Sunday, 29 May 2016

Poo bum willy - John Dougherty

Forgive the entirely crude title to this piece, but - inspired by the post my friend Tamsyn Murray put up on Wednesday - I've been moved (if I can say that in this context) to pen a few words about toilet humour.

As Tamsyn observed, if you're a children's author there are those who will advise you to put toilet jokes into your books. There are even those who think that this is all you really need to make your book a success.

Are they right? Well - probably not. There's a lot more to writing a children's book than repeatedly shoehorning the word 'poo' into your prose. Otherwise, the top-selling titles would all be books like Pooey McPooface and the Enormous Poo. Which, actually, would get a bit of a laugh.


But probably only once. Taboo-breaking humour is funny precisely because it pushes at the boundaries of a taboo. But the more you break a taboo the less, well, tabooey it feels. Someone walking naked down your local high street would provoke a reaction - perhaps shock, perhaps laughter, perhaps both. But if you could guarantee the sight of a streaker every time you wandered into town, then - even if the prohibition on public nudity remained, and even if the police were to respond with an arrest every time - the effect on passers-by would diminish rapidly. After a few weeks, a passing exhibitionist would be lucky to get an eye-roll.

So am I saying that you shouldn't bother using toilet humour at all? Well, no. But I am saying that it's not an easy option. Writing a good toilet joke - or a good willy joke for that matter, or indeed any joke that pushes at the boundaries - is no easier than writing any other kind of joke. Or, put another way a poo joke has to contain a joke as well as poo.

This is on my mind at the moment partly because my latest book Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story Nickers, contains a poo joke. In fact, if I can say this without being misunderstood, it contains a running poo joke.

And, actually, it might appear to the casual reader that the joke is simply about the repetition of the word 'poo'. But I'd like to think it's a bit cleverer than that. The first time the joke appears, one of the badgers - the villains of the piece - has defaced a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, writing the words 'And then she did a poo' at the end of a paragraph. So for the young reader, there are two taboos being pushed against here: the 'toilet talk' taboo, and the prohibition against writing in books. The scene continues with some of the other badgers getting very silly and giggly about this piece of vandalism, and another getting cross about it even though he secretly thinks it's a bit funny as well - so now the joke is not about the word 'poo' itself, but about how people react to it.

As the story progresses, the badgers get hold of a copy of Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story Nickers itself, and discover that by - among other things - writing in the book, they can change things to their advantage. But one of them doesn't quite get what's going on, and keeps suggesting that they write 'And then she did a poo'. So now the joke is about comprehension, and incongruity, and context, and focusing on the trivial at the expense of the bigger picture.

Yes, all right, and it says 'poo' as well.

But - seriously - writing humour isn't the piece of cake it's sometimes seen as. And that goes for writing poo jokes as much as any other kind.


Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story Nickersillustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP, is the latest in John's Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series.

His other new books in 2016 will include the sixth Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face title, his first poetry collection - Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones and published by Otter-Barry Books  - and several readers for schools.

First Draft, the author band featuring John, Jo Cotterill and Paul and Helen Stickland, will next be performing at the Wychwood Festival in early June.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

How long does it take to write a book? - Clementine Beauvais

During school visits, different age groups have different favourite questions. Primary school children want to know what your favourite books are and how old you are. Teenagers are dying to hear how much money you make and if you're famous (or, failing that, if you know any, like, really famous authors). Adults will bully you until you tell them what you should do to get published. Kindergarteners will need to know if you have a cat, if your dress is scratchy, if it hurts your hand to draw all the covers, and they will probably ask a question that's not actually a question, in the form of 'My nan's got a fireplace'. But two questions recur across all age groups.

The first is the much-bemoaned 'Where do you get your ideas from?' which I actually do find interesting when it's connected to a particular book. The second, whose agonies are less often discussed, is -

How long does it take to write a book? 

What do you, dear colleagues, reply when you're asked that one? I always launch into the same, ten-minute-long, painstaking explanation: that writing a book isn't a linear process; that ideas might swirl for years in your head, sometimes disappearing for months at a time, and then coming back from their holiday with a new tan and interesting new things to say; that writing itself is a difficult process to measure exactly, because you might start by binge-writing 30 pages, abandon the project for a year, start again, stop, delete, start again, etc.; that you never (well, at least I never) spend whole days writing in neatly-packaged Pomodoro units that can be conveniently added up; that even after the manuscript is delivered, editing may take many more months, but then again it's not a full-time thing; that proofs, blurbs, cover checks, associated blog posts and signings are... kind of part of the writing process too; that the length of the book itself isn't a reliable indicator of how long it took, nor the quantity of illustrations; that some scenes may be written very fast and others really slowly; that much time is spent deleting, and then how do you count that time? Pieces of string, etc.

Oh the look of boredom on people's faces every time I deliver that answer. Oh the number of swallowed yawns, of glances at the clock. It's almost like their question has mutated into another: for goodness' sake, woman!!! how long can you drag an answer about how long it takes to write a book???

Once, for a change, I tried being Gradgrindingly factual about it. When I was asked "How long does it take to write a book?", I just replied: "A year and a half."
Some of the children said: "Wow."
I said, "Does that sound like a lot, or not much?"
They shrugged, and, looking like the matter interested them extremely little anyway, they said, "I dunno."


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia. 

Friday, 27 May 2016

An Enjoyment of Editing - Lynn Huggins-Cooper

Surely I am not the only author to enjoy the editing phase? Reading posts on social media, you might get that impression. I read lots of groans and moaning about the time spent on this stage of writing. I have just finished writing my latest Young Adult novel, The Journey Jar. I say 'finished,' but well...not really.

I have written 72,000 words, but the novel isn't finished exactly. I now get to pore over the manuscript, killing my darlings, taking out any beloved words that have led to dreadful repetition and other dull things like that...but I also get to do the fun part. I get to make sure the narrative flows and hangs together; I can ensure (hopefully!) that themes are subtle and properly blended into the story - and sometimes I even discover new ones.  I think a book is about one thing, and then another theme bobs to the surface at the editing phase. I know my book is about the journey through loss; it's about identity and finding our 'tribe' in our friends and partners. It also explores the casual racism thrown at the Romany community. As I have started to read the manuscript through, I have found hints of undiscovered themes, such as a strong thread of colour that describes the way values and more are passed down through the generations.

My nanny, mum and uncle. 

It's easy to trace where this story comes from. It's a real 'heart story.' My mum died several years ago, and I have drawn on my experiences as a bereaved daughter as well as the emotions I see in my work as a grief counselor. Mum came from a Romany family. It was there in the piercing blue eyes and raven hair (which I sadly didn't inherit, but hey - you can't have it all!). My lovely father-in-law from my first marriage is from a gypsy family too. So it hurts on a personal as well as ideological level when I hear the prejudice still shown to gypsies today.

I am looking forward to the polishing, general mulling over and strengthening process of editing. Does that make me an odd-bod, or do other writers enjoy this stage too? See you on the other side...

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Boy who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory - Eloise Williams

For my blog piece this month I've decided to do a fabulous interview with the fabulous Rhian Ivory. Absolutely...


What is The Boy who Drew the Future about?

Noah and Blaze live in the same village over 100 years apart. They are linked by a river and a strange gift: they both compulsively draw images they don’t understand, that later come true. They can draw the future.
1860s – Blaze is alone after his mother’s death, dependent on the kindness of the villagers, who all distrust his gift as witchcraft but still want him to predict the future for them. When they don’t like what he draws, life gets very dangerous for him.
Present day – Noah comes to the village for a new start. His parents are desperate for him to be ‘normal’ after all the trouble they've had in the past. He makes a friend, Beth, but as with Blaze the strangeness of his drawings start to turn people against him and things get very threatening. Will he be driven away from this new home – and from Beth?

Will both boys be destroyed by their strange gift, or can a new future be drawn?


The book interweaves chapters from the present day (Noah) and the past (Blaze). What sort of research did you find yourself doing?


I did a lot of historical research for Blaze’s chapters, reading court reports about the real Sible Hedingham Witchcraft Case which is fascinating.

For Noah’s chapters I read as much as I could find about art and Gustav Klimt in particular. I wanted to immerse Noah’s character in a very visual world.


Your previous novels (published by Bloomsbury under the name Rhian Tracey) are contemporary YAs - what made you decide to write a book with such a strong historical element?


I’ve always wanted to write historical fiction, it is my favourite genre and I’ve read a lot of it but have been a bit nervous about approaching it. However I really liked the idea of contrasting Noah’s experiences in the present day with Blaze’s in the 1860s.



What is your next book about?
My 6th novel is actually a novella and is contemporary fairy tale retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Matchgirl. My version is called Matchgirl.

Thanks to an Arts Council Grant I have had a year off in which to write my 7th novel Always, Hope which is about stalking, social media and singing.

I’m starting my 8th novel this month which is exciting and scary at the same time, entering a different world filled with new characters.


You are a Patron of Reading and Creative Writing specialist, what does this entail?

I visit primary and secondary schools promoting reading and sharing my writing skills. I love school visits, they are so much fun!


Have you got any public events coming up?
Yes! I’ll be at Waterstones Oxford in August, Waterstones Milton Keynes in September, Waterstones Cirencester in Sept/October and Waterstones Cheltenham in November with Emma Carroll, Katherine Woodfine, Lauren James and Helen Maslin. We’ll be talking about historical fiction. Here’s a write up of our event most recent event at Waterstones Birmingham by the wonderful Chelley Toy -


I’m at YALC in July which I’m really looking forward to.
I’ll also be at YAShot literary convention at Waterstones Uxbridge in October running a workshop on how to write historical fiction.


You can follow Rhian on twitter @Rhian_Ivory and find out more about her by visiting Firefly’s website -

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

'Children's Books are Quite Boring' by Tamsyn Murray

So it seems Simon Cowell wants write a children's book. He's read some with his son and thinks they're quite boring. It will be about animals, he says.

Children's authors were naturally raging a little put out. Lord Philip of Ardagh wrote an open letter urging Mr Cowell to consult a librarian to find some exciting children's books. Michael Rosen welcomed Simon to the party, pointing out that there were some great children's books already but that celebrity interest in reading was never a bad thing. Generally speaking, the conversation about children's books (already fairly buoyant) took a spike following the publication of Cowell's comments.

Anyway, taking a leaf from his book (geddit?) I've decided to write a pop song. I've thought about it and now I think I'll do it. It will be about rabbits dinosaurs Lola Mr Blobby love. Having ears, I've had to listen to a lot of these pop songs and they're quite boring, I think I could do better.

So here's how I think I'll do it. First, I think I'll find some monkeys with typewriters songwriters to work with. The song will be based on an idea I've had, so obviously I'll do all the hard work, but they can contribute all some of the notes and the lyrics;  these should rhyme 'you' with 'true' and possibly 'ooh' ad infinitum. No poo, though - that's better in children's books. Then I'll get some musicians in to play the music - I could probably do that better myself but I'm very busy. Lastly, I'll hold auditions for victims singers to sing the song once I've written it - actually, there could be some TV mileage in that: we'll call it Tamsyn's Got Music. Get my minions ITV on the phone, quick.

And of course, this song will be a smash hit - why wouldn't it be? After all, writing a successful pop song is easy, just like writing a book that children will love. It doesn't take imagination, skill and years of practice. You don't need to constantly think about your audience and their levels of understanding, finding the right vocabulary or creating a generation of readers or whether that toilet scene is a poo too far. It's as easy as falling off a log.*

I'm off to get started right now. All lyrics gratefully received!

*Not a poo joke. Or is it?**

**I don't think children's books are all about toilet humour but, rather inexplicably, kids love it. Parents have advised me to write poo jokes into my books before now.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

How to score top marks at school - Liz Kessler

A local school gave me a serious problem this week.

First of all they invited me to come to their school. They then proceeded to be one of the most wonderfully helpful, friendly and accommodating schools I have ever had dealings with.

Doesn’t sound too much like a problem? Well, no. Unless you are the next school who invites me to visit. This school has set the bar so high that they will be a VERY hard act to follow.

Now, I’m a great believer that every problem has a potential gift in it, if we are open to seeing it. And here’s the gift. As well as the lovely day, the school has given me the chance to write this blog, which means that from now on, if anyone invites me to visit their school, I can simply point them here and say, ‘Can you do it like this?’ and if the answer is ‘Absolutely,’ then we’re on. So, thank you Truro School for making those conversations much easier.

So here are my top ten tips for a great school visit...

1. The first email from the school’s librarian was friendly, clear in what they were asking of me and polite. Oh, and it included this line:

‘Your books are extremely popular, particularly with their local connections, and we very much hope that you will consider visiting us!’

Lesson one: flattery will not hurt your case.

2. When I stated my fees, the librarian was absolutely fine with this. No quibble; no, ‘We can’t afford to pay you, but it will be great exposure for you’. Just a, ‘Great. Please can we have a full day’s visit?’ Heaven.

Lesson two: please remember that in order for an author to visit your school, they will be giving up at least a day that they would otherwise have spent working at home and earning money, so please do not ask us to visit you for free. Before you do, ask yourself if anyone else – the teachers, the librarians, the head of English, the cleaner who will prepare the rooms for the visit, the admin staff who will send letters home – will be in school that day without being paid.

NB: If you still have any questions about the whole ‘being paid’ thing, take a look at this wonderful blog by Nicola Morgan. Hopefully this will ease any remaining doubts.

3. Approximately four emails into the exchange, the librarian brought up the issue of selling books. We discussed which ones would work best for the age groups I would be talking to, she agreed to send a letter home to parents letting them know books would be available and organised the ordering and selling of all the books.

Lesson three: Our livelihood depends on selling books. Most of us love visiting schools and talking to children – but we do need to sell books or our publishers stop publishing us, and if this happens, we stop being authors and you don’t get to invite us to your lovely school. So, yeah – well organised book sales will make us happy every time.

4. The exchange of emails was extremely friendly and lovely and easy from start to finish.

Lesson four: authors spend all day in front of their computers. We LOVE receiving friendly, lovely emails from people.

5. The librarian asked me how long I would like my sessions to last, how many children I’d like in each group, which ages I'd like to talk to, and we discussed between us whether workshops or talks would work best.

Lesson five: find out your visiting author’s strengths. Ask what works well for them. Negotiate. Do NOT ask them to do eight sessions in one day. Ever.

6. A couple of weeks before the visit, I was sent a proposed timetable for the day. It was just as we had discussed, showed the number of students in each group and included important things like ‘tea break’ and ‘lunch.’

Lesson six: Going to a school you’ve never been to can make even the most experienced amongst us nervous. The day will be full of people, places, routines and rules that YOU are probably very familiar with but we are encountering for the first time. A very clear schedule for the day that tells us where to be, when, who with and what will happen in between takes a lot of question marks out of the day for us.

7. Let’s just go back to the bit about lunch. Two librarians took me to the canteen with them. I was shown where everything was, and we sat together and enjoyed a lovely lunch. The only hardship was the bit where (because I’m on a diet) I made myself walk past the delicious-smelling fish and chips and choose a jacket potato and salad instead. Which was actually very lovely, as was the company.

Lesson seven: It doesn’t have to be grand or gourmet, but please do feed us. And even better, eat with us and chat to us and don’t make us have to sit on our own in a scary staffroom wondering where to go to get some food.

8. A week or so before the visit, the librarian emailed to ask me how I’d like to be paid. I was given an email address for the finance department to send my invoice to and was assured that payment would be made direct into my bank.

Lesson eight: Pay us. Please. On time, nicely, easily. No one likes to chase money, and most of us don’t like to spend all that long talking about it. 

9. The day itself! This was absolutely wonderful from start to finish. I was met in the foyer by the librarian who by now felt almost like an old friend. I was taken to the library where my books were on display, with showcards and posters everywhere. 

I was offered tea regularly throughout the day. I was greeted by the school’s headteacher who came in to see me and thank me for coming. I had plenty of teachers on hand for the crowd control during the talks. I had friendly, enthusiastic kids, teachers, librarians who listened, asked questions, joined in and generally made the whole day feel wonderfully smooth. I have to mention the lunch time session with a small group of very keen readers. This session was so warm and lovely and gave me an opportunity to share my writing process and some of the more personal aspects of the job with young people who I think really appreciated the opportunity to have this smaller session with me.

Lesson nine: I think by now, if you do all the things above, the day with you will probably go a bit like this too. I know that schools are all different and it won’t always be smooth and easy all the way – and nor should it be. But as librarians and teachers, what you can do is put in the legwork to make the day as organised as it can possibly be. The rest is up to us. If you’ve done your side of the deal, it makes it easier for us to do ours – which hopefully means that everyone involved will get the most out of the day.

Oh, and if you want bonus points, saving a space in the car park for your visiting author would be an extremely lovely touch.

10. After the event, the school wrote a little article about it which they sent to me. They emailed to say what a lovely day it was and shared photos on twitter and Facebook. This rounded the whole thing off perfectly.

Lesson ten: remember, in a few years, you’ll have a whole new set of students. If we had a wonderful time, we will almost definitely want to come back next time!

Thank you Truro School for setting the bar so high and for making my job a pleasure!

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Monday, 23 May 2016

Divine Madness by Steve Gladwin

'My name is Bess and I'm a mad girl.'

Some time last spring I wrote those words and from them sprang a brand new story – the current WIP which may or may not make my fortune, get me an agent, snare a brace of publishers or just keep me in cheese and CD's for the next few years.

The mad girl was a character who had rather unceremoniously muscled her way in from another unpublished book and who knows – perhaps the right story has been waiting for her and the other one will never see the light of day. But one thing's for certain - that is that my Bess firmly insists on not being ignored and seeing the light of day in her own right and who am I to argue?

Bess is the alter ego of Elizabeth Curzon, a young girl in 1850's London, who, finding herself in near poverty due to her feckless father, discovers a new life on the streets as apprentice to Old Lizzie, a professional Bess o' Bedlam. Hopefully you will eventually be able to read what follows but for now Bess is merely the springboard to this blog.

Of late I have been rather taken by the notion of madness. No, don't worry, the divinity of madness hasn't actually come upon me – well no more than usual – but I seem increasingly drawn to the idea of what madness actually is. A few years ago I taught confidence classes in a drop in centre for people with mental health issues. One of the oddest things about this was that there was little obvious sign of any disturbance to the user's equilibrium, due to medication keeping things largely on an even keel. Rather like that wonderful scene on the boat in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, most of the time you really could believe that the 'clients' could be the doctors.

Of course any health matter is all about interpretation and quite often the mood of the person at the time. For the most part the people I taught - even those who I just saw on a day to day basis - were happy and secure as long as they were familiar with both people and environment, which was surely the point. As part of a similar project called 'Chasing The Sun' I also taught several sessions at a halfway house facility. Again - although there was clearly an undercurrent of life away from my teaching sessions - the whole experience felt a great deal less 'mad' than say the three months I taught in HM Prison Shepton Mallett in 1994, where on the first day we were locked in a woodwork room stocked with abundant 'weaponry' - albeit in glass cases - with a group of eight inmates who had arrived to find that woodwork had been cancelled and they had to do drama!

It was when I had finished my confidence work in 2010-12 however that I came to feel increasingly depressed and for most of that time also, worthless. I have never entirely picked out the bones of why that was and this is not the platform on which to do it. One thing it did do was to make me think. A lot.

What does a mad person look like? Most of us who suffer one of several levels of depression look just like you or me because they are you and especially me. We don't wear a badge or carry a government health warning on our lapel. What we do – to coin a wartime phrase – is just to keep on carrying on.

Perhaps part of my own way of dealing with something as common as depression has been to write a novel where someone is pretending to be mad and where – in the end – she almost loses sight of who is Bess and who is Elizabeth. I recently re-read one of my favourite books, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and if you haven't I urge you etc. The book is, among other things, about identity and deception whereas my book is more about hiding a true self behind a deliberate deceit. But unlike Fingersmith - where the deceit comes via others and the plans they weave around the heroine - Elizabeth's deceit comes solely from herself. In the end her alter ego construct is so great that she begins to use her as a convenience when she wishes to ignore or escape from 'soft Elizabeth.'

Robert Schumann wasn't soft and, despite his early death at 46 in Endenich   asylum, he didn't suffer from a split personality. But in his recent, otherwise excellently argued biography, John Worthen tries so hard to convince the reader that RS never suffered from depression that he only convinces me that he surely did. Just because Schumann never uses the actual word 'depression' in his diaries and – crucially – because he continues to work during his many black times - surely - Worthen suggests - he can't really be that depressed if he manages to produce 130 of possibly the greatest songs ever written within 11 months. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the actual reason Schumann went mad and - in the end - had to be put away - was likely due to tertiary syphilis.. But that doesn't take away the question his continuing mental problems. I presume the author himself has never suffered from depression, or he would surely recognise that bouts of creative brilliance do not always equal happiness and that it may quite often be quite the opposite!

Tom Philips - Last Notes From Endenich 
What also emerges in the story of Schumann and so many other brilliant creative people, (Tchaikovsky, Van Gogh and Poe are just three picked for different reasons at random) is that idea of divine madness, where that journey into the near white hot brilliance of your next creation can too easily tip over into something else that you cannot deal with. I know there will be many of you out there who will recognise that this is true.

Which might again beg the question not only of how we define madness but how much of it might be 'divine'. By modern definitions of schizophrenia for example, a whole host of saints,mystics, hermits and holy men and women, (Buddha springs to mind), might have been put away for their own and the public's safety.Equally, sensitives, shaman and even the odd inspired bard like me might find themselves at the very least forced into treatment, without any understanding that all too often these are almost dictated vocations which are all but unavoidable

Surely then the best the rest of us can do is to sympathise with all those troubled voices when we hear them, whether they were smiling when they were creating their masterpiece or not. The character in my book has - for her own reasons - chosen madness as both a profession and a life style. Not everyone gets the choice.  

I'm aware that this is all a little serious so I'll leaven it with a true recent anecdote. Having finished the Schumann book, I was talking to my mother on the phone about it. I was telling her how in the asylum, the doctor's became obsessed with the firmness of Schumann's stool as being some kind of monitor of future sanity!  Wishing no doubt to consolidate my role as family wit, I suggested that this might actually be a good idea because if his stool hadn't been firm enough, he wouldn't have been able to sit to play the piano! The next night my unfortunate elderly father was rushed into hospital with a - shall we say - not unrelated condition.

I'd like to say that I'll keep my big mouth shut in the future but unfortunately I know myself all too well!    


John Worthen's Robert Schumann - Life and Death of a Musician is published by Yale University Press.

If you fancy checking out Schumann's astonishing bursts of creativity - whether he was depressed or not?  - you could do worse than begin with Hyperion's 11 Volume Complete Schumann songs with the pianist Graham Johnson. The gems - and a great deal of small jewels more besides - are there for all to hear.