Friday, 27 November 2015

Christmas Reading Rituals by Lynn Huggins-Cooper

For my sister and I, our festive annuals were one of the great highlights of a visit from Father Christmas. I remember hissed whispers of 'I think he's been!' as the deliciously heavy stocking was felt for in the darkness, at the foot of the bed. Satsuma in one hand, selection box open at the ready, the reading would commence. 

I grew up in a reading rich household. Our Saturdays were spent truffling through Mr. Lane's second hand bookshop, and buying american comic books in Brighton (preferably blood-curdling supernatural titles); the whole family always had at least a book apiece on the go and a stack of 'to-reads.' Christmas was no different. Everyone got books for Christmas, and for us children the annual was the crowning glory. 

Teddy Bear, Twinkle and Pussy Cat Willum, then later Beano, Dandy, Whizzer and Chips.  

My football mad sister also got football annuals - Shoot, I think - and I remember Roy of the Rovers.

As time passed, and we grew older, these made way for Bunty, Judy, Mandy and more - until we got to the closing act of Jackie Magazine's annual. Style bible; crush-fest (Marc Bolan, Bryan Ferry, since you ask) and more for the 1970s teen.

We read our own annuals, then swapped and read each other's. Those books were wise purchases on the part of my parents - over the years, they must have been worth their weight in gold in extra hours of sleep until we made them get up to look at our Christmas bounty. I cherish the memory of those companionable early Christmas morning reading-and-munching sessions. 

There were other Christmas reading rituals in the Huggins household though. The must-read Christmas Carol, which I continue to enjoy yearly and the message found inside still speaks to my heart. I still, at 51, have a childlike sense of anticipation about Christmas. I love the baking, the decorations, the singing and the get-togethers. As Dickens himself said, 

'It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.'

 A Christmas Carol

I have enjoyed boozy, student Christmases; those glorious years when the children were young and full of wonder and now, rather more grown-up celebrations once again as the wheel of life turns. Christmas Eve is still, and always will be my favourite, most magical night of the year - there's just something timeless about it. I look back and see all those fifty-odd Christmases, one inside another in a kaleidoscope of love and colour. I don't remember most of the toys I received as a child (although I remember the rather stunning picnic hamper with tiny girl-sized cups and saucers I received from Father Christmas one year - hard to forget, when Father Christmas arrives on a fire engine. To be fair, Dad was a fireman...) - but I do remember the books. I still have many of them, and have read them to my own children and grandchildren. My own children got a new 'Christmas book' apiece each year, so traditional continued. 

Then we come to planning the feast. I love Christmas cookery books. I still swear by Delia (old, battered, covered in sauce and wine splashes - the book, not the lovely Ms. Smith) and love Nigella's Christmas - and bringing out those books heralds the start of the season. I love pondering over what to make this year. 


I even buy myself a 'Christmas book' each year - just one, as a special treat. I am a sucker for silly, romantic Christmas stories myself - the one time of the year when I read 'soppy' books. It's a guilty secret - but you won't tell anyone, I'm sure. It's between us...ahem.

So - what are your Christmas reading rituals? (and if you don't have any, perhaps this is the year to start.) I'd love to hear them. The next time I write a blog entry here, the turkey will be a memory and the crackers will have been pulled. I'll not be in a post-Boxing Day slump though. I'll be propped up in front of the fire with a port; my nose buried in a book (hopefully brought by Father Christmas). I hope all of your Christmas gifts are book-shaped and that you have a wonderful festive season. See you next month!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Why Short Story Competitions are More Important than Ever by Tamsyn Murray

On Monday, I was a judge for a children's short story competition. It's the second time this year I've done it - the first time was for my own Completely Cassidy story competition back in March and the second time was for the Fire and Fright contest run by Frightful Writers in association with Letchworth Heritage Foundation. And I'd almost forgotten, until I got the latest batch of stories in my hands this time round, what a joy reading stories by kids is. How unhampered their imaginations are, how unburdened they are with a need for everything to make sense, how free their writing is! Each story had at least one thing that made me smile and often I was blown away by the audacity of each writer. I couldn't help comparing them to my own writing, which is firmly governed by rules - writing rules and world-building rules and grammar rules. These stories bent the rules. Sometimes they ate them.

I'd forgotten, too, what an achievement it is to reach The End. Well, obviously I haven't totally forgotten - it's not that long since I last wrote it myself that I could legitimately claim not to remember how it feels - but I'd forgotten how it feels when you're young and it's perhaps the first time you've written those words. For some of the children who entered Fire and Fright, their story was the first piece of creative writing they had finished - I know that several of the stories came from schools where I'd run story planning workshops. I didn't write the stories with these children - all we did was plan what they might write. The onus was on the kids to turn the plan into a story and those that managed it did Frightful Writers proud. Judging was a hard, hard job because the stories were so great.

I often marvel at the process of creating a story - that you take a headful of nothing and weave it into a product that will make people laugh and cry and think. One of the nicest things about short story competitions is that it gives writers a goal - a reason to put your idea onto the page and then something to send it off to at the end. And since the National Curriculum does not encourage schools to teach creative writing, there are fewer and fewer reasons to write stories, something that makes me immeasurably sad. I have escaped into stories all my life; the thought that there might be no one who can write them in the future worries me. But judging from the competition entries I read for Frightful Writers, we don't have to fret just yet. As long as there are stories about Kev the Chicken that end with the words, Evil was dead. Long live poultry! then I think we'll be OK.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Second book syndrome: by Clare Furniss

I’m just emerging, weary and very relieved, from writing my second book, How Not to Disappear. I knew before I started that second books were notoriously tricky. In the world of music, ‘difficult second album’ syndrome is well-recognised - the Association of Independent Music rather brilliantly awards a Difficult Second Album prize - and many of the same difficulties apply to writing. (I should say at this point that I really don’t want this to sound like a whinge. I know how incredibly lucky I am to be paid to write. It’s just that it’s not always easy, and when I was finding it tough it was
unbelievably helpful to know that other authors found it hard too.)

Perhaps the most obvious difference between a debut and a second book is the time issue. I wrote my first book, The Year of The Rat, over four years on and off. All my deadlines were self-imposed. Of course there were pressures - financial pressure, the pressure of not knowing whether all the time I was spending on it was ever going to result in anything, the pressure of self-motivation when I had many other calls on my time. But external deadlines, set by a publisher, are different. You’re being paid.  This is no longer a dream or an ambition: it’s a job. There’s an awareness that other people need you to get your job done in order to be able to do theirs. I knew that ideally publishers want authors to publish a book a year and to be honest this scared me. Not because I didn’t think I could write a book in that time, but I didn’t know whether I could write the book I wanted to write as well as I wanted to in that time. (As it turned out, I couldn’t, of which more later.)

Then there was the pressure of having an expectation to meet, not only in the sense of ‘Will this book be as good as the last one?’ but also in terms of the kind of book I would write. With a first book you can write whatever you feel like. With a second, especially if it’s a two-book deal as mine was, you know there’s a desire for it to appeal to the same readers as the first book did. And of course I wanted people who liked the first book to like the second book too... At the same time I felt strongly that I didn’t want to end up effectively writing the same book again. I wanted a new challenge, something a bit different. I’d lived with the last book for four years, and it had been pretty intense. I was very ready for something new. At the outset, this book felt like a balancing act in a way that the first book hadn’t.

Meanwhile, time, energy and head space were being taken up by the first book. The launch of the paperback, blog posts to write, talks to give... I was extremely grateful for all of this, but it was undoubtedly a distraction, as were the perennial ‘How are sales going? Is your publisher happy?’ questions.

Of course, I knew from the start that the only way through this was to put it all to one side and immerse myself in the writing, in the characters and their story. This was how I’d written the first book, I just had to do it again. But it was easier said than done.

It’s fair to say How Not to Disappear took a while to get going. There were certain things I knew before I started. I knew it would have two storylines, one contemporary, one set in the 1950s. I knew the contemporary storyline involved a teenager and her great-aunt who was suffering from dementia, and that the 1950s storyline was the great-aunt’s teenage story. There would be some kind of road trip as they visited places from her past and unravelled the secrets from her past. I had an image in my mind of the final scene. Beyond that I didn’t know much.

I felt strongly that this story shouldn’t be planned, that I had to let it take its course. The fact that the road trip storyline is driven by a character whose memory isn’t entirely reliable meant that I wanted it to feel unpredictable - it couldn’t be too neat, too planned. I wrote the 1950s storyline separately, as a series of vivid flashbacks, and then had to make the two plot lines into one coherent story. I have to be honest, weaving the two storylines together was a complete nightmare, but I still think this was the right way to do it. I do think some of the most interesting aspects of the story came out of the fact that it wasn’t planned. But it was all rather nerve-racking and it did mean that my editor, Jane Griffiths at Simon and Schuster, had to take a big leap of faith... I’m extremely grateful that she did.

This book also turned out to be much longer than I’d expected - almost twice as long as my first book - which meant it took a lot longer to write and edit than I’d intended. Deadlines were missed, which was stressful and inevitably I felt that I’d failed. Still, I believed that it in the end it had to be better to write a good book than to write it quickly, and I’m incredibly grateful to my editor for taking the same view. Her patience meant I had the chance to make this story into the book I knew it could be. And once I stopped worrying about all the other stuff and just immersed myself in the writing, guess what? I loved it! It was fun again. I’d forgotten how exciting it is, that feeling when the words are flowing and it’s all coming out just right.

Of course, I don’t know whether anyone else will think the book is any good - only about three people have read it so far and we are STILL doing the very final round of edits! - but I do know it’s a book I put everything into and can feel proud of. And I realised while I was writing it that this was what I had to focus on. Of course I want other people to love the book, but actually that’s one of the many things about being a writer that I can’t control. All I can do is try to write the best book I know how to.

So, will Book 3 be easier or is the terrible truth that, as with parenting, writing doesn’t ever get easier, it just carries on being difficult in different ways? I suspect I know the answer to that one...

How Not to Disappear will be published on 28 January 2016.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Finding The Awen Part Two

‘If Music Be The Food Of Love?’

On the first night of my first Charney in July, Ruth, Tortie and John were asked to select the three books they would take to their desert island. They were also asked to select one piece of music. As a person somewhat shamefully ill versed in children’s books, (see final placing of our team in Charney Quiz Night),  I ended up thinking more about the music I would choose.

We must have all mulled over the equivalent of our eight gramophone records and had tremendous difficulty whittling them down to eight. However I suspect that the world is divided into those who do and don’t appreciate music and those like me, who simply couldn’t exist without it. 

I was brought up in a household where we only really listened to classical music. Apart from occasional excursions into the world of easy listening with the likes of Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass, (aaargh) and records of children’s favourites like Thunderbirds, we were resolutely classical with a large C. I do remember Eye Level - the theme from Van Der Valk by the Simon Park Orchestra once sneaking past the guards but, apart from a slight slackening of the regime when my sister and I were allowed to watch the Christmas Top of The Pops on the portable in the “other room’, we got to hear very little else.

'ome milady'

The reason for this was simply that my dad didn’t want to listen to things he didn’t like. (Mum just put radio 2 on every morning when he was at work). They had met at a Grimsby Operatic Society and continued to sing in local choral societies until they moved to Somerset several years ago. My mum was a well known amateur soprano who could well have turned professional if she hadn’t had us. My parents still have in their possession, a programme of The Messiah, where mum is the soprano soloist and the later to be Dame Janet Baker is merely in the chorus!

Maybe I should have fought against classical music but instead I came to love and embrace it with a warmth and trust which has never left me. As a ten year old I got up on one of the dining chairs and conducted Bach or Tchaikovsky to my heart’s content. I sang in schools choirs and played flute in school and the local youth orchestra and of course I played a lot of records. At the age of seventeen my dad introduced me to Wagner and The Ring in particular. For my eighteenth birthday invitations, he did me a beautiful white chalk drawing on black of Siegfried breaking the Wanderer/Wotan’s spear. I must have been the only eighteen year old to receive the triple live album Yessongs from his mates and Karajan’s ring cycle from my parents!

Thomas Stewart as Wotan/Wanderer in a rehearsal photo from St Francisco Opera' s production of Siegfried in the Ring Summer Festival of 1985

This post however is not all about my early grounding in the music that I still love, but about how it has continued to inspire and accompany my writing. As I write this blog I am listening to Karajan’s (him again!) classic recording of Mozart’s Magic Flute and before that Simon Keenlyside singing of Schumann songs; my current passion. Music is always with me and normally I I cannot write without it. The book I completed a few months ago was variously accompanied by Dvorak symphonies, Brahms piano concertos and Bach’s Mass in B Minor. I have had many happy creative moments with Tchaikovsky, Smetana’s Ma Vlast and of course Wagner.

I have however an awen composer, one guaranteed to get both my creative and spiritual juices flowing. Such a composer is Vaughan Williams and I am returning the compliment by writing a novel about him. It would not be exaggerating to say that without him there would probably not have been any writing in the last however many years. My book The Seven was written almost entirely to his symphonies number 3 and 5 and some of the most profound and sometimes sad moments in my life have been accompaniment by the final 'passacaglia' movement of the fifth. Writing ‘The Enchantment of Mr Williams’ I have had several pieces of VW as regular accompaniment but particularly Flos Campi. Donna Nobis Pacem and Sancta Civitas, That's a fair mix of an erotically charged hymn based on the Song of Songs, a war requiem, and a vision of the apocalypse.

I have also picked up some wonderful quotes while researching him. When told by a rather intense and god fearing fellow composer that ‘I wrote my requiem almost entirely on my knees’, he replied.

‘Really. I Wrote all of Sancta Civitas sitting on my bum!’

VW possibly sitting on his bum, (image thanks to

For all those intense years of listening I’ve realised in the last few months that I have hardly ever really listened to music properly It has always been either in the background  or accompanying work. What has in so many ways provided me with 'awen' has in others deprived me of listening.

Now I have a complementary experience to the former. Instead of inspirational background I can see and feel more of what is beyond.Like a Shakespeare play which you come to know as director or actor rather than simply as reader or audience member, the resonances go deeper. If you are lucky they also leave you forever changed.

So what took me so long? And how about anyone else? Is music part of your daily diet, awen to your writing, or just a blessed nuisance?


Find out more about VW and his music through the official society

The amazing archive of the long running radio show which started all the trouble!

My book, The Seven.  

My adventures in story and drama.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Don't stop children reading facty books - by Nicola Morgan

Two notes first:
It's National Non-fiction November, hence this topic. I've also blogged on the lack of respect in some quarters for non-fiction and on the importance of facty books for dyslexic readers, all in support of #NNFN.

You'll notice I use different words to describe "non-fiction". I don't really mind which we use. I rather like facty. "Fiction" can have facts in, too, and "non-fiction" can have imagination, narrative and drama. But what we tend to call non-fiction majors on its factual truths, so I like facty.



Recently, a parent told me that "non-fiction" had been removed from (or banned - I'm not quite sure) her son's school. Even though I've heard of this on another occasion, I find it hard to believe so let's say at least that there was a teacher who thought boys would be better not reading fact-based books for pleasure.

Why? Apparently, among other things, because non-fiction doesn't boost empathy.

Oh gosh.

I know where this comes from. It comes from some research - many small studies - which does suggest that fiction has an important role to play in developing empathy. (Read Such Stuff as Dreams for some detail.) Although there's lots of interesting and thought-provoking content to that book and this research, and although I believe that yes, fiction does have a role to play in empathy-building, and that the act of "narrative transportation" into the minds of other people is important for developing one's own mind and Theory of Mind, I urge caution before you wrap yourself in the blanket of some of the conclusions.

For example, it's not surprising that, when a beautifully-written piece of fiction (a Chekov short story is a specific example) is turned into a dull piece of non-fiction (a courtroom transcript, in this case), the people reading the short story might increase in empathy (on certain measures) more than the others.

This doesn't prove anything other than, perhaps, that people reading beautiful writing by a master writer can engage on a more personal level than people reading a piece of dud dullness. It fails to acknowledge the potential of the best words in the best order. It fails to acknowledge (because it wasn't looking at that) whether other things promote empathy, such as having a loving parent or carer to both show empathy and give insights into how other people feel.

However, imagine for a moment that it had been proven that fiction boosts empathy and that non-fiction (any of it, from a dictionary to the most elegant narrative non-fiction) doesn't. 

Even in that case, telling people that they shouldn't read any non-fiction because it doesn't increase empathy is like telling people they shouldn't eat fruit because it doesn't contain protein and therefore won't help their cells regenerate. Or not to eat asparagus because it doesn't contain iron or not to drink milk because milk doesn't contain vitamin C.

I hope you get my point.

My other point is that by telling half the school population (boys, in the example given) that their first choice (often) of reading material is not worth their time both undermines them quite horribly and risks turning them off reading forever. It is misguided and counter-productive. It doesn't make sense. 

Parents, please don't listen to anyone who tells your sons or your daughters not to read non-fiction, information books, facty books, whatever you want to call them. What you want is your sons and daughters first to read and then to read more. Isn't it hard enough to get young people (often especially boys) to read, without making it a load less attractive and judging them negatively for it? Reading for pleasure, anyone? The clue is in the word "pleasure".

SO, people, tell me: what are your recommended facty reads? Tell me the title, writer+illustrator, and what sort of reader you think would love it. And maybe some lucky young readers will receive something really inspiring this Christmas! 

Btw, if you'd like to give one to a child in difficult circumstances, then DO check out the annual Blackwells book tree.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

'Getting away from it all' by Anne Booth

I am writing this on a train on the way to Gladstone’s library for a few days. I am taking a novel for adults I wrote 10 years ago and going on a tutored retreat with the novelists  Shelley Harris and Stephanie Butland. I can’t wait to see Shelley again, meet Stephanie for the first time and go to this beautiful place I have heard so much about.

The first time I met Shelley was at Retreats for You in Devon two or three years ago. 

I was there to ‘get away from it all’ as I was very stressed as a carer trying to support my unwell elderly  parents - and I remember embarrassing myself by bursting into tears at the table. I remember being there with a wonderful (as yet unpublished but watch this space!) writer called A.J. Pearce and Shelley and they and Deborah Dooley, the person who runs Retreats for You, being so kind. I remember that when I went to bed at night there was already a hot water bottle in my bed - and I felt so cared for by that small but (literally) warming gesture. I remember sleeping lots, and good food, and walks and great chats with Shelley and A.J and the other guests, and lots and lots of writing. I remember Shelley gave me very helpful feedback on a bit of the unpublished ‘Girl with a White Dog’ I read out to her, and A.J . gave me the invaluable advice to go to Germany if I was setting my novel there! I did, and the final pieces of my first novel ‘Girl with a White Dog’ fell into place.

I am no longer a carer as such. My mum sadly died last year, and although I keep an eye on my 88 year old dad who lives opposite me, & go to occasional hospital appointments with him, he is amazingly independent and cooks for himself. But I still have four children, and life is very busy, and I seem to have been ill alot these last months, so it is wonderful to get away, even if I will miss my lovely husband, children and dogs.

I’m going away to write, but I am also going away to gain perspective. Last night I had delusions of divinity (not really - just a bit of lack of perspective!)  and couldn’t sleep for worrying about the world. It was a bit like the scene in Bruce Almighty with the emails. Like most writers, my imagination can be a foe as well as a friend, and I worried extensively and uselessly about world peace, climate change, war, refugees and (rather self-absorbedly) myself and my family too, and then I said a prayer, got up about 5 am and sorted out the family laundry. That small thing helped. I might not have solved the world’s problems, but my family had clean clothes. And, though it might not be about international relations, for my teenagers facing the stress of what clothes to wear for a non-uniform day today, that does matter! 

Despite my night time delusions, I don’t know how to fix the world, but I do know that if it is going to be fixed it will not be by my worrying or thinking I am God but by my and other people’s practical love and kindness. It will be by millions of people doing ‘small’ things like leaving hot water bottles in beds and letting people cry and rest, it will be by people making people welcome - whether tired writers or carers or refugees- and listening to each other and by people remembering that kindness years afterwards.

So I want to thank people like Deborah Dooley and her husband who welcome writers (and others) who need to get away from it all , for how they make the world better, and for how they make those they welcome feel better for years later. And I want to thank teachers and critics and fellow writers like Shelley and A.J., who are gentle and constructive with criticism - who welcome our words and give them shelter and the nourishment of attention.  Kindnesses last for years - words turn into novels, and the memories last long after we have got away from it all and returned home. 

P.S. I am here at Gladstone's library now and it is GORGEOUS. Highly recommended!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Reading for Pleasure in Schools - Joan Lennon

Many years ago a woman broke my heart.  She was sitting in a primary school class room and she was an expert and she said, "Your son will never read for pleasure."  It felt as if she'd taken my beautiful boy and thrown him out in darkness and slammed the door.

Sorry - that's a bleak sort of start to a blog about resources/groups/initiatives.  Except that it isn't bleak, really, because SHE WAS WRONG.  Totally.  I'm not going to trot out said beautiful boy's achievements and nay-sayers' confoundings or the last book recommendation he sent me (well, let's meet for coffee and I just might mention one or two).  But that woman does have a permanent residence in my brain and that memory rings a little bell whenever the phrase "reading for pleasure" is mentioned.

Which is one reason I'm so keen on anything that promotes reading for pleasure in schools, where the curriculum can overwhelm the joy. Here are two I know about - please let us know about more! 

Reading for Pleasure in Schools is a Facebook group/forum that is of interest to teachers, librarians, parents, authors - brimming with questions and answers and ideas and enthusiasm.  It's all in the title, really.  (The photos are from their page.)  

And there's the Patron of Reading initiative.  (This is their Facebook page.)  

(I'm Patron of Reading for the utterly fantastic Queensferry Primary School and I love it.)

Now, tell us more!

Joan Lennon's website
Joan Lennon's blog