Friday, 30 September 2016

Setting the bird free - Lari Don

I wear various hats as a writer. I write for a variety of ages, and the difference in writing for toddlers and for teens might seem like the biggest difference I face. But actually, the difference between the fiction I write (for all ages) and the retellings of traditional tales I write (for picture books and 8-12 years) is the real divide. That’s what requires the real shift in focus and process and skills.

With fiction, I make it up. (Obviously!)

With retellings, I use what I've learnt about words, imagery, rhythm and narrative, to retell a story that already exists. I’m not making up a story, I’m crafting a new way to tell an old story.

But of course, sometimes I do make bits up. Sometimes I have to fill gaps. Sometimes I want to expand on the exciting bits, and cut out the family trees. And sometimes I make changes because I just can’t leave the story at the ending the traditional tale offers.

I don’t believe in the inevitability of happy endings. I don’t think children do either. If a reader was sure that every story would end in the best possible way with every character smiling and content, where would the tension be, what would draw the reader on to see what happens next? So, I don’t believe in happy endings every single time, not in my fiction, nor in my retellings of old stories.

But sometimes there are endings that just don’t satisfy me.

I can do two things about that. I can decide to not tell the story, if I feel that to change the ending would be to rip the heart from the story, or make the story something so completely different that it’s not a retelling, it’s a story inspired by, or reacting to, the original trad tale.

That’s why you will rarely find a story in one of my collections where the marriage of a pretty girl to a brave boy is considered a satisfactory resolution. And you'll NEVER find a story where a girl is given away as a prize.

But sometimes the ending just needs a tweak. Sometimes my disquiet about the ending isn’t about a main character, it’s about a minor character who just hasn’t been given a resolution to their story. And then, I don’t think it unbalances the story to change it or add to it.

For example, in my recent collection of horse stories, Horse of Fire, a boy is helped by a talking horse to capture a free wild golden bird for a demanding king. And at the end of the tale, the horse is respected, the boy is the new king, and the bird is in a cage. Happy, apparently, because it has an apple to eat. But I couldn’t tell the story like that. When I told it to kids, I couldn’t leave that free-flying bird in a tiny cage, even if it was a golden cage, even if there was a fancy apple. So I had the boy, as part of his growth as a hero, risk his own future to set the bird free.

And I realised that is one of the powers and joys of retelling a story: you can, in your vision and your world, set the story bird free.

I realise this is me imposing my modern sensibility on an ancient story. The original tellers cared about the relationship between the boy and the horse, and the relationship between the boy and the king, and the magic of the bird. I care about the bird itself as well. So I set the bird free.

Yes, the more I think about it, it probably is the animal-loving vegetarian in me. Just like the feminist in my can’t see a girl given away as a prize, the animal lover in me can’t leave a wild animal in a cage.

Because the other major change I’ve made to a story recently was in a collection of Viking saga tales called The Dragon’s Hoard. I chose to retell a story about a young man who transported a polar bear from Greenland to Denmark. The original Viking saga was all about the cleverness and luck of the trader getting the bear so far south, and it didn’t tell you what happened to the bear once he had made his owner rich and respected. So I just kept the story going a little bit longer to find out what happened to the bear too. Partly for my own satisfaction, and partly because I was fairly sure that my young readers would be more interested in the bear than in the merchant!

Setting the bird free and sending the polar bear home are not the biggest changes I’ve made when retelling stories (I always feel that so long as I respect the heart of the story I can do what I like with the rest of it) but they might be the most satisfying!

So, I wonder what bird I will set free next?

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales, a teen thriller and novellas for reluctant readers. 


Thursday, 29 September 2016

Hanging Up My Blogging Trousers - John Dougherty

I've been writing for An Awfully Big Blog Adventure for years. More than eight years, in fact; my first post was the sixth to appear on the site, back in July 2008, and - aside from a bit of a break a year or two back during a time of crisis (and, erm, the very occasional month when I've forgotten to post, which has happened to many of us!) - I've blogged for the site ever since. For most of that time, I've also been part of the editorial team.

And it's been fun. But I've come to a point where I feel I ought to hang up my blogging trousers, for a while at least. So to say goodbye for now, I've rather self-indulgently trawled through my back catalogue of ABBA posts and picked out some of my favourites. I hope you'll enjoy revisiting some of them with me.

Five Go To Therapy Together (August 2008) - in which I argue that the Kirrin cousins belong to literature's most dysfunctional family. This was my second post for the blog, and I was rather chuffed to overhear someone discussing it at a Society of Authors conference a couple of months later

Sense and Sensibilities (June 2010) - musings about some of the things publishers will and won't accept these days

What's Wrong With Ed Vaizey? (May 2012) - you knew this one was going to be on the list, didn't you? A song I wrote about the now former and not-at-all-missed Minister for Ignoring the Ongoing Crisis in the Library Service

We Warned You This Would Happen (November 2013) - I got a bit cross in this one. It's about political interference in education

A Confession of my Own (December 2013) - this was my response to one of the most important posts we've ever had on the site, Liz Kessler's Let's Get This Out There from the previous month

The Reasons for Signing (March 2014) - why I think book signings are an essential part of school visits

Why Do We Believe These Things? (April 2014) - over two years later, this one keeps popping up on my Twitter feed, usually because the excellent Let Books Be Books campaign has pointed someone to it. It's about the so-called 'accepted truths' that seem to be handed down through the publishing industry like oral history

The Great OUP Pig Scandal (January 2015) - remember when people got cross about publishers "banning pigs"? This was my take on it

Copyright - It's a Piece of Cake (April 2015) - I'm pretty proud of this one, in which I attempt to explain copyright as simply as possible

And finally, it seems appropriate that I leave you with the song I wrote for what was, as far as we know, the world's first online children's literature festival, held on this site over three days in July 2011 to celebrate our third anniversary.

Bye. *waves*


John's recent books include his first poetry collection, Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones (Otter-Barry Books), and Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story Nickers, which is the latest in his Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP.

His first picture-book, There's a Pig Up My Nose, illustrated by Laura Hughes, will be published by Egmont early next year. 

First Draft, the author band featuring John, Jo Cotterill and Paul and Helen Stickland, will next be performing at the Bradford Roots Festival in January 2017.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Adolescence Amnesia - Clémentine Beauvais

Recently, my parents decided it was high time they emptied their flat of all my stuff. Fair enough: I moved out 10 years ago, and am now living in a house with three floors while they’re squeezed like sardines in a Parisian apartment the size of a metro ticket. A few weeks ago, they packed a car full of everything that I’d left behind, and drove to Zeebrugge, then took the ferry to Hull, and finally got to York, where we offloaded the whole of my childhood and adolescence into my living-room.

Aside from the suitcases of books, there were also bags of correspondence, early writings, and other random things. My adolescence isn’t that far ago, but I couldn’t believe how little I remembered of all that stuff, especially the masses of letters that I’d apparently exchanged with friends and cousins. I discovered with astonishment the dozens of pages written to me over the years by A., still one of my closest friends, about her holidays, her early romantic experiences, her dreams (pages and pages and PAGES of dreams), most of it extraordinarily detailed and intimate. It’s not as if we didn’t have the Internet at the time - yet apparently, we still feverishly wrote letters between the ages of 12 and 17.

Other letters emerged, from people I can now barely remember - yet clearly we must have been close, because they were full of specific remarks and questions and memories of things we’d experienced together, and constellations of hearts and smiley faces.

Many of these letters also mention things I simply don’t understand anymore, private jokes, allusions, a whole world of intimacy now entirely forgotten. Even with A. - I asked her recently, ‘do you have any idea who you meant when you wrote to me “I bumped into our favourite Blonde yesterday”?’ She couldn’t. But Blonde was, it seems, a character of some importance for our relationship circa 2000, because A. mentioned her several times.

My cousin wrote me a letter entirely composed of what must have been at the time our favourite private jokes. It must have been hilarious at the time. Now, it reads like a list of cryptic crossword definitions. She finishes by saying ‘I hope you understand this letter because it means it’s you who’s reading it!!!!’

Damn, seems like it isn’t me reading it anymore.

It’s good to remember as writers of young adult literature how little we actually remember of our own adolescence - even though we may have quite strong memories of something like a general feel, the atmosphere, of it. Maybe some people think of themselves as super-rememberers of their teenage days, but I doubt their confidence would hold, confronted with tangible evidence of everything that got lost along the way.

Or perhaps the real super-rememberers can only ever write the kind of literature that, today, would be anachronistic, fossilised, irrelevant to contemporary teenagers. Lost in the details, it would miss the transgenerational dimension of what it means to be a teenager. Maybe what allows us to write for children and young adults is just that: a loss of what our own adolescence exactly was, but a preserved sense of it was like.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Ebb and Flow of Writing - Lynn Huggins-Cooper

I don't know about you, but I find my writing goes in cycles. Not regular, rhythmic patterns, but surges and ebbs. Sometimes I think it is linked to seasonal changes. It is September, and like many people who have been in the educational world for many years, it feels like time for new beginnings. I have a novel that needs a second draft, but I am feeling new ideas nudging at the corners of my thoughts.

The problem is knowing what to write first. It's easy to start - but it's the finishing that's the thing. Writers all have half-finished, part-formed books. They lurk there in drawers and on book cases, waiting to be completed. I take them out from time and tinker with them, and sometimes they 'grow legs' and walk.

In the past I have found that when my writing is at a low ebb, other creative activities help to get me fired up again. That's the great thing about having a 'double life,' working as a textiles artist as well as a writer; the two lives complement each other.

My two lives are starting to mesh together. I am now starting to illustrate my own work with my felting and stitching. It's been a revelation! It means I want to work all of the time, though...but one side of my work fires up the other and I just don't want to stop. Luckily, autumn is my favourite season, so the call of the woods gets too much for me, and I *do* get outside every day. Then there's the apple-and-spice autumnal cookery to do...

I still teach a lot - writing and felting rather than the PGCE students I used to teach - and one of my students remarked rather wistfully the other day as she was leaving class that my life was rather idyllic. You know what? She was right. 

(You can see more of my textiles work at Faerierealms and hear about writing at Book Nurture well - should you feel the desire!)

Monday, 26 September 2016

Ty Newydd Writers' Centre - Eloise Williams

I FINALLY made it to  Ty Newydd Writers' Centre!

This isn’t a joke about the lack of trains from the South-West of Wales to the North of Wales and the circuitous route I had to take to get there at all. Honestly…
It is more about my becoming a writer at the tender age of (age has been deleted for vanity reasons) and embarking upon a completely new career. 

Ha! What an idiot!

Or was I?

Well yes, I was. But it turned out alright in the end. Well, so far anyway…

First I had to write deep poetry – some of which is so far beyond abysmal that I believe if I go to Hell it will be an ongoing reading of my own odious odes.

Then I wrote some short stories – these weren’t too bad, there’s one about a cardigan that’s passable.

A few pantos. Oh no you didn’t… oh yes I…. they were even worse than this. So I said to the horse ‘Why the long face?’ etc.

Then I tried my hand at some Adult Fiction. Not the erotic stuff. Just the everyday novel stuff. But no, no it wasn’t for me.

Eventually, on a long walk on a cliff path, literally on the edge, I had an epiphany of sorts. I should write for children! YES. That was not only where my heart really belonged it was also one of the only options left!

Since pulling myself back from the brink (I wasn’t suicidal, I’m just trying to write dramatically) I have gone on to have my book for 7-9s, ‘Elen’s Island’ published by Firefly Press in 2015 and next April I have a Middle Grade called ‘Gaslight’ coming out. It’s set in Victorian Cardiff and is a dark and scary mystery, also published by Firefly Press and supported by a Writers’ Bursary from Literature Wales. I also have a MG ghost story called ‘Seaglass’ which has been shortlisted for the Wells Festival of Literature Children’s Story Competition this year.

So that’s me…. until Ty Newydd.

You can look at the photo of the house to see how stunning it is. What that doesn’t tell you is that you can see the mountains from the garden. The sea is a glittering necklace beyond.  There is birdsong in the air, history in the walls, quirkiness all around and comfort, laughter (lots of) and other writers.  

I sat in an attic room with the skylight ajar watching the gentle rain falling softly outside the window. Apparently there was a heatwave on the other side of the country but as far as I was concerned they could keep it. This was just perfect.

Our tutors for the week were the immensely talented Lucy Christopher – I’ve just finished reading ‘The Killing Woods’, completely gripping and like Barry Cunningham, I didn’t guess either! – and the equally immensely talented Marcus Sedgwick.
‘The Book of Dead Days’ is my current reading material and I already have a favourite line, ‘He felt old and tired and fat, because he was’. Ha!

Both tutors were thoroughly delightful. So approachable and friendly and phew! To all of it. I didn’t feel like a spanner or a plank as I still so often do. I just felt comfy. For people who know me this is an unusual state of being for me as I tend to be an accomplished worrier.

There is something about the place that seeps into your bones. It welcomes you with its labyrinthine stairs and turrets. It cwtches you in.

It taught me a lot of things. That it is okay to switch off from ‘real life’ to dedicate time to my writing. That I am not all that weird for wanting to do just that. That I still have a huge amount to learn (thank God!). That North Wales could very definitely take on South-West Wales for beauty, inspiration and charm (have booked a holiday there already). That I need to learn Welsh (have finally taken myself onto a fast-track course – wish me luck). That we are all story-tellers and that stories are one of the most important components of my life. That Tony, the chef, should have his own television series. That I need to go on another course at Ty Newydd! My only regret is that I didn’t go sooner.

The whole career change has been a huge learning experience for me. And I mean HUGE. But it is with the support of Ty Newydd and Literature Wales, the lovely tutors and staff, the time and space and energy there that has really made me realise what an important path I’ve chosen. It’s a place where Literature is respected in all its forms. It’s a very special place. Very special.

Highly recommended. So, so highly recommended. Did I say I highly recommend it?

And there’s one more thing (she says like Columbo) …


Sunday, 25 September 2016

Dear Auntie by Tamsyn Murray

Dear Auntie Beeb,

I'm just dropping you a line to see how you are. You've been in the news a lot lately - the whole Great British Bake Off debacle has left a nasty taste in the mouths of the viewing public, so I thought it was time to send you some love.

I don't know many writers who don't appreciate you. To most of us, you are a much-loved relative; a national treasure that we adore. You don't always get things right (let's not talk about Mrs Brown's Boys) but there is such a lot you do better than anyone else. And one of the best things about you is that your independence
 - you innovate and aren't dictated to by others. This leaves you free to concentrate on nurturing the best writing talent.

I know that not everyone approves of you, and you are having to compromise here and there to keep going. I know that some people are trying to make it harder for you to shine, to do the things you do best. So this is just a note to say that I appreciate you. I hope you're part of my life for many years to come, inspiring me and setting the standard for many imitators. Please don't stop being you.



Saturday, 24 September 2016

Sending your baby to the house of tomorrow - Liz Kessler

I’ve ummed and ahhhed more than usual over what to write about this month. I’ve thought of and then rejected at least half a dozen ideas.

I was on the verge of asking if anyone wanted to do a guest post on my date – and then the advance copy of my new book turned up, and I realised that the joy of holding your new book in your hands for the first time never goes away.

You made this thing. It has so much of you poured into it. And yet, now that it exists in its own right, now that it is out there in the world – your role is done and you have to stand back and let it find its own way.

The letting go can be hard.

See, the thing is – I absolutely love this book. I love the characters, falling in love despite the biggest divide there is.

I loved writing it – each new scene unfolding virtually in front of my eyes as I walked along the wild coast path watching waves crashing on rocks, and listening to a playlist that brought me to tears more often than not.

I loved the process – the collaborating with the amazing poet, Ella Frears, who was so in tune with me that the poems she wrote felt as if they came from the pens of my actual characters. The songs she shared with me felt as if they came directly from the story I was weaving.

I loved all of it. And now that the book is going out there, it is taking a bit of my heart with it.

I am not a parent, so I don’t know if this analogy is as true as it feels, but producing a book does seem, to me, to be a bit like having a child. To be fair, probably not as painful as actual childbirth (although excruciatingly painful at times, in its own way!) Perhaps the process is more like the struggles, joys and extremes of bringing up a child from baby to adulthood.

I spent about eighteen months living with characters who had all sorts thrown at them. Bullying, panic attacks, life-threatening illnesses, drug overdoses, grief. Characters who somehow managed to choose love over all of these, again and again.

So yeah. It was an intense journey. And now, the book is out of my hands and – hopefully – into other people’s. It is finished, and I have to let go.

Luckily for me, I have an amazing editor, Helen Thomas, who helped break the intensity of the moment by sending me a text of the plotline - told in emojis! I love this as much as all the other things.

I have friends who are saying goodbye to their children as they go to university this month. I have witnessed their mixture of pride, fear, grief, loss, excitement and hope.

This is how it is with a book. I want the best for it. I want it to be liked – loved – thought well of.

If I had a child going to university right now, I don’t think I’d be rooting for them to come home with a first class degree and the highest praise for every piece of work they produced. Yes, of course, those things would be nice. But more than that, I believe the things that would make my heart swell would be to hear that they had made friends, they’d fallen in love, they were happy.

And so with the book – I don’t care about awards and shortlistings. Yes, they are nice (I haven’t had many in over a decade as a published author!) But I’d much rather my book found its way into the hands of young people who loved it, whose lives were enriched for having found it, who felt warm for reading it and wanted to share it with their friends.

I will do all I can to try to make this happen. In a few days, I’m off on a book tour where I will be meeting lots of young people all around the UK and sharing my book with them. Next week, I’m holding a book launch where I will celebrate its release. I'll accept every invitation I get to go and talk about it with young people.

I’ll give my baby the best upbringing I can, and send it off with a case full of clothes and books and a heart full of hope. Will people like it? I don't know. Will they criticise it, give it a rough time? They might. Once I've let it go, I have no control over what happens out there. And that’s how it should be. That’s part of the process. The letting go.

As Kahlil Gibran says, in The Prophet:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

I hope that Haunt Me has a great time, out there in the house of tomorrow.

Pre-order Haunt Me
Check out Liz's Website
Follow Liz on Twitter
Join Liz's Facebook page