Saturday, 22 July 2017

Birthing a Book, by Dan Metcalf

Above all, remember to breathe...

You've carried this strange beast inside of you for far too long. When you first announced it, you were happy to talk and show off about your new found authorship. People were happy for you – you seemed happy too, exuding a kind of care-free 'glow'. People made plans. Big plans.

“We're going to have a party to celebrate its arrival!” they said. You were pleased, but now you are not so sure. You just want a quiet time. No fuss, just a few drinks with friends. If you're not too tired.

But wait. Let's go back to the beginning. The conception of the thing is a hazy memory; you had had too much to drink. It seemed like a good idea. At the time.

And so you did the deed – in a splurge of creativity you made this small 'thing'. Was it a book? You weren't sure. You needed to check with someone.

You told a few people about it, and they were enthusiastic too. Word got around and you went to the big meeting, holding your partner's hand with sweaty palms. You were nervous. You were excited too, but excitement doesn't always come with heart palpitations and perspiration. Then the man behind the desk gives you the news you'd been waiting for. You're going to be expecting...a new book.

The celebrations begin, but you still have the gestation period to go. You stare at your baby, caring for it and gazing at its perfection on the screen. Then you go for regular check-ups with the editor. This is where they drop the heart-shattering message:

“Your book is fine, but...”

But? But what? It's defected in some way? Underdeveloped?

Nothing a few doses of redrafting can't fix, the editor says. Phew. Now you get to spend more time with your baby. Endless nights, tending it and checking it is okay every five minutes.

Endless. Nights.

Slowly, you begin to resent the book. You resent it for the amount of time it takes from you, for the social life it robbed from you. But you love it too. You love its crinkly edges and imperfections, the way it makes you feel; how could you not? It came from you, remember?

In the weeks before it is due to come out, friends will call you.

“Hi! Is it out yet?”

You stare down the phone. Of course it isn't out yet! You're still waking at nights thinking about it, drudging around in the daytime in a half-coma. You would have told someone if it was out yet! You would have told everyone!

Then the day comes. The date that had been emblazoned on your brain for months arrives and your new creation is set free into the world. People congratulate you! Strangers congratulate you! You feel elated, lighter than you have done for months. Your baby, the thing you made from nothing, is now part of the world. You're happy.

You look at it. It's ugly at first; not what you expected. But God, you love it, and you will until your dying day.

Dan Metcalf proudly gave birth to his newest addition, Codebusters, on July 13. It weighs in at 127 grams and is 144 pages long. You can look at it here and here. Dan, being an overly-proud father, has even started posting videos about it on YouTube. Don't worry about the yellow cover; that's a design choice, not jaundice.

Friday, 21 July 2017

An Irish Just William - my dad. By Anne Booth

My lovely dad died on the 30th June. He was 90, and was emphatically NOT a reader. Love of reading and writing had been beaten out of him as a school boy growing up in Ireland in the 1930s, and so he spend most of his childhood 'midging' from school, running across fields with his dogs or hiding in haystacks from the authorities, trying to avoid the humiliation of being caned and feeling a failure. He knew first hand about tickling trout and salmon, ploughing with horses and riding them bare back when the farmer wasn't looking, and rabbiting with his dogs at night - one memorable evening catching 90, which he sold to his neighbours - including, I seem to remember, the policeman - and giving the money to his mother to help with the family.

This is not a picture of my dad as a boy (I wish I had one)  - but one I found online which reminds me of him.
Runner-up! A Kelly, perhaps… from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
The race

Dad was very proud I was a writer but did not read any of my books, and never really understood why I loved and needed them so much. Books were not a source of pleasure to him, but of dread - and yet he loved stories. He could make a good tale out of a short walk down a road. He knew lots of exciting stories about Saints, and he watched consumer programmes about cheating plumbers and would always tell me cautionary tales about them. He loved the dramas of X Factor and Britain's Got Talent and Judge Rinder,  and in his 9 years living in my village, chatted to everyone at the bus stop and on the 89 and 17 bus. He couldn't always catch when people said to him, as he was hard of hearing and refused to wear his hearing aid, but he filled in the gaps with his own stories about them which he relayed to me - one retired business man became a retired jockey on the basis of his height and a comment about horses, and Dad refused to accept my alternative, less interesting version.

So when I hear about people not liking books, I understand. I even sometimes wonder if people who, like Dad, actually do the things I read about, maybe just don't need books the way I did and do. I read about Just William - my dad was an Irish version of him. I wish I had the practical, lived skills and knowledge my dad had. When he was 81, and only newly arrived in my Kent village, one of my neighbours lost her pet rabbit. It was spotted going from garden to garden, and nobody could catch it. To the distress of its owner, the rabbit, pursued by well meaning neighbours, eluded us all. Then I thought of asking my dad's advice. He put on his cap and came to the last garden where the rabbit had been sighted. He didn't run after him as we had been doing. He stood still, saw where the rabbit was, took a step forward and then suddenly, I still don't know how, the rabbit was safely back in the cat carrier or basket my relieved neighbour, had provided. I felt like bursting with pride. As a child growing up in the 1970s I read about and wanted to be, one of Enid Blyton's characters like Jimmy Brown from Mr Galliano's Circus  or Philip or Jack from 'The Island of Adventure' and other books - or Dickon from 'The Secret Garden' (funny how all my animal loving role models were boy characters), but my contacts with animals and birds were all in my head and day dreams - books helped me learn about nature - but Dad's knowledge was lived and practical.

My commitment to, and pride in, my career as a writer of books is partly based on the belief that stories in text can help increase empathy and the development of imagination - but I think the first thing is the story. Story might not necessarily be best communicated to everyone by the printed word - oral story telling and theatre and  visual and cinematic arts are also important. My school-avoiding dad loved films. He was caught and hit for standing on a wooden box looking in the window at a Mickey Mouse film put on in his village - he didn't have the penny to pay to go in and sit and watch it. When he was a teenager he used to walk miles to go and see a film at the cinema in the nearest town. I remember watching Westerns with him on TV - sometimes I had to go to bed before the ending, and he always used to come up and tell me, 'well, the goodies won, and the baddies lost,' and that succinct summary was enough to help me get to sleep.

My dad loved stories but he associated reading and books with failure and corporal punishment and the abuse of power. His lack of self confidence in reading and writing meant that he was very keen that me and my brothers should work hard at school, but at the same time he was very sceptical about book learning and information on pages. This even extended to maps - and I remember, as an adult, a very frustrating holiday in Ireland where my dad could not believe  that we could drive him across Ireland using a motorist's atlas, and insisted on regular stops to ask random people if we were going the right way. Maybe he would have been happier if we had had a SatNav with a voice.

I do wish my dad had been taught in a different way and had loved books though - because I do think that he would have gained more personal self confidence and agency when dealing with forms and authorities, but also had so much fun and enjoyment from them. I had one conversation with him when he was dying which convinced me of this and made me so happy we had, but sad about all the books Dad missed and might have loved.

My dad had a strong religious faith and firmly believed that there was a heaven. He knew he was dying and was looking forward to having the 'craic' in heaven with my mum and his friends and family. He said 'sure all the people I worked with are up there - and some of them were wild.' He was very brave in the days leading up to his death, and the day before he died there were lots of people coming in and out his house where he was in bed- the GP, nurses, hospice carers, our priests and different members of his family. He found it hard to speak, but he said to me, with a twinkle in his eye, 'there's a lot of excitement'. I said 'there's a character in a book,* Dad, who said that 'to die will be an awfully big adventure'. For the first time I saw in Dad's eyes, that light I have seen in children's eyes which comes on when they 'find themselves' in a book. He was really listening to me and really interested - because he had at last encountered a character from literature with whom he identified: Peter Pan.

So I am glad that J.M Barrie created 'Peter Pan', and I am glad there are writers and publishers who are using all their skills to beguile reluctant readers like my dad and introduce them to books. Not liking reading or not being able to spell is not the same thing as not liking stories or being able to tell them. I wish I could have met my dad as a little boy and told him not to be afraid of books. I wish I could have shown him the beautiful picture books we have now, and shared non-fiction and comics and exciting adventures with him. I know that one thing I would like to do to honour him now, apart from learning to garden like him, and maybe learning to ride (!) and to be more out in nature,  is to put him in a book myself -  in the hope that maybe a modern child's eyes will light up and recognise themselves in him when they meet him in print.

*I think that quote might be from the play, rather than the book - I can't put my hand on a copy right now.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Not Too Tidy by Joan Lennon

I've had two quotations kicking around in my mind.  The first is by Joan Aiken, on writing for children: 

"It is the writer's duty to demonstrate to children that the world is not a simple place.  The world is an infinitely rich, strange, confusing, wonderful, cruel, mysterious, beautiful, inexplicable riddle."  The Way to Write for Children.

And the second is from an article by Tim Lott in The Guardian:

"For if I am static as a fully grown adult, then I am doing something wrong. I am holding on to myself too tightly, just as some parents hold on to their children too tightly. Life, yes, is loss and letting go. But without that loss and letting go, it would be like a plastic flower. Indestructible, but ultimately valueless." Life is about loss and letting go.

I think these quotes have taken up residence in my head because a) I am in the process of writing a book with loss and letting go as inescapable aspects of the plot, and b) I am drawn to open-ended endings in my novels.  Riddles that have more to them than can be contained in one story.  I don't mean setting things up for a sequel.  I mean after the book is finished, the world of the story carries on, like Alec Guinness in the last moments of The Man in the White Suit. 

And then, coming as a third, I read this quote from Madeleine L'Engle:

"I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children's books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe."  Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

A tidy summing-up paragraph is called for, now, connecting these thoughts, but I don't know exactly what to put in it.  So perhaps I'll end by inviting conclusions, comments, resonances from you?   

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

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Crying Game (or Books That Make You Weep) - Lucy Coats

I've been thinking a lot about Philip Pullman's work lately, probably triggered by all the debate about the discounting of the long-awaited La Belle Sauvage (coming this October) and its effect on indie booksellers (which Rowena House talked about in a post earlier this month). Not only thinking either -- I've just re-read the whole Northern Lights trilogy and associated novellas with immense pleasure. And, as usual, I dreaded getting to Chapter Fourteen in The Subtle Knife, entitled 'Alamo Gulch'.

There are parts of certain books which make me cry, every time I read them. And not just cry. It's the ugly sobbing kind of crying which leaves a hole in my heart. I know it's going to happen, but I love those particular books so much, that I would never not re-read them. So why does Lee Scoresby and Hester's end do me in? I've read so many books where characters I love die, with never a glimpse of a watery eye, so why that one? And why Chapter Twelve of The Darkest Road, the third book in Guy Gabriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry, the one where Diarmuid dan Ailell takes the long road home? Every time I get close, my heart rate goes up, and I have to steel myself to turn the page to where that particular battle to the death starts. (There are more too, but I won't list them all, to spare you!)

Trying to make sense of emotional reactions to books is always hard. My critical brain is asking me to discover what exactly it is in that piece of writing which pulls at my heartstrings, and how the writer did it, what trick they used, so I can use it too. My heart though, is saying 'it just is that way, don't try to analyse it'. But having thought about it for this piece, I think I do have some sort of answer. What pulls my heart apart is a character of great gallantry and wit, who sacrifices him or herself for others. It's as simple as that.

I'd love to know what books make you all cry every time (if you can admit that any do!) and why. Or am I alone in my recurrent weeping?

Monday, 17 July 2017


On Friday, 14th July 2017 I attended the Clippa as a guest. For those who haven’t heard about it, CLIPPA is the poetry award given by CLPE for published collections of poetry for children.

This year’s judge was Rachel Rooney, who herself won the CLIPPA in 2012 and was my Arvon tutor in 2015 when I dragged myself up to Yorkshire to immerse myself in the world of children’s poetry.

As a kid, I loved rhymes and still do. The songs and rhymes in Tamil which is my mother tongue were often rhyming ones. And the bulk of our popular music is from the movies – as you know most Indian cinema produces sing-alongs and musicals. Much of our poets make their living as lyricists for movies. As much as they publish poetry collections and recite poetry – the rice and lentils come from the movie industry.

Here is Vairamuthu - who writes amazing poetry in Tamil as well as being one of the most popular contemporary lyricists in the movie industry. I apologise ahead that this is in Tamil and of course would not make any sense if you don't speak the language. But I just wanted to demonstrate a little bit. This is his poem about his mother. 

So most of the songs I know growing up, and most of our poetic references to life, philosophy, friendships and heartbreaks are lyrics of movie songs not unlike the pop music lines folks in Britain quote to me (which I should admit goes over my head).

So it was no surprise that my first attempt at writing was poems that rhymed. I was eight I think, when the regional radio came for some recording in our children’s club – Mum had arranged all of us to perform something and as a 8-year old with an entourage of two – my sister and the sister of my neighbour – two 4 year olds were put on the spot. I made up a 4-line song (rhyming  of course) and they recited it with me and we were on radio! I still know the song and sing it for my nephews much to the amusement of my family.

Then when I was 13, I read a poem in a textbook and loved it. I ended up visiting the poet –literally landing on his doorstep and being inspired to write my own poems. You can read that story here. 

So I wrote all sorts of poems. Perhaps influenced by popular culture, I even wrote love poems even before I knew what love was. I still write love poems every time someone breaks my heart or makes it flutter. But I don’t usually share it with the world.

I still write poetry all the time but I rarely call myself a poet. I’m not sure whether that’s because I write more rhymes than not. I read a lot of poetry for sure – more now than before. I enjoy listening to spoken word performances but I never claim I’m a poet. For a while I wrote 1000s of haikus – I loved putting nature and life lessons together.

I had abandoned writing in my mother-tongue long before – I was more proficient in English than I was in my own language. The problem with rhymes for me was that they didn’t work when I wrote them especially in English.

It took me years to figure out that my stress, my accent and my pronunciation was not how native English speakers speak. And therefore what I thought rhymed didn’t rhyme or fit the beat for others.  Anyway many people kindly and often in an unkindly way pointed out that my rhymes don’t work. I wrote free verse, sent them out and even got a couple published here and there. But most came back.

And for a while I wrote poetry only in my notebook and focussed on picture books.  Which is a different kind of poetry anyway.

When I took the Arvon course taught by Rachel and Roger McGough in 2015, Rachel was not only patient with me, she even encouraged me to write both free verse and rhyme – except for rhyme of course I needed more work, more persistence, and perhaps another person to help. And she still remembers the poem about EATING SOAP that I wrote. 

Yes persistence does help. I can now proudly say that I’ve placed ONE poem in an anthology that’s coming out in 2018 and I have a rhyming picture book come out in 2018 too. So there’s no holding back anymore – I’m going to be writing poetry for a long time to come. But I doubt I would ever call myself a poet. At least not yet.

I digress. The reason I was at the Clippa was because Rachel had kindly invited her Arvon students to the ceremony. And what a lovely treat it was. The readings from the poets, the children’s performances and of course Chris Riddell live drawing the event – it was all brilliant. And I got to meet so many friends and made new friends too.

So to celebrate the Clippa and to encourage most of us to read poetry, here is a selection. 

Some of my favourite poems are simple, yet full of wisdom.

Here is one that’s so evocative. And every time I read it, it invokes perhaps a new meaning.

I also love the Thought Fox by Ted Hughes.

One of my favourite novel in verse is LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech.

 From India, I’ve just started discovering many poets who write for adults. But for children, I love Ruskin Bond for sure. Read some of my recommendations here

Many of my friends are poets and a group of them showcase their work here. Do check them out. 

The list of contemporary poets I love is too long to list here. I have perhaps read all modern poets who write for children especially. Both from the UK and America. So instead of listing them I thought I’d share less than 10% of my list of poetry books I own.

Back to Clippa though! The winner of this year’s award is Moon Juice by Kate Wakeling, illustrated by Elīna Brasliņa and published by Emma Press.

If you have not read it yet, check it out!

Find out more about Chitra Soundar at or Follow her on Twitter @csoundar

Sunday, 16 July 2017

In the Grist - Heather Dyer

'Grist’ was the corn brought to a mill to be ground into flour. Today, if a thing  is ‘grist for the mill’ it still refers to something that’s a potential source of profit. For a writer, being ‘in the grist’ can mean that rare but lovely mode of being in which everything you see and do seems to relate somehow to the book you’re working on.

When I’m working on a novel, taking a day off makes me feel guilty. But if I don't take days off, where will I find grist for my writing mill?

Curiously, I often wind up doing as much work on a day off as I do on a working day by taking notes or writing random scenes. Days off seem to liberate the mind and allow us to take detours that are sometimes profitable.

At the moment I’m working on a time travel book for children aged 7-11. I am resistant to getting down to write – I can't see my characters clearly yet, and am in a state of slightly-discomforting uncertainty. So, I shut down my writing mill and took a couple of days off, waiting for grist for the mill to arrive.

Here's what provided grist for my mill:

A fashion blog I subscribe to featured ‘gentlewoman style’ (wide trousers, waistcoats, brogues and oversize shirts). Looking at one of the models, I realized that one of my characters was a ‘gentlewoman’! Now that I could ‘see’ her, suddenly I knew her much better.

I idly opened a book I’d been meaning to read for ages: Take My Advice.

I opened it to an essay by Lucius Shepard on American politics. Written nearly 20 years ago, he says: 'The cornerstone of a successful democracy is an informed populace, and because we have let ourselves grow uninformed, we have licensed a dynasty of third-raters to govern our lives.'

He goes on to say that newspapers and media 'have become propaganda organs whose function is to manipulate, to soothe, to compose via the scripted dialogue of some blow-dried creep the government-sponsored view…’

I realized I could put similar words into one of my characters' mouths, and suddenly his motives became much clearer. There will be consequences for the plot.

Curious, I Googled ‘Lucius Shepard’ and discovered he was a science fiction writer. I immediately ordered one of his titles from the library and realized that the book I’m writing is also science fiction. My imagination feels strangely liberated.

That afternoon a Facebook post on recycling pictured an overflowing landfill. I envisaged the dystopian future that my characters will visit before they reach the utopian deep-future.

In my inbox was the latest email newsletter from Wait Not Why. It was all about Nerualink, a brain implant that can (and apparently already is) allowing us to communicate telepathically. I will put this in my book, too. I suddenly imagine how we will live in the deep future.

My bedtime reading is Mark Nepo’s Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. I decide that my political activist character is also as a dreadlocked Zen practitioner and homeless person. Perfect!

All these sources of inspiration are totally unrelated – yet my unconscious finds a way to weave them together in the world of my story. They are like missing pieces of a jigsaw. It’s as though my unconscious draws me to certain objects, images or lines of dialogue because they ‘fit’ an underlying theme or pattern that my unconscious already knows.

My desire to explore this storyline is driven by the same desire that draws me to gentlewoman style, the political essay, recycling, and Mark Nepo’s poetry. I suspect that this desire is driven by some lack in me, or something I want to understand or work through – and that, in following my yearnings in my life and in my storyline, this lack will be revealed if not resolved.

Carl Jung gave a talk once, in which a member of the audience asked: ‘What’s the quickest way to find my life’s true path?’ Jung said, ‘take a detour’. So, the moral of this story is: take a break, wander freely, pay attention, and who knows, maybe a clue is waiting out there, ready to be grist for the mill...

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

Saturday, 15 July 2017

La Belle Sauvage, Amazon & the decline of Fleet Street – by Rowena House

I’m researching the First World War again at the moment, this time for a short companion piece for my traditionally-published debut novel out next year.

It’s a marketing idea borrowed from independent authors: a cut-price short story or novella, promoted on social media via the five-day give-away option on Kindle Select, and designed to tempt readers to your Amazon page, where – hopefully – some will buy the novel too.
Whether it will have any impact on sales I’ve no idea (I’ll let you know next year) but the story is asking to be told, and I find historical research brings its own rewards, so I’m going for it anyway.
I am troubled by the assumption behind this strategy: that cheap is best when it comes to selling stories. After all, this discount culture is one of the main charges levelled against Amazon by traditional publishers and bookshops which do so much to promote authors.
The debate about aggressive discounting of children’s books became particularly impassioned last week following this blog by Tamsin Rosewell, bookseller at Kenilworth Bookshop in Warwickshire:
What provoked her to speak out were the heavy discounts being offered by the biggest names in book retailing on pre-orders for Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, volume one of The Book of Dust. At the time of writing Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith and Foyles were all offering hard copies for £10.00, half the recommended retail price.
As Ms Rosewell said in her blog: ‘To be part of the buzz, we would (as it looks at the moment) have to sell this book at a loss or for no profit at all, or we could consider not stocking it. But how can we possibly not have The Book of Dust in our stock and prominently on display in the shop? What kind of bookshop would not stock The Book of Dust?!’
Book people on Twitter reacted to her blog with shock and dismay. Philip Pullman himself joined the debate, saying he’s always been a strong supporter of the former Net Book Agreement, which once guaranteed retail prices. By the time Ms Rosewell had to open her shop at 9 a.m. she said she’d received hundreds of replies.
Coupled with her concern about the impact of discounting on author incomes (the lower the shop price, the lower the royalty) her pleas for fairer pricing made me think again about my responsibility towards bookshops like hers in the face of cut-price competition.
Now there’s nothing I can do about Waterstones or Foyles; the price of my novel will be set by my publisher and the stores. But what about Amazon? Should I avoid it altogether as some supporters of the physical book trade advocate? Am I helping to cut the throat of independent bookshops everywhere by giving away my novella, or selling it at the same price as a can of baked beans?
On the other hand, is there any point whatsoever fighting against one of the greatest revolutions in retailing ever? Amazon won’t notice our protests. And with average advances so low, how can authors afford to boycott this global marketplace?
I think my fatalism about Amazon has a lot to do with my early days as a journalist when (and I’ll say this in a whisper) I worked on Fleet Street at a time when vans stacked with the Evening Standard and Sun would roar out from the side streets with the newsprint literally hot off the presses. I even subbed on the ‘stone’ – a damn great granite worktable supporting the heavy frames for the broadsheets – with a compositor setting the city pages of the Financial Times in hot lead metal. It was another world, another time. The battles fought by the unions against Rupert Murdoch’s new computer technology now seem futile and doomed to failure.
Yes, I know that today there are figures ‘proving’ that e-books are on the wane in the UK and physical books in the ascendance, but I’m afraid that I don’t trust them. I think they’re partial statistics being used to make a case that traditionalists dearly wish to be true. As an investigative journalist, I want to dig down beneath the headlines into the real data to find out what’s actually going on. I suspect I’d find at least some of those lost adult fiction sales in the e-book market.
OK, I might also find that children’s books are the exception. But five year olds have phones these days. Why should they only play games on them and not read e-picture books? And what’s easier than giving your child or grandchild Apple Store or Amazon credit as a birthday present? Kids don’t need a bank card to shop for books online.
I worry that by resisting this online trend, by not aggressively seeking out e-sales, traditionally-published authors (and our publishers) risk missing out on a growth sector that should be central to our long-term economic planning.
So yes, I do think authors have to adapt to Amazon whether we want to or not, just as independent shops like Kenilworth Books have to shrug when the big High Street retailers discount the latest Wilbur Smith or Robert Harris, and accept there’s no point in them stocking it.
But like Ms Rosewell, I also think we have to shout out when a big launch like La Belle Sauvage could (possibly) be the Harry Potter for a new generation, and benefit the wider industry from an upsurge of interest in great children’s books.