Monday, 22 January 2018

My Top 6 Podcasts for Us Writery Types, by Dan Metcalf

Continuing my array of listicles for this blog, I thought I’d dip into the world of podcasts. I’m a podcast addict. I love nothing more than to pop in a pair of earbuds and listen to the vast range of talk-radio style downloads available to the public for free. Free. D’you hear that? Free.

For those unfamiliar with the medium, a podcast is essentially a radio show that had been put onto the internet as a file which you listen to on your computer/phone either by streaming (when you’re on-line) or downloading (for when you’re off-line). That’s it. The BBC website has hundreds of their radio shows which you can download for free, including dramas, new music, news, debate, science and loads more. It’s worth a look if you are new to podcasts and want to find shows in your interest area.

Pleasingly, many series have been going for sometime so have a large back catalogue available to listen to straight away. I have recently been binging on some series and it’s a great way to learn about new subjects, especially as you can be a passive participant in the conversation and listen while you walk, exercise, cook or paint the kitchen.

I listen to a wide variety of podcast on tons of different subjects. I like to fill my ears with distractions aplenty which may inspire my life or writing, so I listen to drama (Tracks), technology (DigitalHuman), science (Infinite Monkey Cage) and Comedy (Beef and DairyPodcast) among others. For this post however I’d thought I’d keep my recommendations to those shows of interest to writers and readers. In no particular order, here goes nothin’:

1. Guardian Children’s Books Podcast is produced by the bestselling left wing newspaper of the same name and features talks and interviews with such luminaries as Jacqueline Wilson, Jeff Kinney, Eoin Colfer and Judith Kerr. There are around 80 episodes available at the time of writing and updates are sporadic (presumably due to the lack of coverage of children’s book in newspapers – that’s a subject for another day)

2. Jedlie’s Reading with Your Kids: One of the few children’s literature podcasts out there, this updates a LOT, with an enthusiastic host in the shape of magician Jedlie. It’s also open to requests for interviews, so if you have a book to plug, get over to the site and put in a request. And oooh look: Here's an episode with me on it! LINK!

3. One for the illustrators among you, Make It Then Tell Everybody is a series of podcast interviews on comics and drawing. The host is Dan Berry ( a comic artist and lecturer at Glydwr Univeristy. In each podcast, lasting roughly 30-40 minutes, he chats easily with his subjects about their background and their work, focussing in detail on their working methods. For artists, it's a great chance to hear the nitty gritty of working in the comics and illustration trade, and Berry has also talked to some writers, providing listeners with interviews that go into a level of detail that you rarely hear. His podcast with comics and screenwriter Tony Lee is one of the best I've ever heard, and is pleasingly frank about the industry.

Running through the interviews is the mantra which is reflected in the title of the website. The practical nature of the conversations can be inspiring, leaving the listener with a desire to go and create, even if, like me, you can barely draw a straight line.

Berry has a great presenting voice (almost soporific in its effect – one tweeter suggested he should do hypnosis CDs), and an easy, jokey manner with his interviewees. The quality of the audio is also astounding, better than some BBC productions, which adds an air of slickness to the operation. is a great find, and I recommend downloading a few podcasts straight away (did I mention it's all free?) and contributing to Dan's 'donate' fund, even if you don't think that comics are your 'thing'. Truly inspiring stuff.

4. If you’re interested in screenwriting: Created and hosted by Ben Blacker, a TV writer of shows such as Supernatural and Supaninjas, the Nerdist Writers Panel Podcast takes writers of TV, film, comics and books (but mostly TV) and grills them under a high heat until well and truly cooked. The panels have writers from hit TV shows such as Buffy, New Girl, Dollhouse, M*A*S*H, Bones, Lost, CSI, Friends, Sesame Street and many, many more. It's well worth listening to the entire run of 120-odd podcasts (at time of writing), even if you've never heard of the writers or the TV shows they've worked for. The stories of being inside the industry and pitching shows are fascinating and often hilarious.

Describing itself as a talk about the craft and business of writing, the show delves deep into the technical aspects of writing in the US. Know what 'breaking a story' is? Or 'A' story and 'B' story? Listen and you'll find out. I've learned so much about the modern TV industry just from tuning in every week and letting the masters of their craft chat into my earholes (more maybe than I did in university? Shh, don't tell the lecturers...).

Personal favourites are the Sesame Street Writers, anything with Jane Espensen, and the highly inspiring talk from the creators of The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, on the complexities of Transmedia storytelling. Go on, jump in, get wet. (if you like this, also check out the UK Scriptwriters Podcast)

5. Spektrmodule by Warren Ellis is a collection of music, haunting sounds and ambient tunes. Ellis himself is the writer of legendary comics such as Transmetropolitan, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Trees, RED, and now the Netflix series Castlevania. I have found the podcast to be perfect writing music: dark and eerie, with few lyrics to distract you from your work. It also makes great reading music.

6. The Creative Penn is a series which has been going for some 300+ episodes under the amiable hand of Joanna Penn, who writes thrillers under the pen name JF Penn. She is an indie author and an authority on the indie publishing movement. While most of the content focuses on publishing adult books yourself, anyone interested in writing can take away some nuggets of gold on marketing, creating and producing your own fiction. If you like this, then also seek out the Self Publishing Formula with Mark Dawson, and the Bestseller Experiment.

7. A new one to me, but packed with great info for writers The Folklore Podcast is a deep dive into folklore and fairytales with experts and academtics. Hosted by Mark Norman, this is a fine example of the podcasts put out there for free by enthusiasts. I highly recommend the one on Hansel & Gretel - I'll never read the story at bedtime to my son in the same way again...

I've given up trying to limit myself to a top 5 so you'll have to make do with seven. More recommendations as I find them.

As always, tell me about any I’ve missed in the comments on on Twitter @metcalfwriter.
Dan Metcalf is a writer for children. Find out more about him and his books at

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Creative writing - when you have no ideas. by Anne Booth

Last week I was asked to go to a local university for an afternoon to teach some PGCE students Creative Writing. The idea  was that these were students who weren't necessarily writers themselves, but who would be teaching writing to children.

So I did some exercises to build confidence, and one of them, which came to me the morning of the course, worked so well I thought I would share it, as it was so much fun and made people think that perhaps they COULD come up with a beginning of a story. I hope it works for you, too.

I remembered  that one of the things people say to me is 'I can't write, I don't have any ideas.'

So I decided to start with facts.

I got the class to describe where we were in the most basic of ways.

We agreed the basic facts were:

We are in a mobile classroom, in a university, in a city, in England. The weather, we can see through the window, is rainy.

There is a woman, wearing a coat and boots. She is teaching.

I was going to just write everything on the white board and cross things out, but the tutor who had invited me had a better idea and connected her laptop up so that it projected on to the screen. She typed what I told her to and we could all read it.

Then I started changing things, and the tutor deleted and replaced words in front of our eyes.

So the class had to give me alternatives. We were not in a classroom - we were in a...

prison cell,

in a prison,

on an island,

in the Caribbean.

The weather, we could see through a crack in the wall, is sunny.

There is a man,

wearing T shirt and shorts.

He is doing push ups.

Then we started embellishing it a bit more, students calling out adjectives and adverbs.

We are in a damp prison cell in a dilapidated prison on an isolated island in the Caribbean. The weather, we can see through a crack in the wall, is sunny, but there are looming storm clouds on the horizon. There is an old man with tattoos, wearing orange shorts and a T shirt with a smiley face. he is doing pushups reluctantly, but athletically, with the strength of a much younger man. There is a prison guard sitting on his back, shouting 'just one more!'

Now, it is not going to be the basis of my next picture book, and I have given the film rights to the class, but it was definitely something out of nothing. We had a good discussion about clichés - someone said that having a tattooed prisoner was a bit unoriginal, and, for example, we decided that even if the prisoner is old, he doesn't have to struggle with pushups. It might not be the most brilliant  scenario ever written, but it certainly persuaded the group that 'not having an idea' is not an insurmountable problem, and we could all think of ways for the story to develop....

And i think I might try it myself one day, when I cannot think of how to start my next story....There is a woman, sitting on a sofa, writing....Now, what can I change it to...?

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Front and Back Burners - Joan Lennon

This time last year I was in the throes of wussiness.  The book (we'll call it Book A) I was writing demanded a character I really liked dying, and another character I really liked grieving.  The setting was bleak, and though the ending was positive, the road to get there was hard.  I was committed and eager to do this difficult story justice.  Twelve months later, is it told?  

Well, yes and no. 

Book A exists in Frankendraft form (the roughly-sewn-together version of a novel that - in my practice any way - exists before a full first draft).  And I'm still committed.  

Me and Book A (Wikipedia)

But over the last few months the eagerness has waned.  And the writing has slowed ... and slowed ... and stopped.  Okay, there was also Christmas and New Year and stuff, but those are done.  So, am I leaping back into this relationship?

Not so much.

I've started a new book - Book B - which is pacey and adventurous and nobody dies prematurely.  Am I unforgivably fickle?  Is this some kind of authorly serial monogamy?  Not even that.  I'm committed to BOTH books.  

This isn't goodbye, Book A.  I've shifted you to the back burner and the gas is on low, but I won't let you boil dry.  I will be back.  And then you will be back to the front ...

Meantime, Book B - let's turn up the heat!

Do any of the other authors out there have occasional lapses in fidelity too?  Tell all.  I, for one, won't judge.  


Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Claire McFall: An Unusual Success -- Lucy Coats

Way back in early 2013, I was sent a proof copy of Ferryman, a debut novel by an author called Claire McFall. It's a YA romantic retelling of the story of Charon, the ferryman of Hades, so perfect for me as a lover of all things Greek myth. Once I'd read it, I raved about it to all sorts of people, urging them to read it too, because I'd really loved it. That's how I get half my own book recommendations -- from people I know and trust. After that, I looked eagerly for McFall's next book, which was a dystopian thriller called Bombmaker.

In these pages, I wrote about that book that it was 'almost literally heart-stopping'. Even all these years later, I can recall that feeling of adrenaline as I read it, hardly able to turn the pages fast enough. Today, I am delighted to learn that McFall has just signed a film deal for Ferryman with Legendary Entertainment (Inception/Jurassic World/Batman Begins). This is where the unusual bit come in. Because the book is going to be made into not one film, but two, one for an English language audience, and a second for a Chinese language one. McFall has sold over a million copies of Ferryman in China since 2015, and her agent, Ben Illis, of The BIA, described visiting China with her as experiencing a kind of Beatlemania, complete with massive queues and even a fainting teenager. This is an extraordinary coup for a writer who is probably not as well known as she should be here in the UK. In fact, of all you readers and book lovers who read this blog, I wonder how many of you had heard of McFall before today? I hope it's a lot, but I wouldn't put money on it!

Book success is such a strange business, made up in part of luck as well as brilliant writing -- so what exactly is it about Ferryman that has entranced all those Chinese teenagers? Well, it definitely entranced me -- and I guess the territory it covers, the no man's land between life and death is fertile ground for any imagination, and any culture, somewhere where no normal rules apply, and where anything can happen, even love. I got distracted, and lost track of McFall's writing for a couple of years, but now I see that Ferryman has a sequel, Trespassers, published last year, and I'm looking forward to reading it greatly, as well as her Scottish Teenage Book Award-winning novel, Black Cairn Point.

I do love it when a success story happens after a lot of hard graft, and one of the things I hope happens here is that a lot more people are led to McFall's books. Trust me on this one, if you haven't read them yet, I urge you to, and her range is so wide (from romance to dystopian via spooky) that there should be something to suit most tastes. In many many cases, a film starts with a book, and authors often don't get enough credit. So let's hear it for the writers who start it all off! And let's applaud Claire McFall for reaching an audience most of us only dream of.

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's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram

Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Liminal Spaces - by Lu Hersey

The end of January feels like a liminal time. Liminal literally means threshold – leaving one place and not yet through to another.

The days are getting lighter since the winter solstice, but we’re not really through to spring, and I’ve been thinking a lot about liminal spaces. Between times, between places. In folklore and shamanic traditions, dusk and dawn are liminal times, between night and day. The seashore, hedgerows, the edge of the forest, are all liminal places. These times and places are where worlds meet, and have a strong association with magic. Places you’re most likely to encounter faeries and elementals – at times of betwixt and between.

As it happens, I’m about to move house. I’ve already packed (mostly) and I’m waiting, trying not to panic about bills, legal forms and forwarding address. I have nowhere definite to move to. I’ve also chosen this time to leave job security behind and become self-employed as a writer. In this sense I’m currently in a liminal space. 

Anyway, I was thinking about this as I walked into town early one morning this week, wrapped up in thought and feeling slightly anxious about everything. I came to the big roundabout leading to the main shopping centre in Bristol, known as the Bear Pit. It’s a place I generally avoid at night if I’m on my own – it's a place of fights and muggings down there, and I’m not a fan of underpasses at the best of times.

It was still half light, as the sun takes so long to come up in winter –  but I decided to take a risk, as it’s much quicker to go down through the Bear Pit than walk all round it. Also, it was freezing cold and I was already running late for an appointment.

As I hurried through, I suddenly came across something really extraordinary. A young woman in her nightclothes (admittedly very warm, thick nightclothes and probably with jeans underneath) was sitting up in her bed - down in the underpass. Maybe the bed was made up of pallettes, but it really looked like a proper bed, with sheets, quilts and everything. The woman was drinking a takeaway coffee and surrounded by a group of three homeless men, sitting on crates around her bed, listening to her talking animatedly about her plans for the future. She had an aura of a faerie queen surrounded by her seelie court, and seemed so full of life and enthusiasm, she was practically glowing.

I couldn’t stop, and it seemed rude to stare, so I just smiled and dropped some coins on her bedside table (seriously – she had a bedside table. Okay, maybe just another crate with a cloth on...) and walked on, thinking about liminal spaces. After all, underpasses are liminal spaces, thresholds to other places you want to get to.

I did half wonder if she was real – making her bed in the urban equivalent of a hedgerow, or a seashore – and she did look a bit like Titania (probably just the hair). But it made me think about living in a society where thousands of people, not just young women like her, end up sleeping in doorways and underpasses. In liminal places.

I’d been worrying about moving from one comfortable home and finding another – when here was someone who lived in a freezing, drafty underpass in the middle of a roundabout. Yet she was filled with life and laughter, and I was in danger of becoming a moaning minnie.

As we get closer to Imbolc (the Celtic fire festival at the beginning of February, which marks the spark of new life and creativity), I can't stop thinking about the plight of all those stuck in liminal places. I don't have any answers to the massive problem of homelessness, but am left wondering what change we can bring about, and how we can do it. Very few homeless people look as happy as that faerie queen and her seelie court.

And surely everyone deserves the basic right to cross the threshold, if they wish?

Lu Hersey

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Thunderstorms and Me by Chitra Soundar

The rain is raining all around,

It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea. 

-       Robert Louis Stevenson

As I sit at my table in Singapore and look through the window, what I see mirrors exactly the words of Stevenson. I was excited to leave the biting cold of England to fly across continents to enjoy the sunshine and I’ve been blamed for bringing the grey skies and relentless rain to this hot island.

Thunderstorms in Singapore - A view from the 23rd floor
 My relationship with rain and thunderstorms is as fundamental as my roots. I’ve been woken up as a child often to gathering dark clouds and cracking thunder. The stormy winds, the warnings to fishermen and the flooding of our streets are deeply etched in my memory.

Rain has fallen all the day. 

O come among the laden trees: 
The leaves lie thick upon the way 
Of memories.

-       James Joyce

The crack of thunder and the flash of lightning fascinated me as a child. I’ve never feared the ferocious winds that howl and growl. I remember sitting by  my window, listening to the wind, reading a book. I remember making hot pakoras for snacks and hot tea with cardamom and ginger for everyone at home.

Those rains were warm even though they soaked from head to toe in a few seconds. Those rains were welcome on the parched soil, even though they fell in big drops filling the potholes on the street.

Monsoon by Uma Krishnaswami and Jamel Akib
But I’ve feared them occasionally. I was perhaps ten and it was one of those monsoon storms and my father hadn’t returned home. The buses had stopped, the roads were flooded and I was worried for him to return. It had taken him four hours to journey the ten kilometres hitching a lift with strangers and walking part of the way.

Another time, I would have been eight, and it was a brutal monsoon. The rains hadn’t stopped in days and a stray dog had given birth to six puppies. She had taken shelter under the roof of our backyard. She was shivering in the cold and her puppies were hungry. Normally dogs were not allowed inside our compound. So I had to fight the elders for permission, to let her stay. We filled a bowl full of milk and put out rice on an old plate. And one of the new-born puppies couldn’t survive the dampness of its surroundings. I cried for days, for a stray puppy, whose life I couldn’t help save.
Photo: C Coxon
These incidents in the rain always find themselves lodged in my memory and turn up in stories. Almost 14 years ago, I wrote a story called Afraid of Dogs – about a little girl who has to overcome her fear of dogs to save the stray puppies. Although I should say the little girl in me is still afraid of dogs generally. It takes me enormous effort to stay calm and friendly even with familiar pets in friends’ homes.

But the fear of the big thunderstorms was washed away long ago when my dad explained to me about parched land, the water under the ground and the well in our back garden. We understood the cycle of rain and the price of crops when my grandmother’s sister visited us from the village. I also valued the rain after many weeks of harsh summers.

The gathering of dark clouds, the rain-bearing breeze and the fragrance of the earth when the first drops of the thunderstorm falls on it will always remind me of home. Scientists call this fragrance petrichor and I agree that it is the fragrance of the fluid that runs inside the veins of gods.

Monsoon Afternoon by Kashmira Sheth & Yoshiko Jaeggi
These thundery rainy days in Singapore, remind me of growing up in India, listening to the crash of the clouds, the unusually grey days and coolness of the air. I remember the croaking of the frogs in the puddles, the flash of lightning and the noise of rain falling on the terrace.

I feel calmer when I hear the thunder and the warm rain doesn’t scare me, it soothes my senses and the dark clouds envelop me in a warm cosy blanket. I would welcome the sunshine for sure. But this thunderstorm doesn’t get me down.

Chitra Soundar writes picture books and junior fiction when she’s not watching the rain through her window. Her next book You’re Safe With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry) with Lantana Publishing tells the story of the thunderstorm in an Indian jungle. Follow her on Twitter: @csoundar