Sunday, 26 February 2017

On Being Shy (and awkward and a bit clumsy) - Eloise Williams



When I became an author I thought I would be able to live in a lighthouse.

My food would be sent up to me on a pulley and I would wave to the person in the delivery boat, and perhaps say a cheery ‘hello’, before I pulled my window tight shut and went back into my safe lighthouse world.

I had no idea that writing books would mean that I had to go out and about promoting them.

If I had known, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to start.


I’ve always been shy. Always. I was brave at my sixth birthday party and thought I’d dance on top of the piano to celebrate my bravery  for a change. I fell off. I think that’s one of the reasons I hid in books when I was young. I think that’s one of the reasons I write. It was definitely why I became an actor.


People think that actors are really brave, outgoing creatures, when very often the exact opposite is true. It’s a way of hiding yourself in someone else’s words. A bit like writing. It’s a way of expressing yourself without actually directly giving yourself away. A bit like writing, again.

When I realised that actually no-one was going to buy my book unless I got out there and told people about it, it came as an enormous shock. Then, after a bit of sobbing I decided that I would just have to get on with it. Hit it with enthusiasm. And I’m really glad I did.

I’ve done lots of events and school visits now and I’ve met some wonderful people.


For World Book Day 2017 I’ll be onstage with The Biggest Book Show on Earth and then at the Spread the Word Festival. I’ll be standing up in front of lots of people and attempting to talk to them about my books, and why books and reading are so important. I’m already nervous.

Last time I was onstage I forgot my words completely. It was a One Woman Show.

Another time, when I was part of a dancing group who were representing the Great Fire of London by becoming human flickering flames (I know, believe me, I know) I managed to pirouette into an audience member’s lap. It wasn’t part of the act. She wasn’t that pleased.


So, as the song goes, there may be trouble ahead, and I can never predict how shy, clumsy, or awkward, I’m going to be on the day. I just make the best of whoever I am at that moment in time and try my best not to fall over. Even if I do, there has always been someone there to pick me up and I’ve lived to tell the tale so far…


I wish that I could say that I wasn’t shy anymore. That all these experiences have made me flamboyant and confident. But they haven’t. They’ve just made me realise that there is a place for shy people in the world. That shyness is not weakness. I’m shy but I can still contribute and I can still be creative.
It has also taught me that children will always, without exception, be willing to help if you are honest. That children are kind and empathetic if you tell them that you are feeling nervous. That they will identify with you.

And that is why I can keep writing, and going to schools and events. And that is also why I know that I have found the right job. That by writing stories I really am connecting with people, through reading, and through meeting the most lovely, supportive crowd a person could ever hope to meet.

And though I still want a lighthouse, if I ever got one I’d probably get a little boat so I could pootle across to the mainland and do a few school visits.

Eloise Williams


Friday, 24 February 2017

Transition by Tracy Alexander

The National Childbirth Trust group I joined for my pre-natal education wasn’t made in heaven. The woman of Amazonian height carrying twins had no sense of humour (and hardly any bump because her babies didn’t need to curl up). The neat and tidy controlling one was disquieting. (She went on to start an inflexible routine as soon as her wee baby was born that meant we all had to listen to plaintive mewing until the clock struck the appropriate hour. Very stressful.) The couple that looked about seventeen, but were in fact thirty, were as unintelligible as The Clangers. The pair who looked like each other were dull, dull, dull. The horse vet and his perky wife we liked! The other two I’ve completely forgotten. (I am self aware enough to know the feelings were probably mutual.)
So, not a great hit rate. It didn’t matter. We were there to tick the box called Learning How To Have A First Baby. Job done. Except I came away less equipped for labour than when I’d started.
            There are lots of aspects to fixate on when you’re pregnant. Your vastness. Your poor sleep. Your joy. Your due date. Your birth plan. Your vagina. Your baby. Its gender. Your indigestion. And your labour, of course. How painful is painful? How long will it be? Will you cope? Episiotomy or tear?
But what obsessed me was transition. The hinterland between dilation and pushing. The NCT teacher made the phase sound like an ever-darker tunnel. Like being enveloped by an endless bleakness. It was the door-less cell. It was locked in the basement with the floodwater rising. It was obstetric dystopia.
Thanks to the vividness of her description, I read the chapter on transition in my birthing book again and again to make sure I would recognise when I was in it. In transition you can lose hope, feel like you can’t do it, give up. My imagination filled in the rest. The baby would get stuck . . . I would be paralysed by overwhelming helplessness . . . the baby wouldn’t be all right. 
The fear escalated.
I schooled my husband so that if I didn’t realise what was happening, he might. If I became despairing he knew to, parrot-like, tell me that it was a phase. The sign of the positive change from preparing to give birth, to actually doing it. But would he recognise, in the middle of the worst protracted pain ever, that I was lost?
When it came to writing my birth plan, it was simple: to not disappear into the abyss that was transition.

The transition described by the NCT guru didn't materialise. Whether it was the skill of the midwives or the drugs (yes, drugs) or being pre-warned, I didn’t experience a wave of petrifying doubt. I moved on to the next phase, which is essentially trying to poo in public, and was rewarded with a baby.

But . . . walking the dog against the ferocious winds this morning, the much-read chapter reappeared, unbeckoned. Twenty years on. Minds are funny.

I’ve recently finished the nth draft of a novel that has taken twice as long as usual. At the moment some of my friends are reading it because that’s how I work. I like a sense check, and all feedback is useful if only to confirm that I’m sticking to my guns. Knowing there is no point tinkering with the document at this time is lovely.
But lovely didn’t describe my demeanour a few weeks ago, still in the thick of the novel. As I typed the end of the first draft, instead of satisfaction that I could now improve the story, I felt incapable. The screen was a mess of indulgent waffle. The immensity of trying to smooth the journey, unkink the plot, deepen the drama, and give my heroine her freedom was beyond me. So I didn’t even try. I walked the dog, cycled to Portishead, made chocolate brownies à la Nigel Slater. (very good chocolate browniesThere was no point wasting any more time on it. I was not a writer. I should get a job like I used to have, with other people, where there are desks and canteens inside buildings, and PAYE.
Transition can be the most emotionally challenging part of labour, despite being the shortest, when women are at their most vulnerable and susceptible to suggestions of intervention. I was most definitely in the feared transition phase.

Thankfully phases are exactly that. It passed. One day I sat back in front of the computer, less demoralised, and began to chip and shave and bolster and slash. Solutions to awkward conversations piped up, clunky links got oiled, my heroine began to feel herself. Transition was over, it was time to push the manuscript out into the hands of my volunteer editors.

In a few days I’ll have all their feedback and it will be time for the final edit before it goes to my agent. I’m excited, not debilitated. It’s the end of the birthing process, the delivery.
And if I’m ever in transition again, I’ll know that it’s all part of the process. A process which is as individual as giving birth.

In case you’re interested, the NCT group met up regularly that first year, and maybe a couple of times after that. But we didn’t have NCT anniversaries. We didn’t bond over anything outside the common ages of our children. We don’t know any of them now. However, the friends I made at the NHS equivalent, Parentcraft, are still my pals. Just the luck of the draw.

Tracy Alexander

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Slaying Your Darlings by Steve Gladwin

Sometime last summer I planned a murder. Before I ever carried it out I had – like anyone with such an exacting task to perform - to give careful and meticulous thought to the method. I could not for example just dive in with a sudden slash to the throat or hand over the cup of deadly cyanide with my most winning smile! To begin with I would have to introduce myself to the victim, ingratiate myself with her and then alas having gained her trust, move in for the kill.

Luckily I am not really a murderer and reading about it in a lot of detective stories is hopefully as close as I come. But what I was planning at the time did feel like a murder. What I was actually planning was a literary death and it was made all the more poignant that in order for her to die, I would first have to introduce my character, have me and my potential audience warm to and grow accustomed to her and then kill her off in a rather wasteful, almost casual way.
Well as the book with my lost, brave heroine is currently trying to bag an agent, I live in the usual hope of success we writers have and therefore don’t want to give any more details in case she’s up there jostling for position with J.K. and David Walliams some day. So her name and the actual nature of her demise will in the meantime remain a secret.

The scene of my crime (Sssh)

But planning,( and sadly executing) a literary death, did get me to thinking both about the effect of the death of a character and the various ways in which we do it.

I wrote a version of this blog before Christmas and in it I talked about how two literary and one movie deaths had had such a great effect on me. Realising that the final result was perhaps veering a little too much away from a children’s book blog, I’m going to leave leave Inspector Morse and the character of Kevin Laine in my favourite series of fantasy books, Guy Gavriel Kay’s wonderful ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’ for another time. Instead I will again weep long and copious tears about the death of Boromir in the film of The Fellowship of the Ring. Before I do however there is a connection between the second and third of these because Guy Gavriel Kay actually spent a year as Christopher Tolkien's assistant on ‘The Silmarillion’.

Anyway I’m a fairly hardy and hard bitten male, if a little emotional in places, ( oh well alright - a lot!) but every time I see Sean Bean shot through with those massive Uruk Hai arrows like some fantasy St Sebastian – well I’m all over the place. I’m sure mostly it’s the bloody soundtrack, as it so often is, but I have a further theory. Basically we became so used to seeing Sean Bean not die in every episode of Sharpe that we can’t quite believe that he does and this really is the end. I’ve never got that from the book itself or the much loved radio adaptation, but here I get it every time and please doctor what is the cure?

Of course there doesn’t need to be one, does there, for where's the harm in letting our emotions over-rule our ‘don’t be so soppy’ inner castigator. Of course we need to do the whole cathartic experience far more often than we do, and if more of us did and had, we would surely be a far healthier and happier world.

The death scene of course is a long and for the most part honourable tradition, particularly in the theatre where it can be as hilarious as Bottom’s stop-start approach in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in most operas where dying sopranos can somehow miraculously summon enough breath and life to give it their last all in a final belter of an aria. There are of course many very sad death scenes, Hamlet’s adding to the already accumulated pile of stabbed and poisoned bodies in the castle at Elsinore, or Cleopatra’s making an asp of herself in Antony and Cleopatra are two that spring to mind, and in Love’s Labours Lost the whole joy of the imminent uniting of four pairs of lovers is unfortunately compromised by the death of the King of France, (thoughtless or what?) The whole mood of the play darkens and maybe that’s why Shakespeare needed the now lost sequel, Love’s Labours Won.

Like a great many people I imagine I was transifixed by the BBC’s recent tribute to Terry Pratchett -Back in Black’, and those of you with eighteen month old memories may remember that he featured in my very first official blog here.

Anyway perhaps I need to give a spoiler alert here to anyone who hasn’t read Terry Pratchett’s last book ‘The Shepherd’s Crown. Are you looking away? Good.

At the very beginning of the book a much loved character, long associated with the author himself is killed off. It’s both unexpected and rather shocking,( although you get enough of a clue if you’ve read the dedication first). It’s also very brave because as the documentary makes out, it was his last book and he knew he was nearing the end. Likewise the character, who’d known it for a long time, so all the preparations made for the literary death were as meticulous as both a fan and reader would expect.

What makes a character someone you simply can’t kill off? I mean look at Stephen King and all the fuss that Misery Chastain’s greatest fan made in ‘Misery’. Then of course there are those characters who return more or less by popular demand, even if the reader has seen them in his or her mind’s eye hurtling to their death from a treacherous waterfall whilst grappling with their arch nemesis!

However when a long running popular character is killed off in a children’s book, there is a different level of responsibility, because we have to look to the possible shocked sensibilities of someone at an impressionable age. This I found out to my cost after my then dentist had bought ‘The Seven’ and given it to her eight year old to read. I wondered at the time why she didn’t seem as communicative as she examined my mouth and was maybe was just slightly rougher. It turned out that her eight year old girl had been somewhat traumatised by the section in which my hero Tony talks to his mum’s ghost. The scene is deliberately casual, but is also - for obvious reasons - somewhat emotionally charged. Tony’s mum looks like his mum and he can even touch her, but eventually she begins to fade as the moon does. As the book was originally targeted at 8-11 year olds but eventually re-assigned to Young Adults she maybe had a point. (At least this wasn’t Marathon Man!

How often, I wonder, does a writer know that he or she will have to kill off a character? How many of us might even find ourselves wielding the savage pen or keyboard without even being aware that we were intending to do so?
And if we do decide to off our favourite, might there still be the glimmer of a second chance of an EastEnders type miraculous revival, or in the case of Dallas and the famous Bobby Ewing shower scene, the dream of a whole series.

Who knows the answer to some of these questions, because for the most part they remain quite rightly a mere gleam in the imagination of the writer. But Should any of my characters encounter me hanging over the page with a certain glint in my eye, be very scared!   

The unkindest cut of all

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in MInd'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Joy of Small, by Dan Metcalf

I covet little books. I wish I could explain why, but I have no idea. The concept of producing a tiny tome with a story that fits its format perfectly is one that really appeals. 

When I came across a book of collected chapbooks then, I was in bibliophile's heaven. Chapbooks were produced cheaply on just one sheet of paper, sold for a hapenny each by travelling salesmen ('Chapmen') and would often be the only books a child would own. Back in the 1800s, these books would be filled with poems, fairy tales and puzzles, and were a child's first indoctrination into the world of literature.

My ideal book format (for all books, not just children's) is the Beatrix Potter collection, with its hard back and tiny pages. It was born out of necessity, but inspired children the world over.

Which begs the question, with child book ownership now at an all time low, is it time to return to the model of chapbooks as a way to encourage children into reading? Shorter, cheaper books which can entertain and educate, and improve child literacy through fun stories and pictures?

Efforts are made in this vein by educational publishers specialising in dyslexia friendly books such as Barrington Stoke and Ransom Publishing of course, with great success. Even thriller king James Patterson has unleashed his basement full of ghostwriters onto the scene with his experimental adult series Bookshots. But is it enough to get the world reading again?

My own foray into micro booklets is currently on kickstarter – a whole choose-your-own-adventure style book printed on a single concertina leaflet. Pick Your Path manages to fit in a world of stories into just one sheet of paper, due to some clever storytelling and text manipulation. It's my effort to get people staring at books while they wait for their bus, not their phones!

What about you? Do you covet tiny tomes? Does size matter? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Inspiration for new books

Above is a picture of my newest book: 'I want a Friend', written by me and illustrated by Amy Proud ( soon to be published by Lion Books).

Most children's writers say that they are inspired by the child they were and the child who, to some extent, still lives inside them.

This is me holding my dad's hand - I am not sure how old I was - maybe three - but I recognise that I still stand like that and frown when I feel shy! This was the little girl who loved her teddies so much that she regarded them as family, and slept on the floor so that they would all fit in her bed, and the little girl who wanted a dog, who loved donkeys  and who believed fervently in Father Christmas. That child is still inside me even though I will be 52 years old next birthday and am married with four children of my own.

But I don't just depend on my childhood or my 'inner child'.  I need to meet real children too.

Like so many children's writers I need and am so grateful for feedback from children. Letters from children can make writing feel so worthwhile  and make a children's writer want to write yet more to make them happy. It’s like the opposite of a vicious circle! I also love meeting them at schools and in libraries and book shops and chatting to them about my stories. It is the best feeling ever to know that something you have written has been enjoyed by a real child, not just one you have imagined.

But, cheered by positive feedback and keen to write more, where do the ideas for new books come from? 

Well, ideas from children themselves help. My friend’s daughter, who has been reading the Lucy books I write for OUP, mentioned how she was hoping that Lucy would, in fact, go into the magic snow globe one day, and all I can say is…the fourth Lucy book is coming out this October and I will be sending her a copy with a big thank you note.

Sometimes (mostly!), however, there isn’t a child to hand when you sit down to write, and writing can be a lonely business! I have found that TV programmes can be a gift - I am sure that I am not the only writer who watched ‘The Secret Life of Four, Five and Six Year olds’ for inspiration, listening carefully not only to the children but to the psychologists’ comments on child development and issues small children face. This,  coupled with great feedback from my lovely agent and also from a wonderful commissioning editor from Lion, resulted in me writing my next picture book, ‘I want a Friend’ and setting it in a nursery - watching children learn how to make friends on TV , combined with my own experiences with my own and others’ children, my memories of my own childhood, and a bit of imagination, helped create a text. Then this text was put together with illustrations by the wonderful illustrator Amy Proud, inspired by her own childhood and her own work as a teaching assistant. The commissioning editor (who had studied English and Psychology and was very keen for children to have ‘real life’ and age appropriate problems in the stories), the editor and designer, all worked with us to create a book inspired by children in our own lives and memories. I am very proud of it and all the work so many people put in to it to make Amy's and my inspirations into a reality.
I do, however, still have feedback from children to work on which hasn’t yet been turned into books. To a certain extent authors and illustrators can have ideas and inspiration  but they also need publishers to hear and trust the ideas, inspiration and feedback too. I know, for example, that there are boys out there, aged 5-8 who want to read and see themselves in the type of books which seem at the moment, to be marketed more at girls. It isn't only (some) girls who like sparkle and glitter and sweet cuddly animals, but it can be hard for even very little boys in our culture to admit this. Peer pressure hits in very quickly and very young, but it would be lovely if writers and illustrators and publishers could help those boys who are affected by it and work out a way to give them some more choice. I think we are rightly accepting more and more that girls need to see independent, brave, daring heroines in stories, but I also  believe, from meeting and working with little boys aged 5-8, that there are more gentle magical stories with gentle heroes which need to be written. I am sure, because of feedback which I and other authors have received, (not always verbal - I have seen 5 year old boys look longingly at series books with glittery ‘girly’ covers and not have the courage to choose them) that there is a market for them,  just as there are girls out there who don’t want to read those type of books and are dying to read more exciting adventure stories with brave, daring girls. 
I sat down to write this blog post not sure if I had any ideas for a blog post, never mind new books. Writing this post and remembering the feedback from children I have met at schools and also conversations with other writers, has given me more ideas and I am dying to get back to writing new stories. In the end, however, like all writers, I have to hope and trust that there are publishers who will trust my inspiration and believe that these stories do indeed have readers waiting for them!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Restless Legs of the Mind - Joan Lennon

(image Middlesex Hospital, found on this blog)

Anybody else get this?  Restless legs, keeping you awake at night, insisting on twitching and fidgeting no matter how tired you are?  I'm lucky in only having RLS (Restless Leg Syndrome) from time to time, and in that it goes away of its own sweet accord. 

But lately I have been struck down by a ferocious case of RBS (Restless Brain Syndrome), and not just at night.

(image Wiki Commons)  

All day as well my thoughts fidget and twitch like the flanks of a horse with a swishy tail and lots of flies bothering about and in this comparison I am the horse AND the flies AND the tail ... I am also like a computer screen with a gazillion tabs open all at the same time.  With the attention span of someone having a quick visit to Facebook.  Which, as I just dotted off to find out, is less than that of an average goldfish.  

Why a goldfish? 

Why Facebook?

I hope to get better soon, because I have books to write.  One book to write.  Not the three that are currently buzzing about like flies, stirred up by the flailing tail of ... Nope, can't remember what that comparison was going to be.  


Any advice from fellow sufferers gratefully received but keep it, you know, brief ...

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

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Literary Marmalade -- Lucy Coats

Before the magic happens
It must be said that, so far, the question of marmalade has not greatly exercised the literary mind, other than the honourable and obvious exception of Paddington Bear, who is the arch example of profligate marmalade eating. D.H. Lawrence maintains that: 'It's amazing how it cheers one up to shred orange and scrub the floor.' How right he is about the one, though not necessarily the other. And of course, in other children's literature there is A.A. Milne who asks in The King's Breakfast, 'Would you like to try a little Marmalade instead?' (The King rather grumpily doesn't -- he just wants a little butter on his toast.)  Other than that, marmalade is of rather more interest to lexicographers, who squabble over whether the word has its roots in a Portuguese mess of fruit (mermelo is the word for a quince), or whether it was a queen's cure for seasickness (a corruption of Marie est malade). Personally I prefer the romance of the latter, however questionable. I like to think of the pale, listless queen lying about in the state cabin of her armed and dangerous dromond or carrack, being coaked into eating morsels of dry toast and orange jam by her worried ladies-in-waiting. It makes a much better story for a writer's mind. 

My 2017 batch of marmalade
The rôle of marmalade in my own life is inextricably bound up with the rhythms of the seasons. The beginning of any given year is brightened immeasurably but the sight of the first misshapen, mottled green-and-orange fruits which, if eaten raw, would pucker the mouth into immediate disapproving maiden aunt shapes. But combine them with water, sugar and heat, and an almost magical alchemy occurs. That opaque, sour ugliness turns to pots of clear, sparkling beauty which bring to your kitchen a blaze of the sunshine which ripened the original fruit. There is also something about the ritual of scraping and shredding and sieving and boiling which is deeply comforting to the soul -- and the glorious smell permeates the house for days. It's a different kind of creativity to that which is needed for making a book -- but for me, this alchemical act of creation is satisfying in a way I can't quite explain. Perhaps it's the making of something beautiful and delicious out of a combination of simple ingredients which gives a similar pleasure to my brain that taking a few ordinary ideas and turning them into a book that will delight readers does. Who knows?

What are your favourite foods that show up in books? I'd love to know.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy blogs at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure (No. 1 UK Literature Blog) 

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