Saturday, 30 May 2015

The fragility of the imagination – by Lari Don

I sometimes feel unreasonable when I say that I can’t write in my lovely bright study, unless the house is quiet and I know I won’t be interrupted. (I know it’s really annoying for my family, and fairly contradictory, since I can write in noisy cafes, libraries, bus stations, train carriages and staff rooms…) But I know that in order to put my whole self into the world I’m creating, I need to feel confident that I won’t be distracted. And I’m discovering that sometimes there’s just too much life and stress and STUFF going on, for me to be able to create stories.

I’ve been thinking recently about how easily the creative process is derailed, and about the fragility of a writer’s imagination.

Last week, Nicola Morgan, a writer I greatly admire, for the books she writes and for the wisdom she shares about writing and publishing, wrote a powerful post about how she’s struggling (temporarily, I hope) to write fiction, rather than non-fiction. Her post made me think about my own writing.

As well as novels, I write retellings of old myths, legends and folktales. Fewer facts and more magic than most non-fiction, but even so, I find this process, the craft of retelling something that already exists, fairly robust, much less likely to be disrupted by someone asking what’s for tea, or by more fundamental disturbances in my life.

However, I find the process of writing fiction, creating the new world of a novel, much more fragile.

One of my novels crashed and burned a year or so ago. An idea I was entirely committed to, characters I loved, a world I was fascinated by, questions I desperately wanted to answer… And it died. I spent months researching it. I wrote 21 chapters. Then it just died.

I couldn’t see where the story was going. So I abandoned it. Put all the books and research notes into a cardboard box.

And then I put that box with all the other boxes. The packing boxes.

Because that book crashed and burned in a year when I moved house twice. A year in which I sold a house, failed to buy another house, moved out of the first house anyway, lived in a (wholly unsuitable) rented house, finally bought another house, and moved house again.

And I will never know whether the story collapsed because of fundamental problems with the idea, or because of the disruptive circumstances under which I was trying to write it.

I will never know, because I just can’t face opening that box and re-entering that story, even though I suspect the essence of the story is fine, and it was just too hard to create that world inside my head, when the world outside my head was so unstable. So that book is probably dead.

But a book which is NOT dead is the one I’m currently writing. I’ve had an unsettled couple of months, when it’s been hard to get the peaceful focus I’m beginning to realise is essential for me to write fiction. And I had a minor crisis last week, when I was on the verge of wondering whether my current novel was falling apart.

But then I realised I’ve been trying to sort out the central plot problem during a General Election (always a busy time in our household) and while one of my children has been on exam leave (giving me no daytime hours to write in a quiet house.)

So, rather than packing this book in a box, I’ve reminded myself about the fragility of my creative process, and I’ve decided not to make any big decisions about the plot until I have time to think in peace and quiet and calmness. (Next Monday, I hope!) I’ll give myself time to get back into this world in the way that works for me, rather than panicking and abandoning it, and souring my relationship with this story and these characters for ever.

What writers do is very strange. Perhaps we don’t admit that often enough. Writing fiction, for whatever age, is essentially quite odd. We invent worlds, and live inside them. We do it convincingly enough to invite others to join us in those worlds. We invent people. We have close and emotional relationships with entirely imaginary people. We give our characters lives, make those lives dramatic and exciting and painful, then sometimes we take those lives away.

That’s a very weird thing to do. It’s precious, it’s delicate, it’s fragile. It needs nurtured, not forced. And it can never be taken for granted. Writers have to be allowed to admit that, to ourselves first of all.

 PS – I’d really like to thank Nicola for her honesty last week. It helped me think about my own creativity and its flawed fragility...
Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 

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Friday, 29 May 2015

My friend Anthony - John Dougherty

When I first met Anthony, he was - well, to say he was a struggling author would be a stretch. Truth to tell, he was probably one of the more successful authors I came to know in my new home-town during that early settling-in period. Some years back, he'd co-written a play which, as he put it, paid his mortgage and enabled him to go on writing.

Still, his career wasn't thriving. Despite a number of books, plays and films to his name, he was having trouble keeping a UK publisher. His books were good - I mean, really good - but they weren't selling in the sorts of numbers that made publishers desperate to publish them.

Something that impressed me enormously about Anthony, though - even apart from his readiness to break out the barbecue and a bottle of cava if I dropped round after his writing day was done - was his unwillingness to let the vagaries of the writing life get to him. Once, for instance, he reacted to being dropped by a UK publisher by knuckling down immediately and writing a new novel. It was called Death of a Superhero. It was published in the UK and, some time later, turned into a film starring Andy Serkis.

His work began taking him away from here more and more - book tours in Germany, working on films not only as a writer but as a director and producer. Still, we tried to meet up from time to time for a beer when he was in town.

On one such occasion, about a year and a half ago, he told me that he was working on a film about the life of Stephen Hawking. He'd written the screenplay, and was co-producing. It sounded interesting, though not necessarily the sort of thing to set box offices alight.

And then, a year later, I noticed that one of the big posters that frequently adorn our local cinema  ahead of a big release bore a picture that looked like... well, like Stephen Hawking. I wonder if that's Anthony's film, I thought.

It was. And you probably know the rest: The Theory of Everything was one of the big must-see films of last year, as it well deserved to be; it's a great film. When I saw it in the local cinema, the audience broke into spontaneous applause as the closing credits rolled.

I haven't seen much of Anthony since The Theory of Everything was released, but we managed to catch up in London a couple of weeks ago. He was looking very well, and feeling very lucky; the success of Theory has opened doors to him that he couldn't have imagined a couple of years back. At present he's juggling seven projects at one stage of development or another, including one with George Clooney. We chatted about work over a cup of tea, and he let me hold one of his BAFTAs for a selfie. It was lovely. Seeing Anthony, I mean; not holding the BAFTA. Although that was nice too.

I'm hoping we can get together for one of our increasingly infrequent pints before long; but I'm not likely to forget about him in the meantime. I keep bumping into display stands full of his DVDs everywhere from Primark to Waitrose.

Is there a point to this story? Probably. Perhaps it's about perseverance; battling on even when your career isn't going brilliantly. Perhaps it's about talent. Perhaps it's a callback to my last blogpost, the one about copyright - after all, without the continued royalties from his early play, maybe Anthony would never have been able to write the film that has well and truly made his name. But for me, more than anything it's about celebrating a friend who has encouraged me as a writer, and who deserves to enjoy every minute of the success he's worked so hard for.


John's latest book is the extremely silly Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Evilness of Pizza, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

France's Zoella - Clementine Beauvais

France has its very own Zoe Sugg: she's called Marie Lopez but goes by the name of Enjoy Phoenix, and she's a beauty, make-up and life vlogger. Like Zoe Sugg, she's written a book, which was published a few days ago and is called #EnjoyMarie (the title sounds only slightly less weird in French). I wasn't the only 'old person' to discover her works on that occasion, but she's been fabulously popular online for a while.

Le livre d'Enjoy Phoenix, numéro un des ventes la première semaine.

Hardly had #EnjoyMarie been published that the press started mocking the book, with the trendy magazine Les Inrocks devoting an article to 'The 27 sentences that will make you think Enjoy Phoenix is the new Flaubert'. Each sentence is escorted by a sarcastic comment:

3. "We are a generation of words created by an ever-sharper technology and, without noticing, we're living under the attractive power of the webs of the Internet." EnjoyPhoenix > Edward Snowden.

17. "I shudder as I imagine drinking my first glass of alcohol... I hope there will be some." Spoiler alert: there was.

Etc. It's funny in some ways, but it's also a bit facile to mock a 19-year-old who started a blog five years ago as a means of dealing with school bullying, and who picked the phoenix as her animal of choice to express her desire to be born again and different. But then French adults are always cruel to teenagers, as I well remember.

Lopez's book is in many ways a bizarre phenomenon in a country which is far from having a literary landscape as cluttered by author 'brands' and celebrity books as the Anglo-Saxon market, even in children's and teenage literature. As the title of the Inrocks article indicates through the direct and snarky comparison with Flaubert, there is something distinctly disasteful, for the French mindset, about a book so obviously commercial.

It's worth saying here that Les Inrocks is in many ways culturally snobbish, but as regards edgy pop culture - they're not at all protective of highbrow culture; you would never find an article on Flaubert in there, so the reference sounds a little bit out of place. But even they, faced with walls of fuschia pink #EnjoyMarie books in each Fnac (the French franchise of cultural supermarkets), felt defensive enough to remind their readers of our literary canon, which in France would be packaged between white or cream covers. (Judging a book by its colour is very much a thing in my country.)

L'Express, meanwhile, has decided to compare the sales of #EnjoyMarie to those of the other best-selling non-fiction books of the moment, which are: a sociological study of the Charlie Hebdo demonstrators by an academic; a political study of Germany by a politician; an apology of blasphemy post-Charlie-Hebdo-massacre by a feminist intellectual; and a book on health and nutrition by some doctor. 'Enjoy Phoenix sells more books than all those people!!!!!' L'Express marvels.

And provides a diagram to prove this astonishing fact:


My French writer and illustrator friends are watching all of this with some amusement and not much anxiety. But some are mildly incredulous too, in part because of the unashamed money-making dimension of the enterprise. As I've written about before, the French market is much less commercially-oriented and there's much less money to be made; books cannot be discounted, and they are generally quite expensive (my latest YA novel retails at 15,99€).  

In a publishing world where advances for teenage novels are generally between 500 and 2000 euros, and there are never any announcements along the lines of 'NEW AUTHOR GETS FIVE BOOK DEAL FOR AN UNDISCLOSED SIX FIGURE SUM', #EnjoyMarie feels like an odd import from Britain or the US - it's no coincidence that the name sounds English. Interviewers and journalists spend a lot of time telling their readers about Marie Lopez's supposed salary.

Another interesting thing is that, as far as I can tell - I might be wrong! - Marie Lopez probably wrote her own book mostly on her own; unlike, as everyone here remembers, Zoe Sugg. Keren David wrote a great blog post on the matter a while back. Keren was annoyed "that no one from Zoella’s management team or publishers -  let alone Zoella herself -  wanted to give the ghostwriter a co-writing credit, or admit up front that Zoella needed a hand to get her ideas down in print." Like Keren, I think it would be far healthier if the world was actually told that writing is a proper job, which not everyone famous is always necessarily qualified to do.

It's time to confess that I haven't actually read Zoella's book (sorry), but it sounds to me like it was well-received by her fans. By contrast, Lopez's book is getting mixed reviews, including from its target audience. I think this is the first time a French publishing company has given a book deal to a teenage celebrity in this way, and I wonder if they underestimated the need to hire professional help to bulk up the content of the book.

Is this the beginning in the French publishing world of a more Anglo-Saxon way of doing things? Well, you can tell from the way in which people are reacting that it isn't something they're close to getting used to. But after all, ex-First Girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler's memoir on François Hollande sold hundreds of thousands of copies earlier this year. Maybe France is slowly edging towards this brave new world after all.

Clémentine Beauvais writes children's books in French and in English. She blogs here about children's literature, academia and other things.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Hybrids by Lynn Huggins-Cooper

I am a hybrid. Not a strange hedgehog/human cross (although I like the idea apart from the whole munching bugs thing); not an alien life form - but that strange creature, a hybrid author. Nope; that still sounds strange. It sounds as though I am part author, part...other. Maybe penguin.

Anyway - what the term 'hybrid author' seems to mean to some people is that an author is traditionally published, by big publishing houses as well as self published - by themselves, presumably. This is not what I mean, however. By 'hybrid author,' I mean I am historically traditionally published, and have been for over eighteen years. In addition to that, I have started a small press. I know; that sounds crazy as publishers are going under or being eaten by giants. Not literally, you understand. That would be messy.

The Forest House Press began as the result of being left some money by my mum when she died. Now, my parents were extremely supportive of my writing, and had to have a copy of everything I published in what they called their 'archive' - unbearably sweet to remember that. So starting the press was something they would be proud of, and approve of. I  am not competing with any large (or even medium...or even small!) publishers out there; I know my niches and intend to publish in those. I have written craft, educational and self help books for years; we'll be publishing those. We are currently working on a range of patterns for kits and a book for Faerierealms. We are approaching non-traditional markets such as craft sellers, knitting shops and gift shops as well as book shops - we know where our customers live, as it were.

                                 Half author; half cupcake. The perfect hybrid for elevenses!

We are on a steep learning curve. I have a good team behind me, including two fabulous interns this summer. So watch this space - the hybrid author will be the bleary-eyed one in the corner.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Hedgehogs, are they the new tigers? by Julie Sykes

The first book I ever wrote was a picture book about kittens. I sent it to a publisher who liked it very much; only they couldn't publish it because they already had enough books about cats on their list. The editor asked if I could write about something else. So I did. I wrote a book called Hedgehog's Apple. It was the story of a hedgehog, trying to find an apple for his tea. 

The editor liked that story too; only there was a problem. Picture books are expensive to publish and rely on co-editions, foreign editions of the book. This particular company worked closely with a publisher in America who wasn't interested in books on hedgehogs, as they weren't a native species. 

I immediately sacked hedgehog and threw away his apple. Then I hired a squirrel. The book (about Rufus going out to find some acorns for tea) became An Acorn for Tea. It published in America as Sara Squirrel and the Lost Acorns. 

I like hedgehogs. I was sad about getting rid of Rufus but not tragically so. Recently however, I was shocked to learn that hedgehog numbers are in sharp decline. The BBC's Michaela Strachan, co-presenter of Springwatch, wrote in this week's Radio Times, that 'Hedgehogs are declining at the same rate as tigers,' and 'they are in critical danger, particularly in London.' She goes on to say that if we don't do anything about it then hedgehogs will be gone in ten years. 

Hedgehogs need a huge amount of space to forage in - an area the size of TWO football pitches. Urban hedgehogs are often unable to travel such large distances partly because of garden fences blocking their way. 

And here's where we can help. If anyone with a garden could make a small hole under their fence it will allow hedgehogs the freedom to roam and find food. 

It's such a small thing to do so please help if you can. Better still, ask your neighbour to do the same. Imagine a Britain without the hedgehog. That would be tragic!

Monday, 25 May 2015

Earning a Living from Writing by Tamsyn Murray

Some of you may know that I achieved a milestone recently. Seven and a half years after I first resolved to 'take this writing business seriously', I handed in my notice at both my part-time jobs to concentrate solely on writing. From 1st July 2015, I will be a full-time writer. Hurrah!

Almost immediately after I'd done the deed (told my bosses I was leaving), The Fear set in. How was I going to pay the bills and feed my children with no monthly salary? What if it all went wrong? What if I had made a terrible TERRIBLE mistake?

My husband tried to reassure me. "Don't worry, you can just do some more school events if we start to struggle." And he's right - children's authors are lucky in that we have an additional stream of income to tap into: school visits.

I like to think that I give good value to the schools who book me. My events are funny, interactive and designed to get kids talking about books long after I've left. And obviously while I'm off performing, I cannot be writing so I charge a reasonable amount for an event. I don't mean for the short run of promotional visits I might do for my publisher, to promote a new book or series - I mean an everyday school visit. Two assemblies and a signing, perhaps, or a workshop and an assembly. And it occurred to me that not all children's authors charge for these standard events. Some do free events ALL the time, to help boost their books sales. They never charge. At a time when schools' budgets are being squeezed, I can understand the appeal of a free visit too - author visits are a great way to boost reading for pleasure, which has all kinds of quantifiable benefits. But here's the problem: when authors do an event for free, they are devaluing the work all of us writers do. Look at it this way - imagine a plumber offered to come to your house and fit your new bathroom for nothing. Word gets around and soon that plumber is crazy busy. People decide that they don't want a plumber who charges a lot of money when they can get the same job done for free. Lots of plumbers who made their living out of plumbing now can't get any work. And worst of all, the people who need their bathrooms installed don't see why they should pay anyone to do that work. Pretty soon, not paying is the norm, even though the work done is of a very high standard. Do you see what I'm getting at?

If you are an author who routinely does school visits for free all the time (and again, I don't mean a book tour or the occasional freebie you might do at your own discretion) then you are stepping on your fellow writers to build your own success. I urge you to stop and consider what is a fair charge - the Society of Authors has done some excellent work on this area recently, guided by the extremely wise Nicola Morgan.

Take a look. Value yourself and understand that constantly offering free events is undermining the rest of us. And help me sleep better at night now that I don't have the cushion of a monthly salary to snuggle up against.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

What’s in a word? by Liz Kessler

Ten days ago, something wonderful happened for me. The very first book I ever wrote was finally published.

It took fifteen years. Coincidentally, it became my fifteenth published book – and my first YA novel.

The book is about seventeen-year-old Ashleigh Walker going through the final year of her sixth form in school, and the journey she takes during that year. It is what can loosely be called a ‘coming of age’ novel. It is also about Ash coming out as a lesbian.

Some people prefer the word ‘gay’. I don’t mind that. Some people use the word ‘queer’. I don’t mind that either (as long as it’s the modern usage of the word – ie celebrating diversity in sexuality rather than the older definition used as an insult to abuse and offend). Some (not many) still say ‘homosexual’. I don’t even mind that, although it makes me cringe a little to hear it, as it’s a bit old-fashioned.

One thing I have become aware of, during the lead up to, and aftermath of, this book’s publication, is the fact that there are an awful lot more words being used in discussions of sexuality than there used to be, and that for many people – particularly those who are new to the discussion – this can be bewildering. I’ve been in this game over twenty years, and I’m getting a little confused myself.

I’ve found that in discussions about the book, I use different terms, depending on who I’m talking to. In that respect, I’ve been feeling a bit like a chameleon, changing colour to suit my surroundings. One interviewer referred to my novel as ‘the gay book’. I wasn’t too keen on that (and told her) but that wasn’t because of using the word gay; it was that I hope it is much more than just ‘the gay book’. But other than that, I’ve found myself using different terms interchangeably, to fit in with the language of the people I’m talking to.

And I think this is OK. It’s a bit like having a wardrobe full of clothes and deciding which outfit is appropriate, depending on where you are going and who you are mixing with.

For example, I was (gasp, squeal, slightly hyperventilate) on Woman’s Hour and I don’t actually think that the words lesbian, gay or queer were used at all. Jenni Murray introduced the book by saying it was about a girl who realised she didn’t fancy boys, she fancied girls. We talked about coming out. But that was as far as the language went. And I am 100% OK with that. This is mainstream, national, hugely popular radio, so going back to the wardrobe analogy, I guess this is the place to put on my smartest outfit and do my best to blend in.

At the other end of the scale, I was the guest author on the lovely Lucy Powrie’s very popular #UKYAchat on twitter. If we’re to describe this in terms of the wardrobe, I guess this was the event where I stood in front of my clothes, trying to find something I looked cool and young and hip enough in (and cursed myself for even using the word hip, as that only showed how actually unhip I am) found my wardrobe a little wanting on this score – and decided just to go in what I had on.

The discussion on this forum was great: it was amazing to see such a variety of books being recommended; it was heart warming to be part of a discussion that was so open to books about sexuality. Hand on heart, though, there was a small part of the discussion which I have to say left some of us slightly running to catch up: the terminology.

A bit of background.

The gay movement is generally credited to have begun in the 1960s, with the Stonewall Riots. It was about rising up against years of being abused, beaten, oppressed and even killed by homophobic laws and actions. Back then, using the word ‘gay’ instead of ‘homosexual’ was radical and liberating.

The word ‘lesbian’ was later added and became widely used by many lesbian feminists in the 1970s.

My own political awakening came in the 1980s and this was around the time that there were arguments in the movement about adding the word ‘bisexual’ to the banners. Those arguments were huge and divisive within (what eventually became known as) the LGB community. Look how far we’ve come!

Similar arguments raged over adding the ‘T’ for transsexual, and I think these arguments lasted even longer. But now, LGBT has become a term that many are familiar with, and a banner that I am proud to stand under.

But even that already feels out of date in some circles. In terms of sexuality, we are living in times where people no longer want to define themselves with broad labels which basically divide everybody into three main headings: straight, gay, bisexual. The times we are living in today are about a richer, more diverse, more grey-area-y way of defining ourselves.

For some of us, this can feel challenging. I freely admit that I find it difficult to keep up at times. Over the last year or so, I’ve been introduced to the acronyms QUILTBAG, and LGBTQIA+ and others like this, which are highly-inclusive acronyms and umbrella terms that many people choose as their label. If this is how people choose to define themselves, I believe it is their decision to do this and nobody else’s. If people feel that ‘queer’ is the only word that sums up their own sexuality, again, that is their decision. Some people struggle with words like ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’, associating them with the negative connotations of the past. For others, ‘queer’ is the only word that they feel truly expresses who they are. It is up to each of us to define ourselves – not to listen to instructions from others.

But in the struggle for more and more inclusive terms, I believe it is also important to remember that not everyone is where we are, and to keep our hearts and our minds open to those who are on our side but might not have all the language to express that just yet. To some people, a coming out novel is brave and risky. To others, every YA novel ought to have characters from every bit of the sexuality spectrum and not be making a big deal about it.

Some might say that YA authors have a responsibility to represent every aspect of our diverse society and to use our novels as ways to educate young people in areas where schools, parents, newspapers and the internet are lacking.

I don’t actually agree with this. Yes, I do believe that books need diversity – and I am proud to be part of doing this in the world of YA books. But I do not believe that we have a responsibility to represent every aspect of society in every novel we write. I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves, our consciences, our deeply-held beliefs – and above all, actually, to our stories and our characters. If we start to think of our books as places where we owe it to anyone to write about certain things in certain ways, our books will turn into political manifestos rather than worlds of characters and stories to entertain, illuminate and impassion young readers.

I have never written a book where my starting point has been political in any way, or where I have sat down and decided that I want to educate or bring about an awareness of certain issues or themes. If I did that, I believe I would kill the story flat and no one would want to read it. Instead, what I have learned to do is to trust that if I open my mind to my stories, and allow my characters to explore and follow their own journeys, the things that matter to me will find a way of sneaking into the pages. And if they do, you can guarantee they will find a way of sneaking into my readers’ hearts and minds too, somewhere along the way.

So whilst the twenty-something-year-old me might have been out there with a megaphone, telling people how they should think, talk and act, I am more comfortable with the way the forty-something-year-old me does it, which is to move more gently, to compromise, to be more accepting. I am willing to listen, to learn as well as (hopefully) educate, to know for a fact that I am not always right and to be willing to let someone tell me how I can do things better.

I have also (finally) figured out the acronym I am comfortable using for myself. It is: LGBT+ which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender with the + as a way of not excluding other sexual orientations or gender identities, but stopping the abbreviation becoming too long! I have seen this used quite a bit, and it feels like the right one for me. See, the great thing is that I get to choose that for myself.

Going back to the wardrobe (which I’ve just realised could also be called a closet) analogy, this feels a bit like I’ve been looking for the perfect outfit for ages and have finally found it. And so I’m going to step out of that closet and wear my new outfit with confidence, and I’m going to shout about my new book with pride, and I’m going to continue to bang a drum for LGBT+ people everywhere, and hope that one day there will be so many of us standing under these umbrella terms that we find we have the whole world in one place and the labels are not needed at all.

Buy Liz's new book Here
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Check out Liz's Website