Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Books for young teens by Savita Kalhan

A few months back I volunteered at my local library to start a teen reading group, and I'm happy to say it's going strong. I've got twelve kids in the group from four different schools, five boys and seven girls, and new friendships have formed, as well as lots of book recommendations between them.

When the kids arrive, our table in the corner of the library is covered in library books for them to look at. They all read the blurbs on the back of the books and the opening pages, and then decide which of the books they want to read first. Interestingly, when they return for the next meeting, they have often felt that some of the books have not matched the blurb on the back of the books when they've come to read them. They felt that they were led to expect one thing and the book turned out to be very different to that, which put them off the book a bit.

The teen reading group has been shadowing the Carnegie, but not all the books have been suitable or appropriate for the group - their words, not mine! I don't believe in censoring books. I was never censored or my reading overseen by an adult. Because the reality is, kids will not read something that they feel is too "old" for them. Although the teens in my reading group have really enjoyed some of the books, they have also put down books that they felt were a bit too much for them. It's great that they tried them and I know that they will come back to some of them when they're a little older.

The majority of the kids in the group are aged 13, so they are young teenagers, going from middle grade to teen. Young adult books are a little beyond them at the moment, again this is coming from the kids themselves.

They like all genres and are happy to try any book that I suggest. I'd love to be able to compile a long list of books that have a broader appeal for that particular age group. I do have a list, but I know it can be better, so I'm asking for suggestions and recommendations in the comments section please.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Using Suspense to Mess With Narrative Structure – David Thorpe

So how do you make suspense work?

I'll tell you later.

cheeky grin emoticon

First, the necessary info:

The #MSWL tag on Twitter stands for "manuscript wish list" and both agents and editors use it and the related website to alert writers to what they are looking for. It is extremely useful and greatly simplifies the process of manuscript submission and selection for both sets of actors.

Now, a flashback:

The other day, when I was monitoring the wish lists for manuscripts aimed at older children, teenagers or young adults I was struck by the number of requests for novels that had an unusual structure or played with the traditional narrative form, or even had unreliable narrators.

Why should it be that editors and agents think that readers in the age range from older children to young adults are looking for something other than stories with a traditional structure of beginning, middle and end, in that order? Perhaps they have had enough of such structures already in their short lives, or perhaps there is something else?

Writers nowadays have to compete with a plethora of other media – films and streaming television, Instagram, YouTube and video games – to grab the attention of teenage readers, who are hungry for an immediate hit and possess a comparatively short attention span.

Diving into the story at the deep end is one way to do this.

The traditional structure means that in act one, known as the set up, the writer takes the time to introduce the context and the characters before coming to the main problem which the protagonists has to solve. Several writers, including myself, on this blog have written about it before.

This takes time and maybe modern readers don't have the patience to plough through all this. They want to cut straight to the chase.

One way around this problem which writers frequently use is to open with a prologue containing high action that is either part of the back story or a flash forward (e.g. the Young Bond stories written by Charlie Higson) before  commencing act one. (This is a device often found in early Spielberg films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

The disadvantage of this approach is that you still have a slow pace in act one. Modern readers are wise to this and the risk is that they may lose patience. For these readers there must be either almost constant drama or humour depending on the genre to keep them hooked.

Yet from time to time as storytellers we have to give the readers information such as descriptions of characters, places, and other incidental but necessary plot information. So how might we be able to do this while playing with traditional narrative structure? Conveying this information can slow the pace unless it is deftly mixed into the narrative flow like adding seasoning to a dish.

When the information is what would have been in the set-up it will seem like a flashback. The flashbacks are dropped into the main chronological sequence to add relevant backstory on an ongoing need-to-know basis.

Now writing courses will tell you that flashbacks slow the pace, but that isn't necessarily true. The key to good storytelling is to maintain the suspense, to get the readers turning those pages. What if we use flashbacks in order to keep the suspense going for longer?

Let's say you're telling a friend about something exciting that happened to you. Some way into your story you realise that they won't understand who a certain character is who has appeared on the scene, so you have to spend a couple of sentences filling in who they are. Then you pick up your narrative.

The listener will be grateful because it helps them understand what's going on but they will keep listening because they know they are going to find out what happens next pretty soon. It's the suspense that lets them do this. Of course if you spent too long telling the life story of this person they will end up forgetting where they are in your main story, or lose interest and walk away. So you keep the insertion as long as it needs to be and no longer.

So the storyline reaches a cliffhanger, which doesn't have to be a big deal, just something you know will make the reader pant a little to find out what happens next, then you drop in the flashback. The more of a deal the cliffhanger is the longer the flashback can be. All the time they're reading this they're also wanting to get to where the storyline picks up again.

That's the key to this form of playing with structure.

So how do you make suspense work?

Told you I'd get to it.

Suspense works on different levels of timescale. A short timescale may be, say: what is behind this door? Will the prisoner reveal the answers to the questions being demanded by their captor? Will the boy tell the girl how he feels about her? The longest timescale for suspense in your story is the one set up near the beginning that you resolve at the end. In between there are other ongoing questions being set up and resolved (or not) over different timescales, not just in your main narrative but in any subplots.

When looking at your structure you should be particularly aware of all of these suspense elements.

Here is a metaphor to illustrate this idea. Imagine a guitar fretboard.


At one end is the beginning of your narrative and the other end is the conclusion. Each fret is a plot point – the tension rises and the pitch gets higher as you move along the fretboard. All of the suspense elements in your book are like rubber bands stretched between nails hammered into the fretboard. (Please don't spoil a real guitar by hammering nails into it!)

These suspense elements (rubber bands) will overlap: some will be short and some will be long. The more you have and the more they overlap, the more of a page turner you have.

So, at each point in your narrative, on every page, you can ask yourself the following questions for each of the narrative strands:

  1. What does the reader know?
  2. What do they want to know?
  3. When shall I tell them?

This will allow you to keep track of the suspense elements.

Okay, armed with this information we can go back and look at the structure of your book. Where are the moments of heightened drama? To keep high both the tension and the attention of the reader, you would need to keep these high drama moments coming thick and fast. But after a high point the reader needs to catch their breath. This is when you can insert the flashback containing the necessary back story information that the reader needs in order to make sense of what's going on.

Of course if these scenes themselves contain drama, so much the better.

This is just one way in which you could scramble the narrative structure. But whatever method you choose there needs to be a good dramatic reason for it, perhaps linked to the journeys of your main characters. It should not be arbitrary.

David Thorpe is the author of YA speculative fiction novels Hybrids and Stormteller.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Not All Moments Are Weighted Equally - Heather Dyer

Sundial 2r.jpg
©Liz West

Time (in novels, anyway) can be condensed or drawn out for effect. Sometimes we might want to use a ‘scene summary’ in which we sum up a large expanse of space and/or time in just a couple of sentences: changing seasons on the farm, a normal day at school, a boring few days during which nothing much happens. Going into more detail when nothing much is happening would bore our readers. Words are expensive, and we need to gauge how many to invest.

Other moments are more valuable because they’re more significant in terms of plot and/or character development. They’re worth spending more words on. Occasionally, a moment that lasts less than a second in ‘real’ time, is so important that, if it was a goal, we would be watching it played out in slow motion.

Look at the famous last paragraph of James Joyce's  short story, "The Dead", and see how a few seconds during which nothing much happens outwardly, is expanded on and explored in great detail:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Here, the reader can feel the same incredibly complex, almost impossible-to-articulate emotion that the protagonist feels. It’s done indirectly, through showing what the character is looking at and what he’s thinking about.

But can complex emotions also be conveyed indirectly in books for children, where the characters and readers are so much less sophisticated? I think so. Here’s a moment that I’m wrestling with in my own book for 7-11 year olds. Hannah is torn between climbing aboard a magic carpet, or staying safely on her side of the window. Only one second of ‘real time’ passes:

Hannah hesitated. Ever since watching Aladdin, she had longed to ride a magic carpet. Once, she had even sat cross-legged on the oriental rug in the hall, and commanded it to take her to the Taj Mahal. But nothing had happened. Now, at last, she had her chance – but the gap between the carpet and the windowsill was just the wrong distance. Hannah could see the flagstone path below; it would be a long way to fall. 

File:Flying carpet.jpg

Getting into Hannah’s head at this precise moment allowed me (and, I hope, the reader) to appreciate how torn Hannah is between security and freedom, bravery and cowardice. These, I realized, were Hannah’s ‘issues’. These issues revealed the theme of the book, and pointed me in the direction of her character development.
  1. What a character is looking at can serve as a symbol or metaphor for their feelings or the situation. 
  2. A character’s thoughts might recall a previous incident or another subject that throws light on the current situation. 
  3. A character’s feelings are best shown by describing the sensations in their body, or by allowing the reader to feel the same emotions by showing them exactly what the character is experiencing. 
If we pause to unpick the important moments, they may reveal (to us and to our readers) the deeper themes contained within them.

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

Sunday, 2 August 2015


Do you remember the long dusk evenings of childhood summers? Staying up late, running wild with friends, dashing and dancing about, the sound of sprinklers, the smell of grass, where even the pools of light from streetlights falling on tarred pavement seemed to take on another magic.

Joseph Coello, whose debut poetry collection, Werewolf Club Rules, published by Frances Lincoln, with its wonderful cover by John O’Leary of a werewolf with teddy button eyes, which won the CLPE Poetry Award 2015, maintains running wild as a child was the well for much of his work. Sita Bramachari who was in conversation with him at the Hay Festival, posted a blog on the Book Trust site recently. I hope she won't mind me repeating some of what she said here:  His words really spoke to me about how much free time and living in the open space of the imagination was part of what I longed for as a child at the end of every summer term.

 Joseph Coello: ‘There were no gardens for each flat, so we would play out together in Victoria Gardens and climb the walls. There was a gargoyle there we called 'The Devil's Head' which was a Satyr fountain, chipped and broken and made of marble. We were afraid of it and drawn to it at the same time. It's those days of 'playing out' and imagining that I remembered when I wrote "The Satyr's Head."

An extract from The Satyr’s Head:

We danced in the light of the Satyr's grin,
the limestone details of the fountain,
weathered and mean,
the endless grimace of a friend.

The garden cloaked our tower block's stares,
its trees veiling the aerials, the satellite dishes,.
Its bricks a smoke screen to the traffic's roar,
the yells of our mothers.
Its bushes covering up the smog.
the jam-sweet scent of winter berries
disguising the stench from the bins.

We danced like our fathers told us we could,
spinning in the dead leaves
that spun from our steps,
like wry circus performers.

My own childhood was suburban. I grew up in a row of houses that led to the railway line where two huge stone pine trees grew and spent my summers hammering the sticky cones to get at the pine-nuts, or skipping over a sprinkler on a tiny square of lawn with rainbow arcs of droplets around me. But in the long evenings we ran wild scaring each other in the starlight with bats swooping down from the dark, the occasional ‘sputnik’ juddering across the sky and the sound of crickets, with the white glow of moonflowers and lantana (did you ever see the Australian film of that name?) and deadly oleanders perfuming the night.

None of it meant anything to me at the time. I simply didn’t realise how much the imagination was at work. Did I know then that a setting cannot live unless it’s observed in its details and particulars? And that the emotions that setting evokes are most effective when they are unique?

The writer Janet Fitch speaks of ‘the internal palette’ that keeps her informed. The opening paragraphs from her novel White Oleander could only come from a childhood of knowing oleanders.

The Santa Anas blew hot from the desert, shrivelling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.

We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three quarter moon.

‘Oleander time,’ she said. ‘Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.’

And now as I read my son David’s debut novel STONE RIDER, tiny sparks tell of his childhood and the hours spent much too high for a twelve year old, in the branches of a pin oak tree or carving a totem pole out of a wooden tree stump – living in his imagination, finding his own internal palette for expressing.

This summer, break the hold of the iPad. Give children a chance to run wild and 'live in the open space of their imagination' as Sita Bramachari puts it – tactile, sensory experiences that can’t be had from playing Minecraft or by ‘colouring in’ – so they can become poets like Joseph Coello or writers, artists, dancers, composers – whatever they want to be. But at least give their imaginations a chance. Let them run wild and ‘play out’.

'We danced like our fathers told us we could,
spinning in the dead leaves
that spun from our steps,
like wry circus performers.'  Thank you Joseph Coello. 
Twitter @dihofmeyr
Zeraffa Giraffa, by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray, published by Frances Lincoln, is one of The Sunday Times Top 100 Classics for Children in the last 10 years.

Saturday, 1 August 2015


This week, for a mix of reasons, I’m culling my picture book collection. All the favourites, the books that visiting children return to again and again are safely tucked in a couple of boxes, while others are in the pile awaiting a new home or shop counter..

However, I  was also looking through a set that I call my “talk books”. These are books I’ve used for occasional talks to writer’s groups, when I’ve tried to suggest the vast range of picture books available. As I went through my pile, I was struck by how often developments in technology have affected children’s books over the years. Here are a few of my examples:

 TITCH by Pat Hutchins.
A whole generation of picture books had black lines around the different sections of the drawings, as in this example. Back then, these lines acted as guidelines for the artists as they created the three different layers needed for the colour printing process of the time.

The same black outline lines occur, too, in Pat’s ROSIE’S WALK, but the advances in printing made this task obsolete and the heavy lines disappeared. .

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendakometimes new writers still think in terms of text on one page, illustration on the other, as used for the Ladybird books. This book is a wonderful example of the use of both pages and spreads. It starts with a small, single ”picture in a box on a page” image of Max, but the area increases until the artwork becomes the entire  edge-to-edge full-spread of Max processing across the pages as the glorious King of all the Wild Things. The drama of the “dream” story line is powerfully increased by the growth of the pictures.
Much later, giant and quadruple last pages became popular,  bringing endings where the illustration unfolds to show an image even larger than the area of the book. 

ERNEST by Catherine Rayner is a book about a very, very large moose!.


PEEPO by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The technique of cutting holes through book pages might have been popularised through THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle, but it was also used to great effect in this lovely, cosy book.

The reader - young or old - can peep through the single hole on one page and glimpse moments from working-class babyhood in the forties and fifties on the page ahead. The round hole gives a kind of baby’s eye view, a visual version of that favourite baby game.

I’ve heard PEEPO is used as a history book now, based as it was on the authors childhoods.

There's also THE RAINBOW FISH by Marcus Pfister. The picture book I have comes from that surge of shiny, laminated paper/printing suddenly used both on and inside the covers. 

For a while, every infant classroom – as they were called then – seemed to have its own Rainbow Fish topic, sparkling away in the corner,,

Additionally, writers for older children grew irrationally overjoyed at any morsel of sparkliness or shine appearing on their new book's covers.

Meanwhile, THE VERY QUIET CRICKET, another by Eric Carle is an example of the use of sound technology. All the insects in the forest greet the cricket, who can’t respond in sound until – for the final spread –our “he” meets a “she”, and he starts to chirp. A tiny device is activated by the fully opened spread.

By the bye, I recall the final moment an award ceremony where a prestigious children’s writer’s important & serious novel was beaten by the novelty of a picture book about a noisily “farting” teddy bear. Sounds were very popular in books for a time but now seem confined to birthday cards.

I have selected these titles from books I own and use as part of talks. I'm sure there are other and earlier examples of some of these technologies so if you can think of any other examples, or anything to add, please do comment.
A big thing now seems to be the revival of colour decoration on the edges of a closed children’s novel, as if the solid block of colour makes the “3D” existence of the book more emphatic and important than the kindle version. 

Additionally, springing out of picture books, there's the rise of illustrations set creatively within the pages of text. In one way, these black and white pages can seem quite old-fashioned, but in another, surely it’s the sheer flexibility of the modern print layout that makes such delight possible, and makes the gap between picture book and junior fiction a more open journey? 

Probably  the new Children's Laureate Chris Riddell and his GOTH GIRL would think so!.

And of course there are picture book apps now, but not within my boxes of books. Back to find my Book-Sorting Hat.

Penny Dolan

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Mad Girl and The Dream: by Steve Gladwin

Today we have a guest post from Steve Gladwin. Steve's background is in theatre, but he has recently published his first children's book: The Seven. (Ed)

After recently attending my first Charney* and running a drama workshop on character I decided to trace the origins of my ‘image work’ as a writer, performer and storyteller. So here we go...

The Mad Girl and The Dream first collided in spring 1996. At the time I was running a small theatre-in-education company in Bridgwater in Somerset. We rehearsed in the skittle alley of a pub called the West India House, (that was why all our productions were long and thin). We dosed up with Marion’s double egg and chips every lunchtime, which were a thing of beauty.

I had been asked by Wells Central Junior school whether we could do a Tudor Day for them. I said of course we could - having no idea how to set about it. What they really wanted, it turned out, was a fifty minute Midsummer Night’s Dream: we were currently touring the full length version of the play. We decided to begin in the morning with a new invention of mine called a ‘Potted History of The Tudors’, (basically an excuse to play all six wives with different wigs and combine facts with terrible jokes), which also left room for two workshops. In the morning we had the Armada, with all the excitement of ‘cut and pluck’, the fire ships and the extraordinary fate of the Rata Santa Maria Encoronada. (Look it up!) After the play itself, we had St John’s Fair: a recreation of a Tudor Fair complete with all its denizens.

Meanwhile I was left with the tricky problem of telling a Shakespeare play in no more than fifty minutes. Not an easy task...

Luckily it was the play’s trickiest scene, Act Three Scene Two, which provided an unexpected solution. Because it is so complicated, I suggested showing the complex moonlit love life of Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius through eight stages and still images. There must have been some magic hanging around in the skittle alley that day, because one thing led seamlessly to another and we realised that what worked for one scene might also work for the whole play. With about thirty five pictures under our belt we had tremendous fun running them all first forwards and then, hilariously, backwards. We were ready for our lunchtime egg and chips. 

Thus was born a method of theatre and storytelling which I have used ever since. It can be passed on to anyone, and now I'm passing it on to you.

It’s very simple and here it is. You begin by breaking up the play or story into a series of still images or tableau. To those you add any basic dialogue you need. So in the first scene with the warring fairies your dialogue might go like this.

Oberon      Ill met by moonlight proud Titania.

Titania.      What jealous Oberon. Fairies skip hence. I have foresworn his bed and company.

And so on.

Armed with the basic pictures and dialogue, you can now add a narrator to bridge the gaps between the two and move the story forward. Then the magic happens: you can freeze one scene/tableau and transform it into the next. The most memorable example of this was during our two hander of Cinderella, ‘Ashputtel’, where Hannah as the spirit of the dead mother in the tree ‘handed down’ the dress to ‘Sue as Ashputtel. Immediately afterwards this image changed to the two sisters squabbling to grab the royal invitation.

The rude mechanicals from the Brothers Tales production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1996.

The great thing about the method is that you can use it anywhere. In storytelling, for example, where it is often called ‘the bones’. Or in the creation of your own plot by visualising those pictures - and crucially, the transformation from one to the other. It is also an excellent method to use with children and adults who struggle with language and respond to a more visual medium.

But let’s return to that day and St John's Fair, where I first met not only the Mad Girl but also a whole host of other Elizabethan ne’er do wells. Our workshops followed an apprentice goldsmith called Watt and his new wife Jane as they travelled through the fair on their way to a new life. Like most things in Tudor England, it didn’t have a particularly happy ending. A year later a pregnant Jane returned to the country alone leaving Watt rotting in a debtors' prison.

But it did introduce me to a whole host of infectious new characters, such as the dummerer, the palliard, the ruffler, the prigger prancer and best of all, the Tom and Bess O’ Bedlams. These two used to pretend to be mad - stinking and screaming so much that people would pay to get rid of them. Bess has recently muscled her way back into my life, demanding that I tell her story. I’ll leave you to find out more about the others and maybe tell theirs. 

Just make sure you think of them in pictures as well as words!

*Editor's note: 'Charney' is the annual summer conference/retreat of the Scattered Authors' Society, which hosts this blog. Steve did a workshop there this year based on the process he outlines in this post. Oh, how silly we all were!

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Why writing novels is a bit like running in the rain – Lari Don

I run. Not often enough, or fast enough, or far enough, but I do run occasionally. Running gives me useful time to think about stories, as well as making me feel better about the hours I spend sitting on my bottom at the keyboard.

But there is another connection between running and writing. Motivating myself to get up and go out for a run is quite similar to motivating myself to write.

No-one makes me run. I don’t enter races. I don’t have an immediate goal for my running. I’m not answerable to anyone else for running. I don’t have to tell anyone I’m going out for a run, or prove afterwards that I did run. No-one is checking that I’m running. If I decided not to bother going for a run, no-one would know. And if I decided during a run that I just couldn’t be bothered running any more, and sat down in the middle of the path and sang a little song instead (or simply walked home at a comfortable pace, nibbling chocolate bars on the way) no-one would know, no-one would care and no-one would be able to criticise.

Except me. I’d know, and I’d feel guilty.

All of which is remarkably similar to writing a novel.

Novels take a VERY LONG TIME to write. The deadlines start off ridiculously far away. And if I didn’t sit down and get on with it, if I chose to sit about singing, nibbling chocolate, or even going out for a run rather than writing, no-one would know or notice, until it was far too late.

Except me. I’d know, and I’d feel guilty.

So, even though I don’t run as often and as far and as fast I should, I still do it.

And, even though I suspect I don’t sit down and write as often or as fast as I should, I still do it. Even months or years before the deadline, I do it. Regularly, steadily, and moving the story forward all the time.

Why? How do we motivate ourselves to get our writing shoes on and keep pacing through the story, without the urgency of an immediate deadline or an editor at our shoulder?

Is that why so many writers like to tell the world how many words they’ve written each day on Facebook or Twitter? Because otherwise, there is no-one but ourselves to push, encourage, cajole and motivate? Because otherwise, writing a novel is like going out for a run in the rain, in the dark, with no finish line in sight?

I don’t share word counts or small writing victories on social media. I tend to keep that part of my writing fairly quiet and private. But then, I like to run on my own. I don’t like to run in a group. And actually, I’ve always enjoyed running in the rain.

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 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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