I thought it might be a kind of author uniform –“ she began, and hesitated.
We had this artist lady once, and she looked like that,” another girl interrupted. Nods of agreement. The teacher, tuned in now, added that the artist had been there for an art project earlier in the term.
And then there was that other writer,” someone added. “When we went to that festival, the famous one“
“Oooh, yes!” murmured several voices, remembering.
Then I understood, despite the differences between us two. Although I am tallish, large and rather ungainly, with quite a lot of hair and the other author is tiny, slim and neatly proportioned with a stylish short cut, we both wore in similar “uniforms”.
To those young eyes, I must have seemed the large ogre version to the petite gothic pixie
So the consequence was that, for a while, I was a lot more varied in my “visit look,” especially when a book or two later, I had to stand on a podium alongside the famous writer. 
I chose this anecdote because I’ve been thinking about the matter of children’s author’s "looks” this week, and in particular the real-life wearing of hats. It’s quite a tough life, being out there "on show" and I’m almost sure that some hats are there because they give a kind of additional confidence to the wearer. I've never quite broken through boldly enough for one, myself.

First in the hat stakes, I think, comes Shirley Hughes, with her imposing dark hat for everyday visiting and, I believe, a straw hat for sunnier weather. 

The significant advantages of both hats seem to be that they add a little protection and stop that “what do I do with my hair today?” worry but maybe more usefully, have a brim that can conceal the artist’s gaze when there’s a chance of  time and place for some quiet sketching. Would you disturb a tall lady in a such a hat? Me, neither.

The second hat along must be Sir Terry Pratchett’s famous hat. I suspect this hat may have added a little personal height, way back before geek, geek’s mum and the whole geek multitude became his fandom. Somehow, as the years passed, that hat seemed to take on a fictional existence of its own. As Pratchett said himself, in an article from The Onion (1995) quoted in Pat Rothfuss’s blog, in response to the question 
"Why the big-ass hat?”:
"Ah… That’s the hat I wear. I don’t know, it… It… That hat, or types like it, I’ve worn for years and years. Because I bought one, and I liked it. And then people started taking photographs of me in it, and now, certainly in the UK, it’s almost a case of if I don’t turn up in my hat people don’t know who I am. So maybe I could just send this hat to signings. I just like hats. I like Australian book tours, because Australians are really, I mean that is the big hat country, Australia."

That hat seems to me, now, almost imbued with Pratchett’s vast and teeming imagination. I find it hard to think of that hat without musing on those Discworld hats full of magic and/or sky. 
A hat is usually a bold, stylish look. I’ve admired Korky Paul and Robert Swindells in their hats, strolling sociably around lawns at Federation of Children’s Book Group Conferences – and probably some of you Awfully Big Blog readers have had your own moments of admiration and “must get a hat” pangs.

Of course, the essence of an “Author Hat” is that it is a constant presence. New hats may be bought, but each will have an almost identical look. We know the authors don’t go to bed in their hats, but surely that headpiece must be within easy reach, their faithful Companion Hat, ready and waiting nearby?

There are some authors who go in for a fabulous variety of hats, like Sarah MacIntyre, whose imaginative hats are often admirably themed  to her latest publication, but sorry, Sarah, this post is about those who wear the Same Famous Hat. And if any of you have been following the media, you’ll know where this post is leading . . .

Last week we witnessed the arrival of another hat, a fresh fedora on the scene. 

It appeared on the head of a much-praised writer who has just won The Costa Children’s Book Award AND The Costa Book Award for her book THE LIE TREE, the first time since Pullman’s "Dark Materials" that a book for children has been honoured in this way.

On behalf of all those who would like to wear a big, bold hat,
but back out at the last moment, I’d like to say: 
Many congratulations, Frances Hardinge!

And, as my beloved father-in-law used to say: “I wish you well to wear it!”, both that Hat and the Award. All good wishes for the future!

Penny Dolan

Saturday, 30 January 2016

New writers – a leg up and a helping hand... Lari Don

Earlier this week, I was privileged to attend the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards Showcase, where the winners of this SBT scheme read extracts from their startlingly good new writing, and where we were all given a lovely little book of their writing.

I can take a tiny bit of credit for how wonderful the evening was, because I was one of the panel who chose the two new Children's and Young Adult Fiction writers. (A process so wrapped in secrecy and cloaked in mystery that I can say NOTHING about it at all...)

But I can say that we chose Claire Squires and Michael Richardson, and I can also say that all the new writers were fantastic and all their new writing was great... it was a really inspiring evening. The awards they received were pretty impressive too – including mentoring, a week long retreat, and a grant to help with the costs of finding time to write. An amazing leg up and helping hand for anyone trying to work out how to be the best writer they can be.

And most people need a leg up of some kind at the start (or even in the middle...) of their writing career. For example, I got my start when I entered the Kelpies Prize with a draft of my first children’s novel, First Aid for Fairies. It didn’t win, but being shortlisted led to all sorts of other opportunities...

So well done to the organisers of initiatives like this, and best of luck to anyone entering competitions or awards to give them a bit of a leg up, a helping hand, and a bouncy friendly start to their writing career.

And especially well done to Claire Squires and Michael Richardson, both of whom I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about in the future, as they move from being new writers to published writers!

Lari Don is surprised to discover that she’s no longer a new writer – she’s now written more than 20 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
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