Friday, 20 January 2017

I'm a Wuss by Joan Lennon

I'm a wuss about all sorts of things - time travel, for example (I'm cowardly about bad smells and no painkillers and dying in childbirth and what do I do if my glasses break?) and going into caves and aggressively spicy food and the fear of falling through not-quite-thick-enough river ice. And as a writer, I'm a wuss about killing characters.

Knight, Death and the Devil by Albrecht Durer 1513 (wiki commons)

Now, mostly I'm able to avoid the scary stuff by choosing not to time travel, go into caves, eat spicy food or walk out onto dodgy river ice. But as a writer, sometimes, the choice isn't mine. In the story (for 10+) that is currently banging about in my head, shouting for attention, the plot requires death. And not just a few random extras in red shirts. Central characters are going to die. And I don't like it. I've put off starting this book. I've danced about trying to find ways of saving everybody. And it just can't be done. Characters are going to have to die and, not only that, characters are going to have to grieve, which is worse. Unlike Stranger than Fiction, there is no way out for me. I'm going to have to face my wussiness.

I just need to woman up and get writing. Any thoughts, advice, reactions would be gratefully received, though.  Thanks!

Yours wussfully,

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

Thursday, 19 January 2017

'Go and Read a Children's Book' - A Response to Mark Gatiss - Lucy Coats

Being angry makes me exhausted -- and I am angry about a lot these days: the way Brexit is being handled by the government, the fact that on Friday the nominal 'leader of the free world' will be a narcissistic, racist, misogynistic, homophobic bigot... All that, but this is a children's book blog, and what has made me angry in our particular sphere is Mark Gatiss's comment that those who thought the plot of the current BBC series of 'Sherlock' was too complicated should (and I quote):
"Go and read a children’s book with hard pages if you don’t want to be challenged."
Image of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss from BBC Radio Times

Oh dear, Mr Gatiss. Really? Those who have read this blog for a while will remember that I had a few things to say when Martin Amis made his famous comment that he "might well write a children's book if [he] had a serious brain injury.'  I have a few more things to say now.

Leaving aside anything else, this is an incredibly patronising and arrogant attitude to have towards his viewers, (many of whom, quite incidentally, can spot a series of massive plot holes a mile off). Gatiss went on to say: "We’re making the show we want to make. We don’t make it a certain way because fans are pressuring us." That, of course, is his privilege, but to drag children's books into the critical argument is entirely unnecessary, and yes, it makes me angry when a man who purports to be intelligent equates children's books with a lack of the same quality. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: some of the most intelligent and thoughtful writing in any sphere can be found within children's books, whether with hard pages or not. If Gatiss doesn't realise that, then he needs to educate himself out of his creative ivory tower.

PS: And while I'm on a roll (sorry - spoilers here, and my feminist teeth showing) -- the tired old trope of the madwoman in the attic/long lost wicked sister, and the saving of the day via a handy Sherlock hug (despite the fact that she's recently murdered five people)? Seriously, Mr Gatiss? I thought we were long past that kind of lazy writing, not to mention being past the one-dimensional 'evil female' characterisation that was poor Eurus's lot. Ho hum.

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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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

'Emily's Surprising Voyage': how a character came to life - by Sue Purkiss

Some years ago, I wrote a book set on the ss Great Britain. This ship was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and it was immensely significant: the first iron ship, the first ship to be driven by steam, the biggest ship in the world at the time it was built. For a good part of its early career, it took settlers from Britain to Australia. Its fortunes gradually declined, and it was eventually abandoned off the Falklands; then, many years later, a group of enthusiasts rescued it and brought it back to Bristol, where it was built. When it came home, the banks of the river were lined with Bristolians welcoming it home; some hearts broke at the sight of the rusting hulk which was what Brunel's beautiful ship had become.

My father was a boiler operator in a power station: he knew about steam, and was fascinated by steam engines. So one time when he and mum came down to stay, he asked if we could go to visit this ship which was being restored. By this time, the ship was safe in dry dock, and they'd done a lot of work on the hull and the deck. The insides were pretty empty, but as dad walked round, his face lit up, he could tell us where the engines would have been, and why the ship was so important.

After that, we revisited the ship every so often to see how it was getting on. Now, it's fully restored, and a visit is marvellous; when you walk on to the quay it's easy to imagine that you're about to cast off on the voyage of a lifetime. The museum is full of information about the ship, the men who crewed her and the people who travelled on her; and on the ship itself, you can gaze into cabins and marvel at how tiny the bunks were, and see the contrast between travelling first class and travelling in steerage. (And there's a talking toilet, which is hugely popular with children!)

On those journeys to Australia, people married, they gave birth, they died. Most of the people who went out there never came back to Britain, never saw their families again. One much-loved captain disappeared from his cabin one day, and was presumed to have committed suicide. So much drama, so many stories!
So I wrote a story, featuring a girl called Emily in first class and a boy called Thomas Drew in steerage. (Yes, yes, I know - very Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio, very Titanic.) It was published by Walker, who got James De La Rue to do the most marvellous illustrations, and it even got nominated for the Carnegie. Here it is, on sale in the Great Britain shop.

I'd hoped there might be an appetite for a sequel - children who read it often wanted to know what happened to Emily and Thomas. There could have been lots more adventures on board ship, and I also had some ideas about what would happen to their two families when they reached Australia.

But like so many publishing dreams, it wasn't to be, and Emily and Thomas stayed between the covers of that single book.

Or so I thought.

Until last year, when out of the blue, I received an email from someone I'd never heard of - a photographer in Australia called Dean Gale. This is what he said.

'...this afternoon I came across an excerpt on the Walker book site from your Emily book...The reason I found your book is that I have recently moved to South Australia and purchased an old homestead.

I have been researching the history of the house... whilst researching the history of the families that came here in the 1800's I began researching the Drew family. Thomas Drew from Somerset came to Australia on the SS Great Britain. He became a prominent businessman and it is his family who I purchased the house from.

So of course what I am wondering is how or why you chose to use the character called Thomas Drew in your book?

The funny thing is that one of the young Drew family has just been studying migration at school and she chose me as her subject because I originally emigrated from the UK.

Now her ancestor is in your book? But I suspect that Thomas Drew was a little older than your character?

Anyway please if you have the time maybe you could let me know why you chose Thomas Drew?'

I was astonished - I thought I'd made Thomas Drew up. Yet here he was - a real person, whose life had carried on after his journey on the ss Great Britain, and whose descendants still live in Australia today.

Here is the business - Drew & Crews - which his family owned. And here are three Drew girls - the family aren't sure exactly who they are, but they're certainly related to Thomas.

So I didn't get the chance to carry on Thomas's story - but it carried on regardless, and he did well, just as I thought he would. I do wonder about Emily, though; I hope she was okay too...

(Incidentally, there was another twist. During our correspondence, Dean happened to mention that, though he himself was from the Midlands, he had known a girl whose family moved to Cheddar, and whose father became the headmaster of the local school. She's a friend of ours, and I used to teach at the school where her father was head!)

(The last two photographs are courtesy of Dean Gale and the Drew family.)

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Too Much Plot! by Susie Day

Reader, I have a problem.

I’m addicted to plot. I might start a new 9-12 book with all good intentions of a strong, clear A thread (sparky 11-year-old Billie wants to find out more about her mum, who died when she was five, and discovers more than she planned) and a fun B plot (she’s starting at secondary school). But then I go and give her brothers. Three big taking-up-space brothers. One’s getting married and wants her to be bridesmaid, so she decides to be their wedding planner. One’s having an existential crisis about packing lettuces in a Tesco warehouse (his first of six jobs, all of which he gets fired from). One’s struggling with being the school rugby star and all the girls who want to nibble his ear on the bus, when actually he’s not all that fussed.

Then there are her three new school friends: the one who can’t work out how to fit in at Big School either, the desperately anxious one, and the one who is apparently intent on making Billie’s life miserable (though , of course, it turns out she might be quite miserable too). And then there’s funny, self-sacrificing Dad who runs a greasy spoon... and lovely Miss Eagle at school whose Hero project sets Billie off on the quest to find out about her mum... and Dr Paget and Dr Skidelsky who live over the road...

It’s a lovely book, I think. It’s funny and serious, heartfelt and bittersweet and ultimately very kind - like the Pea’s Book series it spins off from. But it's a bit full. Pleasantly stuffed, but perhaps better if it didn't have that fifth roast potato. Too long to be class readers, except for an extremely patient class (and teacher!).

Could we pare it down next time, perhaps? asks my editor, gently, every time. I definitely will! I say gamely. And then I write the next one about two families blending together, and not just one family secret but a whole Year Seven classful of them, and a school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that needs to be saved, and one entrepreneurial mum who runs her own company called Fairy Dusters, and one who might be a witch with magic powers (at least her daughter hopes so)...

The trouble is, I always write about big families; the sort of comfy, mildly chaotic collectives of that I grew up reading about. Noel Streatfeild’s Gemma books, with the effortlessly musical Robinsons. Arthur Ransome’s Swallows, and Amazons, and Ds. Enough ordinariness for there to be one character I could decide was like me, with all the oddball quirks and special talents to be just that little bit better.

But I never want to short-change any one character. Sketched-in background adults who occasionally mumble, ‘You’ll be late for school,’ are not for me. Same for siblings, and friends. I want there to be something for everyone to be doing, not just the protagonist. And that means an A plot, and a B plot, and then the entire alphabet.

I suspect, in part, it’s because I’m not all that fussed on heroes. Buffy’s great - but I care a lot more about Willow and the rest of the Scoobies. I always preferred Sally to Darrell in Malory Towers. I grew up shy; I think as I always saw myself as a sidekick - useful, even necessary, but never in the uncomfortable spotlight.

But I’ve resolved - since this is a New Year - to knock this nonsense on the head. Next, I’m writing a picture book, and there is no room in my 500ish words to cram in dozens of sub-plots. It’s the perfect creative exercise for me to learn how to trim. I’m starting with a cat, and the little girl who chooses him as a kitten to take home. With her brother and sister. And Mum. And Granny and Grandad.

Reader, I still have a problem...

Susie Day - books for kids about families, friendship, feelings and funny stuff
Follow @mssusieday on TwitterInstagramFacebook

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Flying Bedroom Lands! Converting a Book into a Stage Play - Heather Dyer

I recently had the good fortune to meet Rob and Lisa Spaull, who run Little Light Dance and Digital Theatre Company. They wanted to make an ‘interactive digital dance performance’ based on my children's book, The Flying Bedroom.

What's unusual about this performance is that the entire set is projected onto the stage. The walls and furniture are projected onto a backdrop, and when Elinor's bedroom flies, the digital projection shows the bedroom taking flight across the sea or into outer space. Rob Spaull designed the scenery in a gaming engine, which means that he can launch a rocket or fire a cannon with the click of a mouse. The only props are Elinor's suitcase and the things it contains. Special effects such as a wind, explosions, sound effects, splashing water, etc., help create a ‘multi-sensory’ experience, and Elinor and the characters she meets are played by two dancers

Little Light sought funding from the Arts Council of Wales to produce a few pilot performances at small venues in Wales, and Little Light bought the performance rights for The Flying Bedroom from my publisher, Firefly Press

Here’s a short promotional clip:

Despite having never written a play script, I was commissioned to work alongside Rob and Lisa to reshape the storyline to suit this live performance. I produced a rough script and today I saw the dancers rehearsing for the first time. Here's what I've learned so far:

1. Multitask Your Characters 

Because there are only two dancers, one dancer needs to adopt many different roles. Instead of presenting a problem, however, this challenge provided much comedy. It certainly gives the actor more stage time. 

This was a reminder to me that in a book, too, it can be possible to combine two or more characters’ roles into one. If you have minor characters that appear only to perform a specific function, it can be thrilling to see them appear again, much later, to perform another task. Readers love the unexpected recognition – just like in real life. It simplifies your cast of characters. It can also be like putting two dilute characters together to create a stronger one. 

2. Clothes and Props Speak Volumes

There’s a costume designer involved in the project. She has created some inventive props and outfits for the characters. They are more than just serviceable – they provide humour, reveal character, and emphasize the action.

In novels, too, objects can serve as symbols or metaphors for a character’s state of mind, or establish the mood of a place. They also give your readers some eye candy. Allow your book’s props to work for you by putting some thought into choosing how they look, and what they represent.

3. Time is Elastic

The entire performance is only 45 minutes, which meant cutting much of the book’s narrative. But that was fine – cutting out the chaff makes the storyline cleaner and stronger. And it’s possible to manipulate time on stage, just like we do in prose.  Important moments in the stage play are prolonged by dance routines. And when a whole night passes without much happening, the sun and moon can rise and fall swiftly to mark the passing of time, or a blackout can mark a transition. Just like in a book, it’s important to vary the pace and allocate time proportionately.

4. The Other Senses

This performance will be ‘multi-sensory’, which means it will be possible to do things like spray water on the audience when the bedroom is at sea, puff smoke when it’s on the moon, and introduce the sounds and smells of the sea. This will give the audience a really immersive experience.

It’s a reminder to me to include senses other than visual in my prose, too, to allow readers to really enter the world of the book. Too often, I rely only on visuals. 

5. Actions Speak Louder than Words

The dialogue in the play must be minimal, but it's been a revelation to realize how much emotion and character motivation can be conveyed through the body language of the dancers. This of-course applies to writing, too; trembling hands or a small gesture can speak volumes.  

6. Go Too Far

With digital projection it’s possible to create a rather alarming explosion that blows a hole in the side of Elinor’s bedroom. When I first heard this plan I thought, ‘We can’t do that!’ 
But when Elinor’s bedroom sinks, she has a whole new adventure under the sea with mermaids and a deep sea diver – none of which was in the original book. So my note to self was: Think Big. Ask, ‘What’s the worst that can happen’? Then ask, ‘What then?’

There are five performances across Wales in February. Come and check it out!

Heather Dyer writes for children aged 7-11:
Heather also leads writing and creativity workshops through the Royal Literary Fund:

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Gift of Endurance. Yeah, right – by Rowena House

Re-reading Story by screenwriting guru Robert McKee the other day, I came across this quote in a section headed The Gift of Endurance: ‘Long before you finish [writing], the love of self will rot and die, the love of ideas sicken and perish ...  Of all the reasons for wanting to write, the only one that nurtures us through time is love of the work itself.’
Cheerful, huh? Especially on a short winter’s day, with weeks of getting up in the dark still to go.
I mean, let’s face it, who does love the work all the time? All too often the actual process of writing is frustrating, demoralising and painful. Who hasn’t ever asked: is my story any good? Will anyone buy it? Can I really do all this over again?
It sometimes feels as if self-doubt is an interminable negative feedback loop, constantly undermining our confidence in our ability to do the very thing we love.
And there it is again. That word. Love.
Personally, I suspect it’s part of the problem. Saying ‘I love writing’ implies it is necessarily a deeply rewarding emotional experience. When it’s not, a lot of us seem to blame ourselves: maybe we don’t love our characters enough or our plots; maybe the people who believe in us are just plain crazy.
But what is left if we don’t buy into the notion that we have to love what we do in order to keep doing it? Well, here are a couple of things that cheer me up no end.
According to research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, elite musicians, athletes and chess players weren’t born with unique gifts. They are instead highly motivated individuals who have to complete at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over a period of more than ten years in order to achieve their exceptional abilities.
To quote Christian Jarret’s handy 30-Second Psychology, for this type of practice to work, ‘You don’t just repeat what you know but instead constantly seek to stretch yourself. This inevitably involves forensic self-criticism, repeated failure and a dogged ability to keep dusting yourself down and trying again.’
Sound familiar?
Then how about this, also from Jarret: ‘Anxious individuals are more prone to attribute negative events to flaws in their nature, rather than circumstances.’ That’s from the section about Fundamental Attribution Error.
So, with all due respect to Mr McKee (who I admire a lot), forget about endurance being a gift. It’s bloody hard graft. And that’s the point. Lucky you if you do love the work, but that’s not the only way. For me, for example, ‘the work’ is too abstract a concept to keep me going year after year. I have to care passionately about this story, these characters, their troubled dreams.
Keeping this passion alive is like tending a fire: I have to sit down beside my story and look into its depths. If it’s dying, I feed it more research, more imagination, more hard work. Sometimes it consumes reams of notes about the main character’s motivation, or a single sheet with a clearer articulation of the theme. At other times it needs more knowledge gaps. Tighter scenes with more dramatic turning points.
Or more cake for the writer. Chocolate. Wine. Another long walk with my darling dog...
But yes, sometimes I have to close down the chimney flue and walk away, trusting that the embers won’t die completely.
I have boundless admiration for people who keep writing regardless. Did you see that tweet about this year’s winner of the children’s & YA category of the Costa Book Prize? Apparently Brian Conaghan received 217 rejections. Two hundred and seventeen! Unbelievable. I’d have walked away long ago, no question about it.
So all power to him – and everyone else who keeps on keeping on.
May your fire never go out.
Rowena House
Twitter: @HouseRowena

Saturday, 14 January 2017


We, at Great New Publishing House, are looking for a children’s writer with plenty of energy to write huge series of best-selling books, ideally very similar to Harry Potter, which will keep us in clover for many years to come.
Applicants must be prepared to:
a)     Work for several weeks/months/years with no pay in order to write said books, before sending the first to us.
b)     Expect to wait several more months before we let you know what we think.
c)      Expect to be asked to rewrite said book many times, even if eventually we decide either to go with what you originally wrote, or that we don’t want it after all.
d)     Be aware that the world of publishing is changing, so we no longer hand out six-figure advances to any of our writers (unless you are already famous, preferably in another field altogether).  In fact we no longer hand out advances at all, but prefer you to wait until royalties begin to roll in.  Given that it takes, on average, 18 months to publish a book, this means you may not see any money until at least two years after your manuscript has been accepted for publication.  This is, of course, in addition to the length of time it took you to write the book in the first place.  
e)     Be also aware that when your book is published you will receive only between 5% and 10% of the cover price for each book sold (we have to pay for our swanky new offices somehow!)  Many people make the foolish assumption that you will get at least 90%!
f)       Be aware that once your first book is on the shelves, you will be expected to tour the country giving talks to schools, libraries, festivals etc., many of these for no fee whatsoever.  This is a must, in order to publicise your book, so it is ultimately for your own benefit, as we do very little publicity ourselves nowadays.  We appreciate that this will take up much of the time you need to write the next book in your series, but we will still expect you to keep to the deadline we have set for you.
g)     Realise that deadlines are for our benefit, not yours.  We expect you to deliver your manuscript promptly when requested, though we may well sit on it for a further six months before getting round to reading it.
h)    Be prepared for the fact that as soon as you have delivered your manuscript, your editor will go off on maternity leave, so your book will be handed to another editor who may not like it anyway.
i)       Be aware that the general public assume you must be a multi-millionaire on the strength of your 1, 2, 6 or 25 previously-published books.
j)       Be aware that you will be patronised by people who think “it must be easy writing for children because the books are quite short”, as well as by those who say, “I could write a book too if I only had the time.”
k)     Be also aware that you will probably be asked when you are going to write a “proper” book, ie one for adults.
l)       Be prepared to spend hours every day working on your own, probably at home.
m)  Be also prepared to discover that if you are working at home the rest of the world does not consider you are working.  Your children/spouse/neighbours may/will assume that because you are at home you are free to play/chat/answer the telephone/take delivery of parcels for yourself or a neighbour and deal with unwanted callers.
n)    If you are still keen to work for us, please submit a synopsis of no more than 500 words, giving a full outline of your intended series, complete with character list and motivations, by next Thursday at the latest.

o)     The editor’s decision is final.