Sunday, 23 October 2016

Chaos, According to Plan by Steve Gladwin

For as long as I can remember I have had to think about an audience. I don ‘t mean I was followed around by one as Alan Titchmarsh clearly was by that brass band for most of the nineties, but because dear reader ,of my life in theatre and drama teaching. Whether it was my first appearance as Jemmy Twitcher in the Beggar’s Opera at the age of whatever, or my three years at Bretton Hall, or writing and directing productions for countless NNEB, A level Theatre Studies and BTEC Performing Arts groups, running my own theatre and storytelling companies and being a jobbing storyteller, the worry about that pesky audience has never been far away. Now as a writer on top of everything else, the audience is constantly on my mind and none more so than at the moment.

Years ago, when I had to start teaching A Level Theatre Studies from scratch, my experienced colleague started with a particular bit of advice, which was to teach the two great theatre practitioners Brecht and Stanislavski as if they were two great polar opposites and allow the rest to slot in between. It turned out to be wise advice.

Now never can there have been two more opposite approaches to theatre. On the one hand you have the serious and seriously rich Konstantin and the rather more casual and outrageous Bertolt, who hid his expensive silk shirts under a hair shirt exterior so that people thought he was at one with the peasant class. Where Stanislavski was all about analysis and intensity and the authentic and believable recreation of a real moment, Brecht didn’t give a toss about the real moment and did his best whenever he could to destroy any illusion of it, with placards, constant interruptions and good old fashioned storytelling.

So yes as a storyteller, give me Brecht’s epic theatre over Stanislavski’s realism any day. Of course for years Stanislavski - more than most - was mistranslated and changed his ideas and approaches far more than people gave him credit for.

Was it something Brecht said?

I still have great respect for Stanislavski, and much of what he suggested, but my admiration for Brecht  - outrageous rogue and con artist as he might have been – remains boundless, for it was Brecht more than anyone who brought storytelling into the 20th century theatre. It was Brecht who allowed people to say, ‘this is a story and I am telling it.’ I differ from Brecht in the actual thinking however because what he meant by that was to say, ‘don’t believe this – it’s all a story, all illusion and I can destroy it any time that I want. Look. I’ve stopped it.’

I on the other hand see storytelling far more in an ‘Let me take you far, far, away, and when you return, things will maybe never seem quite the same again,’ sense.

And Brecht in his own curious way, had far more respect for his audience than Stanislavski ever did, (who at his most extreme had actors imagine the fourth wall to block them out) – no matter how grudging that might have been – and maybe that’s one of the reasons his ideas have stayed with me.

One of the first influential books on Brecht was John Fuegi’s ‘Chaos According To Plan.’ A great title, because Brecht created what seemed like chaos, but he actually planned deliberately to ‘disrupt the spectacle’, to make people sit up, and challenge them.

Brecht plans more chaos!

And isn’t it fun to be able to do that and play our part as the enfant terrible of our particular profession, (or perhaps too often just the little boy peeing in the fountain!)

But how often can we do that as writers? Too often we have to follow an accepted formula, which has either worked for us before, or is the sort of thing that agents and publishers are ‘clearly looking for’. In extreme cases, if we dare to change our style, we end up being ‘hobbled’, not so much literally - in the sort of terrifying ‘dirty bird’ Misery scenario we would clearly care to avoid, but by losing precious stars on Amazon and being given scathing reviews in all manner of media.

In the last few weeks I’ve been working on something where the response of the audience is almost the only thing that matters. We recently completed a book called The Raven’s Call. This seeks to find a new way of dealing with loss and challenging change through the old ‘eightfold’ cycle of the year and the elements.

Did someone mention eyeballs!

At the same time, I am developing a series of workshops on the same theme for users and staff in mental health. And of late - as explained in my September blog - my life has become all about change and how I and those closest to me are able to respond to it.

The Raven’s Call was a wonderful collaboration between a few like-minded people, and much to my surprise I’ve found myself involved in a similar project over the last month, taking the ideas of one book and one age group and making them accessible for a completely different audience.But looking at the idea for Swallow Tales demanded that I ask very specific questions of my potential audience.

In 2009 I did an arts council funded pilot scheme in several primary schools in North Powys, to introduce the idea of change and loss to years 5 and 6, and in the case of that project, to literally move from having a laugh for half of the day to moving on to something more serious for the rest of it.

I used three tales in the afternoon session, all of them in some way about loss. The third tale was Kevin Crossley Holland’s wonderful adaptation of the very strange Norfolk tale of the Green Children. There comes a point halfway through the tale - where the two green children who have come out of the ground from a distant green land - react very differently to being away from their home. Whereas the older girl has eventually learnt to cope, her younger brother dwindles. Kevin’s adaptation has a very spare and raw way of expressing it, wonderful for the storyteller.

‘One day’, he says, ‘the green boy threw up his hands and died.’

And in every school there was the same reaction – a gasp of mixed shock and sadness from all who heard it, children and staff alike. For me it was one of the most magical and special moments in my life as a storyteller and performer. It felt as if somehow in that moment, both Kevin and I, had grasped a tiny essence of grief and held it there with the audience for just a while. And in school after school it happened, even the one where the head seemed not at all interested and just wanted me to be over, so they could go back to a normal school programme.

The project, ‘Are You Having A Laugh?’ very deliberately left it at just the stories. We talked briefly about the day we’d spent and the contrast between the two halves of it. We mentioned that these last three stories had been sad and very different from the ones in the morning. The children were encouraged to write and draw pictures about one of the stories. Everything else was left to the teachers and head for follow-up in assembly and elsewhere.

Was this the spot where the Green Children emerged?

Now, seven years later, I am creating a book which confronts the change and in many cases the sadness head on. Of my eight stories the first and last are actually about a death, gravitating from one about the loss of a pet at Halloween, to the loss of a grandfather the following autumn. And of course the losses of childhood, (which we would always pray were few) come in many forms. and not always in those that parents or teachers would readily understand. The friend - who we see every day - moving far away, can be just as much of a wrench, and in some cases might feel more of a bereavement than the loss of a relative we see once a week, or when we fall out with our best friend, or we find out are parents are going to separate.

In Swallow Tales, as in The Raven’s Call, we use the old farming calendar as our route-map through the year, as well as animals as our guides. So the sadness of a last family holiday in August before an inevitable separation is accompanied by the lonely Selkie, the seal wife who in the end had no choice but to leave her husband and children behind to return to the sea,  and the new and unwanted, (by the older sister) baby comes at the same time as Easter and the hare which of course is the real bunny.

The Wheel of the Year by Rose Foran from The Raven's Call

There are clues and wisdom in all of the season and strengths too, but there also has to be sensitivity. The book no longer leaves it to the teachers to introduce the topics gently, this is the real thing, where reactions - particularly from children going through one or more of these changes - have to be both anticipated and gentled into, while at the same time not being afraid to tackle the topic head on.  

I began this blog by talking about the very different theatrical approaches of Stanislavski and Brecht, and particularly of how they related to storytelling. Their ways of introducing the topic of death in particular were equally powerful in different ways, despite how Brecht might have sought to distance us from an emotional engagement with the subject, and Stanislavski to draw us as close to an emotional engagement as possible or a related memory to it. It is for example the writer's very lack of engagement with the tragedy of all three of Mother Courage's three children, that leads us to feel that tragedy even more. In  other words the same spare and matter of fact way that the death of the Green Boy is also dealt with.

As a writer, storyteller and director, if there's one thing I've been sure of, it's that less so often does mean more. Sometimes you need only to set down the cold facts and leave them to speak for themselves. In an age where the media continually tries to manipulate our responses, surely it is even more important to have good old fashioned storytelling where it is the facts and the honesty of a first reaction which count.

If you'e interested in The Raven's Call - a new way of exploring loss and change in peope's lives, you'll find more details below. Thanks


Saturday, 22 October 2016

How do you know when your book is any good? By Dan Metcalf

The question of 'How do you know when your book is any good?' cropped up on a discussion topic and I found myself feeling quite passionate about my answer. So here goes:

I think you know when your book is good when it excites you. When you can't wait to dive back in and go through it with a fine toothcomb and rewrite it. When you think about it all the time – in the shower, on the drive to work, during mealtimes and in a meeting when you really should be paying attention to what the other person is saying. When you find yourself sneaking a look at the manuscript during the time you're supposed to be letting it rest in a drawer. And when the characters play on in your mind long after you've put down the pen, chattering and arguing in their own unique voice.

If you hate writing the story, if you can't face another day in front of the keyboard, or if you plain old can’t stand your characters, then put it aside or try to reinvent the story so that it is fun for you to write. If you don't have fun writing it, then no one will have fun reading it. Be your own biggest fan, and write the story you want to read.

So don't rewrite something if you know it’s really good, unless you or your editor have a blinkin' good reason to find fault in it. And yes, if it doesn't excite you, cast it aside! You should be your own critic, but unfortunately I think most writers have a very loud internal critic already, poo-pooing their ideas before they hit paper. I'd just like to fly the flag for believing in your own work, and making sure that you love every last letter of it.

How do you feel about this? What safeguards have you got in place to ensure your writing doesn't suck? Let me know in the comments.

Dan Metcalf -

Friday, 21 October 2016

A good neighbour and the gentleness of donkeys by Anne Booth

I am writing a story which has a donkey in it. Now, this is not the first time. Last year I wrote  ‘Refuge’ which is the Christmas story, including the flight into Egypt, as told by the donkey who carried  first the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, and then Mary and baby Jesus into Egypt.  It was illustrated by Sam Usher and published by Nosy Crow to raise awareness of and money for refugees. This year it is being re-issued in paperback format and Nosy Crow have  arranged that it will still raise money for refugees, which is wonderful.

So I am writing another story about a donkey, and I decided I would really actually like to see one in real life. I have always loved donkeys, and I remember happy holidays in Ireland as a child, and Jenny, my Uncle’s donkey. But I haven’t seen one for AGES. I have been reading about donkey sanctuaries online and watching YouTube videos, but that’s not the same.

So I asked a question on Facebook as to whether any of my neighbours knew of any donkeys nearby, and my lovely neighbour Emma messaged me and invited me to tea at a local cidery and tea rooms with farm animals. She was sure there were donkeys.

We got there and had a delicious cream tea served by very friendly staff. We saw llamas and chickens and horses and big guinea pigs called maras, but no donkeys. We were told that the donkeys had been re-homed as apparently the horses in the field kept kicking them and there wasn’t enough room for them to have separate fields. When my friend and neighbour heard where they had been re-homed, she  decided that we would drive there -  the Lord Whisky Animal Sanctuary, where, amazingly, the very kind ladies let us meet Snowdrop and Primrose, whose ears were very soft and with whom I fell in love.

What is the point of this story, apart from sharing pictures of donkeys and confessing to my longing to have some?

Well, this time last week I had to go to London to get my and my husband’s passports urgently renewed. We are going away to Ireland for two nights soon as a special wedding anniversary trip, and having booked the trip I realised our passports would run out before we left. So I had to go up to London to get them fast- tracked. I felt very nervous and irrationally sure that for some reason they would refuse me a passport. My nervousness wasn’t helped by my handbag setting off the alarms as I went through security and the man shouting ‘she’s got a scissors!’. 
But then suddenly everything was fine. The staff - who were white, asian and black, were a great example of multicultural Britain. They were quick to find and confiscate my nail scissors but were kind and understanding, whilst being reassuringly on top of security. When I went upstairs I saw people from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds waiting for British passports, and I suddenly felt really comforted that in spite of the many horrible headlines we read every day, that British people were still tolerant and kind. The man who processed my passport had a daughter at university where I live, and so we had a nice chat about his imminent visit to her.
That wasn’t the only nice thing which happened last Friday. A man working in the underground - a member of the station staff - complimented me on my coat and said it was very unusual, and when I said it was a Nomads fair trade coat he said ‘you’re speaking my language’. When I got the train home a man came and sat next to me eating cashew nuts, and very cheerfully offered me some. I told him that was very kind, and that lots of people had been lovely that day, and he said, ‘yes, you mustn't believe the headlines, people are much nicer than the papers say.’

I was so grateful to my kind neighbour today for taking me not only for a cream tea but for two trips to find donkeys. I was grateful to meet the kind people who look after the donkeys and other animals who need care, and the gentle animals themselves. I really needed that trip, as I have been feeling very depressed about the way our media have been talking about refugees. Today and last Friday reminded me that, like the family Sam Usher drew so beautifully at the end of ‘Refuge’ - we still have great capacity for welcome and kindness in big and little ways, and we need to tell and listen to stories which celebrate this and make our voices be heard above the vile headlines stirring up hate. I am glad that I am writing another story with a gentle donkey in - we can’t have too many of them in this world.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Boys Don't - Joan Lennon

Boys Don't - trailer from Papertale on Vimeo.

I was so impressed by this Vimeo trailer, I wanted to share it.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Support groups for writers - Linda Strachan

As writers we tend to spend a lot of time on our own, unless you count the voices in our heads. Writing is generally a solitary occupation, those hours days and months wrestling with a plot, getting to know our characters and living through their lives, loves and difficulties as if they were our own.  

We find that friends and family who are not writers, however much they try to be accommodating, often do not seem to understand how we feel about being interrupted just at that point when we have finally managed to settle deep into the words and are living and breathing the story.   Even if that interruption is to offer a cup of coffee. 

They cannot see why it can take anything from a few minutes to a few hours of circling the desk, looking out of the window, procrastinating on social media, or playing with exciting stationery and possibly starting a new notebook ...

... before we actually get enticed by the ideas in our heads and settle down to become totally engrossed  in the story.

That is the point when we need to be left alone.  But when we have spent those hours pouring over a keyboard or notebook, this is when we need to get outside, to meet other people and get some exercise.  

A writer's life is a rollercoaster of emotion and only some of that ends up on the page!  We feel such elation when someone likes our new book, or praises our writing, and the flip side - the deep misery when there is a bad review or yet another rejection arrives, however nicely it is phrased. 

We try to control the green eyed monster that makes us feel a deep rage when others are doing well at a time when we  hit a bad patch and is the exact opposite to the need to have people celebrate with us when we are suddenly wanting to scream with delight and share that wonderful feeling of success.  

This is when true and trusted writer friends are what you need.  Friends who know how it feels, have been there and understand the nature of what we do. Most of the writers I know are kind and generous people and I am happy to be part of several different groups of writers who work as a support network for both good and bad times.  

The SAS (Scattered Authors Society), some of whom write on this blog, are a wonderful and diverse group of writers at all stages of their careers, writing many different genres -  all write for children and young adults.  

As the Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland part of my work is to organise events for our members, some of them purely social events, which are a great way of getting to know writers who operate in completely different circles, and sharing experiences and knowledge.
There is a need for trust in any group of people who work in the same industry and especially amongst writers because opening up to others about your writing can leave you feeling vulnerable, and sharp unthinking criticism can be very destructive. 

Sometimes old friends who are not writers struggle to understand what we do and make comments that can cut deeply.  Often delighted that they know a 'real published writer' at others they can be jealous because they are completely unaware of true nature of our business, and believe all the stereotypes portrayed by the media without questioning the reality. 
The idea that all writers are wealthy and sit about all day daydreaming (when we are not going to glitzy parties and signing books for adoring fans); that we get paid the cover price on the books and we just have to go on producing our books and the publishers will publish them, without question, because that is how it works - isn't it? 
No matter how much you try to explain the truth to be honest most people do not want to hear it.

So aside from personal friends who are writers I also belong to a small group of about 7 writers who communicate very regularly.  We share our troubles and our joys, understanding the need at times to state a goal for writing, or ask questions when struggling with a plot problem.  Most of all we trust each other with our hopes and dreams, applaud successes and support each other when things are not so great. 

Some writers get together to share work for criticism but that is something that has to be considered very carefully.  Honest and positive crits are great, but destructive comments can be crippling and unhelpful. When being honest we all need a little kindness even if the news is not good because as writers we are all learning all the time.

 The most important thing about a writers group is that it is supportive and I think it is imperative that there is a strict understanding of what the group is for and if that will work for you, at your particular stage of writing. That said it is one of the best things about being a writer, being able to share your enthusiasm with like minded people.

Do you belong to a writers' group?  If so how important is it to you, and what do you think are the positives and negatives? 


Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and a writing handbook - Writing For Children.

Linda is currently Chair of the SOAiS - The Society of Authors in Scotland 

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me . 

She is Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

Her bestselling series Hamish McHaggis illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby.

blog:  Bookwords 

Monday, 17 October 2016

What's In a Name? - Quite a Lot When you are Writing a Children's Book - by Emma Barnes

What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...

Names really shouldn't matter, should they? But actually, if you are writing a book they count for a lot. I doubt that I'm the only writer that only feels I've “got” a character when I've found the right name for them, and worries away until I do.

For Chloe and the Secret Princess Club, I didn't happen on the right name right away. When I was working on the book proposal, I thought of my main character as “Cleo”. Somehow this didn't feel quite right, and when my editor suggested “Chloe” instead, I immediately felt we'd got the right name for my character.

Chloe or Cleo?

Why? Well, my character has big dreams, but an ordinary life, and so Chloe made more sense for her than the rather exotic “Cleo”. (She does get to be a Cleo though – briefly and rather disastrously – towards the end of the book.)

Secondly, I have good associations with the name Chloe. One of my favourite picture books is Chloe and Maude by Sandra Boynton. Chloe and Maude is very much a story of friendship, and so is Chloe and the Secret Princess Club.

There was also a presenter called Chloe on Playschool – a TV show I loved as a child.

Playschool: Chloe with Brian, Humpty and Jemima

Thirdly, although I have good associations with “Chloe” I don't actually know any Chloes. On the whole, I don't like using the names of people I know well as my main characters. It gets in the way somehow.

Fourth and finally, the meaning of the name “Chloe” is green shoot – and this is perfect for my character, because first she is full of bright ideas, and second her mum is a keen gardener.

Aisha left, Eliza centre, Chloe right.  Illustrator: Monique Dong

Then there are Chloe's friends. Chloe's best friend is a British Muslim of Pakistani heritage and I found her name tricky to choose. I know the popular Muslim girls' names in my neighbourhood, but I don't really know the nuances of why particular names might be popular. After trying out several options, I chose Aisha, which is a classic name, but again not a name that I associate with anyone I know.

The third member of the club, Eliza, is Jewish. But most of the Jewish people I know don't choose especially Jewish names for their children. I chose Eliza because 1) it was a name I liked 2) I don't know anyone in real life by that name and 3) it's a bit out of the ordinary. Somehow it seemed the kind of name her parents - healthy-eating, slightly pushy professionals - might be expected to like.

Another important thing was that none of the names of the three main characters began with the same letter or sounded too similar or looked too much the same written down.

Although I didn't plan it that way, if you look at the letters of their first names – they spell ACE. 
And that seemed a nice thing too!

They weren't the only important characters in the book. Chloe has a twin brother, and he was Arthur from the start. This seemed right because Chloe's mum (like Chloe herself) is a bit of romantic, so would have loved the idea of naming her son after the famous King Arthur of Camelot.

But also, I suspect, I had another association in my head – this time with Arthur the Church Mouse, from Graham Oakley's wonderful Church Mice books. Arthur the mouse is practical, sensible and down-to-earth (and rather scathing of those people who aren't) and that's just how I saw my Arthur too!

Of course, like all children everywhere, my characters don't like their names. (No gratitude at all for the time I spent choosing them!) Part of their pleasure in their secret club is that they get to choose new secret names. Aisha becomes Araminta, Eliza is Elisabetta, while Chloe goes for Clarinda (that is until her class do a workshop on Ancient Egypt and she opts for Cleo instead).

What are your favourite character names in the books you've read?  How do you choose names for the characters you create?

Emma Barnes's book Chloe's Secret Princess Club is out now.
Find out more about Emma's books on her web-site.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

DUBS NOW by Tess Berry-Hart

On Friday evening at Liverpool Street Station, people gathered outside the statue of the Kindertransport, where 70 years ago refugee children arrived from Europe on the eve of the Second World War. On Saturday afternoon, crowds marched from Westminster to Downing Street to demand that refugee children be allowed in to the UK. The signs that the campaigners held bore amongst others, the wording: LET THE REFUGEE CHILDREN IN and #DUBSNOW.

There are two routes whereby unaccompanied children in camps in Europe might be brought over to the UK: either to join family in the UK either under the Dublin Protocols (EU family reunification policy) or the Dubs Amendment (67 of the Immigration Act 2016) whereby the UK government should make arrangements to relocate unaccompanied children in Europe.

The Dubs Amendment does not require an unaccompanied child to have family in the UK, but simply to have arrived in Europe before the 20th March 2016 (when the EU-Turkey border deal came into being) and where it is in the child's "best interest" to be relocated to the UK.

Dublin and Dubs sound similar but are actually different: there is an existing, though bureaucratically clogged, system of transfer between the French and UK governments for "Dublin" children, whereas at the moment there is no such system for "Dubs" children. The fear is that the UK government will concentrate on bringing over "Dublin" children with relatives (out of 178 "Dublin" children six arrived on Saturday) and marginalise the "Dubs" children (at least 209 children in the camp have a workable case according to Citizens UK).

Last week the UK government announced that some children from the Calais camp would be allowed into the UK prior to the Calais Jungle being demolished. In Calais, the race is on by volunteer groups to make sure that the 1,022 unaccompanied children are registered by the French authorities before evictions start in earnest next week. Many volunteers report an inconsistent and system by the French authorities in Calais in registering children. The very real fear is that many children will not be registered, or that, mistrusting the system which has tear-gassed and beaten them - they will simply pick up a backpack and disappear.

Since partial demolitions in February, 129 children have gone missing, and 18 more since July, when a list of those eligible to enter the UK under Dublin family regulations (178) or the Dubs Amendment (209) was delivered to the Government.

As regards the rest of the camp, the French authorities have committed to demolishing Calais by the end of October (it's illegal to evict people in winter so they're making sure they do it before November sets in). They have spoken about it for a while but with the French presidential elections looming they mean it this time.

The official line is that camp residents will be put on buses to other parts of France where they will have their asylum claims considered. Concerns have been raised in the French and UK press - by the French defenseur du droit amongst others - that the authorities are not managing the process correctly as they do not have enough places, and those places available are badly converted derelict buildings or garages, often in far-flung places in France.
However, this process does not take account of those residents who have a claim to enter the UK under the Dublin family reunification rules or those children under the Dubs Amendment. Many people will not choose to take up the asylum option, and instead disappear to set up numerous squats and impromptu camps around northern France. The Jungle may disappear, but the need will never disappear.

Last September I visited the camp at Calais for the first time and was horribly stunned at the conditions that people were living in, so much so that I got involved with newly-founded volunteer group Calais Action. If you'd told me that one year on I'd still be working as a volunteer aid worker and campaigning for refugee rights I would have been amazed. I think everyone in the movement would have been amazed - back then we all thought that we needed to stop the gap for a few months until the governments sorted it out. But they will ONLY sort it out when WE, THE PEOPLE, pressure them!

How you can help


PLEASE TWEET @amberrudd_MP using the hashtag #DubsNow to encourage her to take MORE refugee children in Calais - not just "Dublin" children - but "Dubs" children!

PLEASE WRITE to your MP and Theresa May via asking that unaccompanied children under the Dubs Amendment (ie, those WITHOUT family in the UK) ALSO be brought over from Calais immediately. Make clear that you know the difference!

PLEASE SHARE our #DubsNow video on Twitter and Facebook and follow Calais Action and I Am Red on Facebook for more updates!

For evictions:

Please text CALA85 + the amount you want to donate to 70070
Phone credit is often the only security that refugees, and refugee children, have

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